Blue skies in Monchique, situated in the mountainous hills of the Algarve. At this time of the year, there are only a few tourists around and many of the shops, selling knitted jumpers, sheep skin slippers and colourful pottery (all typical for this area), are closed. When you drive towards the centre of Monchique and then take a turn to the left, it leads you up on top of the mountain called Foia. It is the highest in the Southern Algarve and when lucky there is a nice view. For some reason it gets foggy quite often.
The Foia road is a nice drive along a windy road seamed with resaurants on the hilly side. They sell barbecued chicken with their famous hot piri-piri sauce.
Today most of these places are closed and I keep on driving towards the top. I haven’t been there for quite a while. Unfortunately, when you pass a certain hight, all the eucalyptus trees to both sides are black, completely burned. Former green beauty destroyed by this year’s August fires. What’s left is an incomprehensible sadness. Nature’s unwept tears.
For some reason I always preferred the Foia drive as such to the destination itself. The top exudes an atmosphere of abandonment. It’s like as if someone on purpose shaved all of his or her beautiful, curly hair off and now there is nothing much left but barren land with a great view. There is a tourist shopping centre, selling traditional crafts, including a restaurant and some weird, bizarre towers, which are God knows what for. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is just something surreal, unwelcoming about the place.
That’s why I don’t stay for long and head back to Monchique; the little, enchanting town itself.
Windy, narrow streets.
Long shadows and old houses.
Some tiled and others with colour or without.
I keep on walking upwards through the narrow lanes, ending up on a well trotten path. It leads through an alley of beautiful, old olive trees. At the end of this path there will be something mysterious awaiting me. I just can feel it.
But before I reach my destination, I hear someone playing the guitar and on the ground in the middle of the path is the guitar’s cheap plastic cover spread out. With one or two coins blinking in the afternoon sun. The minute the musician has spotted me, he abruptly stops. Instead he puts his instrument to the ground, starting to wave frantically with both of his hands. The odd, Portuguese guy points forcefully towards the shining coins on the ground.
The message does not only carry some sense of emergency, but at the same time is also very loud and clear:
‘Don’t you dare to pass this threshold I put up, without leaving a token behind.’
I am crazy enough to walk by without leaving a sparkling coin on the guitar cover and I immediately pay for it. After all, I’ve been warned…
The odd, Portuguese guy on the hill curses me. The peculiar thing is, he swears in English. I guess he wants to make sure the bloody, stupid tourist woman understands.
It’s effective and straight to the point:
‘Motherfucker, you motherfucker.’
A frightful shiver creeps up my spine ,while I keep on walking.
And now I can see it. The anticipated mystery; an old, majestic monastery or, what’s left of it. I am witnessing past memories dreamt up by generations long gone.
All of a sudden a man appears from behind a hidden door frame. He waves enthusiastically, speaking in his mother tongue. Welcomed I get in Portuguese and cursed in English, I think to myself. Interesting…
This man has a completely different vibe about him, wanting me to show the entry to the hidden treasures. He’s more like a guardian angel, shining a warm light versus the raging musician-troll, demanding a toll instead. Weirdly enough, they both seem to belong here on the forest hill, protecting unspoken secrets, filling the soft air. First you get initiated with a threat and after that you’re ready to be let in.
One scares, the other invites. Bizarre and wonderful all at the same time.
Inside, chicken are claiming the ruined monastery courtyard. The guardian angel waves me further in. I see compartments with some left over tiles on crumbling walls, an abandoned church hall with no roofs but blue skies.
Upon departure, my heart sings, having made this wonderful discovery. I decide to give the in English raging, Portuguese musician-troll, his toll on my way back. Now, it’s the least he’ll expect. Being given money by the very same woman he earlier called motherfucker… It’ll be interesting.
I have two Euros in my hand, lifting them up for him to see, before I lay them by the side of the lost two other coins on the grey, plastic cover.
The odd Portuguese guy on the hill looks at me in disbelief, approaching me to make sure this is not some sort of a joke. He wants to see how much I am giving him and whether this is real money. After he realises I am not making fun of him, his whole demeanour changes. It’s as if there are two very different people living in the same body. The former raging troll is all of a sudden very friendly and to my surprise talkative. Apparently I am the first of thirty people, passing him this day, who has given him something. Now, he can buy himself some cigarettes. I guess, that’s what the emergency was all about…
He’s from Monchique. It’s his birth place. The Portuguese odd man on the hill tells me the monastery was run by a Franciscan order. It has been destroyed during the 1969 earthquake that shook Portugal. I am also told about the disappearance of the many fountains in Monchique, because greedy people built houses everywhere.
After he finishes his last story, playing the guitar becomes his main focus again. I wave him good bye and leave in amazement. What a turn of events, I ponder. Sometimes it’s worthwhile taking a second look, before you dismiss another person completely. Maybe all this man wanted, apart from his cigarettes of course, is to be taken seriously and listened to for a bit. Who knows.