Unexpected Magic in Madeira:
Two trips to Portugal already this year, I perhaps should have learnt to expect the unexpected. Having found rice fields in the Alentejo, ancient rock carvings at Foz Coa and a Flintstone-like village built in between the boulders at Monsanto, you might have thought I’d realise that Portugal is the land of the unexpected. But, arriving at Funchal airport in Madeira, after a three-hour flight from London, there was a bizarre moment when I had flashbacks to my childhood in Malaysia.
It was warm and humid even in December. Sub-tropical forests cover the volcanic slopes of the island. Sugar cane, avocados, pineapples and bananas all grow on the terraced farmlands and even when the clouds descend and it rains, the gardens are alight, a blaze of colourful flowers.
Madeira lies some 900 km South West of Lisbon, in the North Atlantic. The main island of Madeira is part of an archipelago which includes the island of Porto Santo and the Desertas Islands. It was first claimed by the Portuguese crown in 1418, at a time when the island was uninhabited and densely wooded. In fact, the name given to the island means wood in Portuguese. Populated only by birds, the Portuguese settlers had to clear the land (a process that was at least partly by controlled fires over a seven-year period) and build a complex network of deep drains and canals, levadas, to drain the slopes and bring water to those parts of the island that had none. While the climate may be clement with averages all the year round between 17 and 25c, the terrain is mountainous with steep cliffs leading down to the sea.
Our recent trip was based in Funchal, the main City on the island. And while we spent much of the time learning more about the spa facilities offered by hotels in Funchal, which appear to be almost a de facto requirement, a trek out to the mountains gave us some insight into the way of life of the people of Madeira. There seemed to be a lot of a local cocktail involved, Poncha. It’s traditionally made with the local sugar cane rum, aguadente de cana, honey, sugar and lemon juice and rind mixed together to make a really delicious and rather lethal drink.
There was a similar insight into the life of the settlers on Madeira as we toured the Madeira Winery and were shown a goatskin sack that would have been the main method of transporting wine across the mountains. Our guide claimed that the farmers would set off with a full sack and gradually drink the content so that when they arrived in Funchal it would be half empty.
Transport was also by toboggan. We took the cable car to the top of Monte, the hill just on the outskirts of Funchal with the plan of travelling down by traditional toboggans pushed and pulled by two locals. It was just a little misty when we started from the top, that kind of drizzle that makes you damp but not wet. But, within two minutes a tropical storm started. Behind us, we could hear the guides trying to hold the ropes attached to the wickerwork toboggan crying ‘Sante Maria…Sante Maria’ as they tried to stop us from tumbling down the slope. The road was a river within seconds and, dressed in jeans and a light top, I arrived drenched from head to toe. Definitely an experience, but I’d hope that any normal visitor would pick a sunny day if they want to attempt the toboggan run.
Spa facilities aside, Madeira has a fascinating heritage. The island is heavily fortified, originally to protect it from pirates and at one time at the end of the 15th century it was the world’s largest producer of sugar, both from cane and from a type of sugar beet that was brought from Sicily in the 1400s. The island still grows some sugar cane and beet, together with a seemingly borderless selection of fruit and vegetables brought to the island by the Portuguese who populated the lands during their own greatest period of exploration. Food and drink is excellent, with menus, like much of Portugal, dominated by fish. And, dining out is remarkably good value with top restaurants offering main courses at around 15 euros and with poncha in local bars at around 2 to 3 euros a glass.
Given the climate, the wealth of leisure activities and the food, it’s not surprising that the island of Madeira welcomes over a million visitors to the island each year. It’s an all year round destination, in December it was warm enough to need sun-cream and not to need a jacket. Perhaps for that reason, except in certain parts of Funchal, the Island doesn’t feel too overwhelmed by tourists. Or perhaps that is just part of the magic of Madeira, a quirky, nearly tropical island that serves up a Caribbean style experience Portuguese style.
I was a guest of the Madeira Promotion Bureau and the Portuguese Tourist Board
For more information about Madeira please check the Visit Madeira website
I stayed at Quintinha de Sao Joao
TAP Portugal has a daily flight from London Heathrow to Madeira, prices start at £169 return including all taxes. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0845 601 0932.