Tunnels and Rainbows - a final slice of Madeira

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Wed 12 Nov 2008 15:21
When hiring a car on a strict cruising budget it is totally predictable that the following will apply a) it will be very small b) it will be extremely uncomfortable for driving the number of miles tourists tend to cover in any one day and c) Jeremy Clarkson (or even James May for that matter) wouldn't be seen dead in it. It will be the sort of car the Top Gear team tend to load into a catapult and fire off the edge of a cliff to see how many million pieces it will break into.
So at 1000am our Korean made Atoz Prime was duly handed over to us at the marina for our 2 days of (mainly mountain) sightseeing. My back gave an immediate advance warning of things to come with a twinge in the lumbar region as I contorted my 6'5" frame into the drivers seat and assumed the position that no body should have to endure for longer than a few minutes. We had two days to see what Madeira had to offer and the forecast from the lady at the marina office was that all the nasty wind and rain that had plagued us for days would magically disappear.
Well sadly it didn't. Day one saw us driving the motorway route westwards past Funchal by way of a series of long tunnels out towards Calheta where there is another marina. Yachties have a homing instinct for other marinas. Calheta was a lovely tranquil well developed backwater, although looking very full with local boats. We moved northwards along the western coast of the Island to a place where there is a cable car that tourists can take, descending at a ridiculous angle at what looked like several thousand feet to the coastal plain below . The people at the bottom looked like ants. Remembering the many films we have seen over the years of cable cars plunging thousands of feet in the snowy Alps after the wires twanged apart one by one for maximum visual effect for the viewer we opted not to take the ride. We get our own thrills from bouncing around on the ocean surface, but at least we are on the surface and not suspended high in the air in a tiny 4 man plastic box with windows. So we crammed ourselves back into the Atoz - which could also double as a cable car box and headed off further northwards before commencing the long climb up into the mountains to take in the breathtaking views over the entire island.
Not to be - as we climbed higher and higher the cloud rolled in - then the heavy rain and gale force winds lashed the car whilst we steadfastly held on to second gear before finally succumbing to the small cars demand to be placed in first gear for the final hairpin bends and steep climb to the summit. Well, we guessed it was the summit - we couldn't see anything up there - but the snow laying in the shady areas was a good clue that we were as high as we were probably going to get. These must have been the first snows of winter because there were locals parked at various spots along the road scooping up handfuls of melting snow and making large volcano shaped cones on their car bonnets before driving off back to the coast at breakneck speed before the snow melted - a souvenir from the mountains. We opted to stay in the relative warmth of the Atoz with the heating now on full as we started the decent back below cloud level.
Back at the marina we uncoiled our tortured bodies (was there a good qualified local chiropractor I asked myself) and planned our second day out. Sparing the minute detail of our second day's adventure, we chose to attempt the second mountain that Madeira has in the eastern part of the island, which is a shade higher than the western peak, early in the day to try and beat the onset of the cloud that quickly rolls in. It was not to be. As we climbed the steep gradient roads - the engine screaming either in 2nd or 1st gear - me wincing - Nikki gulping,  the mountain roads with their switch-backs and vertical drops proved a challenge for our nerves. Unfortunately the cloud was there, so was the rain (but not the snow this time). We decided to give up our quest for the ultimate view and drove back down- now in 3rd or 4th gear, hoping the brakes had been checked in the 117,000 km life of the car to date. Further down the slope we were rewarded by finding a trout farm in a beautiful gorge.The fish pens were supplied with constant fresh water from the mountain streams which must be endlessly flowing if our experience of Madeira weather is anything to go by. The water is partly routed through the farm location and supplies each pen successively. All the pens are on a gradient one below the other as the water enters the end of the tank and flows out into the next slightly lower. The respective tanks have different sized fish in each, starting with minnow size. Further down the 'farm' the tanks are much larger - the size of small swimming pools and the trout equally impressive in size. One huge trout 2-3 foot long specimen was being kept in a fish tank with glass sides.We guessed its probable fate. This location made up for the disappointment of the lack of mountain views.
The eastern end of Madeira away from the south coast is more rural and undeveloped. We noticed some small houses that had thatched roofs which reminded us of small Devon cottages - they seemed totally out of character in Madeira. They were probably no larger than some sitting rooms in a modern house, so how they crammed all the various requirements of bed, kitchen, bathroom etc into such a small space was beyond our understanding.
Having finished with the car we decided to leave Madeira with a good forecast of favourable winds. We spent the last day walking over the beautiful coastal paths in the vicinity of the marina.  Magnificent unspoilt coast which many tourists drive to in order to appreciate the scenery. It was a positive note on which to end our stay.
Weather apart, our memories of Madeira, with it's beautiful landscape will undoubtedly be of two features of the island - one permanent and one probably not so. The extensive tunnelling system which helped to create it's fast road network is truly impressive. Being such a rugged mountainous island the only way it could commercially develop was to drill through the obstacles that take many hours and miles to go round. Some are 100 metres or so long but the longest we found was over 3 kms. In some places the exit from one tunnel leads strait onto a high viaduct before entering the next tunnel a few seconds later. Quite awe inspiring given this is an island 500 miles out into the Atlantic. And they are still creating new tunnels to link up more remote parts of the island, meaning the trip to Funchal takes minutes rather than hours.
Our second memory is of the many rainbows which were of all shapes and sizes as sun and rain combined on a daily basis to form the beautiful colours visible all over the island. Everywhere we looked on some days there would be a rainbow, which against the green mountainous scenery looked stunning. It was time to move on however - our next port of call was to be in Isla Graciosa at the northern end of Lanzarote.