Serra da Monchique
Not just any old traffic lights
Traffic lights have recently been sprinkled liberally where previously there were none along the main road between Portimao and the hillside town of Monchique. They are not just any old traffic lights. They aim to regulate speed at 50 kph through the villages rather than control road intersections – and they are powered by solar panels. A pertinent sign of the times, you could say.This may be the last bastion in the Algarve of mule carts and moonshine aguardente, but things are changing in the Monchique hills, albeit very slowly. For example, the Portuguese population in the area is declining as elder generations pass away and their off-spring move to the coast for easier jobs and better pay. Conversely, a cosmopolitan range of foreigners are buying abandoned farms or cottages and building new villas, they are trickling up into the hills in greater numbers than ever before. There are probably fewer than 7,000 people living in the Monchique district; that's down to mid-19th century levels and less than half the number during the most populous years between the 1930s and 1960s.
Still the old Algarve
The Serra de Monchique is still the old Algarve, touched but not overtaken as elsewhere by modernity, tourism and spreading development. Its robust old-fashionedness is the very thing that draws expatriates to visit and to settle.
It is the peace and quiet, the pervasiveness of the evergreen environment, the airy spaciousness, the friendliness of the people, the social simplicity and the slow pace of life, with or without traffic lights, that is so appealing. Even the climate is milder and more equable than down by the coast, and it is not as cloudy or wet as the plain-dwellers sometimes make out. Frost in low lying areas, particularly coastal areas make for some slippery early mornings, not so in the Serra de Monchique, winters are frost free save for a few areas in the valleys well to the north.
The Serra de Monchique is a fairly broad range of steep, wooded hills and valleys stretching from Sao Marcos de Serra to Aljezur across north of the Algarve and into the southern Alentejo. Historically it formed a natural barrier between the peoples of the Algarve and the rest of Portugal. Great swathes of the indigenous forests were felled in late medieval times for material to construct boats and buildings and provide fuel. Chestnut, walnut and a few other deciduous species still grow alongside plantations of evergreen pines and cork oaks.
Monchique is small and unpretentious
The town of Monchique is small and unpretentious, a hillside cascade of white houses around a central church. The villages east and west are few and insignificant, the hamlets many and hardly noticeable. Large parts of the Serra are almost uninhabited. The highest summits are not that high, with Foia peaking at 902 metres and Picota at 773 both accessible by foot or by car so that you can take in those magnificent views. For those who can only survive by being on the doorstep of crowded beaches, golf courses, hypermarkets, night clubs and Karaoke then this is not a first choice location. The Serra de Monchique is for self-contained souls content to buy and dine out in typical local shops and restaurants, enjoy country pursuits and make only occasional forays down into the glitz and bustle of the towns and resorts below.
That´s not to say a home in the hills is akin to living on Mars. There are good tarmac roads leading in and out of Monchique to the north, south, east and west. You can be down onto the trans-Algarve A22 motorway just north of Portimao, in 20 minutes. It takes about the same time to drive over to the pristine west coast beaches and villages, or in the opposite direction to the village of Sao Marcos de Serra next to the A2 Algarve-Lisbon motorway. There are villas and cottages to rent for holidays in almost every location and several up market hotels in the spa village of Caldas de Monchique if you are hotel inclined
Monchique published in Welcome magazine
Caldas de Monchique
The pace of life is slower in the Monchique hills, and the climate more friendly. The EN266 road up to the town of Monchique follows tight bends through tall trees, most of them mimosas, which in early spring are smothered in yellow blossom. Part way up to Monchique, the spa village of Caldas de Monchique nestles in a deep wooded valley. People have been coming here since Roman times to drink or bathe in the local natural spring water. The entire village was renovated a few years ago and it is well worth a break for a stroll in the peaceful woods (where nightingales sing in early summer) and to sample the spring water.
Alternatively, take in the atmosphere over a coffee or beer in the picturesque square and perhaps try a fresh roll with spiced sausage (pao com chourico) baked in a nearby old-fashioned oven and sold in the adjacent café.
Narrow cobbled streets
Its only a few more kilometers up to Monchique town, where there´s ample free parking, including an underground facility. An interesting sign-posted walk through the narrow cobbled streets of the town takes in the parish church with its Manueline doorway and Sacred Art Museum and other points of interest.
There's a good view of the area from the ruins of a 17th century Franciscan convent. Observe the beautifully laid out gardens dotted with sculptures in the valley. Note also the terracing on the hillsides, a farming method used since Roman times to grow vegetables, oranges, lemons, figs and olives, as well as cork oak trees. There are also many peaceful tracks for walkers in the surrounding countryside, affording wonderful panoramic views down to the coast. Organised walks to Foia and Picota start at the tourist information office above the under-ground car park, other activities include downhill biking, quad biking and jeep safaris.
Piri-piri is Monchique's signature dish
The Monchique area is a handicrafts centre; artisans can be seen producing knitwear, cane work, pottery, tiles and sculptures, for example, all on sale at reasonable prices. Several cobblers still make shoes by hand, and such diverse homemade products as honey and soap are available locally.
Take a drive up to Foia for the best views of all. Like the EN266, this road is dotted with typical chicken piri-piri restaurants for which the area is famous. Although piri-piri is Monchique´s signature dish, there are also many restaurants specializing in other local delicacies including kid, game and wild boar. Choose a clear day to make the most of the panoramic views. Your Foia visit may well be one of the lasting memories of your holiday.
Get the Lowdown on Monchique – The Upper Algarve, Natures Paradise
(extracts of interview) published in Get Real newspaper
Why did you choose to live in Monchique?
We have lived in a number of locations in the Algarve but love Monchique best of all because it is unspoiled, the local people are warm and friendly and the countryside is picturesque and green all year round. There is a cosmopolitan community here but is not for those wanting to live in a Little Britain with nightclubs and English style pubs. Monchique has a quaint town centre with cobbled streets and alleys to explore. If descending from the town there are well tended gardens leading down to a stream – an ideal place to chill out on those hot summer days!
I think the biggest attractions have to be the spectacular views and the unsurpassed local restaurant food. Having said that the spa at Caldas is a big draw and the nature, so hiking is very popular. Monchique plays host to several car rallies, and cycle races each year, is ideal for pony trekking, forest walks, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, bird and nature watching. There is an abundance of natural picnic sites which attract people from all over the Algarve especially at the weekends.
Summer and winter comparison
A bonus for us is that Monchique does not get too congested in summer with tourists, there are only day coach trips and safari jeeps certainly not enough to bother us. The hotels, Villas and rental properties are full though so in the height of season it is necessary to book restaurants especially over the weekends. The weather in Monchique is quite unique perfect in summer without the blistering heat of the interior or the coast and winters are frost free and mild.
Some people have the idea that Monchique, in winter, because of the altitude is colder than the coast but we have compared the temperatures and the difference, if anything at all, is minimal, a very small price to pay for magnificent views and to enjoy nature at its best. Typically a January day say in Alvor on the coast could be 19 deg whereas in Monchique it will be 17 deg but at night time Alvor could go below freezing whereas Monchique will stay a balmy 8 deg!
Availability of local schools
We hear very good reports about the local state school educating children of many nationalities all seeming to be happy there. In the summer holidays they have a great activity program visiting all sorts of places including Zoomarine, Crazy Golf and activities like kayaking and swimming.
We have the privilege of having both the west and south coast beaches to choose from and particularly love to visit the unspoiled beaches on the west coast especially at Arrifana to watch the surfers.
House prices vary greatly depending on location and views but in general reflect excellent value for money compared with other areas of the Algarve. A small house can start from as little as 35,000 euros and a four bedroom villa from 375,000 euros upwards. We believe, because of the increasing interest in Monchique, that investment potential is huge.
O Padeiro da Serra Alisuper next to the roundabout on the Foia road has its own excellent bakery, good fresh fruit and vegetables plus more unusual items not normally available. Carlos the owner is very friendly and helpful and will even carry your heavy bags to your car. Intermarche where you can buy anything from groceries to washing machines and TV's opened in 2012. There is virtually nothing that you can't buy in Monchique but it pays to do a biweekly shop in Portimao which is only a 20 minute drive.
We have experienced the local health centre and have received excellent attention there and if required the nearest hospital is Barlavento in Portimao, just 20 minutes drive away or 10 by ambulance, yikes!