Mertola, the southernmost town of the Alentejo stands at the edge of the Guadiana National Park, perched on a hilltop overlooking the confluence of the Oeiras and Guadiana rivers. This walled town is in a time warp, with narrow streets lined with many gracious buildings leading upwards to the ruined 13th century castle. The Guadiana was a vital trading route throughout the middle ages and Mertola shows Phoenician, Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Chrisitan influences.
At its peak, Mertola had a population of over 2,000; its river port on the Guadiana River connected it to the Mediterranean commercial routes and changed this fortified settlement into a regional capital. The town has several noteworthy museums but it is the Islamic museum that is extremely well known. Every two years in May, the Islamic festival is held here, which recreates the Islamic period of the town.
17km from Mertola and close to the Spanish border, travelling through a picturesque and fertile landscape lies the now small village of Mina de Sao Domingos. The population is now around 400 persons but, at its peak, 15,000 people would have been living here. Ten thousand people worked in the mines, the largest in the South Iberian peninsula and it is now hard to believe that this was one of the most important industrial centres in Europe.
It was in 1857 that the British engineering firm Mason & Barry took over the mines, rich in copper, coal, iron pirates and sulphur. Over the following 110 years, 25 million tons of ore was removed from the mine. Although having been in use since Roman times, it was Mason and Berry who built one of the first hospitals and first electricity generators in Portugal. The area had several railways and the firm built their own steam locomotives. Housing, tennis courts, a football pitch and even a bandstand - all still in evidence - were provided by the firm. The mines were finally exhausted in the mid-1960s and the devastated and polluted landscape is fascinating to see on a guided tour.
The mines at Sao Domingos are reputed to be the oldest in the world and were first worked as long as 4,000 years ago by the Greeks. The area has a particularly rich history and the mineral wealth was legendary, as the Romans first mined gold and silver from here. Only Rio Tinto, 70km to the east and a larger mine has a similar history and was said to have been the legendary King Solomon's mine.
If you’re interested in the Alentejo region, you should take a look at our Alentejo Alqueva Lake Guide, Alentejo for Culture Vultures or Alentejo for lovers of the outdoors information.