I have to say that Madeira is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It’s kind of raw and unspoiled in the interior and the coastal areas feel quite refined and not particularly bothered by the “here-we-go” mob.
We flew over on British Airways from Gatwick on one of the May Bank Holidays, having set off from home at what we thought was a nice early time, which would allow plenty of opportunity to use the BA Exec Club lounge to grab free drinks and lunch, however as the M25 is the M25 we ended up arriving at Gatwick so late that we pretty much had to run straight through and get on the plane.
At the other end, Madeira’s airport is small, easy to deal with, uncluttered and rather spectacular. Basically, Madeira doesn’t have enough flat land anywhere to build a runway big enough for modern commercial jets. The original runway was built by cutting a chunk out of the side of a headland to make enough for a short runway and some terminal buildings. To make the runway longer, they had to start building a raised concrete platform which spans towards the next headland, with rather dramatic effect.
The area beneath the big concrete pillars of the runway extension provides handy extra space for car parking and similar airport-related services.
Back at the plot, we’d rented a car (a VW Golf, I think) from the airport and had booked a hotel in Funchal for our week, but otherwise had pretty much no plans other than to explore.
So in no particular order :
We spent an amount of time just meandering around in Funchal. Well, we would, wouldn’t we, given that we were staying there?
It’s a moderately busy place and ranks as the sixth-largest city in Portugal, according to wikipedia (well, depending on which page you read, it’s somewhere between the fifth- and seventh- largest). It’s still only inhabited by half as many people as our home town of Milton Keynes though.
One of the things limiting Funchal’s expansion is, I guess, the fact that there isn’t a single square foot of flat land in the place. It’s a harbour at the base of some quite dramatic hills, and the stretch of coastline that isn’t cliffs is only a few hundred metres long, so there isn’t a lot of room.
There are plenty of hotels, what with this being the main centre of tourism on a very touristy island, but it doesn’t fall into the “tacky” category at all. Sure, there’s a range of hotels to suit different pockets, but there doesn’t seem to be the culture of hedonism that you get a bit further north and east in the Spanish Mediterranean. More of a magnet for the (cough) cultured traveller, seeking some history and some scenery as well as some beer and warm weather.
We ate in Funchal most nights, mainly by taking a walk out and finding somewhere we liked the look of.
One day we drove into the mountains looking for some levadas. These are open water courses that were built some time ago to transport water for agriculture and human consumption from the wetter north and west of the island to the drier south and east. There’s loads of them seemingly everywhere, and many of them have decent quality walking paths alongside, so they can be used for a bit of hiking through the mountains. They run at relatively shallow gradients, which is rare for Madeira, so they allow you to access some of the most dramatic bits of scenery without having to climb steep hills.
We didn’t really plan the day in any great detail, so we more or less headed up to the plateau at the top and drove around a bit looking for little walks we could do relatively easily. The scenery up there is great. The local climate in Madeira often means that the lower parts are surrounded by cloud whilst the upper parts are in bright sunshine. It wasn’t quite like that the day we went – at least it wasn’t by the time we got there – but it’s a terrific view from any of the multiple lay bys along the main road.
As we didn’t spend long walking we were able to meander a little bit in the car, so rather than just going straight home we went down to Cama de Lobos to visit Henriques and Henriques, one of the larger bottlers of Madeira wine. They allowed us to sample a few and I ended up buying a full case, which we had shipped back to the UK, as we wouldn’t have been able to carry them through the airports. They do a variety of styles, from the very driest to the very sweetest. All were very nice indeed, but I tend to buy alcohol to consume rather than as an investment, so not very much of that case lasted beyond Christmas. In fact, not very many of it lasted beyond the summer.
The Full Monte
The settlement at Monte was, by all accounts, originally established as a set of summer retreats for the wealthy of Funchal. The higher altitude means it’s a bit cooler. I guess it goes to show how limited in scope things used to be compared to today. Monte is 560m above sea level but is all of 4km from the centre of Funchal. So it’s not so much of a summer retreat, it’s more of an upper floor level.
To get there now you can use the Funchal Cable Car to climb from the harbour right into the middle of Monte. This replaced a previous (and long-since defunct) funicular railway, and had only been open for about 18 months when we were there.
When you get to Monte, there’s a number of things to go and have a look at. The most obvious is the fairly striking Church of Our Lady, a white painted church at the top of a seemingly unending set of steps. There are also a number of ornate gardens, some of which are open to the public. We went into the gardens of the Monte Palace Hotel, which are freely available to access.
To get back down again we decided to go “full on” with the tourist stuff, i.e. we got into one of the wicker-basket toboggans and had ourselves pushed back down. These really are weird. It’s basically a wicker basket sled that slides down over the tarmac with relative ease, especially on the steep downhills. It was a bit hair-raising but had to be done.
We went up to the Botanical Gardens one afternoon. Like Monte, it’s on the side of the hills above the centre of Funchal.
It was a slightly grey, cloudy afternoon the day we went there, which helped to suppress the heat a little bit. The gardens themselves are an interesting mix of formal and informal gardens with various planting themes and the whole thing is made more dramatic by there being a clear view right down over the centre of Funchal and the harbour.
Pico Ruivo is a towering 1,861m high, and on a clear day from the top you can more or less see the whole island. The day we went wasn’t quite clear. We had the fairly common local conditions of it being foggy at low level and clear higher up, which really gives the impression that the sea is made of cotton wool that gently rolls up and down the mountainside.
We started our walk after driving up to Pico do Arieiro. It seemed the easiest way as it’s straight uphill from Funchal. Other car parks are a bit higher up or have an easier walk to the top, but all of those involve driving most of the way around the island at nearer to sea level. So Pico do Arieiro it was. The dirve up exposed us to the very worst elements of Portuguese (sorry for the stereotyping) driving. We got overtaken around blind corners on several occasions. People completely ignored the solid lines up the middle of the road and also ignored the posted speed limit, which is roughly the speed we were going all the way up. Ho hum! I guess when we got to the top we had both the physical and the moral high-ground.
The walk was really dramatic. There is a prepared pathway most of the way along. This makes the footing more secure but doesn’t take away the changes of altitude. The path is pretty much of a roller-coaster than runs along the highest ridge line, and crosses each mountain peak. So it’s very uppy-downy. On the route from Pico Ruivo to Achada do Teixeira we either lost the proper footpath, or it was a bit that hadn’t been prepared, as we were scrambling across a scree slope. That part felt a little unsafe, but thankfully it was a warm, clear day, so visibility was good and there was no chance of wind or rain making the footing worse.
Achada do Teixeira is another peak where you can drive nearly to the top. One advantage of this is that there’s a cafe at the top, and hence somewhere to turn our bikes round, and to get drinks and snacks. I think we’d taken some food up with us but it was nice to get a fresh drink to accompany it while we sat and admired the scenery.
The walk back was much like the walk out, only a bit slower and, well, the other way around. The car was where we’d left it.
We had another day where we walked out as far as possible along the peninsula on the far north-eastern corner of the island. There’s a car park at the end of a very long, thin peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic in an easterly direction. It’s about 3km out but feels like it’s much further because the terrain is quite uneven (even on the prepared pathway) – it’s another one that goes up and down quite a lot. There’s also no services out there, so you have to carry all the food and drinks that you’re going to need on the way.
You can’t quite reach the end, because the noggin that has the lighthouse on it is separated from the main island. It must be entertaining trying to supply the lighthouse, if it is manned, because there doesn’t appear to be a heliport, so everything that goes there must go on small boats – and there doesn’t seem to be a particularly good harbour or landing stage.
Anyway, this day was warm and completely clear, so it was quite a draining walk, but very worthy of the effort. The views were wonderful.
The Northern Coast
On our final day, we drove around the northern coastline, where the scenery is very dramatic and they had some trouble fitting in a proper road.
The northern coast is characterised by there being even less flat land than the south coast. There are some of Europe’s highest cliffs, and there are only a few rather small settlements nestling at the base of them.
At the very north-western corner is the village of Porto Moniz, which has a little beach of black sand and a complex of little lava pools (pools in an old lava deposit, rather than bubbling molten rock). If you take new coast road into Porto Moniz driving east along the coast there’s a series of little offshoots around the old road wherever the new road takes a tunnel through the various rocky headlands. The old road was built along a route where there was basically not enough room for a road. They evidently had to cut a shelf in the side of the cliff to make the road. It was twisty and narrow and at a couple of points there are waterfalls that cascade off the cliff across the road. This bit is obviously the route that tourists take, and because of the narrowness, it is now (thankfully) only accessible when driving east to west.
We meandered around Porto Moniz for a while, plodged in the lava pools and on the beach, grabbed an ice cream, and made our way home. It was a very peaceful spot. Not much in the way of nightlife, but peaceful, which was what we wanted on this trip. It was another nice day, but the northern coast felt a bit fresher than the south, so we were happily soaking up a few last-day rays whilst pondering the need to go back home the following day.
The trip home was uneventful, as these things should be. The car was where we left it, and the house also was.