Exploring the island of Madeira
Driving around Madeira
The small island of Madeira has, at its heart, a passionate Portuguese community. Forget the fact that more Madeirans actually live in other parts of the world than on the island itself – that’s to do with economics rather than desire. The people from here love their home.
It’s easy to see why.
Physically, it is further south than the Portuguese mainland – off the coast of Morocco. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean surround it and they help keep a consistent and pleasant temperature across the seasons. Over the longer term – thousands and thousands of years – those same waters have cut away at the cliffs to produce dramatic shorelines.
Mountains become valleys which become other mountains as the land undulates constantly with barely a flat surface in sight. One moment you can be by the crashing waves of the ocean and the next climbing through the mountains, through fog, to views where those waves seem insignificant in context.
The main city of Funchal on the south coast is where the majority of the 280,000 residents live. It is spread out and never feels crowded, stretching up into the hills as much as along the coast. It’s a beautiful place and a wonderful introduction to the island – however, a trip away from the urban area opens up the beauty of the island.
My good friends Kash Bhattacharya and Sofia Vasconcelos live in Madeira and have offered to show me some of the local sights – the places which become much more accessible with a car-owning redsident.
We start by driving away from the coast, through one of the many valleys that make their way down to the water. Steep inclines on either side dictate the path of the road which follows a riverbed for much of the way.
We make our first stop at a small bar which serves the traditional refreshment ‘poncha’. It’s a rum-based drink that’s mixed with honey, sugar, lemon rind and fruit juice. The sweetness masks the potency and after more than one or two you start to feel the effects. We stop after the first one and make the most of the free peanuts on offer. The floor is apparently the best place to put the shells from the nuts and we do as the locals do.
To get anywhere in Madeira you need to drive through tunnels…
…and across bridges. Rather than driving over mountains or around valleys, the local authorities decided long ago it would be better just to let people go through them or across them.
We arrive at St Vincent on the north coast of Madeira. It’s home to just 6,000 people and feels even more laidback than the already-relaxed Funchal. Old men sit at cafes in the square, couples stroll through the church’s garden, a shop sells cassette tapes and toys in boxes faded from years of sunlight.
Buildings are constructed in harmony with the natural structures here and some seem to be a part of the rocky outcrops near the shore. The beachfront resembles the harshness of the landscapes you see across the whole island, which large rocks taking the place where you might expect sand.
As we drive further along the coast, heading west, the vivid cliffs provide the setting for the journey. The road again cuts through tunnels and the sheer drop on one side contrasts with the high mountains on the other. There isn’t much settlement here and small houses dot the land. We stop a couple of time to look at the views and I see towns huddled together near the water.
We drive down to stop at one of the towns. A few fishermen stand on the rocks as the waves crash around them. It’s a quiet community and most of the noise comes from the ocean. It rumbles across the small square and over to the houses and bars nearby. There are no other tourists here and, although it’s not far from the centre of Funchal, it feels much further.
Finally, as the sun begins to dip behind the mountains, we decide to chase it and not let the mountains hide those final rays. We drive back to the south of the island and then again head towards the west. At the end of the road is a place called Jardim do Mar and it’s here we settle into a table at the bar of a guesthouse called Maktub. The Portuguese cocktails seem fitting as we watch the sunset over the water. Other people have gathered here for the daily ritual of drinks and orange sky. Limpets are being cooked in one corner and offered around to the guests.
The day has gone quickly and as it gets darker I wish there was even more time to explore. There is so much to see here on the island. I think it would be unfair to say I’ve fallen in love with the place already – other than being a bit of a cliché, it’s also probably just more of a crush right at the moment. But I can certainly see why there is such passion from those who call it home.