Madeira 2014

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Jacarandas in bloom in Funchal


I have been wanting to visit Madeira for years but people kept telling me that it was for old people so I didn't go. Now I am old it was back on my list of destinations.

I was especially interested in the Levadas. These are small irrigation canals but, due to the precipitous nature of Madeira's terrain they are a feat of civil engineering which contour around the sheer face of mountainside's. They also provide a beautiful place to walk provided you are sure footed and do not suffer from vertigo and there are now 1500 miles of them to choose from.

Another reason to visit was the climate. It never gets really cold, minimum temperature of 17 degrees and maximum 25 degrees centigrade, so that you can grow virtually anything with all that irrigation. It is a plantsman's paradise.

An historic person in Funchal

In case you were not aware, Madeira belonga Portugal since 1420 when Joao Goncalves Zarco was sent by Prince Henry "the navigator" to claimed it. Zarco governed it until his death in 1467 at the ripe old age of 80 by which time trade had been established with all the major European cities as the major sugar producer until cheaper supplies were sourced from Brazil and the Caribbean.

The Brits featured strongly as a major trading nation and after Charles II married the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, British and American taxes were reduced on Madeiran wine as part of the marriage settlement.

The island was considered so important that in 1801 the Brits sent a protection force to prevent Napoleon from capturing it, indeed, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force, older even than Portugal's claim to Madeira.

Madeira largely escaped the rigors of the world wars but at the start of the second it was feared that Gibraltar would come under heavy German attack so that it was decided to evacuate 2000 Gibraltarian civilians to Funchal, the Madeiran capital, where they were accommodated in hotels and guest houses until the end of the war.

Scabbard fish

In 1974 came the toppling of the Portuguese dictatorship by a bloodless army coup known as the Carnation Revolution when civilians stuck the flowers in the soldiers gun barrels and in 1976 the island became largely autonomous with only foreign affairs, tax and defence still controlled from Lisbon.

We flew down from Birmingham in about three and a half hours courtesy of Monarch Airlines, arriving at just after 6pm to a balmy 21 degrees, Portugal being in the same time zone as the UK. A taxi whisked us into Funchal in under half an hour where we were installed in the Quinta da Penha de Franca Hotel and discovered an nice adjacent restaurant where we sampled a Madeiran speciality; "Espada" which is the "Scabbard" fish, an ugly vicious looking brute but very tasty and meaty, but salty so it was probably so preserved, however, the fresh beast was on display at the fish market. The dish should not be confused with "Espetada" which is skewered chunks of beef served hanging from a rack on your table.

Flower festival in Funchal

Our first full day was spent exploring Funchal where we discovered the remnants of a flower festival which had just concluded. The historic centre, a fifteen minute walk from our hotel, is very elegant with the pavements and squares paved with black and white mosaics of intricate patterns, lined with Jacaranda trees which were in full bloom.

We purchased a three day bus pass which allowed us unlimited travel on the many orange city buses which for 12 Euroles was a definite bargain, when you consider that a round trip by cable car to Monte and the Botanic garden costs about 30.

As you would expect we booked a trip round Blandy's Wine Lodge which was a bit of a rip off in that they only gave you two sips, one of which was the cheaper job and they did not sell 75cl bottles of 5 year old Sercial so you had to buy two 35cl bottles costing over 15 Euroles whereas you could buy a 75cl bottle in the supermarket for 11.

John Blandy first arrived here in 1807 as a quartermaster in the army defending the Island against Napoleon. He returned in 1811 and made a fortune supplying visiting ships. In 1852 when the grape harvest failed, his son bought up the entire stocks of Madeiran wine and the family has dominated the industry ever since.

Maderian flowers

Madeira is made from four so called noble grape varieties; Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial, the latter being the driest. Wine made from these grapes can last hundreds of years. The cheaper varieties are made from Tinta Negra or Negra Mole grapes and do not have either the flavour or longevity of the noble varieties.

On our second evening we discovered the O Visconde restaurant on the Rua dos Murcas behind the Cathedral and Paula took us under her wing where we stayed a further two nights, such was the quality of the food and the very special service Paula provides.
The restaurant next door Cantinho dos Amigos was equally as good but we only ate there once as we were unable to get past Paula!

On that first night we ate Espetada; big chunks of succulent tender beef, cooked exactly how you order with chips and salad, a bottle of house red which had us enthusing and a cup of Lavazza cappuccino to finish set us back 30 Euroles, half the price of the UK if you could find anything near as good!

Funchal from the Botanic gardens

You would also be hard put to find a better botanical garden that the one at Funchal. There were so many plants we had never seen before and the variety was amazing. Everything seems to grow much bigger here with Pelargoniums and Begonias more like trees than shrubs. The Cactus and succulents were just fantastic and once again growing to huge heights. I took many photographs and will spread the most unusual of them around this page.

Cactus in Funchal Botanic garden
Flower in Funchal Botanic garden

Sailors came here in pre Christian times to collect the sap from the Dragon trees which was used as a purple dye and grow wild here and in the Canaries. There is a section devoted to plants which are used for food and medicine so for example you can see Brazilian cherry and Coffee trees growing along with sugar cane, cocoa, cotton and papaya. Palm trees also grow well here and Banana palms were much in evidence and are grown commercially.

Funchal from the Botanic gardens

One section is devoted to the art of topiary while an area the size of a football pitch has carpet bedding in a range of patterns with plants of different coloured leaves. The garden was once part of the estate of the Reid family who made their fortune as founders of Reid's Palace Hotel, still the finest in Madeira.

Looking up the Socorridos Valley

Our first levada walk was No 1 in Sunflower Books Madeira guide; "The Socorridos Valley". We caught a town bus up to Madeira Shopping Centre then found the Levada do Curral, following it through the banana palms and outskirts of Funchal until it finally emerged into the steep sided valley where flows the Ribeira dos Socorridos. Here was the first test of our vertigo tolerance. There were some vestiges of railings but these were merely psychological and would not have prevented anyone from falling. There were fine views of the high mountains ahead until we came to a remote house with vines trailing over the levada and terraced vegetable plots. A short distance past some maintenance work was being done and it became too dangerous to continue so we turned around and retraced our steps back to civilisation.

Levada dos Piornais

We were not completing this walk in the way described in the guide but starting from the highest point at Madeira Shopping using the bus, walking up the Socorridos Valley then returning and dropping down about 150m of altitude to the Levada dos Piornais which turned out to be quite a test of our vertigo tolerance levels! You could avoid the vertiginous bits by dropping down to the base of the cliff about 100m further as the levada itself had to maintain it's altitude being alternately cut out of the vertical cliff face, tunnelled through buttresses or built against the face of the cliff on aqueducts so you walked along a two foot wide concrete ledge holding on to the railing and looking down hundreds of metres to the valley floor! The shot above shows Sue edging gingerly along one of the "verdigrease" bits where constipation was not a problem!!

Maderian folk dancing

Walking through Funchal one day we came upon some folk dancers. There were equal numbers of men and women, the women in colourful striped skirts and strange hats having a long pointy bit on the top, the men in various apparel and all wearing sheepskin boots which seemed very hot to dance in. They were accompanied by a band consisting of drums, mandolin and accordion and they all sang their heads off enthusiastically while they danced, much more fun than the "fada" which was not to our taste the last time we were in Portugal. There was also a man with a stick called a "brinquinho" which has little dolls with bells and castanets at the top and is banged on the ground to keep the beat. It reminded me of a stick which I seem to remember the "fool" used to carry around sometimes in English Morris dances and the Madeiran dance is supposed to have originated as a Moorish dance as did the Morris tradition.


On another visit to the O Visconde restaurant I was eating some huge prawn's, grilled in their shells with garlic butter and managed to spill butter on my trousers. Paula saw me dipping a serviette in my white wine and rubbing the material to remove the stain so she quickly appeared with a cloth and some liquid soap, proceeding to massage my inner thigh to the consternation of a French couple at the next table and to the amusement of my wife Sue who explained to them that the service here was excellent!

Monte cable car
Flower in Funchal Botanic garden

Monte sits at an altitude of just over 600m above Funchal and you can take a cable car for 3km or a bus to the top. You can come down on a two seater basket toboggan with wooden runners guided by two "carreiros" who are the steering and brakes or you can take another cable car down to the Botanic Gardens.

Funchal from Monte with Charles 1st of Austria statue

The pretty church of Our Lady of Monte is approached by an impressive flight of steps and has found fame by housing the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Charles 1st of Austria who lived the last years of his life here.

After WW1 he was exiled to Madeira where he died of pneumonia at Monte in 1922 at the tender age of 34. Most observers seemed to have found his demise to be of no great loss except, that is, the Catholic Church who beatified him in 2004 after a Brazilian nun claimed her varicose veins were cured in 1960 after she prayed for his beatification so that a miracle had occurred. I am not joking and this man who was directly responsible for thousands of deaths during the war when he authorised the use of poison gas, will become a saint if another nun is cured after praying to the Blessed Charles.

We began our second levada walk here and climbed up about 100m of altitude to join the Levada dos Tornos (walk 7 in the Sunflower guide) as it emerges from a long tunnel. The next section was like the previous one as regards vertigo but this time without any protective railings and was on the limit of our vertigo tolerance because of that. Once again it could have been avoided had we known the conditions.

Funchal from the Levada do Tornos

Once the vertiginous section was passed we began to enjoy the walk and arrived at Curral dos Rameiros where we could have caught a bus down town but elected to continue for another hour and a half. The levada bisects the grounds of the Choupana Hills Resort Hotel which appeared to be empty with the gardens overgrown and eventually arrives at the Hortensia Teahouse where a nice South African lady served us cold beers and egg mayonnaise sandwiches in her beautiful garden, then it was another half hours walk to Palheiro Ferreiro where the bus stop was thoughtfully situated beside a bar where more beers were consumed before returning to town.

Funchal Cathedral

The Cathedral in Funchal was completed in 1517 and reminded us of our visit to Brazil with all the extravagant use of gold and silver.
It is famous for its elaborate "knotwork" ceilings which are reckoned to be the richest and elaborate of their type being a blend of Moorish and European styles. The Moors ruled Portugal from 711 to 1249.

Maderia has had many famous visitors over the centuries. Columbus was here as a sugar merchant in 1478 and was friendly with his fellow captain Zarco. Captain Cook came in 1768 and is said to have left the seeds of the lovely Flame trees which grow around Funchal. Napoleon called in on his way to exile in St Helena in 1815 to stock up with Madeira wine to which Shakespeare was said to have been a bit partial! Winston Churchill wrote some of his memoirs while staying at Reids Palace Hotel and Margaret Thatcher spent her honeymoon at the Savoy.

Flame trees in Funchal

On our final night in Funchal we went to a concert at the Congresso next to the Casino. It is a surprisingly large auditorium, air conditioned with nice comfortable seats and good acoustics.

We expected an amateur effort in such a small place but were surprised to find the Madeira Classical Orchestra to be an accomplished professional group with Maestro Pedro Careiro the guest conductor with soloist Antonio Rosadothe pianist, both from Lisbon.

They performed Beethoven's 4th piano concerto followed by his 1st Symphony which we really enjoyed and thought a fitting finale to our brief Madeiran visit.

It was Sunday and the O Visconde restaurant was closed so we were able to sample the Cantinho dos Amigos next door! It didn't have Paula of course but the food was equally as good if not better. We had two big bloody steaks which melted in the mouth and I asked for a recommendation of a good red wine to accompany them. They could have picked the dearest but recommended the house red for 8.50 Euroles a bottle which was great and they did the pannacotta like pudding with passion fruit which was as light as a feather.

Dragon tree in Quinta das Cruzes garden

We paid a visit to the Casa Museu Frederico de Freitas, named after the owner who was a rich lawyer and collector so the house is full of various antiques and has a new wing devoted to a ceramic tile collection. The house also has a pretty courtyard garden and a sort of conservatory they call the winter garden inside the house.

If you walk uphill a few more yards you will find the Santa Clara Convent which was closed when we visited but was the home of the "Poor Clares" who we learnt about during our visit to Assisi last year. The nuns arrived in Madeira from Portugal in 1497 and used to escape pirate attacks by walking up to Curral das Frietas at the head of the Socorridos Valley, the site of our first levada walk.

Next door to the Santa Clara Convent is the estate of Joao Goncalves Zarco, Madeira's first governor and whose daughters became nuns. The house is now the Museu da Quinta das Cruzes and is full of furniture and fine art. In the garden outside is a collection of ancient masonry and an orchid garden which has this huge dragon tree above as it's centrepiece.

Seascape from Vigia garden

On our final day we discovered the official gardens of Madeira's president, the Quinta Vigia, was open as it had been closed previously for official business. The morning sun across the sea provided some nice light for photography as you can see. The barge out at sea is part of extensive building work being carried out towards flood prevention where three rivers enter the sea following bad flooding in 2010.

The garden itself was immaculately kept as you can see below with even a prancing ceramic horse beneath a dragon tree.

In the presidents Vigia garden

We had an evening flight back so had the morning to shop for their famous honey cake and flat bread which is really light and makes great garlic bread before enjoying a leasurely lunch. As you can see from the photo's, the weather had been perfect for the whole week and the wind was behind us going back so the flight time was cut to three hours.

We do not recommend parking your car at Airparks which is about a 20 minutes bus journey from Birmingham airport and the courtesy bus infrequent so it was an hour and a half before we retrieved our car. They try and sell you a service to deliver your car to the terminal for £25 but you might as well park it on airport then as it works out cheaper!

We have lots more to see in Madeira and plan an early return to explore the rest of the island by car, attempt more levada walks and traverse some of the high mountain trails which exceed 1800m in altitude.

We return to the UK then Belgium and Harmonie the following week.

There is a page about Bridgnorth HERE.

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