February 28, 2022. 63°F/17°C
Naturally, being me, my first thought was “Madeira wine!” But then, who knows when we’ll ever be here again, so I signed us up for two tours, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, and neither of them wine-tasting.
We docked before sunrise. As it turned light, we could see that the port was quite busy. Beside us was the huge AIDAnova (from a German cruise line founded in the 1960’s that sails under the Italian flag, and has been operated since 2003 as a subsidiary of Carnival). Just in front of that was Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. Later in the day we were able to get a photo that showed the relative size of the Viking Star to those other ships. Now you know why they call this “small ship” cruising – and why we feel the motion of the seas more than the big ships.
Our morning tour was the included 3 hour “picturesque Madeira”, which took us by bus into the coastal hills around Funchal. Funchal itself is situated in a kind of amphitheatre-shaped depression surrounded by hills, which creates beautiful green vistas on 3 sides, with the brilliant blue ocean on the fourth.
We began by driving through stunningly gorgeous landscapes, and red-tile-roofed houses, all on steeply terraced hillsides, up to Cabo Girão. Every available space here is planted, either with bananas and sweet potatoes for export, old grape vines, or personal gardens.
Bananas are the largest export crop. Each plant has a life cycle of 11-12 months, during which it will produce a single bunch of up to 100 bananas. During the final month of ripening, the bunch is protected from insects inside a blue plastic“sleeve”. Once the bananas are harvested, the plant is cut down to allow new shoots to sprout, and the cycle begins again.
Trimming grasses on these terraced would be almost impossible. The mystery was solved when we saw tethered sheep doing the trimming.
Cabo Girão is the world’s second highest sea cliff (Europe’s highest), where we stepped onto the glass-floored skywalk 580 meters (1903 feet) above sea level! Yes, Barbie, I really did! Standing on the glass, and even on the open grid surrounding it, felt almost safer than the bus ride up. There’s something really unsettling about being seated high up in a coach, looking down at what seems like an entirely too short retaining wall (I’m sure it would feel tall enough in a car).
Speaking of cars, the houses here are so steeply built into the hillside that cars are often parked on the ROOF, which is at road level, with 3 floors of housing all overlooking the hill.
The island is irrigated using levadas, dry manmade canals and aqueducts created by hand beginning in the 16th century to bring water from high elevations and the rainier parts of the island to everywhere else, using “gates” that can be opened and closed to regulate the flow. The technology was Moorish, and many Moors were involved in building the levadas. The network has also created a popular tourist activity: hiking along the more than 2,170 km/1,350 miles of levadas.
On the way back down, we drove into the fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (“Seawolves Lair”), which was a favourite holiday spot of Winston Churchill, who regularly painted pictures of the fishing boats on his vacations here. The hotel where he stayed (the arrow below) now bears his name, and houses a restaurant and grill as well.
Since no excursion seems to be complete without food or drink, we stopped at a local bar to sample poncha, a local specialty made of white sugar cane rum, honey, and lemon juice in a 3:1:1 ratio. It must be really strong rum, because the poncha packed quite a punch! It was accompanied by lupin beans marinated in garlic and fennel, served on the table the way peanuts would be in a North America bar.
Having now had our adrenaline rush and the antidote, we had a short stop in Funchal itself to browse and marvel at the architecture, where Portuguese tiles decorate many of the buildings.
The streets themselves are also lovely to look at, many paved in cobblestone and bordered with wide pedestrian walkways patterned in native basalt and imported limestone.
We were able to visit the Funchal Cathedral, below, with its ornate ceiling made of indigenous cedar.
We then made a very brief stop back at the ship, grabbed lunch, and headed right back out on our second tour, which took us back into Funchal to visit the market and fish market. Again, beautiful tiles decorated the walls. Some of the most amazing stalls in the market were those selling flowers: orchids, lilies, freesia, birds of paradise, and huge pink protea (South Africa’s national flower) – all of which grow here in Madeira.
One of the most common fish here is the Espada, or black scabbard fish. Our tour guide suggested trying it before seeing it, since it is a particularly ugly fish. It lives at depths of 180 to 1700 metres. Madeiran fishermen do not have to go far from shore to catch it, since the island drops off steeply into the ocean.
One of the streets in the old town that had been falling into disrepair has been converted into a trendy alley of coffee shops and restaurants, with the ground floor doors given new life with paintings by artists from all over the world.
We walked directly to the cable car station to board one of the city’s cable cars for the 15 minute ride to Monte, at an elevation of 466 metres/1529 ft. A fellow passenger mentioned that the cars were exactly like the ones in Telluride Colorado, except that these in Funchal were made in Austria. Our destination, right beside the cable car stop at the top, was Monte Palace Tropical Garden, a 17 acre botanical garden showcasing exotic plants from all over the world. It seemed only fitting to visit a garden, since Madeira is known as the “Garden Island”.
The gardens also boast a lake, waterfall, pagoda, and dozens of wonderful sculptures. The walkways are bordered with pieces of 15th and 16th century Hispanic-Moorish tiles and a series of 19th & 20th century Portuguese tile panels depicting Portugal’s history.
We did NOT take the wicker basket option back down the mountain, although we watched a few hardy souls who did. This method of transport was originally used to get heavy loads, like wood, down the steep mountainside before the advent of cars and trucks, but is now mostly a tourist attraction. Two or three people sit in the basket, which is “steered” by two white clad men perched on either side; those men use their thickly-soled rubber boots as “brakes” if the basket goes too fast. Yikes.
Before returning to our ship, a few of us were dropped off in downtown Funchal again, specifically in order to visit the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which is a single nave church that boasts gorgeous tiles, carvings, and frescoes. We arrived during afternoon mass, so were able to peek in from the open doors, but not enter to take interior photos.
Absolutely everyone on both of our tours agreed that Madeira was stunning; we weren’t the only ones to voice a desire to winter here in the future. In the capital city of Funchal, rents are reasonable (certainly by urban Canadian standards), English is fairly widely spoken and included on signs, and the streets are clean and safe.
Although we didn’t walk far (I only just reached my 10,000 step goal), we did a LOT of stairs and hills today, and felt really ready for dinner, which featured a number of Portuguese specialties, and Portuguese wine.
After dinner, we enjoyed Assistant Cruise Director Sarah-Leanne Howe’s one-woman show featuring show tunes.
We go ANOTHER hour forward tonight. Fortunately, tomorrow is a travel day to Spain so we can sleep in.