Postcards from Madeira

February 2014

At the start of 2014 my dear friend Saille and I headed off to the island of Mareira to find some winter sunshine. Here are a few snaps & thoughts from our trip.

Welcome to Funchal

The guide books had said that Funchal, our base for the week, was 'hilly' but this was an understatement of mountainous proportions - apart from a narrow strip along the coast the town rises very steeply up the surrounding slopes. Our rented apartment was "Ten minutes walk from the town centre" but easily twice that when on the uphill journey back. A good incentive to master the excellent bus system.
Although the houses were packed into every available patch of flat ground the town didn't feel close or claustrophobic as the sharp incline provided marvellous views from virtually every spot. Once we'd developed our 'Funchal legs' it was a very pedestrian-friendly town to walk through although most of the 'attractions' were clustered in the centre of the town, around the harbour.
While breakfasting on our balcony we were able to make daily plans by checking the weather & cloud cover both out to sea and up the mountain, getting a good idea of which direction to head in. We had a few grey days but in general it was comfortably warm and mostly sunny, an excellent escape for sun-starved northern Europeans (as the island has been for centuries).

The sloping gardens

While exploring the upper reaches of Funchal we discovered a delightful garden, tucked under a (now unused) railway bridge and following the (by now inevitable) steep incline of the land. The meandering paths led into all sorts of unexpected corners, not least of which was this little cottage nestling into the slope.

Off to market

Our apartment was self-catering so we needed to get out & shop for food - the plan was to not eat out every night. The nearest supermarket (at the bottom of the hill, of course) supplied most of our needs but the Mercado dos Lavradores (Workers' Market) in the old town was one of the main attractions of Funchal so we popped in to buy as well as look. Although the stallholders were clearly aware of being on the tourist trail (there were lots of 'souvenir of Madeira' items on sale) there was an amazing abundance of fruit & veg on display, along with racks of chillies and dried fruit & nuts.
We were shamelessly overcharged for a selection of passion fruits - Madeira seems to have dozens of varieties with very different flavours - along with various other exotic fruits but they did provide some wonderful eating through the week.

Wall painting in the Old Town

Funchal's Old Town consists of a grid of little, mostly pedestrianised lanes just back from the sea front, mostly filled with restaurants & cafés with a scattering of galleries & other shops. With the bus station and cable car terminus nearby it became a natural jumping off point for our trips and an excellent place to return to afterwards for dining & drinking.
Mural painting is found all over the Old Town. Most of the doors have been 'decorated' (to put it mildly - see my gallery of pictures) and several of the walls have fascinating, funny, political or sometimes just incomprehensible murals spread across them.

Photographic museum

Situated down an unassuming alleyway is the Vicente Photographic Museum. Based in the studio used by Vicente Gomes da Silva in the late 1800's it contains a small but fascinating collection of photographs of life in Funchal & its surroundings from the past 150 years. Not just the great & powerful - although there are many examples of the leisured aristocracy slowly becoming the holidaying bourgeoisie - there are some great pictures of normal island life through the ages.

Glory & splendour

The exterior of the Jesuit church is fairly understated by Madeira standards - white walls with dark brown stone trim under an orange tiled roof. But inside it is a feast for the senses with every surface either gilded or elaborately painted. The only disappointment was finding that the tower was closed to visitors.

On top of the world

While being driven to the start of a guided walk in the interior we stopped by a small reservoir with the cloud cover stretching out below us.

Walking the lavadas

Madeira's extensive network of lavadas (irrigation canals) is great for walking holidays. The canals reach into beautifully unspoilt areas of the island, are well signposted and maintained, and are wonderfully flat for the less athletic hiker. We joined an organised group for our first levada experience but after that it was easy enough to find our way out to them using public transport and one of the many guide books that were available.

The green interior

From Funchal the ground rises up steeply and once your reach the interior there are dramatic vistas of sharp hills and deep valleys, often densely forested. The jagged terrain often results in spectacular views, in this case from the centre of the island looking off towards the northern coast.

Scary fish

Next door to the central market was the associated fish market where these fierce looking specimens were found. The espada (black scabbard fish) is the most common fish on Madeira (both in the markets and at restaurants) and despite its ferocious appearance it was very tasty.
Madeira continues to be steeply mountainous below sea level and the fish live at much greater depths than the coastal varieties we normally encounter, which explains their large eyes, dark scales and sharp teeth.

A long way down

Another of our trips led us to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking a deep valley with a string of villages dotted along it. The thinness of the river gives an idea of how much water can surge down these valleys when the rain is heavy and throughout the island there were extensive storm drains and rain channels.
From here we walked all the way down the slopes to the valley bottom where we found a friendly café for a restorative meal before catching the bus back to Funchal.

Dance & song

On our last day we came across this group performing traditional songs & dances in the middle of town. Lots of swirling of the brightly striped skirts, clapping and bowing to partners.