A land of wooded hills, fragrant orchards and natural springs, the area around the town of Monchique invites you to put all thoughts of sand and beaches temporarily aside and appreciate the beauty and tranquillity of rural Algarve.
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 breathtaking scenery and peaceful ways are proving to be irresistible charms to the many visitors who now venture inland to explore it. The area invites nature treks, with trails leading you past cork oak, chestnut and pine trees, through picturesque hamlets and up to the granite rocks and shrubs of the higher peaks. A walk up to Fóia, the highest peak in the Algarve at 902 metres (2,959 ft), will afford you dazzling panoramic views of the surrounding hills and the southern coastline stretching as far as Sagres.
The pace of life in Monchique is far removed from that of the busy coastal resorts. Small hamlets nestle between the hills, home to artisans who uphold age-old traditions and farm labourers who tend to their terraced vegetable plots or citrus groves as their cattle graze peacefully in the meadows. The fruits of their labours are reflected in the region’s mouth-watering gastronomy, which continues to be produced using traditional methods. Black pork sausages and cured hams, the unique honey that comes from the region’s scented wild flowers and the powerful medronho liqueur, made from the fruit of strawberry trees, all contribute to the gastronomic fame that the area enjoys.
The town of Monchique lies between the peaks of Fóia and Picota. It is a charming hillside town of steep, cobbled streets and whitewashed houses and is a perfect base from which to visit the springs and discover the mountains. Its busy monthly market is the ideal time to appreciate the local gastronomy and handicraft, this being comprised mainly of folding chairs, wickerwork, pottery and knitwear. The March Feira dos Enchidos Tradicionais (Traditional Sausage Fair) and the Feira do Presunto (Smoked Ham Fair), normally held in July, are lively annual events where the best of Monchique’s produce is on full show.
The picturesque spa hamlet of Caldas de Monchique, home to the only natural springs in the Algarve, lies approximately 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) south of the town amidst the exuberant vegetation of its surrounding hills. 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. Caldas is a charming retreat, with elegant 19th Century houses bordering a shaded central square and a beautiful wooded park filled with acacias, camellias and centenary trees. The constant sound of trickling water flowing through streams, under footbridges and in fountains, combined with the light reflecting off the foliage creates an atmosphere of peace and relaxation that has led to it being dubbed ‘the Sintra of the Algarve’.
Places to see
Religious architecture in Monchique
Igreja Matriz de Monchique (Main Parish Church)
This 15/16th Century church has an intriguing Manueline doorway featuring stone columns that resemble knotted rope, a motif that is repeated on the column capitals inside the church. An impressive collection of 17th Century tiles adorn the vault and walls of the Capela do Santíssimo (Chapel of the Most Holy) while an unusual altarpiece in the Capela da Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Chapel of Our Lady of Carmel) is thought to have come from the former Franciscan convent nearby.
The Núcleo de Arte Sacra de Monchique, situated in the basement of the church, exhibits many of the region’s religious works of art.
Convento de Nossa Senhora do Desterro (Convent of Our Lady of Exile)
This beautiful Franciscan convent was built in the 17th Century by order of Pêro da Silva, a viceroy of India who was later buried here. It was badly damaged during the 1755 earthquake and after the abolition of religious orders in 1834, its altarpieces and statues were moved to other churches in Monchique and Aljezur. Its hilltop location affords lovely views of the town and neighbouring hills while its splendid ancient magnolia tree, allegedly brought back from India by the viceroy, is thought to be the largest in Europe.
Igreja de São Sebastião (St. Sebastian’s Church)
Built at the end of the 16th Century, probably in time for king Sebastião’s 1573 visit to Monchique, the most noteworthy features of this small church are its carved gilt Rococo altarpiece and a statue of Our Lady of Exile which is thought to have come from the Franciscan convent.
Nature in the Monchique area
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.
Beautiful views of the southern coastline can be had from this viewpoint, located 774 metres (2,539 feet) above sea level.
Barranco dos Pisões (Pisões Ravine)
Situated in the heart of the woods with a stream flowing nearby, this is a beautiful spot for a walk and a picnic under the shade of the magnificent, hundred-year-old plane tree that grows here. The nearby Moinho do Poucochinho, an old watermill for grinding cereal, is also worth a visit.
Parque da Mina (Mina Park)
This 18th Century farmhouse, situated just before the entrance to Caldas de Monchique in Vale de Boi, provides further insights into traditional farming ways in this rural area. Once the property of a wealthy local family, the inside of the house is decorated in period style while outside, visitors can see a recreation of a typical medronho distillery, visit an old mine and appreciate over a hundred different farm animals, including ponies, miniature goats, Vietnamese pigs, sheep and various species of birds.