With its ten ‘museums’ Mértola is known as the Museum Town, and a short stroll around this wonderful hill top town soon tells you why. This town is full of history from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, to the Romans, Swabians and Visigoths, and then the Moors and what is called the Christian reconquest. And this only gets you to the early 13th century! No wonder there are so many museums.
On our last visit to Mértola our primary focus was exploring the stunning Alentejo countryside and observing the bird life, however we did on our last morning enjoy a stroll around the town and squeezed in an exploration of the museum nestled between the castle and the church which was once a mosque. I thought it would only take us a few minutes or so to take a peep, but we were there for nearly an hour.
Our museum discovery began inside a full scale model of an Islamic house. We later realised that this had been the best way to begin our explorations of the remains of the Islamic neighbourhood within Mértola’s Islamic fortifications (Alcáçova), as when we later ventured out into the ruins themselves we could properly understand what we were looking at.
The Moors were in the Iberian peninsula for more than 400 hundred years, and Mértola on the banks of the Riberia de Oeiras and Rio Guadiana was an important economic hub throughout this period. It is believed there were around 20homes in this tiny compact neighbourhood, of which 15 including the community sewage system, have been discovered by the archaeologists. And beneath /next to the Islamic neighbourhood lie the remains of 5th/6th century Christian buildings which themselves were built on large 3rd century Roman civic and religious buildings.
Leaving the Islamic neighbourhood behind us we headed back a few more hundred years to begin the second part of our tour.
The building we were now exploring were all Christian and all existed here before the Moors took Mértola in 712. Given how violent some of the battles were and the amount of rebuilding that occurred following each change in control it quite amazing that so much remains: part of an Episcopal Palace, a crypto portico and part of a Christian baptistery.
The views from here were wonderful as were the mosaic floors. The latter open to the elements, which you know from other visits to Roman sites in Portugal I always find extraordinary.
As I was too busy enjoying the views and gazing at the wonderful mosaics, I had not really picked up on that beneath this platform we were standing on was an enormous crypto portico. But then I saw the steps down – feeling brave as I am not great with certain types of staircases or slopes, we made our way down.
Now I understood the glass squares in the floor of the portico. Apparently it was adapted to be used a cistern, but I am not 100% sure if that was by the Christians or the Muslims. Perhaps the latter given their excellent neighbourhood sewage system.
By this point I was completely blown away by what we were walking round. Totally unexpected as when we last walked round the castle six years ago this area was closed off, and so I really had not expected to discover all of this. And we had not even got to the baptistery yet.
We arrived at the baptistery via a modern walkway which rose up above the entrance to the cemetery adjacent to this area. It offered a rare opportunity to photograph the cemetery as generally it is frowned upon to take photographs inside Portuguese cemeteries, with most having small ‘no photographs’ signs just outside the entrances. However as there were no signs on the walkway I thought I was probably okay taking this photograph.
Descending from the walkway we found ourselves in the baptismal complex. It would have been an integral part of the 6th century Episcopal palace. It must have been incredibly impressive with its mosaic floors and all the marble as I was impressed just by the ruins! Not a huge amount remains but there is enough to give you a feel of the place.
In one corner, partly hidden and difficult for us to see in the strong sunlight and shadows was one of the oldest references to St George. Although I later realised I had inadvertently missed off the tiny bit that is left of St George, suspect I was pre-occupied by the three headed mythical beast!
By the way if you happen to be in the Algarve or Alentejo in mid May then do head across to Mértola as they will be celebrating their Islamic history and continued links with the Mediterranean world with their biennial Islamic Festival. It looks amazing. And if you can’t make it in May still visit this wonderful town for a day or two, it is a beautiful place with excellent restaurants and so much to see and do.