A visit to Monchique is a must for anyone looking to get a real sense of the Algarve and the traditions of the people who live away from the busy coast. Situated in the Serra de Monchique mountain range that separates the Algarve from the neighbouring northern region of the Alentejo, this lush landscape of rolling hills, leafy woods and flowing streams is aptly referred to as the ‘garden of the Algarve’. Overlooked for many years as attention focused on the glitz and glamour of the Algarve’s coastal resorts, Monchique’s breath taking scenery and peaceful ways are proving to be irresistible charms to the many visitors who are now venturing inland to explore it.
Make your first stop Caldas de Monchique, an absolutely charming, ancient spa town and home to the only natural springs in the Algarve. The 32ºC spring waters have been attracting visitors since the Romans first recognised their healing properties and are now widely recommended for their therapeutic effect on respiratory, muscular and rheumatic ailments.
Just another six kilometres further up the mountain between the peaks of Fóia and Picota you’ll find the main village of Monchique. Plan a few hours here, you’ll love the bargains and attractions. A charming hillside town of steep, cobbled streets and whitewashed houses Monchique is a perfect base from which to visit the springs and discover the mountains.
The central square boasts an attractive paved area with benches, trees and a lovely water feature, including an example of a Moorish water wheel. Monchique is a very quiet and relaxed place, which is ideal for pottering around and appreciating the fantastic views.
Quiet that is until the busy monthly market rolls into town offering local gastronomy and handicraft, like the Roman inspired folding chairs, wickerwork, pottery and knitwear. If you’re fortunate enough that your trip coincides with The March Feira dos Enchidos Tradicionais (Traditional Sausage Fair) and the Feira do Presunto (Smoked Ham Fair) you are in for a treat. Normally held in July these lively annual events really put the best of Monchique’s produce on full show.
Around Monchique there are a number of ancient churches for architecture fans to visit. Why not try Igreja Matriz de Monchique (Main Parish Church) a 15th century church on the cobbled Rua da Igreja behind the main square with an intriguing Manueline doorway featuring stone columns that resemble knotted rope. On the hillside above Monchique is the ruin of a 17th century convent (Nossa Senhora de Desterro, our Lady of Exile). You can wander through the ruins and get some idea of the structure on your own or organise a guide.
It is quite a long walk up from the town but the last part of the trek is through a leafy wooded area that provides shade on a hot afternoon. Alternatively take the leg work out of a tour of Monchique by hoping on board a Segway, a fun and environmentally friendly way to travel around the pretty city centre where you can enjoy stunning views from the São Sebastião park lookout.
The last stretch of the climb up the Serra de Monchique mountain range takes you to Fóia. Rising 902 metres (2,959 feet) above sea level, this is the highest peak in the Algarve. On clear days, it is possible to see the southern coastline stretching from Faro to Cape St. Vincent and northwards as far as the Arrábida mountain range situated some 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Lisbon.
A few miles out of Monchique, Fioa is accessible by foot, mountain bike or jeep. Hard core road racers can attempt the gruelling climb to the top. There is much for road bikers to enjoy with its spectacular scenery, great road surfaces and very little traffic.
However if you don’t think you could make it you can still experience all of those things on the more serene downhill cycle tour. You’ll be driven to the peak then cycle down with your guide and back-up jeep (following at a discreet distance behind) with a stop for lunch in a pretty village halfway down. The ride suits all fitness levels as it is nearly all downhill but even the most experienced riders will love the fresh air and views.