Funchal Harbour, Madeira

2020 03 15 - Impressions of Madeira

Let me preface this blog by saying that this was not a photography trip.  This was very much a holiday with friends, at a time in my life when I was desperately in need of a relaxing break.  The camera was just along for the ride.

We'd booked a holiday with our good friends Neil and Ruth who are regulars to the island of Madeira.  It was our first visit so we really didn't know what to expect.  Madeira is a Portuguese island (actually an autonomous regions of Portugal with its own local government) off the coast of North Africa. One of Europes top travel locations with a beautiful warm climate throughout most of the year.  Even though our holiday was in February, the temperatures were very warm. making me wonder what it would be like in the peak of summer.  The islands is very lush, with a huge mountain peak (Pico Ruivo) that rises sharply from the coast.  This peak is often shrouded in cloud, always looking to threaten rain.  The cloud seems to sit on the peaks, rarely covering the coastal towns.  This difference in climate not only brings differences in rain fall and temperature, but also gives amazing contrasts in colour.  The general tones of the towns are yellow and white but the mountains are lush greens.

We stayed in a regular haunt of Neil and Ruths, the Atlantida Apartments, Funchal.  These apartments are central to the islands capital city, Funchal, so are great place to base yourself.  Funchal has a population of over 110,000 people, which is vastly swollen by tourists during the peak season.  This is a port city, with cruise ships coming in daily bringing fresh gaggles of tourists keen to deposit their money into the local economy.  Tourism is clearly the main industry in Funchal, with bars and restaurants, shops and attractions all geared up to relieve you of the burden of cash in your wallet.  However, it still feels authentic.  There are the usual shops selling tat, but the town itself still has a soul and doesn't seem to have completely sold out to the tourists.  This is maybe due to there being a "hotel zone" several miles outside of the town where people can go and be slightly removed from the vibrant island life.

Incomes are not high on the island, and after talking at length to a barman (conversation in exchange for beer!) we discovered that life can be a real struggle for many.  Prices for food, white goods and luxury items are high as everything is imported.  Cars are especially expensive, going some way to explain why there is such a good network of buses.  As many people work in agriculture or tourism, wages are fairly low.  If you are the owner of a business, you will likely be quite wealthy.  As an employee, life can be tough.  However, the people are clearly proud of their city.  Crime is low, the streets are immaculate and the people very welcoming.  It's a very symbiotic relationship, they're there to help you, whilst you bring much needed income to the town.  

On that point, you absolutely should spend as much time in the town as you can.  Visit and enjoy the many restaurants to experience some very fine regional foods.  There are restaurants and bars for most budgets and you don't need to spend a lot to get a top quality meal.

It turns out that we had arrived in Carnival week.  Every night there was an organised parade of some of the finest Mardi Gras style costumes you can imagine.  Feathers and tassels galore.  From what we could ascertain, the local communities, suburbs and villages all put out a "team" of dancers with themed costumes, all shaking their thing.  The atmosphere was incredible with samba tunes blaring whilst you are surrounded by people enjoying the spectacle.      

Funchal has a very colonial feel to it, with architecture reminiscent of latin America. The pavements are works of art in themselves with intricate patterned mosaics.  Street cafes with waiters exercising their patter to entice you in.  Even in the off season as it was, there was a bustle to Funchal, a real, good natured hustle. 

Walking back to the apartments on the first night we saw a crowd gathered around a stage in the centre of the park.  We really didn't know what to expect, and certainly weren't expecting a Cirque du Soleil style performance.  Back in the UK you'd expect a few kids singing or dancing, parents clapping over-enthusiastically, everyone almost having a good time.  This was absolutely the real deal with acrobatics and singing that you would expect to pay good money to see.

As this is an annual festival I would certainly recommend that you consider visiting at this time of year.  Late February, early March.

I certainly don't intend for this blog to be a blow by blow account of our holiday so I'll hurry this along.  To help get yourselves acquainted with the island you should look to take a trip on one of the municipal bus services that serve the island.  We climbed aboard an ancient Volvo bus which seemed be driven slightly blind ex racing driver with very few inhibitions.  The road followed the coast line, which is rugged to say the least.  Tight turns, steep, blind bends, traffic hurtling around on the wrong side.  Exciting to say the least!  We visited Cabo Girão with its heart-stopping glass "sky walk" which looks down a nearly 600m sheer cliff face.  This was followed by a trip to a fishing village, Câmara De Lobos, and an opportunity for our pulses to slow down.

We found that the best way to see the island was by booking a taxi for a day.  The driver took us to some of the best view points on Madeira.  Again, whilst these were some of the tourist "box ticking" sites, nothing was tacky and the driver was very conscientious to make sure we only went to places that we were interested to see.  We visited churches, the highest peak on Madeira (Pico Ruivo),  coastal villages and some incredible view points.  This was probably the best day out that we had.  We saw so much and gave a real feel for places to return to.  

Another fantastic way to experience Madeira is by boat.  We booked a couple of boat trips with Ventura during our time there and were lucky enough to see dolphins and pilot whales.  It also offers some incredible views of the island

So this blog is about my impressions of Madeira.  So far we have covered Funchal and its vibrancy and authenticity, and I've skirted over some of the "tourist" activities.  However, for me, these certainly aren't the real Madeira that I am really desperate to return to.  We found that by simply walking to a few streets beyond the main zones you are very quickly into the real town, the town behind the polished facade, where the paint is pealing and the varnish cracked.  

Madeira is very popular with walkers due to its spectacular views and very mixed terrain.  There are a series of walks along irrigation and flood control canals called Levadas.  There are approximately 3000km of Levadas criss-crossing the island, each offering a very different walking experience.  To get to them, you generally just need to jump on a bus and watch out for the land marks mentioned in the guide book (I recommend the guide books by Shirley and Mike Whitehead for their simplicity and instructions on which buses to get).  There are mountainous walks, walks through lush forests, or more urban walks, following concrete channels surrounded by banana plantations and hotel construction sites.  By following these walks you see the real Madeira and I have to say, it's incredible.  There isn't a dull view and every turn of the trail brings something new for you to see. 

These walks open your eyes, you can see how tough life is outside of the main towns.  There clearly isn't a lot of money, a lot of the houses are derelict or similar in construction to shanty towns.   Where buildings have been vacated they have declined and eventually collapsed and left in situ.  Local people carry on with their lives around them whilst the plots remain vacant and overgrown.  A lot of homes were damaged by the severe floods that hit the island in 2010, the owners left in a position where the simply couldn't afford to rebuild.  Even in Funchal city centre there are many examples of derelict and damaged buildings

But this is Madeira. There is still pride.  Buildings are decorated with ornate architecture, vibrant colours.  Although faded and cracked in places they are still full of interest.  Aside from the obvious view points and scenery I as a photographers am fascinated by patterns, colour and texture, which are  in abundance everywhere you look.  From street art to street furniture, even the simplest door or fire hydrant offering a photo opportunity.  

It is these walks, these back streets, that are drawing me back.  We barely scratched the surface in our time there so I can certainly foresee us returning, camera in hand, to explore some more.

So my impressions of Madeira?  Relaxed but vibrant, sometimes broken but always beautiful.

The Real Madeira

I hope that you have enjoyed this blog, my impressions of Madeira from our brief time on the island.  Please, leave me a comment if you wish.

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