Facing the great Atlantic Ocean, the port city of Funchal on the island of Madeira has the appearance of an amphitheater built into a mountain. To those arriving by sea or air, the vista provides a concert for the eyes, a spectacular sight.
We combined a visit to Madeira with a stay in Lisbon; and, as it turned out, we much preferred our visit to the tropical-feeling island of Madeira, which offered European comfort without the hustle-bustle of mainland Portugal.
Madeira has a unique blend of natural grandeur and man-made beauty, with some city life added to give the soup some zest. Once outside Funchal, nature takes over. Lofty mountain peaks, sunny beaches, wild eucalyptus woods, and spectacular waterfalls are complemented by hillsides covered with banana plantations, cultured gardens, and a series of “levadas” – to us the most outstanding feature of the island.
The mini-canals known as levadas were created in the 16th century to bring water from the rainy, mountainous northern part of the island to the fair-weather southern side where sugar, bananas and grape crops were cultivated. Tunneling through solid rock and mountain pathways, the canals meander in a very slight slope toward their southern destinations.
These canals are maintained by Levadeiros, who open and shut various gates along the way to control the flow of the water.
Aha! Herein lies the bonus to tourists such as we, who love to walk at our own pace while experiencing the wonders of new places.
The walkways alongside the levadas provide safe passage for walkers through mountain passes and deep woods complete with cascading waterfalls and brilliant geological formations. Most trails are level, requiring little uphill or downhill climbing, though good walking shoes are a must. The levadas may be walked with or without a guide; however, I recommend starting with a guided walk. Information may be obtained from the concierge of your hotel or from local guidebooks. Listings include length of walks and stopping-off places.
The experience is grand and not to be missed in this lifetime, if possible.
Pavements have been elevated to an art form in the city of Funchal. Sidewalks are paved with tiles in beautiful patterns of swirls, fans, compasses, fleurs-de-lis – to mention just a few. Most are in earth tones of brown, tan, black and white, and all are mosaic works of art. Be sure to look down when you stroll the streets, but remember to look up when crossing!
Everywhere, all gorgeous – on street corners, markets, front yards and side streets! If you have time, try to visit the Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botanica), which may be reached from the Levada Dos Tornos.
For the treat of a lifetime, go to Reid’s Palace, one of the five-star hotels on the island. I have no words for this – you must see it for yourself. You will know why heads-of-state (real and titular – from Churchill to the present), along with ordinary billionaires – and even people like us – choose this one. It is an experience in itself.
Climate and nightlife
Weather is almost perfect at all times – not too hot, not too cold, which explains why so many Europeans jet there for long weekends away from the extremes of the continent. Figure on somewhere between 64 to 75 degrees, depending on the time of year.
Nightlife is a little more variable than the climate. If quiet dinners and starry nights are what you desire, they’re yours! If heady nightlife is your preference, the beat goes on from midnight to 4 a.m., I’m told, though experiencing it firsthand was not my style. There are also some gambling casinos, though most are by invitation only, which may usually be arranged by your concierge.
Souvenirs characteristic to Madeira: Hand-embroidered textiles, wickerwork, honey cake (bolo do mel), ceramics and pottery, and Madeira wine. When in the countryside, be sure to notice the bobble hats worn by the natives. These woolen hats with earflaps are available for sale at some city shops.
Language: Portuguese, though basic English is spoken and understood by most Madeirans.
Where in the world is Madeira? On a tiny island in the Atlantic, a long way from anywhere, but closest to Morocco and Portugal.
Getting there: See your travel agent or madeira- tourist.com.
Would I go back? Love to!
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