Alternative Algarve: Monchique & Fóia
Our house-sit on the Algarve in Olhos d'Agua was an ideal base to do several day trips in our hired car. Tess, our house-sit host, had left us a fantastic comprehensive list of things to do in the area which included a drive to Monchique, a town high up in Serra de Monchique. In our last post we explored some of the old towns on the Algarve but on this trip, we were looking forward to breathing in some cool mountain air and the possibility of a woodland hike.
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Accommodation in Monchique & Fóia
Having researched a bit more about the area we decided to spoil ourselves and spend a night up there so we could enjoy a nice meal and not drive home in the dark (it was mostly my idea!). We found Estalagem Abrigo Da Montanha which looked like it had spectacular views from the rooms. Being December, I just decided to call it an early Christmas present to ourselves! :p
Drive to Monchique
The route we took to Monchique started off on just a short journey on the A22 towards Portimáo but after that, it was up and up, on smaller, winding roads. The landscape was very dusty and dry looking as Portugal was still holding out against an eight-month drought. Even still, the scenery was beautiful with cork, eucalyptus and pine trees covering the hills and the higher up we went, the view back down to the coast got even more spectacular. We passed mountain villages, long abandoned, aside from one or two houses that looked lived in.
Lunch with a view
There were one or two scary moments on the road with huge trucks weighed down with tons of stone from surrounding quarries, hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road so I was relieved to see we were close to our destination. We arrived into Monchique and drove slowly along its one-way streets, surprised at how big and populated it is. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants and a pretty square with fountains (they were off while were were there). We knew the accommodation we booked was further up into the mountains so we decided to pick up a picnic lunch in the supermarket, thinking we’d head to the hills after checking in. To our delight we discovered we had a balcony off our bedroom with an amazing view of the valley below and the sparkling ocean in the distance. Our picnic spot was most definitely sorted! We had fresh bread, lovely Monchique cheese and fig jam. Our bottle of wine remained unopened as we couldn’t get hold of an opener. Just as well as were eager to get out and explore. We had a look around the hotel which was completely empty other than ourselves - kind of spooky, especially at night - but our lovely host, Maria, who checked us in, made us feel safe and welcome. It’s an old hotel that could do with a refurb but it is in the most spectacular spot for sweeping views across the Algarve.
Ancient Thermal Baths
After lunch, we drove to Caldas de Monchique where the original thermal baths were popular even in Roman times. It’s a tiny, pretty mountain village with 19th-century buildings surrounding a cobbled square and there’s a pleasant woodland walk along the natural spring water stream. The usual touristy restaurants and gift shops are dotted around the village and it must be packed in high season. You can enjoy spa treatments and Turkish baths in the resort hotel Villa Termal Caldas de Monchique Spa Resort. I guess you could treat yourself by staying the night in the resort to get fully immersed in the thermal spring waters, but as we didn’t stay there, we can’t vouch for the place. Neil did manage to fly the drone above the trees and took some lovely shots.
Fóia for the sunset
After that, we drove up through really steep rural roads, passing cute little houses, all the way to the top of Fóia, the highest mountain in the Algarve. The views are truly awesome from up there. Full panoramic vistas up and down the coast and east into Spain. This was one of the highlights of the trip but be warned, it’s windy so bring a jacket! There are antennas and wind turbines but you can still take fantastic photos from all sides. There’s a little cafe and gift shop if you need a break or respite from the wind. There are a couple of hikes that start close to the top and we picked one that we’d tackle the following day. Being December, the light was fading fast and I definitely didn’t want to be on the narrow roads in the dark. We drove down the mountain to the next viewpoint at Miradouro da Fonte Santa as it was out of the wind and on the west side. It’s perfect for a romantic sunset and there are picnic tables should you be inclined to dine al fresco. Apparently, you can drink from the natural spring here but just sitting and listening to its gentle gurgle while the sun goes down is a lovely way to end a hot day.
Local food from Serra de Monchique
Our bellies grumbled when we thought about the restaurant Neil had found for us. It was only a five-minute walk from the hotel as well so no driving stress! Well, what can we say? If you go to Monchique at all, get yourself into Restaurante Luar Da Fóia. From the minute we walked in and saw the big open charcoal grill and all the wine on display we were delighted with ourselves. We sat beside the log fire (the nights are chilly up there) and perused the wine list. Our server helped us pick an amazing wine that went perfect with the food. We started with black Monchique pork sausage and mushrooms cooked in port wine and local honey. Definitely order these two together. I was tempted by the Wild Boar Stew but “chickened-out” and got chicken! But Neil’s dinner - holy moly! Initially, he was going for your run-of-the-mill sirloin steak but he was talked into the Bull Steak. It blew his mind! “Best steak ever” were his words! Even though we were full we had to try the sweets. I got a goat’s cheese sorbet, which I’d never had before and it’s my new favourite dessert - just can’t find it anywhere since! Neil took on the banoffee pie - again, the best he’s ever had! In total we spent four hours completely engrossed in the food and the atmosphere. We were then taken to the basement to sample their fine port to finish off our evening. It was perfect! We walked slowly up the dark road back to the hotel and stopped to stare at the stars. This area is perfect for stargazing so Neil got the camera out and we sat on the roof terrace of the hotel for a while. I saw seven shooting stars!
Hiking in Serra de Monchique
Next morning with the sun streaming through the windows we felt ready for our hike. We fueled up at breakfast with lovely local cheese, fruit bread and honey and delicious hot coffee. When we got back to the top of Fóia, Neil chanced his arm with the drone. It wasn’t happy at all up there, between the wind, the antennas, the turbines, it was all too much! Neil managed a quick shot though before landing.
We picked a 2.5-hour hike to Barbelote Waterfall and thought we might get to cool off in it if we get too hot on the hike. It’s a gorgeous hike that passes through an abandoned village and down the valley through beautiful flora and aromas of wild lavender and eucalyptus. Unfortunately at the end of the trail just as you get to the point that should take you to the bottom of the waterfall the trail was wrecked by a previous storm. There had been a landslide and the path looked extremely dodgy. We didn’t venture any further but we could see the waterfall through the trees. It looked so inviting but we valued our intact ankles and knew we still had to climb back up the valley to where we started. Next time we’re back we’ll check it out again. It really made us want to explore the area more and we’ve made a promise to ourselves we’ll spend more time when we’re in our van. We would love to hear from anybody who’s been here in the past or is planning a hike there. Please feel free to get in touch to let us know!
We definitely recommend having a car. There isn’t a great bus service to the town of Monchique and from there you have to walk up to the top of the mountain unless you’re on a private tour. It’s definitely worth a trip up if you do have a car - you won’t regret the views and the fresh air!