Goodness, it’s often so difficult to resist being drawn into the Facebook malarkey that offers itself up as honest discussion but mostly I do stop myself dashing off a response. Until today, when some silly woman living on the Silver Coast pronounced that the area was so much better for hiking and running than the flat Algarve. Flat? Has she ever actually been here? I couldn’t resist responding – I kept it polite – but I did point out the region is anything but flat.
Actually, despite her ignorance, the poster actually did me a favour. I’ve been meaning to write about our recent extremely hilly two-day hike to and from Monchique and just hadn’t got around to it. Thanks to her comment, I now feel a moral obligation to highlight the delights of this wonderful region away from the Algarve’s ‘touristic’ (how I love that widely used word) coastline (and even that is mostly hilly!).
This was our second weekend away to celebrate my 60th birthday. The first – to Salir and back – had reminded us just how much tougher the going gets when the temperatures soar. After the gruelling second day, Harri even gave me the option of driving to Monchique this weekend and just ambling around the Serra de Monchique doing short circular walks instead of sticking to our original plan.
‘Nah, I like a challenge,’ I insisted blithely. It was midweek and memories of how I’d slogged up the hills north of Loulé grasping at my water bottle and muttering ‘never again’ were already fading.
The sky overhead was cloudy, something that pleased Harri no end, but not so much me. We moved to the Algarve to hike in wall-to-wall sunshine, not to gaze up at a sky reminiscent of a summer day in Wales. He pointed out that we had a lot of climbing ahead of us (in this, the ‘flat Algarve’) and getting a few miles under our belts before the clouds dissipated and the temperature heated up could only be viewed a positive.
This route features in my book More Algarve Hiking and is most memorable for my near drop-off-the-cliff experience. I’ll recount briefly: close to a little village called Poio, the waymarked footpath rises from road level and runs parallel along a cliff face. Unfortunately, in 2015 the path itself had collapsed just before it rejoined the road below. As Harri investigated a possible way forward, I’d panicked and edged backwards up the cliff. When the penny dropped that I’d got myself into an even more precarious position, I did what any sensible person would do: I froze. Poor Harri had to ‘rescue’ first my rucksack and then me (once he’d prised my fingers off the rock). He’s still mystified as to how I ended up halfway up a cliff!
Thankfully, the footpath has now been restored; well, at least temporarily because it’s still very close to the cliff edge and looks like it could easily disappear again in a bad storm.
The Algarvian landscape changes quite dramatically when you leave the coast. We hadn’t yet reached the lush hills surrounding Monchique and were passing through an agricultural landscape dotted with traditional housing, hay bales, small lakes and cows (we even spotted a bull). In this ‘flat’ region, a tough ascent was inevitably followed by an even steeper downhill section. During one descent with a ski-slope gradient, I grabbed at the adjacent vegetation to steady myself and realised I’d done the exact same thing last time we passed this way – and got an equally sticky hand from the rock rose.
Sadly, fires are a major summer hazard in Portugal. And here in the Algarve, the majority of those fires rage in the mountainous areas around Monchique where there is a lot of uncleared scrubland and tightly packed eucalyptus forests (the trees suck water from the land, thus exacerbating the problem of rain-free summers). In June 2017, just a few weeks after we completed a two-week circular hike in Central Portugal, horrific fires in the Pedrógão Grande area killed 66 people and injured 204 more. Fires are taken seriously here … even small ones.
So when we spotted a five-metre stretch of riverbank on fire just two kilometres north of Moinho da Rocha we knew we had to report it immediately. I phoned 112 and duly provided all the information in English, i.e. size of the fire, rough location, the fact we were following a percurso pedestrian, i.e. the Via Algarviana link route to Monchique, etc.
Content that we’d done our civilian duty– especially as the fire was moving rapidly along the terrace – we carried on walking uphill. Ten minutes later, my phone rang. It was the local bombeiros (fire fighters) and they were very confused about the location of this fire I’d reported. So I explained again – or tried to explain as this second conversation was in Portuguese. They thanked me and rang off. Then rang again for more directions, again in Portuguese. This happened four times in total – then Harri worked out how to give them our co-ordinators. On the fourth call I spotted a helicopter carrying water flying overhead. They were in the right valley, but just to reassure myself, I ran back to doublecheck the fire was out. By then, two fire engines had arrived on the scene and everything was under control.
In the meantime, a Dutch man had arrived on a bike. He and his wife were housesitting farther up the valley and had smelled smoke. He had come to find out where the fire was so he could report it. We walked back up the hill with this delightful and interesting man, pondering on why we’d decided to buy a house, get a cat and settle in one place, rather than just continuing with the housesitting assignments (though I guess the pandemic probably messed things up for many housesitters).
Back on track, we crawled up the increasingly narrow and airless valley, marvelling at how the mountain scenery differed dramatically to our own coastal neighbourhood where cacti, palms and bougainvillea abound and there is no sign of bramble, fern or eucalyptus. Here, the riverbeds are not parched and devoid of water, unlike the majority of streams near the coast.
As we approached the top of the valley, we encountered an Israeli couple who had recently bought a house. The track we were following actually crosses their land, but they seemed more than happy for we passing hikers to be there. In Wales, we found landowners tended to fall into two groups: those who hated footpaths running across their land and put as many obstacles in place as possible, including blocking off stiles and allowing large unfriendly dogs to roam freely (to be fair, the majority of these tended to be farmers!), and the people who enjoyed the opportunity to talk to new people and pounced on you the moment you stepped onto their land.
The last few miles were tough going. Though we commended ourselves on not running out of liquid, the water in our bottles was warm and vile-tasting. We followed pretty tracks lined with traditional housing and stone water tanks full of ornamental fish, frogs and gardens full of homegrown fruit and vegetables. Monchique felt tantalisingly close, yet there was still no actual sign of it.
Eventually we emerged onto a main road and I immediately recognised the cafe on the corner (we’d drunk beers there once with our German friend Jörg while doing a circular route from Caldas de Monchique). We might be hot, dusty and dirty, but we had reached our destination.
First stop was Intermarché, where we bought supplies and drinks for tomorrow plus some cold cans for the room. Then we continued uphill and almost to the far side of Monchique to find our overnight accommodation.
There we had a surprise awaiting us, for right next to Hospedaria Descansa Pernas was the helicopter landing pad with the helicopter we’d beckoned hours earlier standing there empty. Rather surprisingly, its doors had been left open, though presumably the adjacent police station would make potential joyriders think twice.
We didn’t venture far to eat that evening – about 600 metres to O Ze, the delightful traditional Portuguese restaurant we stumbled upon on our first visit to Monchique in 2015. The food is excellent, the service is great and the prices are incredible: we paid just over 23 euros (plus a tip) for olives, two delicious meals, half a litre of wine, a soft drink, tea and coffee, plus a glass of port for Harri.
Later, we lay in bed and marvelled at our stamina. Snowdon is 3,560 feet (1,085 metres) above sea level and the summit of Pen-y-Fan is 2,906 feet (886 metres). We’d covered 18.32 miles (29.48 km) of frequently tough terrain and clocked up 3,156 feet (961.94 metres) of climbing.
Not bad for ‘flat’ old Algarve, eh? And there was worse to come tomorrow!!