Getting Tipsy in Monchique/Algarve

I’ll reveal a little secret. I bet you have heard about Albufeira, Lagos and Faro when discussing Portugal’s beautiful Algarve. But, have you ever heard of Monchique and the beauty of the mountainous area as opposed to the beaches and wild coastline? Probably not and that’s why I’m taking you there.

A good staring point is Lagos from where you can take the N125 and then the N124 north which leads you through the volcanic mountain area right to Thermal Springs of Monchique. I however had the pleasure of staying in the beautiful Golf resort of Vale D’Oliveiras in Carvoreiro, half way between Lagos and Faro.

I hired a taxi to take me to Monchique and in view of my intention of tasting the famous Medronho liqueur this was a wise decision.

The thermal springs are very popular and have beneficial  properties for sufferers of rheuma  or asthma.

Monchique is also a place to see wonderful shops selling interesting things made from cork. Not only sandals, but also quite unique handbags. Like me, I’m sure no lady can pass on the opportunity to get a really special bag.

But, back to getting tipsy. Medronho is the name of a very potent liqueur only made here. It come from the lychee like fruit of the tree of the same name, also called strawberry or arbustus tree. It grows everywhere here, often intertwined with vines. Harvest time is in the fall, when the small berries are red and rather sweet. The resulting ‘schnaps’ is an acquired taste, because not only is it a strong alcoholic beverage, it also has a distinctive, strong smell. I have to say, that I didn’t particularly like it which saved me from getting tipsy, but if you like it, it goes down smoothly with the obvious effects.

Medronho Tree

There is however a variation called Melosa. That’s Medronho ‘watered ‘down with honey and particularly thought for ladies. I liked this one far better, but a little glass was enough.

If you feel like it, you can make your way on foot the the nearby highest elevation of the Algarve and enjoy a picnic with fantastic views over the coastline and as far as Faro on a clear day.

Certainly a side trip not to be missed on any visit to Portugal’s Algarve.


A romantic boat trip to Isla Culatra/Algarve

“You can’t leave the Algarve without having visited Isla Culatra,” the friendly guy at reception of my fabulous hotel Vale d’Oliveira, said. “My mum has a pastry shop there, everybody knows her. Swing by, I’ll tell her to give you a cake.” How is that for customer service?

Of course, I heeded his advise and took a taxi to the town of Olhao, some 30km east of Faro from which a ferry to the island departs. Olhao’s main attraction is the distinctive red covered market with an abundance of fruit and sea food on offer. Don’t miss to give it a whirl.

Olhao market hall

Back to the ferry. It runs frequently and the crossing takes about 20 minutes. The price for a return ticket is a modest €3.50.

The passengers are a few tourists but also plenty of inhabitants of the island with their shopping trolleys full of goodies. They have to come to Olhao to do their major shopping, because there isn’t much by way of shops on Culatra and definitely not a supermarket.

Isla Culatra from part of the so called Islas Barrera which sit in the large lagoon formed by the Ria Formosa which opens into the sea here.

The whole area is a nature reserve, inhabited by a huge variety of migrating birds. It’s also home to oyster banks and clam harvesting and that, together with fishing is what the islanders make a living from.

ria Formosa and Culatra

Sitting on deck of the ferry, I watched Olhao recede and the islands, sand banks and oyster farms take shape in the distance. If you have come from the rather touristy parts of the Algarve, you will enjoy this paradise of pure nature and tranquility. Watch the fishermen painstakingly harvest the oysters and clams digging in the mud with long poles. Silence rules, even the motor of the ferry isn’t very loud. The only ‘music’ comes from the shrieks of the seagulls which accompany the boat.

The ferry docks and you walk along a boardwalk flanked by sand and dunes towards the first building, a little white washed church. The view over the lagoon and of the fishermen mending their nets or preparing their boats for a fishing trip is timeless. It will have looked much the same centuries ago. Tourism has not spoiled this island. There are no cars, only the odd bicycle and a few handcarts in which people push their stuff around.

Follow the ‘main road’, more sand than asphalt and look at the colorful array of cottages. Each one is different and lovingly decorated by the owners with ornaments they have salvaged from the sea.

There are a few small cafes and restaurants, so you can have  a drink or enjoy the rich variety of simple sea food and fish dishes on offer. I did find the bakery and got one of my favorite sweets: tocino de cielo, a sort of pastry filled with vanilla custard and coated with generous amounts of sugar. Portuguese have a sweet tooth and so have I.

Just continue on towards the vast, white beach with dunes, facing the Atlantic. Again, you will appreciate the lack of tourism and the peace and tranquility the place provide. You can easily lose yourself for an hour or so, contemplating the sea, breathing the unpolluted air and staring at the horizon.

Dunes and Atlantic

All of it is just sooo romantic, including the ferry ride. If you miss the last ferry back to Olhao, there are always water taxis available although they cost about €30.

I later discovered, that there are Catamaran guided boat trips available from Faro which take in all the islands of Ria Formosa.


The hotel guy was right;  Isla Culatra is not to be missed on any trip to the Algarve.


Chapel of the Bones in Faro/Algarve

When I was discussing my recent trip to Portugal’s Algarve with Faro as my starting point, my friends exclaimed. “Oh, but you MUST see the Chapel of the Bones.”

After a long bus ride all the way from Murcia via Seville, I finally arrived in Faro, bone-tired. However, a good night’s sleep restored my strength and I went exploring.

Faro is a very charming, small city with a lot of pedestrian zones and a rather compact Old Town. I loved the view of the port, the white nicely decorated houses with gardens full of flowers, had a coffee and sinful cake in one of the sea side cafes, but then, the chapel of the bones called.

Faro seafront

I made my way to the splendid baroque Church do Carmo and admired the richly carved baroque wooden and gold altar. Head up the main aisle toward the altar, turn right and follow the signs and then there is a small door and you have reached the chapel. It’s an annex built in 1816 by the Carmelite monks, who thoughtfully put this above the door: ‘Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you.’

Church do Carmo

The chapel is not only densely decorated with the skulls of 1250 Carmelite monks; the entire building is made from their crushed bones and mortar.

Bone chapel

No, they weren’t murdered, it’s just that in the 19th century, the cemetery was so overcrowded that older skeletons had to be exhumed and used as, well… building material! It may sound gruesome but it was usual practice at the time and Faros’ chapel of the bones isn’t the only one in Portugal. The most famous and bigger one  is in Evora.

The skulls grinning at you from all sides, some even with their teeth, are not all that macabre as I thought it might be. It’s a bit strange to think that they are real and were once living, breathing humans. Still, as the inscription reminds us, we will all eventually end up looking like this . A visit to the chapel is food for thought if nothing else.