Portugal’s southernmost region, the Algarve, is known for its rugged coast, picturesque beaches and endless hours of sunshine. Beach lovers have been visiting the Algarve since the 60’s but it might not the first destination that comes to mind when planning a walking holiday. Perhaps surprisingly there are many excellent signposted trails to explore on the coast and inland. Nike Werstroh and Jacint Mig urge you to explore the trails beyond the coast.
The trail we were following from Monchique village to Foia peak skirted around some crumbling walls shortly after leaving Monchique village. The ruin was hidden by trees and the tall walls were decorated with unfriendly 'Private' and 'Keep out' signs. However, as we were approaching, a man in his sixties greeted us warmly. Gesturing wildly and speaking rapid Portuguese he invited us to see inside the mysterious walls.
We followed him through the vegetable garden and then through a small door into a dim chamber/room that was being used for storage. Tools hung on the wall and the shelves were packed with jars containing olives and jam. We crossed an adjoining room and emerged into the enclosed courtyard. The man then discreetly left us to explore and went back to his work in the vegetable garden.
Sunshine couldn't reach the courtyard and it seemed especially dark after the brightness outside. While Jacint adjusted the settings on his camera my eyes adapted to the darkness and I looked around. Chickens ran around in the fenced-off corner of the yard and a black cat was napping by the overgrown wall. A huge beam was propped against the tall crumbling wall - maybe to give some kind of support. It felt somehow very strange to be there, standing in someone's yard without the presence of the owner. At that point, we knew very little about where we were but the ruins suggested that it had been a mighty building. Jacint took photos of the crumbling walls and then we made our way out. We thanked the man for the opportunity to see inside the convent and then continued on the trail.
Nossa Senhora do Desterro Convent
Later in the afternoon, back in Monchique village, we learnt that the kind man didn't own the old building but he was clearly using some part of it.
The old Nossa Senhora do Desterro Convent was founded in 1631 by Pero da Silva who was the Governor of Portuguese India from where he brought back the ivory image of Our Lady. It is also believed that the governor might have been buried at the convent. According to a different legend, two sailors vowed that they would build a church on Portuguese land if they survived the challenging seas. In 1755 an earthquake destroyed the convent, but it was later rebuilt.
The building was given to the Franciscan Order but has been deteriorating over the past decades. Plans have been made for its restoration although lack of money has prevented any works being carried out.
From the convent we followed the meandering tracks and paths, with some great views, to the summit of Foia. We only met a couple of walkers as it seemed that most people preferred to drive up the winding roads or take a coach to the highest peak of the Algarve. There was a big car park, a souvenir shop, and a café to cater for the number of people who arrive daily to admire the views. The peak was very lively in the early afternoon when we reached the most popular viewpoint. Portimão – the coastal town – was visible, but further on, the contour of the coastline slowly disappeared in the hazy distance where the ocean met the land.
The peaceful, narrow trail leading down from the peak was a pleasant contrast to the touristy bustle of the summit.
The trails on the slopes of Foia drew us back and only a few days after our first visit we returned to Foia's peak by car. This time the huge car park was empty. The café and the souvenir shops were closed at that early hour and we could admire the morning views without having to share them with anyone. We planned to follow the waymarked Cascadas trail that started from the peak.
The morning dew on the grass glimmered in the sunshine as we descended to a tiny hamlet, Penedo do Buraco. It was still cool as the morning sunshine didn't reach that side of the slope and peaceful - the handful of residents living in the hamlet didn't show themselves as we walked through. We left the group of houses behind and climbed on, enjoying some great views. The climb warmed me up and when we stopped for a late morning picnic I shed a layer.
The wide shrub-fringed path narrowed as we passed some more ruins. Vegetation was reclaiming the once cultivated area, and some lizards were sunbathing in the morning sunshine, soaking up the heat of the rocks. Rolling hills dominated the views and the dew on the grass had dried by the time we started the second, more popular, part of the trail.
The winding track descended through cork oak and eucalyptus and then climbed again steadily. Around halfway we stopped to admire the Barbelota waterfall cascading over rocks framed by lush vegetation. The sound of rushing water slowly gave way to birdsong as we continued the climb, following the snaking trail upwards. Looking ahead the terraced slope was dotted with abandoned houses. What an amazing setting for a hamlet! Imagine how it must be to wake to those views and hear the gossiping birds every morning. But life is never easy in this rural part of the Algarve - it was less about the trails and views and more about very hard work on the land.
The trail followed the contour of the mountainside and the sad but fascinating sight of the derelict houses on the slope accompanied us for a while. The track then turned away from the ruins and we climbed steadily before the final stretch back to the summit of Foia. It was late afternoon when we returned to our hire car. During the drive back to Portimão I watched the tree-covered hills pass by, thinking how they were hiding so many ruins and tiny, almost unknown, hamlets.
Only a 30 minute drive from the bustling coastline, this was the Algarve too.