Restaurants in Mértola generally do not open until after 7pm so when we stayed here in April we thought that a good excuse to enjoy a stroll before dinner. On our first evening we decided to stroll beside both of Mértola’s rivers – Rio Guadiana and Ribeira de Oeiras. Most tourists probably don’t even register the Ribeira de Oeiras exists apart from the few that cross its impressive bridge (header photo!) as they enter Mértola from the south. The ribeira as its name suggests is a small river unlike the Rio Guadiana which dominates the town.
Rising in Spain and flowing out into the Gulf of Cádiz, the Rio Guadiana is the fourth-longest river in the Iberian peninsula. Mértola is the Guadiana’s furthest navigable point and it is still tidal here even though we are 68 kilometres (42 miles) from the sea. In earlier centuries the river was a busy commercial route. These days it is only used for leisure but even so on a warm spring evening there was plenty of activity going on.
It is difficult to imagine that in the 12th century and earlier that the areas beside the river were once busy docks.
And even in the early 20th century the quayside was commercially active as it was then that the steps up from the docks to the 16th century Torre do Relogio were built. At the top of the steps (and there are quite a few!) we found ourselves in the town square. The river seems so far away from up here, that I find it difficult to believe that on one December night in 1876 the river rose 25metres to this level.
However the 1876 floods in Iberia are a devastating fact;
According to the “Diário de Noticias” (14 December 1876), in Mértola the Guadiana river had raised 25 meters—a fish was found inside a desk drawer, alive. In this town from the original 64 buildings on the left bank of the Guadiana river (the most sparsely populated part) only 3 left standing. Thus, almost 95% of the buildings were razed. Other Portuguese newspaper “Gazeta do Algarve” published: “For 3 days the Guadiana has an amazing current… Pomarão has disappeared. All houses were dragged, and we cannot recognise the place where they use to be anymore.” The nearby towns of Alcoutim and Sanlucar del Guadiana almost disappeared and only the houses in the highest places remained. The town of Vila Real de St António, located at the mouth of river Guadiana was devastated and there were at least 11 deaths.”
No sign of the flood damage remain, albeit much of the archaeology that now brings tourists to Mértola was only found because of the floods. With the museums closed and the restaurants not yet open, there wasn’t much going on as we strolled around, apart from a few cats seeking their dinner.
Eventually we found ourselves by Ribeira de Oeiras and had our first proper look at the castle since we began our walk. The keep dates back to 1292 and was built by the Order of Santiago. And as you will see from my very first Mértola post the castle and its museum are well worth visiting just for the views alone.
Leaving the Oeiras we returned to the Guadiana and found ourselves by the Torre do Rio – a national monument since 1910 these ruins were once a defensive structure protecting the commercial vessels and access to the river for water supplies. Up close I have to admit they are not that attractive but earlier I had enjoyed looking down on them! They were also home to some rather lovely water fowl and lots of ducklings.
Looking up from the ruins to the town the floods of 1876 seems even more unbelievable. Fortunately such devastation is unlikely to happen again as there are now numerous dams on the upper reaches of Guadiana, and so the water flow is more managed than it was in the 19th century. Even so I think I would be cautious about joining the cat and living at river level on the Rio Guadiana. It has a lot of tributaries, runs through many gorges and is a long river.
Do hope you have enjoyed our stroll as much as we did when we did it. I’ll be returning to Mértola again soon as it is a magical place and I took a lot of photographs. In the meanwhile if you want to keep walking why not visit Jo and the rest of the Monday Walks gang, or check out some of my other Guadiana posts below.