Madeira is improbably positioned in the middle of the north Atlantic. So many miles from nowhere, it has to be somewhere to go. Skimming across this part of the ocean, we put into port at Funchal, Madeira, before a quick skip through the Canaries. As island dwellers ourselves, it was a chance to visit places smaller and more remote than the auld sod. Warmer too, though at this time of year the bright spring weather doesn’t scorch.
Madeira was established by Portuguese adventurers six hundred years ago. The name means wooded isle, still an appropriate designation. The jagged mountains forming the island’s spine are covered in trees, well sprinkled too with vineyards and banana plantations. Sugar cane was an early product of settlers and by the end of the fifteenth century Madeira was the world leader in sugar production. Christopher Columbus, the Genoese explorer, came to Madeira to purchase sugar. Those were the days before convenience stores. He found something sweeter in Filipa, daughter of the Governor of the neighbouring island of Porto Santo. Columbus lived on Madeira with his wife for a spell in the eighties. His son Diego was born here. I wonder if Colombus sensed that America was the next stop beyond the rim of the horizon.
In the harbour, the Santa Maria de Colombo is a working replica of Christopher Columbus’s flagship on his voyage to the New World in the late fifteenth century. It is available for tours around the island. This class of ship, a carrack, was much used by the early explorers, many of them Portuguese. Columbus’s vessel, though larger than the two accompanying caravels, is still surprisingly small, its deck no longer than sixty foot. Moored adjacent to where mighty cruise ships now pull in, the contrast is provocative. On this spot the great adventure of the modern world began. Trade, colonisation, the New World, radiated from the endeavour of, largely, Portuguese explorers. Now, hordes follow in their wake, idle travelers like myself, well sated and safe in vast cruise ships. The modest Santa Maria sits in the shadow of our ship. It could easily be overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
Further on up the quays, another favourite son, is immortalised in a statue. We pause to check out Christian Ronaldo, born on Madeira, who plies his trade with his boyhood heroes, Real Madrid. I’ve seen him play in the Bernebau and Tallaght, and there’s not many people you can say that about. The statue is imposing but disappointingly, well, static. Not so much an athlete as a dictator who preferred wearing shorts to a military uniform.
The island is quite densely populated, with a quarter of a million people living in an area of about three hundred square miles. Madeira is five hundred and sixty miles from Lisbon and on the same latitude as Casablance. The climate is temperate, never either getting beyond the mid twenties nor falling into single figures. The lush vegetation, the explosions of floral colour, along with the ubiquitous banana plantations give it a tropical appearance. Bananas are the main export while Madeira wine is world famed. These crops have been longterm mainstays of the economy. And tourism of course.
The capitol, Funchal, is home to more than a hundred thousand people. Orange tiled bungalows are piled high on the wooded hills. Jagged peaks form a natural amphitheatre into which the suburbs have spread. The high suburbs are over three thousand feet above sea level, higher than Carrauntoohil. It can be cool and cloudy up there, while the lower suburbs bask in sunshine. We take an open top bus that barrels through the city centre, past gardens and banana trees, flower festivals and vineyards. Streets lined with Jacaranda trees persuade purple into the sky. Ancient seafaring tales mentioned the Purple Isles, possibly referring to Madeira.
The place has a prosperous air to it, putting its natural wealth to good use. This is unlike the Canaries, where tourism is king and indigenous industry otherwise scarce. The Canaries import all their food needs. Madeira does not have that level of dependency. We briefly stop at Camara de Lobos; the Salon of the Wolf, an intriguing name. Sea cliffs mark its western periphery, and the town tumbles down to a busy, pretty harbour. The Santa Maria de Colombo was constructed here at the end of the last century.
We return to the seafront Promenade at Funchal. Our friends have been here before and suggest a convenient round trip, taking the cable car up, and a guided sled down. It’s always nice to court peril in someone else’s hands. The cable car runs to Monte, high above the city and adjacent to the Botanic Gardens. You can get an inclusive ticket, but we bought a one way, for a tenner. Into the clouds by our destination, we had coffee and a snack at a small modern cafe perched above the cable line chasm. From here it’s a short meander to the sleds. We skirt the periphery of the Botanic Gardens which seem pleasant, but the whole island looks like a botanic garden to me.
Sleds are a wicker two seater on a wooden base, guided by a street gondolier, for want of a better term. It’s a good fast slide, reaching speed up to thirty miles an hour. A hundred years of this attention has polished the surface of the lanes down to the terminus nearer the town. In fact, it’s a good distance, but it’s relaxing to saunter through the lanes heading down to the centre of Funchal. The old walls of the laneways and the houses beyond are overgrown with a colourful riot of plants and flowers.
We want a quiet place for a drink, but nothing really presents itself before reaching the Main Square. With the Spring Flower festival in full swing, the place is packed. A row of pleasant period eateries and bars with extensive outside seating are ideal for people watching with the cacophony of colour and action of a festival providing the backdrop. A rather raucous calypso tinged combo, in truth a guitarist and his portable backing group, provides the soundtrack and we wonder if we should ask him to play Faraway.
We finish off with a leisurely browse through the stalls in the square. The atmosphere is building up for the parade, and as we weave our way back to the port, it’s as if the entire town has turned into a pulsing, floral rumba. Relaxing on deck I absorb what passes for silence in these parts. I sketch the shaded peaks of Madeira, like dark flame rising from the dappled colours of Funchal’s teeming buildings and their vibrant forested nest.