To one in search of that peculiar influence known variously as “local colour,” “atmosphere,” and by other generic terms, the first glimpse of the place affords some small disappointment. Not as regards scenery, nor the appearance of the inhabitants. These are all that can be desired by even the most ardent searcher after the unhackneyed. Nevertheless, in Funchal itself, English signs and legends—in every other respect most welcome—meet the eye in too great a profusion for the jaded taste of one who would avoid commonplace phraseology. When one has passed by a number of shops, each of which advertises its owner as a “dealer in Madeira curiosities,” by another which calls attention to various well known brands of Scotch whisky and cigars, and by yet another that is a tea-room of the latest and most approved order, a doubt commences to assert itself as to whether an English town has not got upon the wrong side of the ocean amidst these mountains and palms by the side of the blue water.
A couple of days in Madeira, just to remind ourselves what sunshine looks like.
Madeira seems like it should be a marvellously easy and unstressful foreign place to visit—written Portuguese is often pretty easy to puzzle out, if you’ve already encountered a few Romance languages; much of the signage is helpfully multilingual; almost everyone seems to speak English anyway; and the place is thoroughly geared up as a tourist destination. Added to that, the Madeiran people seem to be extraordinarily laid-back, helpful and generous with their time.
Maybe that’s what makes it so popular with English people. All along the pretty promenade in Funchal, the main language to be heard was English. In the busy restaurants and cafés, English voices were all around, punctuated by the occasional low mutter of German.
Our hotel seemed to be entirely populated by elderly couples from the Home Counties, who operated on a toxic overdrive of disorganization, anxiety and demanding behaviour—so the public areas rang to the sound of loud peremptory instructions being issued in plummy Received Pronunciation to the heroically indulgent staff.
Funchal waterfront, with its spiffy new gardens, public statuary and promenade, is a nice place to stroll or sit, but the huge new liner pier means that one or two cruise ships disgorge into the area every day, and you can find yourself suddenly mixed up in a crowd of name-badged people, being shepherded on to a tour bus.
A lot of people enjoy the plants and flowers along the shore, but I was drawn to the new erosion defences—giant interlocking concrete blocks called tetrapods, each one weighing multiple tons. I’d have paid good money to see how they put them in place.
The main thing about Madeira is that it is mountainous. Really mountainous, everywhere. Big green mountains, often cloud-capped, push up to well over 1500m, right behind Funchal. Every road seems to be strung together from steep ascents, sudden curves, abrupt drop-offs and unexpected tunnels. The international airport is sandwiched into a thin strip of coast, with its runway poking out into the sea on stilts, as you can see in this video from an Airbus on finals:
We’d decided to avoid the coastal strip of mega-hotels and had booked into a smaller place in the Funchal hinterland, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the waterfront. The fifteen minutes proved to be on roads that could be described as “intermittently precipitous”, and which were often too narrow to provide dedicated space for pedestrians. So each trip into town turned into a game of “dodge the traffic”—leaping into doorways or between parked cars as the local drivers hurtled past. (Though it has to be said that the Madeiran pedestrians simply ignored the traffic, occasionally deigning to move their shopping bags out of the way as a car whisked past an inch from their elbow.)
Madeira is the only place in the world I’ve ever become travel sick during a five-minute trip in the back of a taxi—there’s something about the extra plane of movement afforded by Madeiran roads (pitch-up and pitch-down as well as turn-left and turn-right) that plays merry hell with my vestibular system.
Another product of Madeira’s hilly terrain are the carros de cestos, the wicker toboggans that run down the hillside from the village of Monte to the outskirts of Funchal, piloted (if that’s the word) by two carrieros wearing straw boaters. Our guide assured us that these had been invented by an Englishman, but I’ve been unable to find any confirmation of that. They used to run for six kilometres over steep cobbled streets, but now the descent is a more modest two kilometres on tarmac. Here’s some action video shot by an intrepid traveller:
You’ll notice, from the road markings, parked cars and cross-streets that the carros share the tarmac with more conventional vehicles. However, there’s no truth in the rumour that carro de cesto is Portuguese for “really embarrassing way to die”.
Madeirans gave the impression of being cheerfully but constantly at war with their own island. The landslides, the flash floods in narrow ravines, the forest fires—everywhere, there are scars on the landscape and massive engineering projects designed to protect Madeira’s cluttered infrastructure.
In fact, the landscape made me slightly headachy with its complicated interplay of the human and the natural—in the midst of exuberant vegetation, it seems that every horizontal surface contains a building, a garden, a plantation or a graveyard, and every slope that’s not entirely vertical is crossed by a system of poio farm terracing or one of the old levada irrigation systems. I was left anxiously wondering if there was any place on the island from which it would be possible to have a view that didn’t feature a clutter of pantile roofs and and steeply terraced fields.
So that was our (very limited) encounter with Madeira. We liked the relaxed, friendly café culture, but were a little oppressed by the cluttered environment and the bus parties. And at times I got the very strong sense that I might have fallen into Dave Hutchinson’s fictional “Community”—a parallel Europe that had been entirely colonized by English people.