Drive around the island

Good Company
Richard and Janet
Thu 28 Aug 2014 09:40
Correction to the previous entry: the flood was in 2010 and the fire in 2013.

Last week we toured the island by car over two days. We didn’t have any choice of vehicle and we got a tiny Fiat Panda with 95,000 kilometres on the clock. It went well, but we often needed 1st gear to negotiate the uphill hairpin bends and some of the steep hills!

We first went to Santana on the north coast and saw the traditional A-frame houses, some of which have been preserved from when the first settlers arrived. They are very pretty with straw roofs and are brightly painted.  It is a pleasant little tourist town and we enjoyed our stop there. We then drove south again on a VERY narrow, windy road and seemed to meet a large coach on all the worst bends! It was very beautiful though, with amazing views down into the valleys. Again we saw how so much of the land here has been put to use.

We stopped at the village of Ribeiro Frio for a cold drink and then went on to see the 3rd highest peak on the island, Pico do Arieiro at 1818 metres. We stopped at a viewpoint on the way up to eat our picnic lunch and it reminded me very much of Table Mountain. There were views of the sea all around us and the vegetation was similar.

At the top of the peak there were amazing views in all directions. This reminded me of the Grand Canyon on a smaller scale. We could see the village of Curral das Freiras, built in the crater of a volcano. We later went to another viewpoint with even more dramatic views of this interesting place. It was named ‘Valley of the Nuns’ when the nuns from the convent in Funchal took refuge there from French privateers who attacked the town in the 1500s.

After looking around the ever present souvenir shop we headed further south and came to the outskirts of Funchal. I was the navigator and tried to find the express way to head west but somehow we landed up on the tiniest, steepest back streets. It was quite hair-raising, but Richard managed to get us out of there all in one piece!

We then headed north again on another road with many hairpin bends, at times only wide enough for one car, with alcoves to pull over into if another one came... and more steep cliffs down to the valleys. We were making for Eira do Serrado. There we had closer views of the village in the crater, quite spectacular when you think how difficult it must have been to get there 600 years ago! It wasn’t even that easy until a few years ago when a tunnel was made through the mountain. We could see the remains of the old road, and it looked far worse than any we had been over.

We didn’t actually visit the village as we were all ready for home by this time and so we set off back south to Funchal and found the express way. We called in at the supermarket in Machico and bought some food, including a piece of sirloin steak to put on the braai (barbecue). When we got home we enjoyed a delicious meal and made plans for the next day’s drive....

On day two we headed along the express way past Funchal to our first stop of the day, Cabo Girao. This is one of the highest cliff faces in Europe at 589 metres. There are beautiful views below and towards the city, and we had fun walking out onto the glass sky walk built in 2012.

After avoiding the souvenir shop’s delights again (apart from perusing some open calendars to make sure we were seeing most of the major sights) we headed off to Sao Vicente on the north coast. This is where we saw the major construction of a new canal, after we turned off from Ribeiro Brava. The road was good and we reached the other side very quickly. We stopped off at a little bay to watch some surfers - this area reminded me of the southern Cape coast.

After that we drove west though the town of Seixal, so named for the number of stones on the beach, although to me there are millions on every beach here. Interestingly, there is only one beach with natural (black) sand and it is in the bay next to the marina. The other towns with sand (Machico and Calheta) have had yellow sand imported from the Sahara! At Seixal (pop. 656) we had our lunch on a bench under some trees and watched the waves filling a tidal pool below.

On to Porto Moniz, at the northwest tip of the island, where for the first time, there were so many people and no parking that we decided to give it a miss and drive on. It is famous for its natural swimming pools and is very popular with the Madeirans. It reminded me of some of the resorts on the south coast of Natal.

We then took a detour (looking for a toilet!) and by chance found one of the most interesting places, not even mentioned in the guide books. After taking a minor yellow road to Achadas da Cruz we saw a sign for a cable car. After following yet another windy, narrow road we came upon a lovely little cafe and a tiny cable car station.... and a toilet! Two small cable cars go down to the lower village which is so remote that there is no electricity nor phones... we met a lady in the cafe, Fatima from South Africa, who has lived here for 19 years and is now building a stone house in the lower village. The most amazing part is the separate cable car made of wicker which is used to transport the local workers and produce up and down the mountain!

Richard and I decided to go down (a steep 451 metres in five minutes) while Kevin and Lise sat at the cafe and enjoyed the view and a cold drink. The sea below is rough and uninviting, but the valley itself was beautiful and peaceful. We went back up with a Madeiran couple who told us how the villagers used to go down by path only! It is amazing what people will do to be able to farm on a reasonably large flat piece of land.

We then headed to Calheta, through forests that reminded me of roads around Falmouth, Cornwall, with ferns all along the roadside. There we came to a totally different atmosphere in a real tourist town... with sand from the Sahara and flat uninteresting swimming areas. We also searched for a place to park here as we wanted to see the marina. We were very glad not to be berthed there but happy to find a shop with the second grab rail we needed. Then it was time to go back east towards Funchal, find the express way again and head for home. We ended a lovely day with a good meal at the Captain’s Pub, where once again there was pleasant live music.

Photos will follow in the next post