The Psychology of Quality and More
Yet again we booked a pretty last-minute half-term jaunt from the bargain holiday web TravelZoo, this time to Madeira (W, M). The Atlantic island is Portuguese, though many speak English, perhaps echoing down from Charles II's marriage to Catherine and her dowry rights for British settlement. The island is wildly vertical, being the tip of an undersea volcano (thankfully extinct), with winding roads through pretty villages. A recent addition is dual carriageways on some of the main routes with many new tunnels that massively reduce travel times.
Friday 23 May 2008
Arrived at Funchal Airport 8pm and picked up by the friendly and chatty Geraldo from the hotel, who gave a constant narrative whilst hurtling through the Funchal dusk down dual carriageways through many tunnels and along windy mountain roads. The hotel Estalagem De Mar (M) is delightfully positioned right on the coast near Sao Vincente and our room has a lovely balcony with glorious evening view up the coast. A quick nightcap (Madeira wine, of course) and we unpack and head for bed, though with long gazing from the balcony. The sound of the waves from our balcony was loud and pure white noise, guaranteed to send anyone to sleep and keep them there.
Chillout day. Woke late, breakfast late. Wandered down flowered path to the delightful Sao Vincente (W, M), with its chapel in the rock, pretty streets, neat cemetery and craggy scenery. Wondered at helicopter warning sign (duck! Oops). Then meandered back to the hotel via nice riverside park. The river walls are really high here and the rivers quite small. When it rains hard they must turn into a serious torrent!
Rain. Hired a car and headed south. Amazingly, once we crossed the north-south divide, the clouds disappeared, so we set to exploring the south-west of the island. Ponta do Sol (W, M) is a delightful little village on a small bay, making a nice panorama. It reminded us of the eccentric Portmeirion in Wales. We took photos, had coffee and watched a local lad fishing on the rocks.
Then over to Calheta (W, M). The front there is something and nothing, with an artificial beach inside a concrete block breakwater, so we had a strawberry lunch (3 euros for a kilogramme) and headed west. Once you are off the major roads, the Madeiran roads are often steep, narrow and windy in the extreme. They are also flanked by endless flowers, many of which are flowering at this time of year, including a beautiful blue species.
Meandering westward we noticed a levada in Prazeres (W, M) and stopped for a stroll along its banks. Levadas are like mini-canals that hug the contours as they carry water supplies across the countryside. They make for easy, level walks, with interesting watercourse interactions and levada-side buildings.
Then up, up and up some more, over original cobbled country roads, up into cold clouds and the central mountain road (shame about the whiteout vista points). Then down to Santa in the west and up again. We stopped above Porto Moniz (W, M) to enjoy the panorama view, peer down at the town and worry about the snake road down to it.
The waterfront of Porto Moniz has had much attention lavished on it to woo tourists to the less popular north and west of the island. This includes a heliport, pools amongst the strange volcanic rocks, and a swimming pool that gets regularly attacked by Atlantic breakers. The sharply terraced cliff provides a marvellous backdrop to this pleasant town. We were amused there by a menu translations of strange pasta dishes.
Quickly back to the hotel via more of the many new road tunnels for dinner and a quiet evening read.
Left lights on overnight so car wouldn't start, but Geraldo from the hotel helped get it going (phew!). Headed east and soon encountered thrilling original Madeiran coastal road, carved from cliff, cobbled and little more than a car wide. Fortunately only met one other car before it widened out again.
Boa Ventura (W, M) was decked out for a celebration and its deep valley offered spectacular vistas. Also great panorama from above Arco de Sao Jorge (W, M), where another tourist took a photo of us. After many u-bands and vertical travel, we got to Santana (W, M) and its famous old A-frame houses. Aside from the preserved examples the sprawl seemed to lack character, so we moved on. Faial (W, M) was much nicer and offered amazing panoramas. Just down from a delightful church we found a nice English bar/café run by a friendly chap from Bristol. Then up and up via more wonderful scenery to Ribiero Frio (M) and a long lavada walk, past flowers, carved-out tunnel and very tame bird. Lunch under the trees then up, over and endless down via Monte into Funchal.
From there took the fast road back to Sao Vincente. We were out for only six hours but my shoulders ached from a million hairpin bends. Still wouldn't have missed it, though and was socks more fun than boring motorway driving.
Raining! So head south to Funchal (W, M). Light rain there fades and sun comes out. Parked in 'Dolce Vita' shopping centre (M) (for 3 euros for several hours) just west of the delightful Jardim de Sao Francisco (M) (which has famous Blandy's on east side, with Madeira wine tours and tasting).
The centre of Funchal is surprisingly pleasant, with patterned cobbled pavements, beautiful flowering trees and decorated side streets. The town hall has a nice square and delightful hallway and courtyard.
We didn't do any of the classic tourist sites, such as the cable car to Monte, preferring to wander around places like the delightful market, with its flower sellers in traditional dress, and other back streets. We sipped coffee in the main street and watched the local police in action under the flowering Jacaranda trees. Crime in Madeira is apparently very low (nowhere to run!). The shopping is very limited there and we had difficulty finding interesting gifts for the kids.
Sunny start so hurried up to Encumeada pass (M) before clouds formed. Superb 360' panorama the top. With coke machine, of course (middle of the Atlantic, middle of nowhere). Did 5 mile walk alongside levada, with its great panoramas, flowers, lizards, sluices and views. Torch too weak for tunnel. Darn. Never mind. Levadas are typically from 1-3 feet wide with a pathway of similar width alongside -- sometimes with nasty drops too.
Then coffee at nearby café watching clouds come in, then head on up into them and out above onto Paul de Sera uplands with its wind farms and cloudscapes. Stopped near Rabacal reservoir (M) and did upper (and quieter) lavada walk, which included interesting water slide, and obligatory panorama (back towards reservoir).
Down, down, over 3500 feet, with ears popping three times, to remote Ponto do Parga (W, M), its lighthouse and clifftop views. We had yummy fresh orange juice at the lookout loggia cafe. Then around to the quiet Seixal (W, M) with its rock swimming pool and peaceful harbour under the classic vertical terracing. Good views back across cliffs towards the hotel and Sao Vincente.
Back at the hotel we sat out in the evening light whilst reading Lee Child novels (this year's craze).
Last full day! Bright start so headed for the much-vaunted Curral das Freiras (W, M). Lots of up from Funchal and down through tunnel that has made this hidden Shangri-la far more accessible. Astonishing setting of a deep valley with stunning panorama (and 360' version) in a ring of mountains reminiscent of Andorra. Got wooed into café where the waiter took our photo in local headgear. Woohoo. Tried to go back via the old road but it was closed, so went back through the tunnel to get up to Eira do Serrado (M) viewpoint (next to the hotel). views there rival those from Yosemite's Glacier Point. I shot horizontal and vertical panoramas but photos just couldn't do justice to the breathtaking vista.
We'd planned to go further east, but Curral do Freiras couldn't be bettered so we headed back to Sao Vincente, where rain had set in. We visited the local caves, which were interesting lava tubes yet not as exciting as our limestone systems back home. At 8 euros per person it seemed too dear.
With a little time to kill we drove the old coast road to Seixal (turn right just at entrance to tunnels). There were rock fall warning signs out but, undaunted by fresh rocks in the road, I skipped out into the warm rain to take photos of the old tunnels, the twisting road and views up to the new road as it hacked a more direct route through the cliffs. A few yards further on, there was a resounding bang as a bit of the cliff attacked the roof of the car.
Back at the hotel we chilled out, sipping wine and reading novels. Then it brightened up so we went for a walk on the black volcanic sand beach and enjoyed the evening light and view back to the hotel. One last game of pool, which Eleri won.
Up bright and early to catch the plane home. Farewell hotel! It was our first time in Madeira but I suspect it won't our last. We definitely like this place.
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