Madeira Verdelho

James & Amelia Gould
Sat 1 Sep 2007 18:23

14 - 21 Aug 2007:  Madeira (Part 2)


Unusually for Portugal, the public transport in Madeira is not great with infrequent buses serving mostly the main towns along the coast.  We decided to rent a car for a few days so that we could get to some of the more remote spots on the island.  Initially we were told that as it was high season there were no cars available, and we’d have to wait for a cancellation.  A fruitful visit to the tourist office in Funchal resulted in us having a little Renault Clio delivered to the marina at Quinta do Lorde a few days later.  Unfortunately there were none of the cheapest cars available (we think it was a scam to make tourists pay more!).


Once we had the car we immediately set off to explore the north side of the island, following the old road along the coast.  The north coast is far more dramatic than the south, with vertical cliffs descending straight into rough sea stirred up by strong Atlantic winds (Madeira is home to the world’s second tallest sea cliff).  The old road has been cut into the side of these cliffs following the contours and twisting around the valleys and peaks.  Sitting on the passengers side was a frightening experience as often there was a sheer drop at the side of the road.  In some places the road was not wide enough for two cars and passing required one car to reverse a long way to a wider point.  When the cliff face was too hard or steep to hack around, roughly hewn tunnels had been dug straight through the mountain.  They were dark inside, with water trickling down the sides smoothing out the centuries old pick axe marks.  The views at each twist of the road were amazing, like no other place I had seen before (I don’t know how Amelia would know, she had her eyes shut for most of the ‘good’ bits…J).  The sheer abundance of vegetation and scale of the cliffs took my breath away (or it might have been J’s driving! A).  The skill of man to inhabit such a place, and make use of every flat-ish piece of land was amazing.  In Santana there was a small slope of land at the bottom of a steep cliff.  The Madeirans built a cable car down to sea level and cultivated the land – to this day the only way to get up and down is using the old rickety cable car or walk down a steep gravel path (imagine doing that with all your shopping!  Or trying to get a sofa delivered – there’s no Ikea here!).  The new road was nowhere near as exciting; most of it led through the mountains rather than around them in slick concrete lined tunnels.  It took us 30 minutes to return on the new road compared with the 2.5 hours it took on the old road.


Old Road Tunnel

Northern Peaks

Madeira North Coast
Santana Cable Car and Farm Land

Our first stop along the coast was Porto da Cruz, one of the oldest towns on the coast and a pretty little village nestled in a valley in the shadow of a big dark cliff.  The village was preparing for the Festival of our Lady and barbeque stalls were springing up along the sea front with huge slabs of meat hanging from hooks.  The meat was hacked to order into cubes that were then skewered onto young Laurel tree branches.  You were then given your skewer to cook to your liking on the half oil drum barbeque lit by the beach.


Madeiran Barbeque


Madeira does not have any natural beaches, and the north coast is especially lacking in places to bathe as the sea is so rough.  The Madeirans have overcome this by building tidal swimming pools on the edge of the sea, where seawater is pumped into a pool nestled into the rocks.  There were several of these scattered along the north coast, with the one at Porto Moniz being the most impressive as it incorporated the jagged volcanic rocks into the pool.


Sea Water Pool


Porto Moniz also hosts Madeira’s aquarium, which is housed in a fort built in the 18th century to ward off pirate attacks (ahaaar…J).  The aquarium had 11 display tanks showing the different marine habitats in Madeira and it was interesting to find out the names of the fish we had seen along the way.  James is now planning to catch some of these tasty morsels with his new shiny fishing gear! (She may mock, but just wait and see…J)


Madeira gets its fair share of tropical rain and is criss-crossed by fast flowing rivers which cascade down the steep valleys into the sea.  The early settlers in Madeira built huge levadas – an irrigation system designed to bring water from the high mountain springs to the farmed slopes below.  These channels were often cut into the side of the mountain, following its contours, with only a narrow path set beside them.  They allow access into Madeira’s indigenous forest, which was declared a UNESCO World Nature Heritage site in 1999, and walking along them is one of the main pass times in Madeira.  We chose to walk a levada that had been recommended by the marina staff on the northern side of the island.  It turned out to be one of the best walks I have done.  One minute we were walking through lush undergrowth dripping with water, and the next moment a gap opened in the trees and we get an incredible view down a steep ravine.  In some parts the levada was cut high into a cliff face and only the stout railings enabled me to overcome my fear of heights and carry on.  In others the levada led through a dark tunnel in the rock, where a torch and raincoat were essential.  The levada led to a natural pool at the bottom of a high waterfall where we stopped for a rest and to admire the incredible view before making our way back.  We did the same levada walk again with my dad the following week, and this time tried to play Pooh-sticks in the water flowing down the channel.  Unfortunately the sticks got stuck in a weir, and James had to go in and rescue them.  (Like a good husband, he made sure that my stick was rescued first! A)


Walking along a Levada
James rescuing Pooh Sticks

The other walk we did was to the North Eastern tip of the island, Ponta de Sao Lourenco.  The contrast with the fertile island we had seen so far could not have been more stark.  Here the landscape was barren, with only a few cacti and desert flowers growing out of the multicoloured volcanic rock.  The area is deserted and the only people who head out to the peninsula are walkers coming to inspect this windswept finger on the end of Madeira.  It was very windy during our walk, and we watched waves slamming into the rocks below on one side, while the sheltered side was calm and still.  The path led us over a very narrow ridge where the sea had nibbled away at the rock on either side until there was just a few meters left.  We wondered how long it would take before the sea broke through, increasing the number of islands in the archipelago.  We walked as far east as we could stopping to draw breath at the top of each steep climb it was much harder work than the gently sloping levada!


Multicoloured Volcanic Rock

Crashing Seas

The Narrow Bit!

Resting at the top


After seeing so much of the natural beauty of the island we wanted to find out more about its formation and origin.  The Volcano Centre and caves and Sao Vicente promised to teach us about the volcanic eruptions that gave rise to the high jagged peaks of the island.  Unfortunately they tried to cram in too many visitors into a short space of time and we were taken on a very fast tour of the caves and museum, with barely time to pause for breath and take in the sights and information.  The caves were formed by lava flowing through the soft rock, and there was evidence of the volcanic eruptions that caused them everywhere.  The caves also housed underwater lakes, filled with fresh water filtered through the immense rock above.


Sao Vicente Caves
Chocolate Mousse Lava flows


We returned to Funchal with my dad to visit the sights we missed first time around.  James and I went to the Photography Museum while dad visited the Religious Art museum.  The Photography Museum was once the home and office of four generations of photographers in the Vicente family, who recorded life in Madeira for over a century.  The museum had a fascinating collection of photographs showing how Madeira evolved and grew in the 19th century.  Then it was time for our now traditional visit to a wine making lodge – the Madeira Wine Museum.  We were taken on a guided tour through the buildings where Madeira wine used to be made, stored, and sold.  It was all reminiscent of the Port and Sherry tours we have already done, only Madeira wine is deliberately heated in the sun rather than kept cool in cellars.  The tour ended with the obligatory wine tasting, and we bought a bottle to add to our growing collection of fortified wines!


Madeira Wine Museum


We also took the cable car up to Monte again with my dad, to have a go at the toboggans and to visit the tropical gardens.  The garden covers 70,000m2  around the old Monte Palace Hotel.  It is filled exotic flora from different continents as well as some typical indigenous plants which we had seen on our walks around the island.  The vegetation is interspersed with classical statues, tiled paintings and stone work recovered from old buildings.  In one place was (supposedly) the tallest vase in the world, which was a rather gimmicky disappointment.  The garden also had an interesting museum with an exhibition of contemporary art from Zimbabwe and a mineral and gem collection.  Ed the Duck accompanied us on this excursion and became very friendly with the Koi Carp in the ponds (called Bob) – it was very difficult to tear him away!


Zimbabwe Sculpture


Quacking Carp!


We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Madeira.  We were surprised by how much there is to see and do here, and were taken by the beauty of the island.  We would definitely come back here on holiday, and highly recommend it as a destination.  It will soon be on the Low Cost airline routes, so book your flights now! (Before it gets trashed by Brits abroad…cynical J)