My next post seems to flow quite naturally from my recent trip across the Guadiana River. More than 800 kilometres long, if you look at it on a map it’s very clear that the bulk of this river is in Spanish territory. It rises in Castile-La Mancha and shortly after the Spanish city of Badajoz, turns south, forming the border with Portugal for most of the remainder of its length.
It’s this southern area that I love, and with which I’m familiar. The Guadiana glides out into the Atlantic Ocean. At the river mouth a brief ferry ride connects Ayamonte on the Spanish side with Vila Real de Santo Antonio in Portugal. The difference between the two cultures is tangible, and the time difference simply serves to accentuate this. Unless you time it carefully you will frequently find that Ayamonte is engaged in a prolonged siesta when you arrive. The elegantly tiled main square and pretty calles are still worth a stroll, but remember to switch to buenas dias when you order your tapas.
Vila Real de Santo Antonio (as opposed to Vila Real in the north) is one of the architecturally more interesting towns in the Algarve. Demolished by a tidal wave following the 1755 earthquake, it was rebuilt on a grid plan by the Marques de Pombal. Using the same plan he had pioneered in Lisbon’s Baixa district, the rebuild was completed in just 5 months. The attractive main square bears his name and is often the scene of lively cultural events.
I love to stroll along the mosaic tiled river bank, picking a favourite yacht from the dozens moored in the extensive marina. 4km to the north, the arcs of the bridge linking Portugal with Spain are clearly visible. In summer a very pleasant boat trip can be taken up the Guadiana, to the Foz de Odeleite, where a restaurant and refreshing swimming pool await.
The swift and often empty IC27 runs north from Vila Real to connect with Alcoutim, the next town along the river. Alcoutim has a long history as a river port. It was fortified by the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, and the commanding castle dates from the 14th century. Not much battling goes on these days and Alcoutim is a delightfully sleepy spot to simply sit and stare. Across the river, idyllic Sanlucar de Guadiana looks back. If you can catch the small ferry, a wander through Sanlucar’s immaculate white streets is a lovely distraction. Restoration is taking place on the castle ruins so that might prove a rewarding trip for the future. The Romeria takes place the first weekend in May, for a feast of flamenco frocks. Just ask Flat Ruthie. She’s been!
The banks of the Guadiana are wonderful for walkers, and the riverside road back down towards Castro Marim, from Alcoutim to Guerreiros do Rio, is one of the loveliest I have ever driven. For now though, continue north on the N122, over the border into the Alentejo. Set high above the Guadiana, at Mertola, are the mighty ruins of yet another Moorish frontier castle. The region is home to the rare black stork and little other than birdsong disturbs the peace, though copper was once mined locally. At the top of the winding streets the mother church, Igreja Matriz, looks down. Behind the altar on the eastern wall the mihrab (prayer niche) testifies to her former life as a mosque.
North of Mertola the river carves through a deep gorge with limited access by road. For intrepid types the reward is the Pulo do Lobo waterfall and some remarkable rock formations.
Despite a lot of opposition to the project initially, the Alqueva Dam today presents a serene surface. It’s a developing market for gentle boating holidays. The 250square metre reservoir was created by damming the Guadiana, causing substantial loss of natural habitat, not to mention the compulsory relocation of the hamlet of Luz.
One of the best vantage points for viewing this vast expanse of water is the tiny hilltop village of Monsaraz. It has to be one of the most charismatic places I’ve found in Portugal, and believe me, I’ve found a few. Within its fortress walls there is essentially just one street, Rua Direita, with a village square, two churches and a castle, topped by the Torre das Feiticeiras (witches tower). Following Moorish occupation, it became a stronghold of the Knights Templar. Strangely the fort now contains a small bullring, which comes into its own for the annual village celebrations. The festive fireworks must be visible for miles.
From here the Guadiana continues north, swinging a right into Spain, through Badajoz and Merida, and is, sadly, lost to me. This is, after all, my A-Z of Portugal.
If you would like to join Julie Dawn Fox’s My personal A-Z challenge, just follow the link or click on the banner below. It doesn’t have to be about travel. If your passion is food or books you can still join in. We have an A-Z of Art on Alyson Sheldrake’s The Thought Palette and and lately an A-Z of Films by DML Designs. Be as creative as you like. Read my posts on my A-Z pages. Hope you’ll enjoy!