Into the country
VLIFE travelled to Silves and Monchique in search of history, culture and beautiful countryside.
VILA VITA Parc may boast a privileged cliff-top location, but a drive inland provides a glimpse into the past of the region and some of the most beautiful rural landscapes of the Algarve. Here, we discover the historic city of Silves and the outstanding natural beauty of Monchique with VILA VITA's very own guide, Algarve 10+1 – Authentic Experiences. Created by the team at VILA VITA Parc alongside the Almargem association, this simple and beautifully illustrated guide comprises 10 destinations, each with 10 recommendations of things to do and places to go; the 'plus one' is VILA VITA's Alentejo estate Herdade dos Grous.
For guests to discover the area, all they have to do is pick up their copy of the guide at reception. While there are extra options available, including a rental car or private butler, the resort has introduced the VILA VITA Tourservice, an exclusive bespoke service launched in June 2014 that provides a personal tour guide to help guests discover the unique culture, delicious food and breathtaking scenery of a more unknown Algarve. With a choice of a half-day or a full-day tour, each tour is completely personalised with no schedule other than following the preference of each guest. “My job is to make their day unforgettable,” said VILA VITA's guide Paulo Santos, who, alongside insight into each destination, also provides the highest quality service and attention to detail in the comfort of a luxury vehicle.
On this occasion, we headed inland to the historical city of Silves (number three in the guide), an enchanting location that sits on the edge of the Arade river and which was once the Moorish capital of the Algarve. Inhabited since Palaeolithic times and believed to have been officially founded by the Romans, Silves is steeped in a rich history that can be seen at every turn, but no other testament to this incredible historical heritage is more prominent than the famous Silves castle.
The first stop on the guide, the castle is set on the highest point of the city and has overlooked the town for almost a thousand years. The castle became a typical example of Islamic military architecture during Arabic occupation in the 11th century, covering 12,000sqm and with notable structures such as an Aljibe (an Arabic cistern) and the Cisterna dos Cães, an ancient copper well from the Roman period with a depth of around 70 metres. Having undergone important restoration work over the centuries and named a National Monument in 1910, today, the castle is the second most-visited monument in the Algarve (after Sagres fortress).
While much of the city is a living testament to its history, from the Archaeology Museum and Islamic and Mediterranean Cultural Centre, to the famous Roman bridge and historic city walls, another great symbol of Silves' legacy is the Sé or cathedral, the Algarve's most notable example of Gothic architecture. Whilst the origins of this National Monument are unknown, documents suggest it was built over a mosque when the Christians seized Silves from the Moors.
While nature also plays a prominent role in this lovely area – guests can walk or cycle part of the Algarvian Way, or go birdwatching at Lagoa dos Salgados to observe the rich diversity of aquatic birds –, some of the prettiest landscapes can be found inland towards the mountains of Monchique. Rich in handicrafts and delicious traditional produce such as honey, enchidos (sausages) and the famous medronho brandy, the charming town of Monchique is a taste of the old Algarve, nestled amongst the forests in the mountains of the same name. Traditional crafts are very much alive and well, from wicker baskets, ceramics and pottery to the pretty 'scissor' chairs, while the food is some of the heartiest you will find in the region. Certainly not to be missed is the enchanting spa village of Caldas de Monchique, a resort that has been famous for the healing properties of its thermal springs since Roman times. Much of the architecture dates back to the 19th century, and nowadays, the cobbled, tree-shaded main square is surrounded by a hotel, with the thermal spa located further down the valley. There is a feeling of calm and tranquillity here, afforded mainly by a wooded park that rises up the hillside, with century-old trees, a trickling river and picnic tables dotted around.
Nature is the area's calling card, and travelling further up, guests can admire the privileged landscape that makes the mountain range so appealing. An endless variety of walks and trails are available here, from Monchique to the traditional village of Marmelete, or a bicycle ride along the Algarvian Way. The area is also characterised by syenite, an igneous rock that can only be found in Monchique, ancient cork trees and agricultural terraces, making this countryside location a popular site for picnics. However, those willing to travel up the windy roads to the highest point in the Algarve will be rewarded with unique, breathtaking views: at 902 metres, Fóia provides a panoramic view across the region, of both the mountain range and the coast down below.
“During the tour, as well as discovering some of the most beautiful places in the Algarve, guests will also have various gastronomic surprises, such as tasting traditional produce, including liqueurs and sweets, or enjoy a typical lunch in Monchique,” says our guide Paulo Santos. “During the trip, we talk about the origins of the places we visit, their historical influences, the traditional cuisine and the local economy. And even though it is a relaxed service, nothing is left to chance.”