- Written by Martin Northey
I have been sailing up and down the river Guadiana to Pomarão on a regular basis for the last 12 years and so have known that ships had been sailing up the river to Pomarão to load copper ore from Mina de São Domingos until 1966. But had never actually visited the mines until we finally visited São Domingos over a weekend in May 2008.
To see a google map of the area from Mertola to Mina São Domingos click here
We drove initially east on the A22 then turned left onto the N122 to the north of Castro Marim traveling north just to the west of the Guadiana river past Alcoutim and then joining the river at Mértola where stopped for lunch. After lunch we crossed the river and rode east and then north east for a total of 17 kilometers to São Domingos.
The hotel where we had booked to stay the night 'Estalagem São Domingos' was on our right as we came into the village, being anxious to see something of the village and the mine we carried on and whilst having read something of the history and therefore knowing that the village had been purpose built for the four thousand workers that worked 24 hours a day in the mine, we were surprised by how attractive the village is with its streets laid out in a gradual curve on both sides of a road that goes through the middle of the village.
The houses are all semi-detached in long attractive streets, all painted white with terracotta tiled roofs and consist of just one room originally containing a small double bed, a table and two chairs and a fire place for cooking. Many are being lived in and most now consist of two houses joined into one with a door in the original dividing wall. Many in recent years have been given modern windows and doors, but otherwise remain the same as they have been for the past 150 years. The mining company supplied everything that the community might need in this purpose built village including an impressive church.
Under an agreement between the Government, the Municipality of Mértola and La Sabina the owners of the mine, the majority of the houses formerly owned by the company were sold to their occupants. The proceeds have been devoted to renovating the mining companies offices, converting it into a hotel with 31 rooms, adding a section of modern accommodation as well as an amateur observatory.
Archaeologists claim that the mine has been worked for as long as 4000 years by Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians. Reputed to be the oldest mines in the world, the area has a particularly rich history and the mineral wealth was legendary . It was tales of the Iberian Peninsula's mineral wealth that drew Phoenician merchants to its shores, laying the foundations for a succession of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman invasions. Later from 12 AD to 397 AD the mine was worked by Romans who initially came to the area to mine for gold and silver but then over the next 385 years excavated down to a depth of 40 meters and removed 750,000 tons of pyrite and copper. Rio Tinto just 70 kilometers to the east has a similar history, but is a larger mine and it is said that in 1000 BC it was in fact the legendary King Solomon's mine, the name of a nearby village is still called 'Zalamea la Real'. To see a google map showing the Rio Tinto mine & Zalamea la Real click here...
Following the Romans leaving the area in 397 the mine was not worked intensively again until 1855 when a company called La Sabina was founded as a public limited company in Huelva, in Spain. It was established in Portugal in 1874 as La Sabina, and was granted the mining rights at the Minas São Domingos copper mine. The mining rights were leased to the British firm Mason & Barry, which exercised them until 1966 by which time all the usable copper ore was finished. In 1972 La Sabina bought all the property and rights registered in Mértola from its predecessor company. The large terraced houses shown to the right were for the British managers of the mining company and were adjacent to the mining companies offices.
Over the total of 110 years more than 25 million tons of ore was removed from the ground in the São Domingos region. There were two different types of mining there, firstly a complex gallery system at depths that went down to 400 meters and secondly open cast mining that went down to a depth of 100 meters below the surface. During the early years in the 19th century the ore was brought to the surface by donkeys, later mine cars were used pulled by a steam engine. The ore was also taken to Pomarão by train where it was tipped directly into ships from a pier that extended out over the river, the remains of this wooden pier are still there.
The large opencast mine is now filled with water and as can be seen in the photograph to the right the water has become polluted with the various ores that have leached into it from both the surrounding ground and the slag heaps that surround the mine. The local government have started a rehabilitation project which is designed to remove pollution from the region and therefore protect the environment.
The hotel where we stayed is a building that was originally the mining companies offices, now it is a comfortable 5 star Estalagem (country hotel). In the dining room we had an excellent dinner and after dinner were invited up to the hotels observatory where a visiting astronomer showed us various planets which we observed through a powerful telescope. This for me was the first time I had looked at planets through a telescope and seeing for instance Saturn with its rings was an exciting experience. The hotel offers astronomy evenings several times a month, to be informed of these dates go to www.hotelsaodomingos.com and register so that you will be sent by email the hotels newsletter.
We returned to the Algarve the next day riding west through Mertola and on to Almodôvar where we turned south on the N2 to Faro, a very good road that winds its way through the beautiful hills that separate the Alentejo from the Algarve.
Martin Northey - Yachtmaster Examiner/Instructor for Sail and Power
The Iberian Sea School - RYA Sailing, Motor Cruising and Powerboat School
Apartado 1039 - Vilamoura,
8126 - 912 Quarteira,