Funchal from ahigh
Cruise liners come and go
A Postcard from MADEIRA - April 2008
It’s now nearly nine months since we returned from our trip around North America, and the English winter has recently been getting to our bones - time for a short break to warmer climes to top up on a bit of sunshine. Why, then, Madeira you might ask? Well; for a start, we had heard about their cake and wine, but more to the point, we remembered my little brother, Michael, had once visited the island and told us how much he loved it. We thought we should check it out. You can’t get there by motorhome, there's too much water in the way, so we took a plane from Stansted, courtesy of EasyJet.
Many people we know have already been to Madeira; some of them several times. They tell us it has a ‘lovely climate.’ Those two inoffensive words always worry us a little - they usually mean it rains a lot. We’ll see. They have also told us about the island’s runway, recently extended out into the Atlantic to stop all the planes falling off the end. It’s still pretty tough for the passengers, tied up like sausages in
One of many reasons to visit the island!
their seat belts, hemmed in against the reverse thrust of mighty engines as the plane hits the short runway; but tougher still for the pilot who bites his lip and braces his knees against the instrument panel each time he lands. Rest assured; we’re OK, safely on the ground right now.
But there’s more to Madeira than wine, cake, climate and Michael’s recommendation of course. It offers a few of the most important ingredients for our enjoyment: fabulous walking (much of it on the level), a change of culture, and magnificent scenery, to name but five. You will have noticed the omission of birding on that list. That is because there are few species of birds on the island we’re told, though there is a handful of endemics we might search out if time permits. Oh, and then there’s golf: there are three courses, but with only a couple of weeks, it’s not a priority.
Should you not have already been there yourself, you should be aware that the language is somewhat difficult to understand. In the main, it sounds like German. Indeed, it is German; well, almost everywhere. The locals in
the tourism business all speak Portuguese as you might imagine, this being a Portuguese island, but they also speak German, English and often French, too, extremely proficiently. Jovial waiters along the narrow back-streets of Madeira’s capital, Funchal, called out as we passed.
We smiled politely.
They responded, knowingly.
‘Good Morning, Tea or coffee, light lunch?’
Yes, they might be Portuguese, but you would hardly know it. We darted into a café to shelter from the onslaught of rain one afternoon. The waiter brought our coffee,
‘Ere y’are, mate,’ he said with a cockney accent and a huge grin.
‘Where did you learn your English?’ I asked.
‘At school,’ he came back quickly. My bet is he watches East Enders or Coronation Street on TV every day. The 14” black and white TV hooked up on a bracket over the bar resonated to the antics of Mr Bean.
Madeira’s volcanic cliffs drop perpendicularly into the blue Atlantic Ocean, bathed throughout the year by a temperate climate from its rocky shore to its mountain peaks, encapsulating a glorious botanical paradise, meticulously tilled terraces of blue-bagged bananas, bright white houses perched precariously
...bright white houses perched on precipituos hillsides.
on precipitous hillsides with beautiful balconies, balustrades, and terracotta tiles, and roadside verges trimmed with golden broom, gorse, and vast swathes of wild hydrangeas and agapanthus. Our small hotel at Canico de Baixo, a few miles to the east of Funchal, booked via the internet along with our flight, looked south over the cliff to the Atlantic Ocean below our balcony. An unexpected bonus was the sound of Cory’s Shearwaters coming in to roost below our window shortly after dark each evening. (They also launched themselves back to sea before daybreak every morning, but at around 6am we rarely heard them!) Our bed and breakfast arrangement allowed us to eat out in the evenings; a chance to take a gentle stroll, try the local food and people watch. There’s a little edge to the sea breeze in the evenings at this time of the year, but it verges on the alfresco now and again.
For the first few days we travelled about by bus, having assumed that, rather like Tenerife, we could get around when and wherever we pleased. This proved to be both time consuming and inconvenient and we eventually settled for a hire car. If you
enjoy driving, you’ll love Madeira. Off the major highway across the south, the roads rise and fall with steep hills and valleys, through great gorges, across the plateau and over the mountains, weaving, roller coaster fashion round hairpin bends, through tiny hamlets, past wandering cattle and skinny black sheep on spindly legs, up into the clouds and down to the coast in shimmering sunshine. Like most places Portuguese, the dogs bark and the cockerels crow all night - and most of the day. Unlike the Portuguese mainland, however, there are few wild animals: just a few rabbits, rats and ferrets, but no deer, badgers, foxes, wild pigs, stoats or weasels, or even snakes.
A visit to a garden is a must when you visit Madeira, and there are many to choose from. Our choice, on a mild and showery day, was to the elegant Palheiro Gardens with a delicate blend of English landscape and tropical exotics. The whole island is a botanical paradise, bearing flowers, trees and fruit; bananas from the tropics, roses and perennials from Olde England, Asian orchids and magnolias from Japan, mighty eucalyptus trees from Australia, and brilliant yellow gorse with its hint of coconut
scent, reminiscent of our East Anglia heaths.
Irrigation channels, developed over the centuries, collect natural water from the mountainsides, gently following the contours of the land for hundreds of miles, meandering listlessly around the hills and valleys all over the island. These levadas as they are known, provide a constant supply of water for the island’s many requirements: domestic water of course, irrigation for agriculture, and hydroelectric plants supplying a large chunk of their electricity. As we passed through the villages, those patches of terrace still tilled and irrigated with loving care were planted with potatoes (three or four crops a year can be harvested on this fertile soil), onions, grape vines, bananas, brassicas and sugar cane. There was a day when sugar provided a major source of income for Madeira; ‘white gold’ as it was known, but today there are just three refineries and little evidence of it growing in the hand-worked patchwork fields that rise almost vertically in tiny steps on every hillside.
The gentle gradient of the levadas makes them a major draw for those visitors with a love of walking and the luxury of staying here on the island for more than
a night or two. The walks can be as easy or as tough as you like to make them; long or short, gentle or precipitous! Early on, we enjoyed a brisk nine or ten miler with new found friends Hans and Gerda whom we met at the hotel on the ‘introductory tour’ of the complex: the gymnasium, sauna, pools, massage parlour, lounges and restaurants - all beyond our holiday comfort zone and fortunately the best part of half a mile away from our quiet refuge and beyond temptation! The levada banks were swathed in moss and ferns, the narrow paths perfumed with marjoram, verdant and lush in dappled sunlight beneath giant eucalyptus and arches of mimosa, and blessed with the ever-present song of rippling streams and waterfalls. On a bright sunny day, we followed the ‘25 Fountains’ walk beside a levada overflowing with crystal clear water sparkling in the morning light, treading narrow ledges with precipitous drop offs, passing groups of heads-down hikers of many nationalities on guided walks, mostly poorly attired for such an outing - and somewhat reminiscent of the Lake District in July!
Another walking day took us to the Levada do Furado from Ribeira Frio,
through a shady laurel bower, following a small rippling stream, teeming with darting trout. We arrived there at dawn, bleary eyed, seeking the local Laurel Pigeon (actually, Columba trocaz, or Trocaz Pigeon), known to frequent the area and we were lucky to see them from a nearby lookout before we actually started our walk. The walks here are all graded for their level of difficulty, but there seems little evidence of a uniform standard between one guidebook and another, (there are lots to choose from). This walk was suggested as moderate and there were guided groups tackling it in trainers and tee shirts. My advice would have been to check that all participants were as sure footed as a nanny-goat with nine legs and equipped with stout footwear, for in parts the path is no more than walking the top of a stone garden wall perhaps half a metre wide, with a vertical drop of 100m on one side, and a water channel, a metre or so deep, on the other - certainly not for the faint-hearted! I guess they know what they’re doing; they don’t seem to lose a lot of customers over the edge - or perhaps they
It's downhill all the way!
Wicker transport back to town
keep it very quiet when they do. A number of levadas run through dark and damp tunnels, some extremely long. We experienced one in particular about 400m long with a narrow footpath boot-top deep in brown muddy water; creeping along with a torch in one hand and holding on to the cold damp wall with the other. We do like a day with a bit of an adventure!
Tourism plays a major role in the economy on Madeira these days. Busloads of tourists ascend to the church at Monte, high above Funchal; by cable car, taxi or coach. We don’t generally do ‘touristy things’ as you might recall, but we did drive there en route to the mountains one sunny day to take a look at the Catholic church and watch a few excited punters sliding their way downhill in the traditional Madeiran way, sitting two abreast in a wicker sledge; most of them dead-pan with fear of the unknown, hurtling down the steep tarmac road, dodging taxis and cars, guided by ‘gondoliers’ in boaters and thick-soled shoes. We had other more exciting things on our minds, but the picture tells the story.
Afternoon tea for two, Sir. That will be 56Euros please.
roads are tremendous fun. Flat land is somewhat hard to come by on this island and getting from A to B through the mountains that rise straight from the sea has long been a torturous experience. Strangely enough, there is no sign of donkeys as you might expect to see in many parts of Portugal, Spain or Greece in similar surroundings. As a consequence, they have been building tunnels with dual carriageways - and EU money, going east and west from Funchal to take the tourists by car to far off villages in the minimum time. I’m not quite sure how one can equate the cost of so many miles of tunnels against Madeira’s population of a mere 280,000. I’m very sure it’s not what I envisaged they would do with my money when the EU was first thrust upon us. It is also quite clear that the developers are having a field day, building new accommodation, homes, hotels and apartment blocks at a frightening rate. But it’s a clean and tidy island; there’s little litter anywhere and the villages and homes are generally smart and well cared for. Elderly ladies in elderly aprons and dowdy headscarves can be seen
They're importing a beach!
brushing their front steps and tending their gardens up in the hills. Locals, both men and women, carry their forks and hoes across their shoulders alongside the road after a day’s labour on the terraces and men in traditional pointed woollen hats with ear-flaps shoulder their sacks and swing their billhooks with gusto where the country roads leave the main highway.
All the villages look pretty much the same: a few dozen white houses, a school, a football pitch, (Ronaldo hails from Funchal!) and a bar or two, so it’s not absolutely necessary to travel great distances to get the flavour of the architecture; after all, the island is only 56km from one end to the other. There was one exception that we found, though in reality it’s no longer a village. Calheta in the west is in the throes of transformation, from quiet simplicity to monstrous marina city; complete with imported golden sandy beach, smart modern hotels, a large marina already packed with yachts and cruisers, boat chandlers, cafes and fancy restaurants. The reasoning, perhaps, is to provide continuous employment in the area in an attempt to stem the outflow of youngsters from the island, plus natural
The Flower Festival
Children - having the time of their lives
growth of the economy in these modern times. The reality is a beautiful island 600km out in the Atlantic off Morocco, en route to becoming another Algarve.
Now and again we get lucky. In reality, that’s again and again because we work at it, but it was rather by chance that we arrived on the island on the weekend of the Flower Festival; always held two weeks after Easter. Saturday’s parade brought thousands of finely attired children to the streets of Funchal, carrying the Island’s richest gift, the gift of flowers: orchids, bougainvillea, hibiscus and calla lilies, through avenues of patterned flint streets arched with deep blue Jacaranda, carrying their floral offerings to build a ‘Wall of Hope’ in the town square, the Praca do Municipio. It was delightful, colourful and fun. Kids are just great aren’t they?
The floral floats were saved for the Sunday afternoon and crowds lined the streets, cameras charged, patiently awaiting the balloon sellers and the music pronouncing the coming of the main event. About an hour before the parade was due to start, a belt of rain joined the scene - real English rain. It hammered down; people scampered for cover,
And flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere!
many already totally drenched, bustling umbrellas and diving for shop entrances and office porches with surprisingly happy smiles and friendly banter - it’s strange how camaraderie is always enhanced in times of adversity. The show was cancelled - only the second time in its history we were reliably informed, and rescheduled for the next day, Monday.
Monday came, and unbeknown to us, the parade time had been brought forward by two hours to 2pm - to avoid rain forecast for late afternoon as we later discovered. Purely by chance we arrived in time having caught a bus back to town from our walk instead of tackling the uninviting final four miles of steep downhill tracks. And yes, it was fantastic! Group after group of finely dressed dancers paraded the streets of Funchal for an hour or more in a parade drooling with floats and floral tributes to the theme of music; all dancing, singing, smiling - and flowers, flowers, flowers, everywhere! No sooner had the parade come to an end than the rain started again as forecast. And with the rain came storm-force winds that rattled our hotel windows throughout the night.
It was still
Yes, it rained, but the waterfalls were fabulous!
raining the following morning as we left our hotel for our one and only guided tour by mini-bus, on winding roads to the west and north of the island. It rained like our thirty-something driver, Bruno, had never seen it rain before. We have that effect on the places we visit! Torrential rain and dense cloud swept our path from the moment we left Funchal and floods of brown water fled the hills to take to the roads and lavadas in torrents, creating dramatic waterfalls and landslides of mud and loose rocks. Promised spectacular views were obscured by cloud, and the Paul da Serra plateau at 4000ft was totally flooded, like an inland sea! We returned to the same spot later in the week via a devious route to avoid road closures resulting from numerous landslides, to find a grassy plateau trimmed with golden gorse burgeoning under a heavenly blue sky - another day, another scene, but neither to be missed or forgotten. To the west of the island, seven metre waves lashed the shores and closed beachside restaurants, and all flights into the island were sent back home or diverted to Gran Canaria until late in the afternoon. The
experience was rewarding nevertheless. What we saw of the northern coast and the mountainous interior was truly spectacular and we vowed to return - by hire-car, as soon as the weather improved (that’s intended to be positive). Maintenance vehicles were out in force the following morning, yellow lights flashing, assessing the damage in the hills; removing rocks, mudslides and trees from across the roads, and the front page of the local Daily showed floods on the streets of Funchal.
Cruiser Liners come and go as they follow the trade winds around the Atlantic and through to the Med; though the Van Gogh came during our first week and didn’t go. She was held in the harbour for three or four days by creditors, though currently already under a new lease; much to the chagrin of her passengers no doubt. Brother Michael and his wife, Pat, came to Madeira and stayed at the Savoy Hotel on their honeymoon - more years back than they - or I, for that matter, care to remember. The original hotel is likely to be pulled down before the year is out, probably not before time; it’s too expensive to even consider refurbishment, and
there’s likely to be more profit in a new hotel cum timeshare complex - the new model will become upmarket hotel and five star + resort when it’s finally built. We visited the ‘Royal Savoy Vacation Club’, down the hill nearer the beach, built around three years ago as a timeshare complex to keep the tills ringing whilst the old place is rebuilt. We had a look around there with the timeshare guy, but it’s not our cup of tea; more big, smart hotel with long corridors than our idea of a holiday apartment. Life’s too short to sit around by the pool all day trying to catch the eye of the waiter for another gin and tonic. The story goes that Churchill came to the Savoy occasionally for afternoon tea, having become bored with the cucumber sandwiches served daily at his favoured hotel, Reids, a short way up the street. He came to the island quite regularly apparently, to paint and contemplate no doubt.
There is an English church in Funchal, a quiet, peaceful refuge for ex-pats and visitors alike. Catholic churches dominate all of the villages, their interiors finely decorative though somewhat dim and drab compared
to many on the Portuguese mainland. We are often tempted into local cemeteries, they offer space and an environment for contemplation and here there are lovingly tended fresh flowers in bloom beside silken replicas and fond photographs beside cared-for headstones, but, to be honest, I’d rather avoid them these days. I find myself comparing ages and I seem to have already outlived most of them!
For what it’s worth, my personal favourite spot on Madeira was up in the mountains to the north of Ribeira Brava beyond Serra de Agua. The sheer valleys coated in giant heathers, dramatic waterfalls and graphic mountains shrouded in cloud put one in mind of, not Madeira at all, but the Andes. At around 5,500ft, Pico do Arieero provided us with one of the most stunning and enigmatic scenes of our tour; jagged volcanic peaks poked their heads above the swirling clouds to greet the sunshine and many weary walkers trudged the steep incline at the end of their six-hour hike across the mountains. We know our limitations, but Hans and Gerda had fought the thousands of steps on their first day and lived to tell the tale of awesome views and aching limbs.
We did take time out to search for a few target birds, the endemics, with some success. It helps if you know where to go, and we sought advice from a young warden at the Ecological Park. A delightful little Madeira Firecrest (Regulus madeirensis) had been spotted close to the path on our 25 fountains walk the previous day, and we had seen Berthelot’s pipits and rock sparrows earlier in the week at the eastern end of the island, but the warden suggested a few areas to search for other species. With his guidance it didn’t take us long to find a few Spectacled warblers amongst the gorse in the park, though we had to wait patiently at first light in the chill mountain air for forty minutes to see the Laurel Pigeon! There were Canaries everywhere as you might expect.
Oh, yes; that climate we talked about earlier. Temperatures on Madeira rarely drop below 18C or exceed 24C according to reports, making this a most wonderful place to spend a spring, summer, autumn or/& winter! But don’t reach for your swimming costume just yet; there are no beaches on Madeira. For sand to go with your swim
Camara de Lobos
Remnants of a fishing fleet
and your gin and tonic you’ll have to take the morning ferry to the little island of Porto Santo, 37Km to the northeast. For all that, it was 27C when we finally left Madeira on Thursday, fitter perhaps for the long and rewarding walks and stronger in mind for yet more new experiences. They tell us the weather was pretty grim in the UK whilst we’ve been away, so, if you’ve not yet visited this wonderful little island, it’s time you followed in our footsteps. Go on; spoil yourselves!
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
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