While we love living on the Algarve coast, it’s great to hike in different landscapes occasionally. Unfortunately, the Serra de Monchique (home to the Algarve’s high peaks Fóia and Picota) takes far too long to reach by public transport which means, much as we love walking in those wooded hills, we’ve been unable to hike there during our winter stays.
Enter Jörg, our German friend, who also loves hiking, has a car and was as keen to walk in the Serra de Monchique as we were. The drive to Caldas de Monchique (via the almost empty motorway) took just under an hour and although there was a definite chill in the air, it was at least sunny. As we travelled the last few miles, we were amazed at the number of storks in the fields, sitting on rooftops and nesting on top of telegraph poles.
Caldas de Monchique is situated 250 metres above sea level at the neck of a gorgeous, wooded ravine. It became popular with the Romans for its thermal springs, which are still visited by thousands every year. We’d never been here before and my first impression was that it very much reminded me of Monte on Madeira, another small place with lush vegetation that’s hugely popular with tourists who prefer to travel the road much walked. Caldas is extremely picturesque with its cobbled square and beautiful architecture (there are two notable exceptions – the ugly ruin in the centre of town and the monstrosity of a modern hotel slightly downhill), however, it’s such a tiny place it’s hard to imagine what all those day-trippers find to do here once they’ve taken their dip in the thermal spa.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about filling our day. Harri had done his research and had lined up a 18-kilometre circular walk for us (note, I’m trying very hard to think in kilometres while we’re here). We left Caldas on a tiled and tree-lined path, passing over the ominously dry Lageado stream. The Serra de Monchique has the highest rainfall in the Algarve and the fact that there was scant water flowing over the vast syenite boulders which formed the riverbed was testament to the continuing drought situation here in Portugal.
It wasn’t long before we were heading uphill and I was glad I’d chosen to wear shorts,tee-shirt and lightweight fleece (safe in the knowledge that I had ‘warm weather’ and ‘wet weather’ clothes stashed in my backpack). As we climbed, the views opened up and we stopped frequently to admire this landscape of towering eucalyptus trees, yellow-flowered mimosa, huge cacti and painstakingly created agricultural terraces, most of which no longer appeared to be used. The mountain track itself was lined with massive syenite pillows, unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere in the Algarve hills. The distant, high-rise apartment blocks of Portimao were clearly visible, yet felt a million miles away from this peaceful wooded terrain.
We passed empty houses, ruins, abandoned cars and a large German-registered trailer which looked like it had once been someone’s home. We couldn’t help wondering if the propensity of forest fires over recent years had persuaded many people to move elsewhere. Clearly not everyone had packed up and left for we also passed several beautifully renovated properties, including two with swimming pools. As we were admiring one property, its Swiss owner emerged and kindly offered us oranges. I adore oranges and could happily eat several a day, but the thought of the additional weight stopped me accepting them.
Jörg wasn’t keen on climbing to the summit of Picota – an additional 550 metres in each direction – and urged us to do the detour without him. It had been difficult to regulate our temperatures during our ascent so far. We’d be dripping with perspiration and tearing off our outer layers on the calf-stretching steeper sections, then shivering when the track levelled off, the breeze picked up and the effect of wind chill took hold. We didn’t like the idea of leaving him sitting there for what would almost certainly be more than half an hour so agreed we would all skip the summit on this occasion. It was a shame but we have done it before and we know firsthand how windy (and cold) it can get up there on the top.
Instead, we followed the narrow path downhill and eventually the landscape through the cork forests began to look familiar. It seemed we had rejoined the Via Algarviana at some point on the way down (we left it again soon after). Our descent into Monchique took us past a group of old houses where the traditional way of life remained evident. An old woman sitting on a wall waved a stick and did her best to shoo several proud and feather-legged hens off the path so we could pass. A short distance away, a group of men played accordions and their music filled the mountain air as we wandered down to the main road.
Having shortened our hike by not going to the top of Picota, we decided to stop for a beer and coffee at a cafe on the outskirts of Monchique. I had the sudden, mad idea of leaving the men there, while I walked a kilometre or so to Loja do Chocolate e Cha Magicothe, a delightfully eclectic craft shop run by a Welsh lady called Lisa at the top of town which just happens to sell homemade fudge, but then I thought better of it. If l got chatting, there was no way of knowing how many beers the men might put away in my absence!
After the beer, we headed straight up another steep hill, which fortunately soon levelled off with spectacular panoramic views across the neighbouring hills. There was nowhere obvious to stop for lunch so we had to make do with three boulders of varying heights. Harri, our hike leader, took his rightful place on the top rock, with Jörg in the middle spot and me on the bottom (so my legs could reach the track!).
As we dropped height, the temperature soared. Soon after lunch, I was confused when I spotted the distinctive rooftops of Caldas de Monchique in the valley below us. Surely our hike couldn’t be over already? Harri assured me not. Our route meandered around the hillside and we had a fair considerable distance still to walk before our final descent into town (what he didn’t mention was how undulating and positively steep in parts the next few ‘downhill’ kilometres were going to be!).
We were just approaching Caldas when Jörg called to us. He’d spotted something on the track which he’d first mistook for a young snake. It turned out to be a procession of caterpillars … pine processionary caterpillars in fact. Though we didn’t realise what we were looking at at the time, thankfully none of us reached down to touch the line of caterpillars which were touching nose to tail. If we had, any one of us might have had a severe allergic reaction, ranging from mild irritation to a nasty rash or even severe anaphylactic shock. These are not insects to be messed with, that’s for certain.
Too soon we were back in Caldas de Monchique, which was as deserted as it had been at 10.30am this morning. Presumably, we’d missed the day’s visitors who had arrived and left while we’d been walking in the mountains, as well as the sights they come to see – the church, thermal spa, font, picnic areas, etc. It didn’t bother us. It was just wonderful to extend our winter horizons and venture somewhere farther afield.
And if you’d like to hike in the foothills around Picota, here’s our route. Though we didn’t reach the summit this time, that extra half a kilometre is definitely recommended if you have sufficient energy (and it’s not too cold!).
More Algarve Hiking by Tracy Burton is available from Amazon in digital and print format.