Chambers at Large: Touring the Island of Madeira
Despite the glorious sunshine and temperatures of twenty to twenty two degrees, the local people still viewed the balmy days of February as winter. The threat of rain and clouds did not deter me from exploring the island and I did so via Windsor Tours, the drivers commentating and competently negotiating the perilous, winding roads in a very comfortable minibus. Although hiring a car on the island is straight forward I love to be driven and the roads up the mountains are precariously steep in places and the drop, if a car goes off the road, is precipitous. As usual I had done no research prior to my visit, thus all I learned was via my guides Roberto and Nunu, whom I thank most profusely. Both were charmingly professional and a mine of information.
There are compass points dotted around the mosaicked pavements in Funchal and the island seems to be divided into north and south, east and west. According to my guides and based on research carried out by numerous geologists the island was created millions of years ago via volcanic activity, the magma pushing up to the surface of the sea and forming a land mass. Madeira is not an island that broke away from the mainland of Africa or Europe; therefore, when the Portuguese sailors arrived on the island in the fifteenth century there were no large animals, the biggest four legged creatures being lizards.
There were birds, insects and bees, but all the other animals on the island were transported here by human beings. Other than the giant tortoise at my hotel and a few cattle, goats and sheep, I didn’t see many animals at all, but the island is a paradise of plants, flowers and trees, making it one of the most verdant and luscious places I have visited in some time. Not being a botanist I am not sure of the names of many of the flowers but their stunning colours were a pleasure and surprisingly the only insects I spotted were colourful butterflies.
The island proved to be a blessing to the new settlers, it being covered in forest allowing them to build wooden houses and ships. Madeira itself is named after the Portuguese word for wood (the material, not the word for forest) and the place names around the island are of the families who settled there, like Porto Moniz (Moniz being the family name) and of places in Portugal, like St Vincent’s who, until quite recently, was the patron saint of Lisbon.
The north of the island is a few degrees colder than the south, but both east and west are very mountainous, the farming being done on terraces. Bananas are the most popular fruit to be grown and I was appalled when I was told the EU will not allow the Madeirans to sell this fruit to other EU countries as they are too small and too curvy! Seriously! What the dickens! So what if they are small and not straight! The world has gone mad and I feel I am being robbed of the sweetest, tastiest banana I’ve had in years.
Madeira is home to the highest sea cliff in Europe. I have to emphasise sea as there are of course higher cliffs elsewhere inland and not overlooking the salt waters. 580 meters above sea level the cliff of Caro Girao offers spectacular views of the farmland and the Atlantic Ocean.
I’ve not the best head for heights but was happy enough to stand away from the edge and take a couple of photos. The cumulus clouds kept at bay, but as we headed higher into the mountains of Madeira’s national park so we headed into the deep fog low cloud and vision decreased to less than twenty meters in places.
However the seaside resorts of Ribeira Brava and Porto Moniz were bathed in sunshine and in the former I sauntered around the local farmer’s market and bought a banana; in the latter I had the black scabbard fish for lunch, lightly fried in batter and served with fried banana and a salad. Wow, it was delicious, the fish tasting a little like whiting, but was well complemented by the sweet fruit. (I’m surprised I don’t look like a banana after the number I consumed during the week!)
Passing through the village of Campanario I noted stone carvings on the corners of the red tiled roof tops. These tiny statues of dogs, doves, even children or angels are symbolic, the dogs offering protection, the doves peace and the children speaks for itself: a happy, fecund family.
Sadly the newer houses have forgone such glorious superstition, but the church in Ribeira Brava was filled, with worshippers inside and out celebrating Mass, reminding me that the major religion of the island is Roman Catholicism and shrines are dotted about the island in remembrance of the Virgin Mary and several saints.
Most of the church towers have clocks, a throwback to when it was the only timepiece in the area and an aid to the farmers when the sun went down, not to mention a reminder of when to go to Mass.
The small houses of the mountain city (town) of Santana (named after St Anna) brought to mind residences of leprechauns and this may have been why the heavens opened and Irish weather came to Madeira for fifteen minutes or so. The clouds remained, thus I did not get a wonderful view from the second highest peak on the island, but the sun returned when returning to the coast where there are views of the other inhabited island in the archipelago: Porto Santo and the deserted islands which are closely guarded and protected for their indigenous flora and fauna. The monk seal or, due to its howling bark, the seawolf resides there and has been seen to venture to Funchal on occasion. Hunting is strictly forbidden and the islands can only be visited with a guide who will carefully navigate the set paths, stopping visitors from roaming across the protected landscape.
The small village of Camancha has a fine church similar in design to Liverpool Cathedral and the church tower bells were donated from a resident of that city. The park across the road is where the first football game was played in Portugal in 1875, which reminds me: I caught a glimpse of one of Renaldo’s houses on the far east side of the island, where there are spectacular views of rugged cliffs, a rocky shoreline and white crested waters.
Madeira is the closest I have been to Eden. The steep mountains and deep valleys display a thousand shades of greens, reds, yellows and browns and are dotted with colourful terracotta roofed houses, some built into the mountainside (an architect’s dream, an engineer’s nightmare), interspersed with translucent rivers and plunging waterfalls. All are enclosed by dark volcanic beaches, majestic sea cliffs and beautiful blue waters.
My words do not do the archipelago of Madeira justice and I can only say a big thank you to the staff at the Jardins do Lago where I stayed, Windsor Tours for showing me the island and Mercury Holidays for organising a trip to remember. I will be back as soon as practicable as I’ve plenty more to do, see and explore.
Please check out my blog regarding the capital city of Madeira, Funchal, via this link: