Portugal and the Madeira Flower Festival travel blog

Arriving by ferry to Porto Santo - my resort is huge building...

View from my balcony, Porto Santo

Beach, Porto Santo

In Vila Baleira - a view worth framing

Town hall and dragon trees, Vila Baleira

Celebrating the birth of Elena with Mateus rose and raspberries

Câmara de Lobos fishing village

Glass panelled walk over sea cliffs, Cabo Girao

Sea cliffs, Cabo Girao

Panorama, looking into Nuns’ Valley

Pride of Madeira plants

Low hanging clouds, Nuns’ Valley

Sharon, Nuns’ Valley

Cemetery with a view, Nuns’ Valley

Wicker basket riding poster

Wicker basket riding now

May Day parade, girls in traditional costume

Fruit and vegetable market, Funchal

Flower carpets, Funchal

Woman sewing traditional Madeiran embroidery

Children’s flower parade

I’m almost at the end of my time on the islands of Madeira (8 nights) and Porto Santo (2 nights). So finally, it’s time for some stories of my visit here, supplementing the explosion of photos in my previous two posts about the tropical gardens and the flower festival in Funchal.

Madeira and Porto Santo are celebrating 600 years of Portuguese rule. The Portuguese flag was raised on tiny Porto Santo in 1419 and on neighbouring Madeira in 1420. This was about 100 years before the Portuguese were the first European explorers to discover Australia in about 1521-1524, well before the Dutch and later the British. Apparently the Portuguese were very focussed on trade and saw little of commercial value in Australia, preferring instead the spice trade in India and other parts of Asia and the mineral wealth of Brazil.

Madeira is about 870km southwest of Lisbon and about 580km directly west of Morocco, so much closer to Africa than Europe. Madeira and Porto Santo are quite different. While Madeira is incredibly lush, green and mountainous, Porto Santo is quite dry and rocky with little greenery. However, Porto Santo is called the Golden Island as it has 10kms of beautiful golden sand beaches on its southern coast. In contrast, the only beaches on Madeira tend to be rocky, so most people go to Madeira for the festivals, history and walking experiences, while Porto Santo attracts beach-goers.

I’m staying at an all-inclusive resort on the beachfront, here in Porto Santo. I hadn’t realised that not only are all meals included, but so is as much alcohol as you want to drink - beer, wines, cocktails, liqueurs and spirits. One day, Belinda joked during our conversation that she regretted that she was keeping me away from drinking time! In fact, this is probably the only trip for which I’m bringing home my full 2.25 litre quota of alcohol back to Australia. In addition to port from the Douro Valley near Oporto, I bought various flavoured rums on Madeira. There were many shops in Funchal that allowed you to try different alcohols. My favourite was the traditional Poncha - rum flavoured with honey, lemon and cane sugar. The locals say they use it to treat colds also and I can understand why: it’s delicious. I only tried Madeira wine once and didn’t especially like it, but at least I’m bringing back another very traditional Madeiran drink, Poncha. In Funchal, I bought some Mateus rose (also from the Douro valley) to celebrate the birth of my great-niece Elena. The packaging said - new bottle, same traditional taste - and that’s the problem; it’s actually not a great rose.

Here in Porto Santo, it’s been lovely to paddle in the water and enjoy the warm sunshine, as I’m returning home soon to some chilly temperatures in Melbourne. Madeira and Porto Santo have not been excessively hot, more like low 20s, which tends to be the year-round temperature. Very pleasant, especially given the lack of humidity. I’ve included a picture of the ocean view from my balcony as I sit writing this blog.

This morning I caught the local bus to the main town of Vila Baleira, about 4km from my hotel. A pretty town with some attractive piazzas, a few shops and cafes, and a church dating back to 1446. It also has a museum dedicated to Christopher Columbus who lived here for 2 years, before he went on about ten years later to discover America. This afternoon, I took advantage of the excellent thalassotherapy spa (spa treatment using sea water) that is next door to my hotel. First, I spent one hour in the ‘vitapool’ circuit - an ordered routine where you moved between showers, a dry sauna, a Turkish bath, a hammam, and various pools with still and bubbling sea water. After this, I had a salt scrub exfoliation and massage with cold cream, so feeling very relaxed.

While I was on Madeira, I took a couple of half-day bus trips. Some of you will have read that there was an horrific bus crash in Madeira 3 weeks ago that killed about 30 German tourists when their bus went off the side of the road. So, I was initially hesitant about venturing out beyond Funchal, but then decided that lightning was unlikely to strike twice in the same place. One day I took a trip to Câmara de Lobos (a fishing village that Winston Churchill visited and painted in the 1950s) and to Cabo Girao (a viewpoint over some sea cliffs). The Cabo Girao cliffs are 580m high, the highest in Europe and feature one of those glass panelled walks where you look down directly to the ground below. I was also struck by the number of gum trees at Cabo Girao. They are everywhere in Portugal. The Portuguese harvest them to make paper, but the gum trees have displaced other local vegetation.

Another day, I took a bus trip to the centre of Madeira to a place called the Nuns’ Refuge. It is a remote, hidden valley used by nuns when pirates attacked the island of Madeira. This trip really showcased the grandeur of the mountains in Madeira’s interior. I was lucky to experience a mix of sunshine, low hanging clouds and fog which made for some spectacular photos from the viewpoints over the valley and mountains. Our guide also pointed out the purple Pride of Madeira plants. I have always liked these striking plants which grow in my neighbourhood in Port Melbourne, but hadn’t known their name or that are natives of Madeira. Now I know!

One of the traditional activities that I observed, but did not participate in, is riding in a wicker basket down the steep Funchal roads, pulled by two men who have ropes attached to the wicker baskets. This activity has been going on for over 100 years and is regarded as one of the main tourist attractions in Funchal. The route is 2km and the baskets can reach speeds of almost 50km/hour. Apparently they have had some accidents over the years as the roads are incredibly steep, so sometimes people are tipped out of the baskets.

In addition to the main Flower Festival parade on Sunday, I experienced two other parades while I was in Funchal. On 1 May, Labour Day, there was a vey somber parade along the waterfront with local dignitaries, scouts and girl guides and a brass band. The photo I’ve included of this parade shows two little girls in the traditional Madeiran costume of red striped skirts with odd caps. The flower sellers in the markets, and the women making traditional Madeiran embroidery, also wear the red striped clothes and many bags and tableware can be bought in this colourful fabric. The other parade occurred on Saturday and was called the children’s flower parade. It signalled the beginning of the flower festival and coincided with lovely floral carpets being made in the streets.

In a few hours, I fly back to Lisbon. This will be my last blog as I have lots to see during my last two days in Lisbon. Hope you’ve vicariously enjoyed Portugal and the lovely flowers and gardens of Madeira.

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