Nestling around the base of a small hill on the banks of the river Guadiana, the town of Castro Marim presents a tranquil, bucolic picture of cultivated fields, peaceful meadows, glistening white salt pans and salt marshes that contrasts significantly with the cosmopolitan resorts of its coastline.
This serene landscape forms part of the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António Salt Marsh Nature Reserve, 5,162 acres (2,089 hectares) of protected Guadiana estuary wetlands that stretch southwards from Castro Marim to the city of Vila Real de Santo António. A natural habitat for a rich diversity of fauna and flora, these marshlands also provide sanctuary to significant numbers of aquatic, nesting and migratory birds, including Greater Flamingos, Avocets, Black-winged Stilts and many species of ducks. Nature-lovers, bird-watchers and those who enjoy cycling or walking in peaceful, open spaces will find it a beautiful area to explore: in addition to observing the plant and wildlife, you can discover the centuries-old techniques that are still employed to harvest the Algarve’s legendary salt. A visitors’ centre at Cerro da Rocha offers detailed information and proposed routes for best exploring the area.
Dominated by its hilltop castle and fort, the peaceful town of Castro Marim bears little witness to the prominence it once enjoyed as a busy trading port and historic defensive site. Archaeological evidence suggests that its strategic position overlooking the river attracted early settlers sailing up the Guadiana river, making it one of the oldest settlements in the Algarve. Control of the river and proximity to the kingdom of Castile added to its importance throughout Arab domination and the Christian re-conquest, leading King Dinis to proclaim it the seat of the newly established Order of Christ, the religious military order that replaced the Portuguese Knights Templar at the beginning of the 14th Century.
Now, all that attests to this past importance are the castle and the 17th Century fort of São Sebastião. Thought to be of Moorish origin, the castle offers beautiful panoramic views of the surroundings and a chance to appreciate the varied landscapes of the municipality: rolling hills of almond trees to the north, the glistening river Guadiana separating Portugal from Spain, rows of salt pans shimmering in the sun below, the odd colourful bird flying over the marshy landscape and the sea lying invitingly in the horizon.
Aiming to recreate the spirit of old, Castro Marim hosts its annual August Medieval Days fair inside the castle walls. For four days, the town comes alive with jousting, fire-eaters, archery, minstrels and sumptuous outdoor banquets – an ideal time to appreciate Castro Marim’s varied gastronomy, a delicious combination of the municipality’s sea and mountain flavours. The Handicraft Fair in July brings a large gathering of the region’s craftsmen to the town, displaying centuries-old traditions of weaving, basketry and bobbin lace making.