North of Vila Real, the Rio Guadiana forms the border with Spain and provides a little-travelled diversion.There are regular weekday bus services from Vila Real to Castro Marim and less frequent services to Alcoutim, both with impressive castles and historic interest. Best of all, though, is a boat trip up the river itself.These go up to Foz de Odeleite (riosultravel.com) or Alcoutim (rotamineiro.de).
The little village of CASTRO MARIM, 5km north of Vila Real, was once a key fortification protecting Portugal’s southern coast. Marim was the first headquarters of the Order of Christ (1319) and is the site of a huge castle, built by Afonso III in the thirteenth century.The massive ruins are all that survived the earthquake of 1755; it’s a pretty place with fine views of the bridge to Spain. The castle is the centrepiece of the village’s Medieval Days Festival over the last weekend in August, with re-creations of medieval life and plenty of entertainment, including access to the sixteenth-century fort of São Sebastião on the opposite hill, which is otherwise usually closed.
The marshy area around Castro Marim forms the Reserva Natural do Sapal, a reserve where flamingos stop off to feed. One of the area’s most unusual and elusive inhabitants is the ten-centimetre-long, swivel-eyed, opposing-toed, Mediterranean chameleon – a harmless, slow-moving lizard that’s severely threatened elsewhere by habitat destruction.
Some 40km north of Vila Real – and best approached by car along the road that hugs the Guadiana River – is the extremely attractive village of ALCOUTIM. It has a long history as a river port, dominated in turn by Greeks, Romans and Arabs who all fortified the heights with various structures; the castle dates from the fourteenth century and offers fine views over the river. For further diversion, fishermen on the riverfront will ferry you across the river (around €1 single) to the Spanish village of Sanlúcar, a mirror image of Alcoutim, with its own ruined castle.Read More