Madeira – March 2019

Arrived in Madeira the morning of February 28th around 11 am; a two hour flight from Lisbon. Our friend Susan had been to Madeira and told us that the landing strip was very interesting; I really didn’t need to know that! As the plane approaches you see this rocky island in the middle of the ocean and the airstrip is basically hanging on the edge of the cliff. A good landing, but I will say that I was hanging on to him for dear life. People started clapping when the plane made its’ safe landing….is there something we should know!

The reason we chose to come to Madeira, besides not having been here before, is that Robin’s mother’s ancestors were from Madeira. His grandmother and grandfather immigrated to British Guyana at the end of the 19th century. Robin thinks that they came to Guyana as indentured labourers and would have had to work through a period of indenture prior to being given their freedom. My sister in law, Suzanne might be able to shed more light on this assumption.

The gentleman who picked us up at the airport, which is about 20 minutes away from Funchal (the capital of Madeira), informed us that this weekend was the start of Mardi Gras. He certainly got very lively when he found out that Robin’s ancestors were from Madeira. Told us that Madeira was the best island, way better than the Azores! He also gave us a long list of the foods we must try. He said the many types of bananas are grown on the island and they are exported all over the world. Also, lots of cane sugar is grown. He said we must try the “bolo de caco” bread, a white fish served with bananas, all the various pastries and of course, Madeira wine. When Robin asked him about malasada (a pastry Robin remembers from Guyana) his smile was incredible. He told us that in Madeira the malasada is quite large and served with a cane sugar honey. He told us that it was a tradition to cook the malasada just before lent, to use up the lard and sugar in the household. They also discussed bol de mel, which in Madeira is called “bolo de mel”. He also told us to try a traditional Madeira drink called “poncha” made with lemons, oranges, sugar and white rum.

We have rented an apartment for the four days that we are here. After getting settled in, we venture out to get to know the city. Our first stop is the local market, Mercado dos Lavradores and find a fruit vendor. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fruit and lots that I am not familiar with. This island is after all a semi-tropical and grows its own fruit, a lot of which is exported. As we are speaking to the fruit vendor, we said we wanted some bananas. He was quite the salesman. He told us he carried about 8 types of bananas and we walked out with several different kinds which he hand picked for us. Have now tried most of them and each variety really has it’s own taste, all very good.

As we walked into the market we saw flower vendors. These are all women and they all wear traditional clothing.

The tile work at the entrance of the Mercado

The flower lady dressed in traditional clothes

We decide to stop for lunch and we split a sandwich made of the “bolo de caco” bread. The bolo do caco is a flat, circular bread, shaped like a cake and thus called bolo. It is traditionally cooked on a caco, a flat basalt stone slab. The bread is usually served with garlic butter. We ordered one with shredded chicken and it was delicious. Robin decided to pair his with a glass of Madeira wine….it is after noon, so that is allowed, right?

As I walk over to look at the bread, one of the ladies was making a fresh batch, an older gentleman sitting down having his bica (expresso) says to me….”Bonjour Madame”. So I reply in french and we start a short conversation. He is quite a character; he tells me he is going to be the next President of France! He tells the lady making the bread what he has just told me (in Portuguese), she burst out laughing.

Robin and I have often commented as to the many times that people start speaking to me in French; I guess I must have that look!

I go back to our table and lo and behold the older gentleman follows me and asks our permission to sit down. I tell him that Robin cannot speak french but will understand him is he speaks slowly. Once again he introduces himself that he will be the next President of France. He then tells us that he spent thirty years working in France and that his two sons were born there. He came back to Madeira when he retired as he was born here and he calls this his home. We spoke a little longer and then he left. A good chuckle!

We continue walking to Rua de Santa Maria to check out the restaurants. The representative of the management company had gone over where to go to eat and what to see. A charming small lane with all types of restaurants, but mainly seafood.

The doors of the various shops and restaurants are all painted depicting various scenes or people, very peculiar, have never seen this anywhere else.

We then make our way along the promenade, Avenida do Mar and visit the old abandoned Forte Sao Tiago. Believe they are turning the space into art galleries and a museum. Further along we see the cable car, Teleferico do Funchal. We decide on the spur of the moment to take the cable car to the top, an area known as Monte. The length of the ride is 3,200 metres (about 2 miles) and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Beautiful views of the city of Funchal. The most amazing sight are the gardens which are planted on the hills, all of which are terraced.

When we get to the top I told Robin that I had read about these “basket rides” that one could take down the hill. We weren’t sure what this was all about, so we watched a few people go down. The “Carreiros do Monte” have been operating for over one hundred years. Historically they were used to bring people down from the hilltop village of Monte down to Funchal. Also used to transport their produce for market. The baskets are guided by two men, called “carreiros” and they have special leather boots that they use for breaking/slowing down the sledge. The sledges are made out of wicker and sit on two wooden runners. The trail runs 2 kilometres down the hill. We decide, what they heck, only here once, might as well do it. Halfway down the hill, the carreiros stop and grease the runners.

The ride was so worth it; lot’s of fun and something unique.

On our way back to the apartment, we stop at a small coffee shop and we indulge in malasada and cane sugar honey. This was very special for Robin as these were made in Guyana. Very good.

We were told that this weekend is the start of “Carnival” and that there will be a parade on Saturday night.

We go out to one of the fish restaurants that we saw earlier in the day. I always have to laugh when the waiter says to me as “yes, my lady” . I opt to have the “filete de espada com banana e mara caja” (scabbard fish fillet with banana and passion fruit). I know that this must sound like a weird combination, but it is very good. A specialty of Madeira. Robin has the tuna steak Madeira style (Bife de atum a Madeirense). Both were very good. A musician playing at the restaurant made for a lovely ambience and evening.

On Friday, March 1st we are picked up by a tour guide in an ex-military jeep. I had arranged a tour of the east side of the island and the west side on the next day. On Friday, we were joined by another couple visiting from England. Our guide, Ricardo, was born and raised here in Madeira. The top of the jeep is pulled back and Robin and I are sitting in the back. We stop at an outlook at the top of Funchal and view the sights of the city.

We then do some cross country off roading and head to Pico do Arieiro, a mountain which stands at 1,810 metres high (5,938 feet). To get here we have driven right through the clouds. We asked Ricardo to put the top back on the jeep as we were all quite cold. We had been told by the tour company to come prepared for cold, so thankfully Robin and I had brought sufficient clothes, including our hats and gloves. The views from Mount Arieiro look down into the Valley of the Nuns. Absolutely spectacular views from here, but very windy.

As we are about to get back into the jeep, Ricardo introduces us to his cousin, Diego who is also a tour guide, but with another company. The two of then are hilarious, kidding with each other and the rest of us. Diego tells us that we should really be touring with him as he is much better looking!

Ricardo borrowing my scarf. His cousin Diego says he dresses like a girl for carnival!

We continue and stop in a small bar along the way, really in the middle of nowhere. Ricardo goes behind the bar and tells us he is making us all a poncha. This is the Madeira drink made of white rum, sugar, lemons and limes. I also ask for a galao (latte) and he makes it himself as well. The bar tender/owner just lets him go about his duties. We drink the poncha and wow….what a kick! We find out that the white rum is 50% alcohol. Having said it had a kick, it was good.

Our guide Ricardo, Robin and Pete and Sandra from England

The ingredients for Poncha. The stick is called a caralhinho stick and used to mix the ingredients.

When I asked Ricardo how to spell Poncha….he writes in my little notebook “BEER”.

Then continue our tour. Our next stop is a small village where traditional Madeiran homes still exist. We visit this tiny house and garden and the owner gives us a shot glass of a home made coffee liqueur.

That is Ricardo’s hand trying to cover up the naked parts of the statue as I am taking a picture!

In this same small village we stop for lunch. A little out of the way place mainly for locals. The meal is a set menu and we get the garlic bread, meat skewer’s of beef and chicken (called espetada) served with a salad, french fries and milhofrito ( a side dish of corn, kale water, garlic and olive oil mixed together, shaped into squares and fried). Wine and desert was also included at a very reasonable cost. The meat was so tender. Ricardo told Sandra that she must eat the chicken with her fingers. If she used a knife and fork she would leave behind the most tender part attached to the bones.

Along the way when we are going off road, Ricardo stops along the way to show us native plants, herbs and fruit. At one point, he almost falls out of the truck trying to reach some fruit. He would simply show us how to eat the fruit and tell us it didn’t need to be washed as this was organic, growing in the forest. That is so true. During the day we tasted Japanese plums (really yummy), sugar apples, guava and banana pineapple. All fruit we would rarely see in Canada.

Ricardo standing on top of the jeep to reach some fruit for us to try

He says that a lot of the older generation still use the herbs that grow wild to help with different ailments. He said that his mother and grandmother taught him the herbs’ various uses and he uses them when necessary.

The views along the coast in the afternoon are incredible and ever changing.

Our last stop of the day is about a 1/2 hour walk along a levada. A levada is an irrigation canal that is specific to Madeira and the Azores. In Madeira they were built centuries ago to help bring the water from the northwest of the island to the south, which was drier. It helped with agriculture and sugar cane production. Ricardo explained that farmers are allotted a certain time of the day/week where they divert the water from the levada to their fields. Along the way we can see the small gates where the diversion takes place. They are still used today. Ricardo told us that when he was a small boy, his job was to help his father with the sluice gates. They would put cow manure at the top of the field and when the water would begin its diversion, the water would mix with the cow manure, thus providing fertilizer in the fields.

Levada walk

When one sees the small villages on the island, you wonder how they make a living. Ricardo tells us that farming/agriculture is a way of life here. Although is is mountainous, we have seen the terraced fields every where during our travels. You see cows, sheep and goats munching away on very steep slopes. The types of crops that are grown depend on the altitude of the land. More tropical fruits and vineyards at the lower elevations and root vegetables at higher elevations. Everything that is not used for personal consumption is sold.

At times when we were back roading, we would stand up in the jeep, quite a thrill. Got back into Funchal around 5 pm. A full day of seeing this beautiful island with its’ varied terrain and temperature differences, with a very knowledgeable guide. During the day, we kept running into Ricardo’s cousin Diego and the people he was guiding…lots of jokes by these two cousins.

A lovely dinner on this beautiful night and we were able to sit outside.

On Saturday, March 2nd, Ricardo picks us up to tour the west side of the island. This side of the island is not as forested and has a larger population living off agriculture. We were the only ones on the tour today….but who do we run into on our first stop which is a mirador…..Diego with some Portuguese tourists….the jibbing between the two cousins continues. There was a glass bottom walkway at this mirador.

We continue and stop for our first coffee and poncha. Another little town with a bar and once again Ricardo goes behind the bar and mixes us fresh ponchas. In addition, the woman who runs the bar, gives us a small glass of her home made liquor. She uses white rum and puts in all kinds of herbs. Home made liquor is illegal, so when locals make it, they put it in empty liquor bottles to hide the fact it is home made. We had a little glass and must say it was quite good.

Guess who walks in…yes Diego. He grabs my phone and does a selfie of the two of us….he says so I never forget him!

We continue to drive up the mountain and see fish farms in the ocean. Great views everywhere one looks.

We pass several small stone huts along the countryside and Ricardo explains that these small huts are the original houses of the farmers. He told us that Germans are now buying these huts and expanding them to make summer homes.

Some of the off roads we travelled along

Once again, we are amazed at this beautiful island. We finally make it to Porto Moniz, a small fishing community along the coast. It is also known for its tidal pools. Ricardo told us that seven people were recently hurt due to unexpected large waves coming over the rocks. We stop here for lunch and have a very tasty fish soup, scabbard fish (espada), vegetables and a salad, all very good. We take about 1/2 hour here to walk along the shore and watch the waves crashing, simply incredible.

I had asked Ricardo about the colourful dresses that the flower women wear. He told us that traditionally if women wore white blouses and brown skirts it meant that they were single, colours meant they were married and blue was worn by widows. You may have seen in one of the earlier pictures, a group playing music who wore traditional hats that had a point to them. Ricardo told us that some of the ancients lived in small caves. In order that they wouldn’t hurt their heads, they wore the hats with points so that the point would hit the top of the cave as protection for their heads.

We continue along the way and stop at another lookout. A strange rock formation which had a hole in it, but unfortunately we could only see it as we drove by and I couldn’t get a picture of it.

Our last stop of the day was a small town that is known for its waterfalls.

Another great tour of this beautiful island. It is Saturday night and the Mardi Gras parade is tonight. We go for dinner, then make our way to the parade….hundreds of people already there. We watch for a while, but hard to see what is going on as there are so many people, manage to get a few shots. We can hardly see the parade as there are so many people. Stop at a hotel for a port on our way back to our apartment and watch the rest of the parade on tv.

Sunday, our last day in Funchal and beautiful blue skies. We walk towards the cathedral and make our way to the boardwalk along the ocean. Lots of people in town, then we realize two very large cruise ships in port. Beautiful buildings in the older part of the town. We are amazed how clean the area is near the port, last night it was full of streamers and confetti and now all cleaned up.

We have so enjoyed our time here in Madeira and would recommend it for anyone to visit. So full of traditions, good food and wonderful people.

Monday is a travel day from the island of Madeira, with a stopover in Lisbon and on to Amsterdam. We will spend Tuesday in Amsterdam and back home to Calgary on Wednesday. We have so enjoyed this trip seeing so many new places and meeting wonderful people along the way.

This is my last blog post for this holiday. I enjoy writing them as it allows me to look back and remember these special times. It is my version of a diary and photo album.

Once again, I need to thank Robin for being my partner in life and willing to take on new adventures. We will continue our travels for as long as we can. Until the next time!

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