Discover Western Algarve: Monchique – Think Mountains not Beaches
Many people who consider Portugal’s Algarve as their holiday destination, will think about the dramatic coastline, with breathtaking rock formations, alternating with fine, sandy beaches. But that is not all that Western Algarve has to offer.
Discover Monchique in Western Algarve
What’s not so well known are the treasures of the Algarve Hinterland, with the tiny town of Monchique being one of them. At the foot of Foia, the Algarve’s highest point with 902m, Monchique nestles in a densely wooded valley.
You are heading into the Sierra de Monchique, a mountain range which separates Western Algarve from Alentejo. The entire area and mountains are of volcanic origin, which means that along your drive you come across big ‘tongues’ of thousands of years old cold lava. There has not been any volcanic activity for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change at any moment.
How to get to Monchique
Your best starting point is the lovely town of Lagos on the coast. You will need to hire a car because public transport is difficult. You could join a guided tour from Lagos which includes a sunset picnic on Fiao.
If you prefer to travel under your own steam, you will follow the N120 east from Lagos, then head north at the junction with the N266. The entire distance is approx. 46km.
You slowly wind your way up into the hills, passing dense woods, little streams, flowers and the first attraction of Monchique: roadside stalls and workshops selling the fabulous Portuguese ceramics, mostly plates, vases, and tiles.
Caldas de Monchique
You end up just below the town center in the Caldas de Monchique. The area is volcanic, which means there are plenty of thermal springs. The Romans first discovered these healing waters and built their baths. They are still in operation now, in the form of five spas, connected by steep stone stairs. The springs of Monchique are particularly beneficial to sufferers of rheumatism and asthma.
If you wish to stay over and enjoy a day or two of spa treatments, a good option is Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique Spa resort. The hotel is surrounded by hills and wood and you reach it walking through the older part of Monchique along narrow and crisscrossing cobblestone alleys.
Beautiful Portuguese Town in Western Algarve
Admire the typical old houses with their whitewashed walls, blue painted ribbons around doors and windows and distinctive chimneys with a skirt. The ones here are unique to the Western Algarve.
In the middle of the tiny square stands and old clay oven which is operated by a lady, making non -stop fresh bread rolls filled with a spicy sausage called chorizo. They sell, well, like hot buns! She can hardly keep up with the demand and they are delicious and cheap at €1.50 a piece.
Hiking in Western Algarve
You will see many visitors in hiking gear who make their way up into the mountains along the well-marked path to the ruins of a 17th-century convent called Nossa Senhora de Desterro. Take the word ruins literally, because not much of the convent is standing, but, in clear weather, you have fabulous views as far as the coast.
If you don’t want to walk, you can drive up to Foia which is covered with pebbles of black lava. Again, the view is spectacular but the scene is a bit marred because of many communications installations of the Portuguese Army.
A Taste of Medronho
If you prefer to stay in Monchique, proceed to sample another thing the place is famous for: Medronho. It’s a very, very potent liquor made from the fruit of the arbutus tree, also known as a strawberry tree, which only grows here. The driver better steers clear, but everybody else should have a sip. It’s an acquired taste but apparently, it’s also very helpful if you have a cough. There is a ‘watered down’ version with honey, called Melosa for the ladies. Honey and marmalades are another specialties of the region and both are sold in pretty, colorful jars.
My personal favorite are ceramics and you have the chance to see an artist at work. Just follow the sign saying ‘Atelier’ and after many twists and turns and several stone steps, all overhung by arbutus trees and vines you find the workshop. Next to it is his home and several kilns, all thrown together in a unique picture of rural bliss.
Where and what to eat in Monchique
After all that walking, you will be hungry and if you wish to continue with the rural theme, not better place than the Restaurante Jardim des Oliveiras.
They serve typical dishes of the region, often game when in season, and you must finish off with one of the delicious desserts. Whichever one you choose, they are all heavy on egg yolk, sugar and flaky pastry, very sweet and calorie-laden, but who cares.
Kids are taken care off in this restaurant located amidst an olive grove, providing swings and slides. Smokers don’t have to sneak outside either, they have a smoking room where you can enjoy your cigar in comfort if that’s what you want.
You absolutely must make your way here to get the complete picture of the Algarve and the big contrast that region of Portugal offers between the coast and the interior. I’m told they even speak a different dialect.
I was invited to Western Algarve by the Tourism Office of Algarve.