I think we have landed in paradise! We have been in Madeira for two weeks in the main city of Funchal with a population of 110,000 and have had non stop sunshine and 20C temperatures. We have a comfortable apartment on a hill above the city with the bus stop, small grocery and a wonderful bakery right outside our door – or it is a 30 minute walk straight downhill to the centre of town.
Madeira (that means “wood” in Portuguese - that suits Madeira Park as well, given our forests) was discovered the island in 1418; it became famous for producing sugar, wine and embroideries – plus artisans who weave willow baskets, chairs, etc.
Though what we have seen of the island is jaw dropping gorgeous with its soaring peaks, green terraced hills, sub-tropical plants, red tiled roofs and blue ocean as far as you can see, Funchal is not really our usual “cup of tea”. Most days, enormous cruise ships come into port, disgorging thousands of people into the city looking for tours, food, etc. We laugh because all of us are dressed for Summer in our shorts and bright shirts while the Portuguese are dressed for winter in fur vests, long pants and coats!
We have been struck with the changes in Portuguese society in the ten years since we were last in this country (though never on Madeira). Gone are the school uniforms, the strict, closely monitored behaviour between young men and women (to the point that on Sunday evenings, they had to walk on opposite sides of the street). Today, teens look as they do everywhere: jeans, hoodies, bare midriffs and lots of making out on the street. The mainland is perhaps less affluent than it is here – there were never many vehicles and what there were, were old. Here the city is filled with late model, high end cars and everyone seems to be driving.
We have really taken advantage of our bus passes and have ridden all over the south of the island. It is a terrifying endeavour as the bus drivers scream along the narrow, winding mountain roads weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, avoiding parked cars, and negotiating steep hills and corners lacking guard rails. Grabbing the window seat in the bus is sometimes a little too nerve wracking.
We took an hour long bus to Baí d’Abra to do the popular hike on the São Lourenço peninsula. We were shocked when we rode UNDER the airport runway that is supported only by 180 cement pillars spanning two gullies, right beside the ocean! The landscape for the hike is much like parts of Arizona, with dry scrub brush, no trees, stunning rock formations in hues of red, black, tan and brown, all surrounded by open ocean. Our main objective for coming to Madeira was to try to get our hiking legs back after six months living in the flatlands of Germany! We read the word “easy” in the write up so thought this would be a good start. However, it turned out to be a gruelling 3+ hour hike, mostly either straight up or straight down with the final ascent up to Morro do Furado almost 100 meters up narrow stairs to a ragged peak.
The big advantage to being in a larger, touristy town is the array of entertainment/activities available. We took the gondola from the harbour for 3 km over the the city up to the village of Monte. Here uniformed sledge drivers pull passengers 2 km down hill into the village in wicker basket toboggans (one of the original forms of transportation on the island). It is very touristy, naturally, but fun to watch. From there we took another gondola down to the botanical gardens, a huge space snaking down the terraced mountainside and hosting 2,000 exotic plants from all over the world. The English Church hosts music concerts every night of the week – everything from classical to rock to Fado. Fado is traditional Portuguese music, usually with a melancholic theme and accompanied by a mandolin &/or a classical guitar. We lucked out, choosing the Fado that was sung by an effervescent young woman with an astounding voice. She spoke good English, as do many Portuguese, so could explain the music to us.
Speaking of Portuguese speaking good English, we asked a young server where he had learned to speak such good “American English”. He told us “MTV! I was too lazy to read subtitles so I forced myself to learn English”.
One sad footnote is that the island has had its share of tragedies: in 2012 floods and mudslides killed 32 people who are now all buried in the same area of the cemetery; in 2016, wildfires raged to the outskirts of the main city of Funchal. You can see the charred remains on the hills over the city and many of the famous levada walks have been closed.
We are now off to stay on the other side of the island at São Vincente for two weeks. We have received reports that we will be in the mountains so could experience much cooler, less sunny weather. Hope that is a myth, but will post about that experience next time.