Walking around the wonderful old town of Mertola, the thing that struck me (literally) was just how hot it was, even in autumn the heat is fierce. I can’t imagine what it must be like during the summer months when temperatures are often in the mid-30s celsius or higher. The narrow lanes don’t allow much breeze in and the constant walking up and down the steep streets soon had me fantasising about air conditioning. The heat certainly explains the generally laid back approach to life that you find in this region.
Modern Mertola is a place that belies its history. Walking the narrow cobbled streets, weaving between beautiful whitewashed houses as you pass down tiny alleys and constricted lanes, it’s hard to imagine the successive waves of history that have washed over the town: Phoenician, Roman and Moor, just some of the cultures which established themselves in Mertola.
It is even harder today to imagine that the equally sleepy Rio Guadiana was a major international trade route connecting Mertola to the whole of the Mediterranean, encompassing southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
The town was well established by the period of Classical Antiquity. The Roman-era Torre do Rio, the fortified tower built to guard Mertola’s vital port during Roman times, is still visible on the banks of the river, the medieval walls towering overhead. Known as the Flumen Anas to the Romans, the river’s modern name ‘Guadiana’ is derived from the Arabic ‘Wadi Ana’ dating from the 500-year period of Moorish control over this region.
The sleepy streets and the slow pace of life lend themselves to quiet contemplation. Standing on the banks of the river, day or night, Mertola’s rich history is reflected in the deep, dark waters of the river. We left the town on a circuitous route towards the coast, but not before one last look at Mertola’s watery reflection from the opposing bank of the river.