Parkinson’s Law, the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion, can be applied to our stay here in Madeira. With two months in hand there is no hurry to do anything. Put off today what you can do tomorrow suits us well and we tend to wait for the weather to prick our consciences and coax us out of the apartment.
The weather is changeable. There have been quite a lot of rainy, windy and cloudy days, not cold, hovering round 20ºC, interspersed with sunny, hotter days when really there is no excuse not to venture forth onto a Levada which, after all, is one of the reasons we are here.
It’s lovely. Home from home. Our apartment is on the sea at Ponta da Cruz in the São Martinho district at the end of the hotel strip that stretches west along the south coast from Funchal. The big balcony faces south and we get the sun all day with spectacular views over the sea.
We are away from the winter gales and cold; the shabby, dishonest mess that England is in at present and the incessant unhappy news. Thank goodness.
It’s good to be back though Covid and the arrival at 70 seems to have slowed us down a little. The snap, crackle and pop of blister pill-packs accompany the breakfast organ recital of aches and pains : flat feet, lumbago, arthritic knees, backs and hips, sciatica and breathlessness!
We are now almost exactly halfway through our stay with a further month stretching ahead as I write.
This is another Tarry Tours odyssey and Richard is with us of course and we have been joined by family too. We are all agreed that “up” is bad, “along” is good and “down” inevitable. Of course neither “up” nor “down” can be avoided and there is a lot of both in Madeira. Fortunately the miraculous Levadas afford miles of “along” as they follow the windy contours of the mountains, impossibly precipitous, perilous and exciting; the views are breath taking; depending on how high we are, the weather can change. It is an island of microclimates at different altitudes, the fauna and flora changes, too, through these altitudes. Family Belinda & Philip are not included in these reservations – they strode up and down the mountains shaming us with their fitness and barely puffing.
Flat is music to our ears!
The engineering here is incredible. Before, even, Portugal’s entry to the EU, the work here to make the island accessible is nothing short of phenomenal. The Levadas alone are a miracle. Clinging to the rocky cliffs and conducting water along impossible mini-canals perched thousands of feet above the tight valleys where vertigo is always present, passing through hewn tunnels, under cascading waterfalls and always with breath-taking views across valleys down to sunlit seas under cloudy skies.
Back in the 90’s it was realised that to develop tourism here, the most important export, it would be necessary to make the island far more open and more easily explored.
At least 150 tunnels have been hewn through the granite to create a quite astonishing network of vias rapidas around and through the island making journeys that once took eight hours possible to complete in under an hour. The airport alone makes one gasp: a vast concrete platform on stilts stretches out, over the sea, towards the north-east at Camacha to receive and dispatch planes, the motorway winding underneath it towards Machico and passengers praying that all will be well at this tenth most dangerous airport on Earth!
And it’s high too. One of our walks was up to Pico Ruivo at 1,861 metres (6,106 feet) the highest mountain in all Portugal; we chose carefully, watching our Weather Apps because you’d not want to be up there in the wrong weather, particularly at this time of year. A few Februaries ago there was deep snow up here while down on the south coast you could be lolling in a lido and swimming in the sea.
The climb is short, only 5.5 kilometres, but steep; lots of stops for breaths and taking in the views on the way up and quite a speedy return down as the clouds closed in and we were enveloped in mist. “Down” is much faster even though the knees, methinks, do protest a lot!
We have clocked up fair distances along these miraculous little canals; often as much as 15 kilometres, never less than eight. Short distances from habitation can find you in wild, lonely but beautiful valleys; empty and quiet but for the buzzing of bees and twittering of birds, redolent of scents of mimosa, laurel and eucalyptus .
For a few days we hired a car. It extends your range more easily. Interesting driving here, I can tell you. The hairpin bends, the gradients – like the South Col – are demanding of driving skills. I was glad of automatic gears and power braking. Some of the roads are so narrow you pray you’ll not meet any oncoming traffic, especially a bus.
We have used buses and taxis and BOLT. Uber no longer operate. BOLT is a similar service but has far fewer cars, only about forty-five, the allowable limit, which means that the waiting time can be quite long especially if you are in an inaccessible part of the island. Uber said they couldn’t provide a decent service with so few cars and so pulled out of Madeira. I think the yellow cabs were quite relieved.
Home from Home it really is: we are a team of one sous- and two –chefs. There is an abundance of excellent food all over the island and right next door to us. Pingo Doce is the big supermarket chain, along with Continente and are stocked with everything. Their selection of fresh fish, shellfish and seafood generally, their fresh meat and vegetables are excellent and there is no excuse for us not to cook up a storm at home and produce fine food for ourselves.
And it’s cheap. I can’t believe how it’s possible that, bearing in mind practically everything must be shipped in, the costs are so low by comparison with, say, the Co-op in Manningtree or Waitrose and Tesco in Colchester – at home. Wines, beers and spirits are all priced lower with wine almost as cheap as fizzy drinks! A reasonable, quaffable white for example can come in at as low as €2.50. Gins, Aperols, Camparis, Vodkas are all lower than at home.
It’s true the fresh vegetable selection is not as wide as, say, Waitrose. Almost everything is available but just not at the same time. You always know when a shipment has arrived from the mainland when there is suddenly a huge abundance of, say, broccoli one day and beans and carrots another! Fresh herbs do not come all at once either but if you wait a day or two, they will.
Madeira has been declared a special economic zone and this could mean that product is not taxed as much and is therefore cheaper at the end point. I am not an economist but I would guess this might have something to do with the lower prices.
So – we tend to eat in and treat ourselves to meals out around once a week, being fairly strict about where we go. There are a plethora of generic, “International” restaurants with higher prices and unsurprising menus so we try to find places that specialise in local cuisine, Madeira style. Lots of Seafood of course but also pork, beef, lamb and rabbit. These are all things we have easily found in Pingo Doce too.
A lot of food is grown here on the literally thousands of impossibly steep terraces that hang on the cliffs, painstakingly built largely by manual labour over the hundreds of years that these islands have been occupied. Bananas of course; apples, grapes and market garden vegetables too – even strawberries. At different levels and matching the microclimate, cacti grow in amongst the fynbos or maquis making parts of Madeira remind us of Corsica or the Cape.
We like Fado. Not everyone’s cup of tea but its dramatic mournfulness has a certain appeal. Sabor a Fado is our favourite, in the Old Town, and we have visited several times. The food there is traditional too: plenty of seafood especially Lapas (Limpets) and Espada (Black Swordfish, available in few places in the world), Castanhetas and of course plenty of Tuna. The Espetada Madeirense , cubes of beef that are hung from skewers, well seasoned with garlic, course salt and laurel is good too. Bolo do Caco, a local bread is excellent, specially when filled with garlic butter as a starter, though you put anything into it really. Picado or Picadinho, small cubes of meat fried and seasoned in garlic and pepper with olives is brought on a platter to be shared. Good with a beer in the sunshine at lunch.
Fado’s not the only music we’ve listened to here. There are some good concerts too held in various places not least the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Diaz, a miniature 19th Century opera house where we were introduced to the Russian pianist Yuri Bogdanov who played a wonderful programme of Bach, Chopin and Schumann on his first visit to Madeira.
There are no beaches here to speak of. Swimming is in tidal pools off the rocks. This is basically an enormous volcanic mountain reaching from the depths of the sea to the pinnacle of Pico Ruivo at over 6,000 feet. A few resorts have created beaches out of imported sand but mostly the coast is lined with Lidos letting into tidal pools but always with a swimming pool too. Most hotels have swimming pools of course and some are connected to their own, private Lidos.
We have had a few days hot enough to bask in these lidos and swim off the rocks. The water is ‘refreshing’ to say the least! We are also content to loll about on our balcony which is a suntrap with views, books and ‘devices’ to hand.
Ponta do Cruz : our block overlooking the Lido seen here. There are many of these lidos all around Madeira.
There is a fantastic photography museum in Funchal, Atelier Vicente, which we visited one rainy day. It’s in a rather beautiful old building in the centre of town and was filled with fascinating photographs of the islanders, the island and old black & white views emphasising just how rugged and impenetrable it was before the massive investment in road, tunnel and viaduct building took place.
Before the astonishing airport was contructed, the only way here was by sea.
The English connection here has been a long one. Portugal is our oldest ally and Madeira was a stopping place for a lot of shipping bound for South Africa. The Union Castle Line stopped here and I was intrigued to find a photograph of the Pretoria Castle anchored in the bay.
My mother and father met on the Pretoria Castle, she returning from Scotland after her training at the Edinburgh Infirmary and he on his way back to Kuwait round the Cape to visit his parents, my grandparents, there. They’d moved to George, along the Garden Route, from England, to retire.
There were pictures of seaplanes too and the first air services here in the 1930’s, were from Southampton twice a week.
And now Vladimir Putin has rather wrecked things. The invasion of the Ukraine is a terrible piece of news. Is the world as we know it changing before our eyes? How ironic that the last time we were here, Covid was the bad news. We returned to London and almost immediately caught the virus and the world has not been the same, really, since then. Now, two weeks before we return this time, once again, it seems, the world will have changed even more.
It is a sad day. My blog seems rather irrelevant under the circumstances. I don’t much feel like continuing now, dear Friends, but thank you for getting this far and being with us on what has been a very lovely two months.
Much love to you all – lets pray we are not on the brink of World War III.