The islands that make up the Madeira archipelago are Madeira, Porto Santo, Desertas and the Savage Islands; they lie 520 km off the coast of Africa and 1,000 km from Portugal. They were completely uninhabited when the Portuguese explorer Henry the Navigator ‘rediscovered’ them in 1420. Islands in that general vicinity appear on very old maps so the consensus is that the Portuguese were not the first peoples aware of their existence. However, they were the first territorial discovery during the initial exploratory period of the Portuguese ‘Age of Discovery’.
The largest island, claiming 93% of the archipelago’s land mass was completely covered with laurisilva and these forests inspired the name ‘Madeira’, the Portuguese word for ‘wood’. The island is a rugged rock rising from the Atlantic with over 90% of its land mass higher than 500m above sea level. The climate is mild throughout the year due to the moderating influences of the Gulf Stream. Within a year, settlers arrived on Madeira and they began to eke out a living by clearing the land for agriculture but primarily depending on the sea for survival.
The first crops were vegetables and then wheat for local consumption, but eventually surplus wheat was exported to Portugal. When wheat production started to diminish, Henry the Navigator introduced a new crop to the island and it flourished in the Mediterranean-like climate. The plant was unknown in Europe and produced what came to be known as ‘sweet salt’, a new spice. The plant was sugarcane. Slaves were brought in to work on the estates until sugar production shifted to Brazil after the 17th century and then winemaking became Madeira’s chief export.
Some areas of Madeira are very wet and others very dry, so in the 16th century, the Portuguese started building lavadas (aqueducts) to carry water to the southern part of the island. Many were cut into the sides of mountains and 40 km of tunnels were dug by slaves and prisoners as well; some are still accessible. Today the over 2,000 aqueducts continue to provide water and, in some cases, hydroelectric power to the south. Hikers come from all over the world to walk along the lavadas though in some areas they are very narrow and crumble dangerously.
Two years after the democratic revolution in Portugal, Madeira was made an autonomous region on July 2, 1976. The region now has its own government and legislative assembly. The census put the population of the island archipelago at just under 250,000 in 2009.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
The island is small and much of it is inaccessible so we planned to stay put, relax and I promised myself that I would get my writing about NYC and Ireland done. It was a tough slog, but I did it, with a day to spare. We had some rainy weather and then the second last day a torrential downpour! It was an amazing storm to watch, lots of flooding in the city below us but we were 'high and dry'. We learned later that 10 houses were destroyed, but at least it wasn't as bad as in Feb 2010 when over 40 people died.
We were very comfortable in the hotel but due to the weather, I didn’t even make it to the outdoor swimming pool. There were lots of other guests sunning themselves on the pool deck, but just across the road, a new building is being constructed and the sounds of the crane loading steel girders did not seem very inviting to me. We preferred to stay in our room, or in the lobby where we had good wireless access. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the signal in our room, something that happens a lot here in Portugal.
I managed to finish my last Ireland journal entry just before we were due to check out so we decided to walk into town and have a look around. The skies were clear and the warm tropical breezes were blowing. The terrain in Funchal is very steep so we chose to ride the sightseeing bus to pass the time and see a little bit more of the city than we could cover on foot. We were able to do two different tours for the price of one so we passed almost three hours quite comfortably.
On the second tour, we rounded one of the cliffs on the island and passed into another valley, a neighbour of Funchal’s. The entire island has deep crevasses that plunge down to the sea and most of the communities are built at the sea end of the valleys. We rounded the bend into the quaint village of Câmara De Lobos (Chamber of the Wolves). It was more old-fashioned and it would have been nice to wander around for a while, but just as we arrived a passing cloud decided to spray us with a fine drizzle and we carried on with the tour, back to the sunshine in the capital.
I kept thinking that Funchal was a strange sounding name for a city, but then I read that it’s the Portuguese word for ‘fennel’. The settlers found fennel growing profusely in the heavily forested areas and chose the name for their new home. As the population grew, so did the city until it now reaches 1,200 metres up along the gentle slopes above the harbour. The ride to the airport was hair-raising, it was one thing to come down into the city when we arrived, but quite another to climb, and climb and climb around plenty of hairpin turns. What made it especially scary was that we were seated right behind the driver and he didn’t slow down for a second.
We arrived safely at the airport and then were pleased to learn that we were put on an earlier flight that saved us an almost two hour wait at the airport. It seems the big storm that hit Madeira had carried on to Portugal and caused heavy fog, disrupting and delaying many flights in and out of Lisbon. They did explain that they were going to be flying with one crewmember less than normal so they wouldn’t be able to have the regular meal service. Instead we were handed a packed lunch at the gate. Worked for me.
We had a bit of turbulence on landing and I turned to Anil telling him that I hoped the missing crewmember wasn’t the co-pilot. We landed safely and joined the queue for a taxi to our hotel a short distance away. Our driver drove like a maniac and I felt more unsafe that I had landing. We had another surprise waiting for us in front of the hotel.
When we pulled up, we saw that one of the lanes on the street had been closed off and a police officer directed us into the left lane. I noticed bleachers set up against the wall, spilling onto the street where we normally would have been driving. The bleachers were filled with people with blankets over their knees and they were looking up at the building where our hotel is located. I noticed that some of the balconies were lit up with coloured lights and there were a few people standing on them.
The taxi pulled up in front of the hotel and Anil asked the driver what the fare totaled. We couldn’t see the meter because he had pulled the passenger seat fully forward and hung his coat on the back of the seat. He told us the fare was 35 euros for what should have been a 6-euro ride. Luckily, we knew better because we had taken a taxi the morning when we first arrived in Lisbon. We got out and he started pulling out our luggage telling us it was a big SUV therefore it should be more.
As it turned out, there was a play being performed on the balconies of our hotel to celebrate the combined 41st anniversary of the hotel and the theatre next door. Without knowing it, we had inadvertently become part of the play when I told the driver that I was going into the hotel to call the staff out to settle the matter. He quickly dropped the price to 15 euros, but Anil handed him a 10-euro note and walked away. He must have been worried about the police officer being called over, so sped off before much more could be said or done.
Why are airport taxi drivers such rip-off artists all over the world? What a rude ending to such a great break in Madeira. We walked into the hotel to start our third stay there and felt like we were at home in a way. The staff remembered us from our previous visits and that’s something when you think of how many rooms there are in the big city hotel. It was good to be home…and better still, we learned that they had started providing wireless access throughout the entire hotel while we were gone.
When I logged on…what did I see? The slogan ‘It’s good to be home…’ right there on the home page. Couldn’t agree more!