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Chambers at large in Funchal, Madeira

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

When I first mentioned to a friend that I was going to Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira off the Moroccan coast, he said, ‘oh, that’s where Renaldo comes from.’ This snippet of information doubled my knowledge of football, discovering the international soccer star’s first name was Christiano, trebled it. What I did know about Madeira was it was renowned for its wines and more recently bananas, but I was heading to the island for some much needed winter sun.

Exiting Funchal airport I was overawed by the wonderful view of the Atlantic Ocean and the mountainous landscape, terraced in places so that farmers may grow numerous fruits and vegetables. This terracing hinders people from using machinery to work the land, thus much has to be done by hand, which sadly is proving off-putting for the younger generation. I challenge all engineers out there to make farming equipment that can fly or climb in order to make horticulture on the island less arduous.

I especially challenge the engineers who constructed Funchal airport, the runway being held aloft by a web of concrete pillars. Not surprisingly this architectural feat was award winning and it did not surprise me to learn that only captains can land a plane at Funchal airport. There are a number of other regulations too: captains must have enough flight hours, landed an empty plane safely, and before landing at night must have logged enough landings by day. I was told this is due to severe crosswinds and not because of the unusual runway.

I stayed at the delightful Jardins do Lago, a five star hotel overlooking the sea and city. The facilities were sublime, especially the evening meals, and I spent time exploring the copious gardens (which would give many botanic gardens a run for their money), the home of a giant tortoise named Colombo.

My first day on the island was spent discovering Funchal and I began my day with an early visit to the market, where one can purchase the island’s own produce including “delicious fruit”. Yes, that is its name: delicious fruit, named after the plant from which it comes: monstera deliciosa. Tasting like banana and pineapple it certainly lives up to its name.

Flower stalls and. those selling Madeiran products, including dried fruit, wine and tableware were interspersed between flower stalls and I thought the name Funchal may have come from fuchsia, but sadly not; it comes from the Portuguese for fennel, the fields nearby where the first settlers landed being filled with the fragrant vegetable.

The fish market is below that of the flowers, fruit and veg and where I discovered espada: black scabbard fish, which live over a kilometre down in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

They are quite ugly due to their much needed large, bulging eyes and their pointed jaws are filled with razor sharp teeth on which one of the fish mongers sharpened his knives! Beneath the jet-black skin is pure white meat and I made a mental note to try this local speciality.

Moving away from the market I made my way to the old town where the main street of Santa Maria is filled with a plethora of eateries, shops and bars. The animated street was once where the procession of the Stations of the Cross or the Passion of the Christ was held at Easter.

The procession waned during the nineteenth century, but this was where the writer, poet, journalist and politician Joao Carlos Nunes Abreu once resided. (I had to google him.)

From the old town I walked to the newer shopping area where the black and white tiles of the mosaicked streets glistened under the mid-morning sun.

The geometric patterns were interspersed with mosaics of compasses, allowing tourists like myself to get their bearings, although Funchal isn’t that big and is well signposted directing even the most disorientated of tourists.

The cathedral with its impressive clock tower outside was quite stunning inside, especially the chapel to the right of the alter which was almost completely gold.

The other chapels paled in ornamentation, but I noticed that the one dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, with a picture of Pope John Paul II displayed beneath her statue, was most popular with worshippers.

I even sent a silent thanks to this man for whom my local airport in the west of Ireland was built in order to facilitate his visit in 1979. Flights from the west of Ireland send passengers across Europe without having to face the trials and tribulations of going to Dublin. I’m only sorry there isn’t a direct flight to Funchal from Knock, but fingers crossed.

I had a cup of coffee in the Golden Gate restaurant, where the staff wear pristine white military style uniforms similar to that during the colonial era, possibly because the eatery dates back to 1841 On the reverse of one of the menus I learned that the famous writer Ferreira de Castro claimed that this establishment was the “centre of the world” as people came from far and wide and every language could be heard within its environs.

The Golden Gate is located opposite a statue of Joao Goncalves Zarco and the Banco de Portugal, an impressive building with a red tiled tower above its Corinthian columned entrance. Of course, I had to google Zarco, who was a Portuguese navigator who, along with others, established settlements on Madeira in the early 1400s and died in Funchal. He and his co-captains did not land in Funchal however but further along the coast in Machico, which was then declared the capital city.

The central area of Funchal now seems to have its roots in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century as the Ritz Hotel and theatre boast fine Victorian architecture, the Ritz displaying blue and white marble representations of Portugal’s maritime achievements.

To finish my first day’s exploration I made my way along the promenade, decorated with palm trees and fountains to the marina where cruise ships come and go for six months of the year. Here I found the statue of Christiano Renaldo outside a museum dedicated to him. Needless to say, I did not go in, but my first few hours in Funchal had not only increased my knowledge of football, but of fine food, maritime history and architecture too.

Please check out my other blog concerning my tour around the island of Madeira via this link:

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This post just appeared in my in-box but I now see it is from February. I'm glad I didn't miss it forever as I enjoyed learning about this Portuguese island. I especially appreciate your travelogues now that I've come to realize this octogenarian will never see in person all the amazing locations my cousin describes. Thank you!

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