For an extraordinary experience, take a drive up the Guadiana River
from the eastern edge of the Algarve heading north. You will enjoy
Portugal like it was, going back in time. This is a journey that
reacquaints you with nature, from the warmth of the Portuguese terrain
to the charm of the Portuguese people living in this region. Very
few visitors take this route as there is no 5-star glamour. As a
visitor, you become somewhat of an unusual attraction as you roam
the villages on this romantic voyage up the Guadiana River. You
will create a memory that is irreplaceable on this your Portuguese
Guadiana River forms a natural frontier between where Portugal meets
Spain. Plan this as a full day trip from Lagos, heading out in the
early am and arriving back late.
you exit the A22 at Castro Marim/Mértola, just prior to the
Spanish Border, resist the urge to drive to Castro Marim, and instead
head north instead on the N122 towards Mértola. You now begin
your the climb through windy roads leading you through rolling hills
and mountains, past the Barragem (Dam) Odeleite and the picturesque
Take note of these highlights and our favourites, along the way!
Alcotim - 1 hour stop: Exit
the N122 enroute to Mértola at Alcotim via the N122-1. Look
for the signs to this tiny town nestled in the foothills directly
on the Guadiana River. It is quite impressive to walk along the
riverfront and to gaze
over at Spain, where a river and a language separates these two
great nations. This is a good spot to stop in for breakfast an a
local coffee shop, where you will be introduced to an unbelievably
relaxed side of Portugal. Don't be in too much of a hurry for breakfast.
The coffee shop owner stopped to greet the many patrons who stopped
in for a coffee on the way to work. This slowed down his meticulous
effort to prepare the tastiest "tosta mistas" (toasted
ham and cheese sandwiches). An hour later we were resumed our drive
Alcotim, you can head back on the same route to connect you with
the N122 to Mértola. We instead chose an alternate route,
crossing a bridge as Alcoutim and
we continued up a tiny road heading north (or left), unsure of where
this road was heading. This scenic drive took us for loops around
the mountains and eventually connected us up with the N122 to Mértola,
well worth the detour. We passed some very unusual spiny evergreens
along the way growing in dessert like conditions. If you elected
to take this alternate route, pull over after crossing the bridge
out of Alcotim and look back for some spectecular views of the town
nestled in the mountains with the Guadiana river in the distance.
Crossing the bridge over the Ribera (river) do Vascão
marks the end of the Algarve province and the entrance to the Alentejo
province. Just after crossing the bridge, pull over at the gigantic
sign welcoming you to the Alentejo. Walk back over the bridge (mind
the cars) and stop in the middle for a picturesque moment. Gaze
down the the windy river that carves a crisp divider between the
hills and mountains ahead. In July we were fortunate to see our
first glimpse of fowering Eucalyptus trees with their most unusual
delicate cotton ball like flowers.
Mértola 2 hour stop: It
was 38 degrees Celsius as we reached Mértola with its picturesque
castle which crowns this mountainous town surrounded by steep hilly
inclines. The road into Mértola takes you across a very old
and impressive aqueduct which crosses a large ravine and up the
mountainside into the town. Above the aquaduct you are suddenly
startled by the ominous castle looming ahead. I can imagine that
it would have felt incredibly threatening as an enemy approaching
Mértola, in ancient times.
Mértola is a great town to roam around as you make your
way up and down the hillside roads. Residents take pride in maintaining
their picture perfect homes. On this hot July day, the entire town
was decorated with ribbons and flowers for their summer festivals.
The long walk up the hill takes you past the white clock tower overlooking
the Guadiana River, to the old church and finally to the castle.
This lengthy walk, rewards you with some of the most scenic views
of the countryside and the Guadiana River. At the top, we found
an interesting mausoleum and an archeological site.
Tip: There is a clean washroom
on the road up to the castle, so take advantage of it!!
Countryside along the way:
Route all along the Guadiana River heading north is so
picturesque. Roads are lined with eucalyptus trees and cactus trees
which in July were bearing their cactus fruit. Also an abundance
of pine tree grace the countryside. We noticed new plantations of
pine saplings, aimed at building re-growth in areas damaged by forest
Region: As you enter the region of Serpa, notice the
cork trees throughout the rolling hills. Many of these cork trees
are 10-20 years old with thick trunks and unusual shapes and knots.
Cork trees that have been recently harvested have a fresh bright
terracotta bark showing. As the period of time since the last cork
harvest increases the colour of the remaining bark moves to a darker
Stopped at a gas station between Mértola and Serpa. This stop is
a must as gas stations are limited on this route. Feel free to take
advantage of the bathroom also.
At this point roads deteriorate, big time. They are in major disrepair
with endless bumps and potholes. This does not really affect the
drive other than it forces your to drive much slower, for fear of
damaging your rental car.
Serpa Town: It is a little
tricky to navigate around this ancient walled town, but worth every
effort for this rewarding experience. As you enter Serpa, follow
the signs for "Centro Historicos" and "Centro".
This road will take you through some very very tight and narrow
windy streets which will have you wondering where you will make
it without leaving some car paint on the walls as you squeeze by.
A small car will barely fit, but it "will" fit. You may
have challenges with a larger vehicle, so be careful. You will even
see cars parked on these spiny roads and there lies the challenge
to squeeze by them. You then come upon an impressive arch in the
town wall. Drive through the arch which takes you just outside the
town wall and park along the wider streets here. We had no problems
finding a spot.
Walk back through the arch in the town wall into the old town and
follow the signs for Rua São Paulo, past the São Paulo
hospital on your left to a plaza "Largo de São Paulo
directly in front. Now, take note of a tiny little restaurant just
ahead by another arch in the wall. This Restaurant do Forno is a
"must" for lunch, for a traditional meal of the region.
We ordered the special of the day which was "feijoida",
a decadent stew consisting of a bean base with plenty of pork. The
flavours of the meat permeate the beans offering your one of the
tastiest meals of your holiday. The Feijoida was served in a very
large terracotta bowl, providing more than a meal for the two of
us. This meal along with the cover (bread, olives) and three bottles
of water came to a total of 10.50€. The staff were warm and
friendly and the restaurant sported a rustic decor, giving the feeling
of being in a hunting lodge in an old Portuguese world era. This
was one of the best Portuguese meals we have enjoyed.
To digest this decadent meal, take a walk back in time, through
the narrow streets of this old town, shielded by the arched fortress.
You can really start to imagine what life was like, and can observe
how the current residents really to live a very unique and different
life from those of us from the big bustling cities.
Serpa to Beja - Heading back to Lagos:
As you leave Serpa, the landscape is suddenly adorned
with seemingly endless orchards of olive trees. It is interesting
to note that the restaurant in Serpa had very fresh and delicious
olives. An exciting surprise was coming across fields upon fields
of sunflower plantations. We stopped the car and climbed the bank
to the level of the farmers field to take a closer look. To our
amazement we saw nature in motion. The sunflowers were not standing
upright, but twisted to face the location of the sun. We then passed
rows of corn fields, the first sighting of corn for us during our
Portuguese travels. The road from Serpa to Beja crosses the Guadiana
River for yet another spectacular view.
Tips: Take note of the several tips below,
as this excursion takes you back in time.
1) Start this journey with
a full tank of gas, as gas stations are limited in this area.
2) It is not easy to find washrooms
on this route so plan your water consumption accordingly. If you
stop in a coffee shop for a snack or a drink take advantage of the
rare washroom opportunity.
3) The interior of Portugal
can be extremely hot in the summer months with little breeze, so
bring lots of water, sunscreen, a hat and good walking shoes to
navigate through the hilly towns. Plan on lots of breaks for a cold
4) Banking machines are limited
on this route and in towns that have them, the withdrawal limits
are lower than the big cities. Visa is not widely accepted in these
little towns, so plan accordingly. I was disappointed when I could
not purchase some lovely unique earrings at a jewelry store in Mértola
because of the unusually low limit at the local banking machine
and the store vendor's debit machine was not working.
5) You can take a boat excursion
up the Guadiana River from Monte Gordo, a little town on the Algarve
coast close to the mouth of the Guadiana River. We have not tried
this as we prefer to venture through the countryside and into the
little remote towns nestled in the hills.
From Lagos, drive east on the A22 4-lane motorway, until you near
the Spanish border. Exit the A22 at Castro Marim (before the Spanish
border) and head north towards on the N122 towards Mértola. Stop
along the way at Alcotim, Mértola and Serpa. Return to Lagos from
Serpa via Beja (N260) and Ourique (IP2). Just before Ourique exit
onto the A2 South. Take the A2 South to the A22 (Algarve east west
highway). Head west back towards Lagos.
Driving time from Lagos to Mértola exit:
1 hours-30 min.
Driving time from Mértola exit to Serpa with stops: 5 hours
Driving time from Serpa to Lagos: 2 hours-30 min.
Parking is a unique adventure in each little town and we have had
no problems securing a parking spot.
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