Marvellous Madeira

Why visit Madeira?

Somewhere back in 2009, when we had a week to spare for a holiday, Marina suggested a trip to Madeira. I was originally not so keen. This Portuguese island in the relatively cold Atlantic Ocean, West of Morocco and far to the North of the Canaries, is not the typical beach paradise with white sands and coral reefs. And since many greengrocers in South Africa, where we grew up, appear to originate from Madeira, I was expecting a rocky island dominated by vegetable gardens.

Well, there was certainly a lot of (volcanic) rock, more about that later. But I was not prepared for the beauty and variety offered by the island. I’m sure this post will provide proof.

View over part of Funchal, the capital, as seen from the cableway up to the botanical gardens.
There was a great variety of vegetables and fruit on sale at the market in town, including many types not known to us. Marina can never stop herself from buying lots of fruit.
If you like fish, this is a good place to be. This very well-organised and very clean fish market was the right place to buy bacalhau or fresh black scabbardfish (the latter seen at bottom of this image).

I am not a great lover of fishy dishes but I did very much enjoy the Madeiran signature dish of scabbardfish fillets with banana, yummy!

Flower stall in the weekly market, showing only a small sample of the various flowers that we saw all over the island and in the Jardim Botanico da Madeira.
One of the ornamental ponds in the botanical garden. No the Manneken Pis lookalike is not wearing a mask – it’s just the sunlight on his face. And he is not an exhibitionist, he seems to be sitting on some sort of turtle fountain.

This island is just fantastic for anyone who likes walking. Naturally, there are many steep slopes (and they are very steep!) but there are also very many walks along the routes taken by the levadas. These concreted water channels run along the contour lines around the island, taking rainwater from one side of the island to the other. They are almost perfectly horizontal, so that the very very gentle slope allows water to flow slowly. And the footpaths along them allowed walkers like us to also stroll at a relaxed pace. Following them through valleys and across ridges, they offered us ever-changing views.

Strolling alongside a levada into a green Madeira valley.
We’d rented this little Opel to get us around the island. The rental company had tried to convince us to take a larger car with a stronger engine (“We have steep mountains here…”) but that proved totally unnecessary.

The little Opel Corsa was just ideal for that week. It easily took us everywhere (the roads were excellent) and it was good to have as small a car as possible. I remember a drive through one particular village when we had to take some side roads because the main road was blocked by a church procession: Priests with incense leading a large crowd of people, some of them carrying statues of saints, etc. Certainly no place for a little car with tourists to squeeze through. Anyway, we diverted through some interesting parts of the seaside village, on roads that got narrower and steeper. Eventually, there was literally less than a handbreadth separating the bodywork from the houses on either side. Faced with yet another turn on an incline, we threw in the towel and reversed, which was also quite challenging! There was no alternative but to return part of the way and wait for the procession to end. We did that, and took the opportunity to take in the view and to take the following picture:

Very symbolic image from Madeira: Volcanic rock jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, a monument to the maritime history, and a selection of flowers. Oh, and blue skies, we did have quite a few of those too.
View from a rather steep climb up the mountain, over our hotel below. Marina acting like she is catching some sunshine, but she was mostly catching her breath.
In our family, seeing a sign like this is not a warning, it’s an invitation.
… and after accepting such an invitation, you get to experience sights like these.

Madeira is the top of a shield volcano that rises some 6,000 metres from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. We can therefore only experience the top 25% or so. It’s had a complicated history, starting some 100 million years ago. Various phases of volcanism were interrupted by some quiet times with sedimentation. The last known time of active volcanism was some 6,500 years ago, so I guess we are now enjoying some of the more quiet times in the island’s existence, long may these last! More about the Madeira volcano on this website.

A panorama picture taken at Sao Lourenco, the eastern tip of Madeira. There’s some rather dramatic geology: The broad dark rock bands are mostly basalt (lava flows) and they are separated by narrow reddish bands that indicate quiet times when soils started to form on top of the lava flows. The vertical structures that look like ladders are dykes formed by magma feeding other lava flows higher up (now eroded away).

The volcanic soils on this island, combined with the high rainfall, are clearly very good for the plantlife, of which we saw a beautiful variety:

Driving along one of the many excellent roads, massive gum trees looming in the mist.
Orchids everywhere, not only in the botanical garden.
… and some more orchids.
A variety of shapes and textures and colours.

Although many seafaring nations (including Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Arabs) must have passed by and maybe even landed, it appears that Madeira was uninhabited until 1419 when the Portuguese landed.

Some old naval cannon overlooking this village, presumably placed here for decorative purposes. Getting these heavy monsters up here from a ship must have been quite a task!
We took this slightly posed picture as a joke – to tell our kids that we were buying the house as a “fixer-upper”. The garden was already lovely, even though it was already invading the house itself. One wonders how our lives would have progressed if we’d actually bought something like that…
Typical seaside town, facing more or less towards the Southwest, over the black volcanic rock/sand beach, towards the Atlantic ocean.
The cerveja here was quite good, and well-named, too!
Sunset over the Atlantic. When faced with a view like this (as with all sunsets) I always feel sad that another day is gone, but happy to have experienced it. Wonder if we’ll ever be back there? I hope so.

That week is already more than 10 years in the past, unbelievable. Writing this post has brought the memories closer again and I hope it’s given you a brief opportunity to “travel” as well.

3 thoughts on “Marvellous Madeira

  1. Hallo Ron en Marina, wat een mooie reizen hebben jullie gemaakt echt schitterend je moeder vertelde daar ook graag over en als je daar was kwamen heel wat foto’s op de laptop voorbij. Groetjes Theo en Nel


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