Sunday, April 4, 2010

Madeira - beautiful Portuguese island

Saturday, April 3, 2010
Beautiful spring day in Funchal, on the island of Madeira, Portugal

We docked before our scheduled time of 7:30 and after our room service we headed to the pier. As we were waiting for a bus to take us to the entrance to the port, which we later discovered was a few mere feet away, our driver from Abreu Tours arrived – Miguel Pita. We spent a wonderful day with him from 9-4:15 and really, really liked the island. The weather cooperated wonderfully and it was in brilliant sunshine that we headed west along the coast. The island is volcanic with black sand beaches, incredibly steep and narrow streets, charming villages and churches, cliffs dropping to a breathtaking blue sea below, cows roaming the pastures…much more picturesque and quaint and interesting than I had imagined.

The island’s population is approx. 250,000 and Funchal has a population of 100,526. It is the capital and largest city. Funchal has a unique location on the island: a natural "amphitheatre" surrounds the city, with gentle slopes beginning at the harbor and rising almost 3,940 feet. This provides a natural shelter and was what attracted the first settlers. Madeira is an "autonomous region" of Portugal (self-governing, but established under the Portuguese constitution) and the euro is the currency. The inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, Portuguese. They speak Portuguese, vote in Portuguese elections and celebrate Portuguese holidays.

Madeira lies on the Gulf Stream, which makes the climate a mild, sub-tropical one. Both the water and air temperature averages between 60 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Bananas are in season year-round and there were banana trees in every imaginable area – two in one backyard, an entire field of them on a terraced hillside…incredibly large bunches of bananas in their blue bags so the animals do not get to them. Bunches grow only once a year on each plant (?) and can weigh up to 170 pounds. That is a lot of bananas!

Miguel was our escort for the day in a Mercedes van and we headed west to Camara de Lobos, a beautiful overlook of the coastline. Coincidentally, there were various vendors there and Gene bought me a beautiful brown fossil necklace. They had fennel candies and many cotton dish towels and other handcrafted items. Medeira embroidery owes its origin to an Englishwoman, Miss Phelps, who in 1856 started a workroom where women embroidered designs after the manner of broderie anglaise. Samples reached London and with such enthusiasm that embroidery became one of Madeira’s major resources with 30,000 women in the industry today. Winston Churchill visited the island often and painted! The small museum showed him at the waterfront with his canvas and easel. And the Royal Family from Austria vacationed there in the 1930s. It is not easy to get to today so imagine back then! It must have taken weeks just to get there!!

We continued along the coast to Cabo Girao. The flowers were in full bloom with hydrangeas, geraniums, hibiscus, agapanthus, fuchsias and euphorbias. And orchids!! Lots of orchids! We stopped to take the “poncha” drink – lemon juice, honey and brandy – and found a beautiful church. With the Easter decorations, the altars were beautiful in the wooden churchs with white belfry. And the vineyards are in everyone’s backyard – Malmsey, Verdelho and Tinto are made from the grapes

Ribeira Brava was next – along with passing through some of the 172+/- tunnels on the island! The hills and roads are just too steep to describe and the European Union has built them a fabulous infrastructure. Tunnels and tunnels and tunnels. The largest is over 3.1 Kilometers long (about 2 miles) and what used to take 4+ hours one way is now a ½ hour drive.

Canhas and then the steep drive through the forest to the plain of Paul de Serra, which was above the clouds!! Trees, trees, trees, windy turns, tall trees, cool temperature and then a COLD plateau at the top with desert-like landscape. The area has “levadas” (nature walks) past waterfalls, small craters…there are different walks for each day of the week. The pathway is beside a small channel (about 1 foot wide) where the water from the clouds and mountains runs down the mountainside. The island is not at a loss for fresh water. The walks can be escorted or done on your own and are at the most 7 miles.

Porto Moniz was the highlight -- the small village at the northwest of the island with incredibly scenic volcanic pools at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine black volcanic rock rising out of the clear, clear blue and green water in front of the deep blue Atlantic Ocean crashing behind you. Wow. It was spectacular. Plus there are restaurants at the water’s edge and a walking path through the volcanic rocks. Whalers used to depart from this town and it is the only sheltered harbor along the north coast.

We continued down the road through the newest tunnels to Sao Vicente and had a very hearty and delicious lunch in a typical café. Bountiful servings of chicken and barley soup, the best hot and crusty bread you can imagine and then a choice of an entrée (I had espada fish) with heaping mounds of rice, fried polenta, potatoes, cabbage, brussel sprouts and carrots! What a serving! Plus chocolate mousse or fruit salad for dessert. We couldn’t eat the ½ of it!! But we enjoyed trying.

There are three "typical" dishes in Madeira: 1) Tomato and onion soup is hearty, delicious, garlicky and should be eaten with hunks of artisan bread. 2) Espada, a long, black, really ugly, but unbelievably delicious fish native to the deep waters off the islands (I enjoyed this in the afternoon) and 3) Espetada, which is hunks of marinated beef grilled on a bay twig skewer.

I was getting nervous about getting back to the ship so we headed back and encountered a road detour due to the terrible rains they had in February. The mountain rain had widened the “contained” riverbank and, sadly, 53 people died and houses and the road were washed away. We drove through the dry riverbed today as the new road is incomplete.

Arriving back to the ship at 4:10 PM was slightly too close for my comfort but as long as we made it. I can’t imagine what a one-way ticket to Tangier Morocco would cost and the routing of the flights! We had hoped to get in to town to work on the computer and make phone calls but the ship was departing at 4:30. Beautiful sail-away in the sunshine and we could see the island is much longer than I imagined. Rocky cliffs are along the eastern half also and the airport. That landing must be interesting as you fly over gorges and then drop down straight onto the runway.

The beaches are black volcanic stones. The residents prefer the beige sand beaches on their neighboring island, Porto Santo – a 2 hour ferry ride away. The island appeared to be uninhabited and entirely covered in woodland and Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira named it “a ilha da Madeira” in 1419.

Wicker Toboggan Sled Run is the most popular activity starting from Monte at the bottom of stairs at Nossa Senhora do Monte Church. Monte is located north of Funchal and is about 2,300 feet above sea level. Visitors are transported 1.2 miles downhill to Livramento through the back streets at speeds up to 30 mph in large two-seater wicker baskets that glide on wooden runners. They are pushed and steered by two men traditionally dressed in white cotton clothes and a straw boater hat. They use their rubber-soled boots as brakes. The downhill ride lasts about 10 minutes.

Funchal Passenger Ropeway is a gondola lift that transports people from the lower section of Funchal to the suburb of Monte. The ropeway was inaugurated in November 2000. The time for the trip is 15 minutes with over 39 cabs with 8 seats each and they carry 800 passengers per hour. The upper station is near to the start of the Toboggan Run.

Workers market, church, museums…free wi-fi all over and very walkable streets as long as you take the hills in to account. Great port of call.

We decided against dinner and I went to the buffet and ate with friends. It is a very nice atmosphere up there with the linen tablecloths and more than sufficient staff to carry your tray, serve you and to dine in an open and airy area. Plus with our time zone changes, the sun sets very late so it is very pleasant as you look out upon the sea and sunset. And the choices are plentiful! Choose your own vegetables and create your own dish and dine less formally and quicker.

The show was Don Bryan and Noseworthy – a wonderful ventriloquist. We have seen him before and went to both shows tonight! The Final Four was on TV beginning at 11PM our time so it was a very late night.