Cliff Richard was being interviewed by the Euro Weekly News in Portugal where he lives a good part of the year now, when he said “If I could choose one place then I think I would choose the Algarve. There’s a peace here that I find nowhere else.”
It sounded surprising because people more readily associate the Algarve with sandy beaches and golf courses, yacht-jammed marinas, or even the new Formula One racetrack. Yet look beyond the resorts and peace and tranquillity is easily found. A new motorway now makes it quick and easy to reach the Eastern Algarve, avoiding the congested coast road, and from there it’s only a quiet winding road into the Monchique Mountains. The Algarve has an almost perpetual summer; it is perfect any time of the year - I have had warm sunny days in January when spring-like weather brings the almond blossom flowers into bloom and hot days in March on near-deserted beaches. Summers can be scorching but the mountains remain cooler so the heat is easy to escape and winters are mild because the Sierra de Monchique acts as a barrier to the cold north air.
My friend Paul also spends a lot of time in Portugal and had hired a house near the pretty tumbling town of Silves for a month, so I decided to fly out and spend a week with him. Flights to Faro are cheap and quick and from there I joined Paul for an easy drive on the quiet motorway. Before heading inland we decided to visit Cape St Vincent, the most westerly headland in Europe. The cliffs are steep and rugged, the waves foam, and wind often blows hard. You can read the history of Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) at the lighthouse exhibition. He set up a college at adjoining Sagres, which was thought to be the end of the world and looked out over the vast unknown Atlantic. He gathered around him the best astronomers, naval engineers and navigators of the day, funded their research and voyages and launched Portugal as one of the great maritime powers of Europe. I could only wonder at his bravery in setting off blindly on those turbulent seas. Almost as brave are today’s fishermen who lean over the 70 metre high cliffs to pull up their catch.
This whole region is volcanic in origin and near Carvoeira we saw the rock formations of Algar Seco, like giant sandy pumice stones, before enjoying local smoked ham and olives on a blue and white painted table by the shore. We walked along the small arc of deserted beach pitted with caves where the waves relentlessly pulled in the sand. The beach gets busy in summer but out of the main holidays it was quiet. By the time we’d turned inland and unloaded my bags at the simple white villa on the outskirts of Silves, the sun was a huge deflating orange balloon, and our appetite was roused once more. The scrumptious plate of Spaghetti Marinara; a creamy bowl of pasta mixed with prawns and anchovies, olives, and capers was the perfect end to my first day.
Next morning we began our explorations in earnest, first heading up into the hills, past nature reserves and lagoons of wading birds, through skinny-ankled cork-oak and strong tall sweet chestnut trees towards the high town of Caldas de Monchique. Further east the architecture has a stronger Moorish influence with tiled courtyards and iron grilles as intricate as lace. The two peaks of the Monchique Mountains rose in front of us, their grey-green tops roofed in cloud. The air smelt of wild herbs and sunshine, hot oranges and roasted almonds. The almond trees were introduced by the Moors and legend says that a Moorish king had a Scandinavian wife who became homesick and he imported the trees so that the almond blossom would remind her of the snow.
Tourism is seeping slowly inland and the little towns are reviving. The network of paths and mule tracks, so perfect for walking, and the fields filled with egg-yolk Bermuda Buttercups, are being utilised by activity companies and walking groups. The fast rivers flowing down from the summit now hold rafts and canoes and their banks are dotted with tiny tents. But there are not too many of them yet, enough to justify pretty road-side restaurants and small clean hotels in the towns and a friendly welcome in the zinc bars, but still lots of space for everyone. The land is still rough and wild here. Ancient silvered olive trees knot their roots above ground and in summer the sweet wild strawberries are so prolific they use the excess to make a liqueur called Medronho. Be warned though as it’s very strong!
Caldas de Monchique is a picturesque hamlet sitting above a spa where the Romans used to come to soothe their rheumatism in the hot sulphurous waters. It is still a popular watering hole with pastel painted buildings set in a hideaway of dense vegetation overlooked by peeling eucalyptus and aromatic pine. A flood in 1997 led to closure and complete redevelopment of the resort and now you can have any number of treatments, some including chocolate! The popular Caldas water is also bottled here and there is a stone hut where you can drink the water for free straight from the ground.
Up the hill, Caldas has steep streets rising up from a tree-shaded central square, and is dotted with small individual shops and bronze statues of its famous sons. At the top squats the parish church with its star-shaped porch and twisted columns like knotted ropes framing the simple interior. After a coffee at one of the tiny bars, we followed the road west and higher still up to Foia Peak. At 902 metres it is the highest point of the Monchique Mountain Range. The summit is a mass of satellite dishes and spiky radio masts but the views downwards are magnificent, stretching over the vast mint and ginger hued terrain all the way to the sea.
Descending the other side we hoped to loop back down to the coast. There were few roads and even fewer signposts but we drove for a couple hours with the smell of early oranges and flurries of pale almond blossom blowing in the open windows. Yellow mimosa waving on its silver stems and butterflies vied to land on them in chaotic clouds and still our road headed on, not a sign of human habitation. Two hours later we passed a sign; ‘Welcome to Portugal’. Oops we hadn’t realised we’d left! Now we knew we were lost but there was nothing for it but to continue. Another half an hour of road led us back into the centre of Caldas. From there we began again, retracing our journey of the morning; past the spa and the terraced red-clay vegetable gardens, the fat orange groves and the roadside restaurants until we dipped back past Silves to the villa and a well earned glass of wine.
Silves rises up from the banks of a fast-flowing river fed by the many springs and streams of the Sierra Monchique. The view of the town as you drop down from the mountains is stunning. The road is flanked by eiderdowns of tiny white and yellow wild flowers splotched with big red poppies and tables of strawberry punnets with honesty boxes attached. Looking up I saw cubes of houses piled up the hillside with a sand-stone castle at the top. The river, Rio Arade, was an important route into the interior for Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians and Silves once rivalled Lisbon in importance until an earthquake devastated it along with much of the Algarve in the 19th Century. Now thanks to demand for cork and dried fruit, the town has been rejuvenated.
The castle, one of the best preserved in the Algarve, has recently been restored and excavations continue below interior walkways. A stroll around the walls gave us dizzying views down over terracotta roof-tops to the river beyond. There is also a cathedral that looks more like a fortress on the outside and the simple interior did little to dispel that impression. A museum based around an original Moorish well sits just below it. Narrow cobbled streets led us back down to a choice of quiet restaurants where storks nesting untidily on the lamp-posts entertained us as we waited for our fiery Piri-Piri Chicken - char-grilled with garlic, paprika and chilli - and an essential cold beer to chase it down.
Following the river to its estuary led us to the small fishing village of Ferragudo. Dominated by a restored 16th century fort, the harbour fronts narrow curling streets that lead past dice-shaped houses up the hill to the 14th Century church at the top. Here I was astonished to find a monument to Lord Robert Baden-Powell. I remembered him from my Brownie Days because he and his wife both shared the same birthday as me and it was always a tribute day. Apparently they had the same celebration in Portugal and the monument was a commemoration. Translated from Portuguese it read ‘Our profound admiration for your work’.
That evening we visited the inland town of Guia, a quiet place with a couple of lovely old churches and lots of very good chicken restaurants. I chose Chicken Frango, a slow-roasted garlic infused dish, but Paul knew the steaks were also good. We asked the waiter’s advice about a bottle of wine that would suit both of us and he recommended a local one called Vida Nova Tinto, a deep, dark red tasting of black cherries, prunes and cinnamon. As he poured he commented that we might know the owner. I had my second surprise of the day when it transpired that Cliff Richard owns a vineyard nearby and is often seen working on the land in the sunshine.
“No wonder he always seems happy.” I said, “Living here in this wonderful climate making delicious wines.” “Yes,” agreed Paul. “His life must be one long Summer Holiday!”