" like a floating garden"
08.01.2007 - 15.01.2007 -19 °C
Madeira January 2007
The island of Madeira is the largest of a handful of small volcanic islands in the Atlantic, off the coast of Morocco. With its mild climate year-round and fertile volcanic soil, Madeira is also known as the 'floating garden' and is famed for its wine and countless varieties of flowering plants. Formerly a Portuguese colony, Madeira is now autonomous but remains Portuguese-speaking and uses the Euro as currency.
Madeira lies around 370 miles off the west coast of Morocco, directly on what was once a key shipping route from England to South America. Discovered 'officially' by Zarco and Tristao Vaz around 1420, this small group of volcanic islands once formed a key stop-over point for merchants, where their goods could be traded and ships re-supplied. It's one of the few times Europeans have 'discovered' somewhere that was not actually populated at the time! Christopher Columbus lived in Madeira and studied navigation there (Note: this is a real can of worms .. some sources dispute this).
Madeira island itself is vaguely kidney shaped and around 35 miles east to west by 15 miles north to south. Although now long extinct, the volcanic origin of Madeira is still evident in the centre of the island which is steep and ruggedly mountainous, with the highest peak, Pico Ruivo, at over 6000 feet. There is amazingly little flat level ground on the island, but the gradients tend to be gentler towards the sea.
Summary of my visit
While accepting that is not the best time of year to go, I felt lucky in having only one day of rain out of the week I spent there. It was 19C (66 F) during the day , 15C (59F) at night.
I only saw Funchal. Clouds and rain covered most of the rest of the island and one couple from Manchester declared their day trip out of the city a waste of time because of the weather, so I concentrated on Funchal.
My nice studio for £15 ($30) a night and included a good breakfast buffet. Only problem is that the hotel was up a very steep hill .. about 8 stories above the main street level. I was on the 7th floor and had a great view, so there were compensations.
I cannot understand why this island attracts so many old people (primarily British, but there were also people from Scandinavia and Germany), because it is so hilly and walking is not easy. The climate is mild, but getting around not easy.
I visited two botanical gardens .. the private one is Monte Real Palace Tropical Gardens and is accessible by a cable car from the seafront in Funchal.
The garden is about 500 metres high, so it is an exciting journey up there. One of the things I enjoyed was this bird’s eye view of the city ; it is a civil engineer’s dream. There are complex roads, tunnels, bridges, streets with hairpin curves, steep embankments, etc. And it is densely populated, so the road system is a highly complex network.
The Monte Real Palace Gardens are impressive, splaying down a steep ravine with large mature trees and many flowers and plants of interest. There were several waterfalls and pools and multiple viewpoints with fantastic views over the city and Atlantic Ocean.
Of course I have to have a moan and in this case it is the ‘Japanese Garden’ …. a major feature which seemed very bogus to me. There are several red steel bridges and gates, a few Oriental statues … but none of the sense of beauty that I have seen in Japanese gardens in England or Holland … never mind Japan. No large stones, no raked gravel .. no sense of serendipity … no this is faux Japanese. I would love to hear a Japanese garden’s critique of this place. Note: I did not find any support for my opinion and Wikipedia even features the Japanese lanterns from the gardens as worthy of special mention.
What I don’t know about plants would fill a book, but I had never (knowingly) seen a hydrangea tree before (I thought they were houseplants or shrubs) ; alas, my attempt at photographing the tree was not very successful, but it was beautiful.
I caught a bus (No 48) at the top of the gardens which took a long winding route through suburbs back to the area near my hotel this proved to be even more hair-raising than the cable car. The bus driver from the airport was not the only dare devil .. all bus drivers seem to be speed freaks.
Light showers were forecast for Wednesday but I set out for the city centre and found that the rain had turned very heavy .. so got back to the hotel by noon and spent the day indoors reading. That night I woke up to ferocious gales which were rattling the balcony furniture. They died down enough by morning to go out and I took a local bus (No 31) to the municipal Jardim Botanical. At only 3 Euros, this was cheaper than the Monte Real’s 10 Euro entry and frankly, they were very impressive indeed. I have never been a big fan of topiary (the art of creating sculptures using clipped trees, shrubs and sub-shrubs) but I now realise that this was because so much of it I have seen (esp in Thailand) is of animals which I found a little too “cute”. Here the forms are almost exclusively geometric and are very striking.
I also enjoyed the contrast of the cacti garden with bougainvillea trailing down nearby walls. The cable cars were not operating due to high winds which persisted through the day.
In the early evening the high winds picked up again and as one of the cruise ships hooted its way out of the bay I was happy to be on dry land .. the Atlantic did not seem at all appealing. Luckily, that ended the brief spell of bad weather and although there were cloudy periods, the rest of the week was nice.
Next day I returned to the botanical gardens and took the cable car which crosses a vast canyon (the cable run is 1,600 metres and while the Website says it is 10 to 100 metres in height, it feels much higher at some points ; it is notable because most of the canyon under the cable line is undeveloped with raw rock exposed and many trees).
Madeira is famous for is irrigation canals which distribute water from the wet northern part of the island to the south. These narrow canals are slightly sloping and provide a vast network of walkways … but what no one told me was that many of them have a sheer drop with no railings and are not suitable for people (like me) who suffer from vertigo. Luckily, I talked with a couple in the hotel who warned me in advance and I found even the ‘beginner’ walk they recommended rather frightening.
Funchal is a compact city with small interesting gardens and a nice mix of old and new architecture. Most of the pavements (sidewalks) are tiled in grey and black mosaic. Which is very attractive but slippery when wet. When some of the global players (MacDonald’s ; Burger King), there are also many local shops and cafes. A very impressive building (with impressive service) was the local post office .. makes a British post office seem very Third World! Perhaps it was the post holiday slump, but I found the place rather dull as far as any bars or nightlife were concerned, but at least I fulfilled my goal in going there .. seeing the botanical gardens which were well worth the trip.
I found the restaurants to be in the international holiday mode – trying to cater for all tastes. My one restaurant experience was a fish dinner which was fairly mediocre. I suspect you have to go to a fine (e.g. expensive) place to get good authentic good food. The kitchen in my studio was more than adequate and the choice in local supermarket good, so I cooked most meals in my studio. I didn't get to Funchal market early in my stay but next time I will make it my first stop .. tempting fruit, vegetables and flowers and a real buss about the whole place.
Finally .. a recommendation about hotels. I found the Hotel Zone where I stayed a bit too touristy and not convenient for the city centre over a mile away. While everyone raves about Reid’s Palace Hotel, I suspect it is beyond most budgets. There is a fantastic hotel right in the city, the Hotel Porto Santa Maria. It has views of the sea, and is an old part of the city which appears to have good restaurants. At 130 Euros a night and up, it is not cheap, but from all reviews, is an excellent place.