Malcolm and Tracy in Madeira


Monday 14th June 1999
Madeira (a long way off the coast, south west of Portugal).


Having decided to take this trip on Thursday night, booking it on Saturday and leaving on Monday, we had little choice of the departure airport so Monday morning found us making the long haul to Luton.

It took only another 3 hours to get to Funchal airport on the island of Madeira. Our late booking was with Thomson's Holidays so we were subject to the unfamiliar shepherding by a Thomson's rep and were whisked off to our 4 star hotel in the 'Hotel District' of Funchal. This is not our preferred choice of accommodation being far to polished for our tastes but we were not about to complain.

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View from hotel room.jpg (6944 bytes) Outside our window the sea is a short walk away whilst all about us more hotels are sprouting like concrete carbuncles in the quiet farming land (oops, I suppose we are helping to fuel this frenzy). On the other side of the wall to our marbled hotel a couple of very small dwelling are surrounded by makeshift extensions and small banana plantations.

Walking along the road in search of our evening meal we are put off by restaurateurs trying to lure us in and head off down to the sea. We come across a small quiet restaurant overlooking the rocky beach and sit on the little terrace listening to the waves breaking gently on the rocks as we eat wonderful meals of octopus and tuna. What the restaurant lacked in aesthetics it made up for in the quality of the grub. The sun set over the Atlantic as we finished our meal and drank our wine. After a short walk along the sea front we turned in for the night.

Tuesday 15th June 1999

The next morning we rushed our extravagant continental style breakfast to meet up with the Thomson rep again. This turned out to be a repetition of the following afternoons talk on the bus but sweetened by a glass of Bolo Madeira.

Walking into town we visited the 'Sta Catrina Park' and Municipal gardens. It would seem that the Madeirans are as keen on gardening as the British but then there is much British influence here as we find out later when we visited the Blandy's wine lodge.

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Funchal centre.jpg (7817 bytes) Our tums tell us it is time for lunch so we find a small cafe where a simple omelet turns out to be a full blown meal. We haul our stomachs out of the cafe and head for the market which is full of flowers on the ground floor, fruit on the first and fish out the back. Here we see the Espada (Black Scabbard) fish that we heard about before. It is eel like at one and a half times the length of an arm, black and features large saucer like eyes and a huge set of jaws inset with sharp teeth. It's a scary creature so we decide to eat it later.
A short walk away is the sea front where we walk back towards our hotel. This is not a seaside town, probably because of the rocky shore but the place has a certain charm to it. The whole of the island seems to be mountain stretching from the shore up into the clouds. All around the town the slopes are covered with terra-cotta tiles topping the whitewashed walls of private houses. Further up, the green slopes disappear into the clouds. All about, tropical plants add many splashes of colour to the streets. Funchal sea front.jpg (8245 bytes)
Blandys wine lodge.jpg (11231 bytes) The Blandy's wine lodge resulted from the merging of four Madeira wineries all of them started by British families. We went on the tour of the wine lodge and discovered that Madeira wine obtained its current form when it was found (by accident) that the wine lasted better when subjected to heat whilst in the oak casks. This, combined with the fortification with brandy or wine alcohol gave it longevity for transport purposes and other desirable attributes such as alcoholic strength, full body and colour. The tour was well worth the 500 escudos if only for the glasses of Madeira wine both before and after.

Following a swim in the hotel pool we dined on bread, cheese, ham, olives and wine which compensated somewhat for our large lunch. Downstairs a Lambada show was getting under way so we took our glasses of wine and went off to see. The barman complained that we had to buy something from his bar to sit in his area so we forked out enough for a bottle of Madeira which somehow fitted into two small glasses, just in time to see the show finish. Bugger!

Wednesday 16th June 1999

Down in town we sought out the bus to the Jardim Botanico which turned out to be a pretty good botanical gardens although I guess they do have an ideal climate for growing most plants from around the world. We spent most of the day ambling around the colourful, aromatic gardens. As usual, the morning clouds gave way to another sunny afternoon. After our lunch of the remainder of the bread and cheese we spied out the white peacocks that had been crying out all morning. Very unusual.

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Just down the road we found the Jardim Orquidea (Orchid Garden) which provided another welcome retreat from the noisy city. Here we learned just how difficult it is to cultivate orchids with sterile and temperature controlled conditions required to germinate the minute seeds. And it was all worth it for they produced a wonderful display. Orchids.jpg (12322 bytes)
Flowering cactus.jpg (11364 bytes) There seems to be no flat land in this city. Almost so that some people can walk out of their back door onto their neighbors roof. Despite the difficulties of building on steep slopes they seem to have made a good job of it and even maintain their dwellings in good condition which is unusual for southern European countries. All in all the inhabitants of Funchal seem to be quite well off which is perhaps surprising considering that the main industry is tourism (followed by Madeira wine). It may have something to do with all the Deuchmarks that seem to be flooding into the country. Strangely enough all the cars that we have seen so far are almost all recent models. I wonder what happens to all the old cars. Mobile phones seem to be as popular here as back home.

For dinner we revisited the restaurant 'Tora De Polvo' where we ate the first night. We took our favoured table on the balcony overlooking the sea so that we again could listen to the waves breaking on the rocky beach. We both decide to try out the famed espada, the long black eel like fish with huge eyes and lots of teeth. Fortunately it does not look much like this on the plate but tastes strangely like cod, especially considering that it came in batter and with chips (albeit garlic chips). All washed down with a bottle of Portuguese red wine, excellent.

Thursday 22nd June. Out of Funchal.

Today we walked a different route into the centre taking in the Quinta Magnolia (public gardens with swimming, tennis and squash) and some of the back streets. They don't seem cramped for space here with most of the residences being detached houses with gardens. Many of the houses are quite large and surrounded by gardens which often contain small plantations of bananas, vines and sometimes sugar cane. There are few flat blocks outside the centre of town and heaps of hotels.

We make it to the bus stop by 11:45 to catch the 138 bus to Santana on the north side of the island. Santana is only about 14 miles away but the bus is scheduled to take 2.5 hours to get there and we soon see why as we start to climb up the steep winding roads. It would have been fun to ascend into the clouds but today the sky's are clear and we can see the clouds way out over the ocean. Many of the indoor plants we buy from the garden centre seem to grow here in the wild. Of the ones I can name (or think I can) are Agapanthus, crocosmia, ‘bird of paradise’, lilies including Calla lily, many geraniums and cactus, orchids and a great many other that I can't name. Porto da Cruz2.jpg (7159 bytes)
Northern coastline.jpg (5887 bytes) The whole island seems to be covered in splashes of colour. The bus takes us through forests of pine and eucalyptus (from Australia) with magnificent views of rocky peaks and deep valleys. There are a few farming settlements inland with their crops clinging to the sides of the mountain in little terraces with sub terraces within them to top the water just flowing down the hill. It looks like a tough type of farming with most machinery impractical on the slopes it's all down to manual toil.
Wild flowers.jpg (18019 bytes) Thatched cottage.jpg (18637 bytes)Santana turned out to be a nice quiet little town in much the same style as the outskirts of Funchal. There is a pleasant shortage of cars with those few that are around all being new. We eat our lunch of bread and cheese in a little garden with a fountain near the centre of town and head off to find the shore. We are soon side-tracked by what appears to be one of the levadas that run all around the island. These are little concrete channels, perhaps only one foot wide and deep, that carry water from the mountains springs to irrigate the farm land and perhaps even for household water supplies. We have heard that the paths that run by the side make good walking tracks so we head off down it to see what will happen. The path takes us through fields of sugar cane, vines, potatoes, strawberries and past farming houses before leading back to the road.
There is a derelict cottage at the crossroads of the old style which looks like a thatched cottage but without the walls. The thatch goes right down to the ground making a triangular little house with a wide downstairs room and a very small upstairs room. There are a few of these houses still in use but most have been replaced by the larger modern buildings with white vertical walls and sloping roofs of terra-cotta tiles. Derelict cottage.jpg (13426 bytes)
Calla lily.jpg (8459 bytes) Farmland (Santana2).jpg (6052 bytes)We make another attempt to reach the coast down a small track. Down here we meet few friendly old farmers, one lady tries to tell us al about the plants growing in her field but she soon gives up with a smile and a little giggle. The path seems to peter out at a large water cistern full of croaking frogs and very little water. The frogs quickly hide with great success in the thin layer of mud in the bottom. Meanwhile, the path seems to slope rapidly down to what we suspect is a cliff.

Back in town we find a small hotel (Colmo) where we decide to stay the night. This is a much nicer place than Funchal and we don't want to go back. The second and last daily bus goes back to Funchal at 17:45 without us.

For dinner we try out the renowned 'espetada' which turns out to be kebab and chips.

Friday 18th June 1999

Farmland (Santana).jpg (11549 bytes) After breakfast we check out of the hotel, pick up some lunch and head off to find some scenic walks. We take the high road this time to get the panoramic views and find ourselves climbing very steep roads towards the mountains. There are very few cars on the roads, mostly Nissan Micras hired by tourists or open trucks that the farmers use to get their produce to market. We stop to watch the people working the fields by hand and channelling water from the levadas onto their fields and down the terraces to water the crops. The only agricultural machinery we have seen so far is one tractor.

Further up the road is lined with what looks like willow twigs tied into bundles and leant against frames by the side of the road. There are so many that it looks like fences between the road and field. Even further up people are soaking the twigs to get the bark off and then tying them into bundles. Perhaps they are used for making baskets but we do not see any evidence of this.

The road continues to climb steeply up the mountain and we follow it until a levada crosses its path and we head down this for an easier walk. The path follows the contour of the mountain and provides numerous vistas out across the forest of pine and eucalyptus trees and out to the sea. It is not often that the only sounds about are those of the birds singing, flies buzzing, water gurgling and wind rustling the trees. Even the sky is clear blue with white clouds, not like the murky brown sky we get back home.

Further on the path is closed due to levada works'. They seem to be laying a water pipe next to the levada (?) so we cannot continue that way. We stop for a snack and to absorb the relaxing atmosphere before proceeding along the levada on the other side of the road. This also peters out so we head into the forest where the smells of eucalyptus and pine are strong.

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We find a delightful little spot under a tree with a wonderful view to stop and eat lunch.

All too soon we have found our way back into town and stop for a coffee in one of the many un-populated cafes dotted across the hillside. Our 17:30 bus leaves soon so we make our way to meet it.

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The bus makes its way slowly back along the winding roads into the mountains. Houses and crops cling unbelievably to the steep mountain slopes. Soon we enter the clouds that have built up around the mountain tops and then break through to the sunshine above. As the views above the clouds stretch out magnificently behind us the bus falters and stops. Everyone piles out while the driver runs back down the hill to get help from the last settlement we passed through. We sat on the wall by the road watching the clouds wash round the mountain tops like the tides of the sea on the shore for about an hour until another bus came along to rescue us. The rest of the journey is scenic but uneventful. Above the clouds.jpg (5961 bytes)

Saturday 19th June 1999. The lazy day

The whole morning at the pool, staying in the shade to safeguard our red bits. Afternoon coffee at our favourite coffee house, strangely named 'tea time' and off to Camara de Lobos, a couple of clicks west along the coast, for dinner. A slightly quieter and poorer version of Funchal, this is where Winston Churchill used to go to paint and not to miss out on a capital opportunity there is a restaurant named 'The Winston Churchill'. Down by the pebbly beach (and we are talking megga pebbles) there is a small locals bar where we stop for a beer or three (no Bacardi) and watch the sun go down over the children playing in the sea. A cheese and ham toastie at a cafe up the cliff and its on the next bus back to Funchal. Camara de Lobos.jpg (14350 bytes)

Sunday 20th June 1999

We stepped into the 15th century as we boarded the Santa Maria at the marina for it is a fully functional replica of the galleon that Christopher Columbus sailed round the world. This version, built in Camara de Lobos, has the additions of a bar, toilet and diesel engine to avoid those 'becalmed' moments. Looking fore.jpg (15173 bytes) Looking aft.jpg (15282 bytes)
Below deck.jpg (7743 bytes) With 5 appropriately dressed crew and about 40 passengers we motored easily out of the marina and along the coast to Camara de Lobos. It is hard to imagine setting sail for such epic voyages on a ship only 22m long by 7m wide. The crew must have had lots of patience or lots of rum for calm days like today when the wind hardly flapped the sails. Below the main deck were only three hammocks and a few examples of timber and tools. There was a sheltered area in the bow and a large cabin in the stern which housed the bar and tables. Above this was another cabin probably used by old Chris.
It is an amasing (that it ever traveled so far) ship and a wonderful opportunity to sail in her and to see the craftsmanship that went into building the replica in what looks like minute detail. I can't imagine traveling very far before getting either bored out of my mind whilst becalmed or scared to death in a storm. With a draft of 2.74m and a total height of abut 10m it is surprising it ever stays upright even without the masts, sails and a bit of wind. When they did put the sails up, the gentle breeze made it sway around quite allot and we did not even get anywhere. The crew served Madeira wine and cake just before we went back to the marina. Crows nest.jpg (11002 bytes)

After a quick visit to our favourite coffee house we took a dip in the ocean where our mask and snorkel revealed a few tropical fish.

For the evening, we nipped down to the Casino Park Hotel where we tucked into a four course meal and watched a rather good cabaret.

Monday 21st June 1999. Last day.

Not wanting to miss out on anything we used up our last few hours on the island by visiting the Tropical Palace Gardens (Jardim) at Monte. Having been a private house and then a hotel, it is now a rather nice gardens. I was particularly interested to see the Madeiran endemic section because many plants on the island seem to have been imported by the early settlers. Considering the display it would seem that the extent of the original flora was quite limited with only a few laurels, cedars, ferns and the Madeiran daisy. Thankfully the imported plants have added great splashes of colour to the island. The gardens also had large sections of Japanese appearance including many coy carp ponds and Japanese statues, pagodas and bridges. Japanese garden.jpg (15462 bytes)
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We skipped the 'traditional toboggan' ride where a wicker chair on greased wooden runners is skidded down the hill.

All in all, Madeira is a lovely place to visit although if we came again we would book the flight only and stay only a couple of days in Funchal. The rest of the island seems much more appealing than the noisy, smelly city full of hotel developments and many other tourists.


Travelogues by Malcolm Weller