Monchique – our green little mon-chic

Monchique is the name of a municipality in the Algarve, as well as the name of the town therein. It is in the Serra de Monchique mountains and is probably the greenest part of the Algarve region. We’ve visited here many, many and many times over the years, and always have the urge to go back. Yep, we really love this part of the Algarve. Could be because it’s mostly cooler than down at the hot-till-you-drop coast, or maybe because the spirits are friendlier up there, them wild strawberry spirits. Slurp! Hic!

Our first visit, way, waaay back then, was to escape the big bake. It was hot. Sweltering hot. Even though it was late November, the month of autumn-chilly-bite, or so we thought, it felt like we were thrown into the village wood burning stove and left to sizzle, shrivel and ssZZttTT-crackle-pop. We decided to head for the mountains. It was either that, or swim in the ocean, and we all know that yours truly will never ever put feet into water where all sorts of thingies are crawling, floating, nibbling, whatever. So up the mountain we went. The drive from our quarters took about an hour, okay, much more, but only because we stopped many, oh so many a few times on the way to admire the storks, the views, also because the roads are very curvy and we got stuck behind a tractor. Chugga. Chugga. Chugga.

The first little obstacle was finding somewhere, anywhere, to park the car. The streets in the town are mostly narrow, with a lot of one-ways, and the pavements small, so finding a spot near the centre of town without vroom-vrooming into someones living room is quite difficult. So we did a few roundabouts in the town, no not those roundabouts, but the kind where you drive through the same square over and over again until you finally pluck up the courage to ask the only person we thought would understand that we no-speaka-portuguesa. Eh, Ola, pardough, excussi mi, I no speaka Portuguesa. Por favor. Carro parko? Did he just try not to laugh? In perfect English he told us where the car park was, suggested that if it was full, we should go up that other road, turn right and park on the side of the street. Now that we’re Englishing, where’s the toilet? That third cup of tea wanted out, but first, park. We squeezed into the only space available, yay, a space at such a gradient that our car had its bum in the air. We had to crawl walk all the way up, up, UP, to visit a convent that was recommended in a travel brochure. Did we mention that the whole town is hilly? Phew! But we made it. What an amazing view over the town from up there!

The convent (Convento Nossa Senhora do Desterro) is actually a ruin. It used to be a Franciscan Monastery that was severely damaged by the big earthquake of 1755, somewhat restored then finally abandoned. At first we were confused and thought that we were lost, again. There was this derelict looking building in a forest full of cork trees, with unkempt bushes and beautiful blooms here and there. There were also a group of men sitting on the terrace. We presumed that they were farmers and that we had encroached on their land. A man came towards us and spoke a few somethings. Oh-oh! Sorry-no-understanda. He smiled and invited us to follow him. Only one of us did. No risk, no fun. I will follow you-oo-oo tra-la-laaa. This very personal guide took yours truly deep into the eerie building and nope, not scary, not creepy, just absolutely fascinating. He pointed at some walls and tried to explain but his words were beyond grasping. Like they say in Germany: only understood train station. Some areas of the ruin seemed to be home to some or all of those friendly men sitting outside and chatting. One gentleman gave us two of the sweetest oranges, together with a beautiful white rose! It stayed fresh for a very long time! Aah! Blessed!

Our second visit to Monchique had more to do with the spirits. There are churches, temples and a retreat somewhere in the area, but we’re not talking about those kind of spirits. This is about fire water, the traditional spirit made from the fruit of the wild Medronho tree, Aguardente de Medronho. This “tree” is actually a wild strawberry shrub. We first saw it while hiking through one of the Algarve’s natural parks. We were quite curious about this strange berry but also wary to taste it after the olive experience. Do not, repeat, DO NOT eat a green olive directly from the tree. You will keel over. Okay, maybe not, but you will wonder if you’d made a mistake thinking it was an olive tree but instead had just bitten into something poison. Bleh! Back to the shrub. After seeing so many of these red and yellow fruit-looking thingies, one of us decided what the heck, let’s eat. Wow! Sweet and juicy. We waited for the deliriums, tremors, coma, but after ten minutes of nothing decided to eat some more. When we got back to our hotel we did some research and found out that Monchique was the centre of the medronho production in the Algarve. In a small shop named Mel e Medronho in the centre of the town, there is a vast variety of this spirit. Many local farmers bring their products here to be sold directly to the public. You will also meet one or two of them serving in the shop, and they are very willing to explain the distilling process. There are also other shops in the town selling these products. The local Portuguese supermarket also stocks some, or the duty free at the airport, but we prefer to drive all the way to Monchique for our supply because the assortment is much larger, and you can buy in 10cl bottles. They fit nicely in the suitcase. If you’re afraid of 40% to 55% alcohol proof fiery spirits, then there’s also the honey flavoured milder version called Brandymel. We don’t like. You know how it is sometimes when you’ve eaten too much chicken piri-piri and your stomach needs a regmaker, (Afrikaans for bring the fixer-upper bottle 🤣🤪)?? Well then, Aguardente de Medronho is the one for you. Oops! Monchique also has spring water which is also bottled, but who needs that kind of healthiness lol 😘😇

Another visit to Monchique was to enjoy some traditional local food and buy medronho in a small restaurant called “Tradições”. OMG! Did we lick our fingers! Delicious tapas. Wonderful atmosphere. Tasty medronho. We had missed their very famous annual sausage festival by just two days. Oh well, next time…

All in all this is a beautiful little town in the mountains, with lots of hiking routes around it and depending what time of the year you visit, can be cooler than down at the coast. We like!

On our last visit one could still see the extensive damage caused by the previous forest fire/s that ravaged the whole area. Gone were the lush forests and green hills that we’d hiked through so many times before. We were quite shocked! The authorities have passed stricter laws for landowners, which as a good thing, but not all are happy with it. Oh well, bottoms up!