December 5, 2006
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Following in the footsteps, albeit belatedly, of British Prime Ministers and Cuban dictators, I have fled to Madeira, where I am comfortably ensconced in a room overlooking the sea. At the moment, however, it is teatime, so I am on the sun-dappled terrace at Reid’s Hotel, and, as I nibble a cucumber sandwich, I survey my eminent, if temporary, domain. Below me are the hotel gardens whence I have just come from reading a Conrad novel under the shade of a jacaranda. On the level just below, shimmering and pristine, is the blue-tiled, seawater swimming pool where, at first light, I begin my regimen with laps each morning. In the distance a phalanx of hotels (several with British names like Savoy and Carlton) cascades down from the city of Funchal to the water’s edge. And surrounding all, looming higher and higher, are the mist-covered mountains of Madeira.

It is autumn in Europe, but here in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa, some 400 miles west of Casablanca, it is perpetual spring. The temperature is usually in the 70s and never drops below the 50s. Visitors bathe in the sea year-round.

It takes only a day or two on Madeira to understand why for nearly two centuries the island was a favorite way station for Britons on their way home from Africa and India, and why it became one of the 19th-century forerunners of resort tourism. The attraction is obvious. Such a pleasant setting. At once both tropical and so¿civilized.


For example, Reid’s Hotel, which has been in business more than a century, still endeavors to maintain standards. A tuxedo, or at least a dark suit, is the obligatory attire for gentlemen in the dining room or the bar on winter evenings.

With a reputation as sterling as the pound used to be, Reid’s is a hotel where the available reading material for guests includes not only the standard resort fare of thrillers and chillers but also several shelves of leatherbound volumes (Macaulay’s Essays, Prescott’s History of the Reign of Philip the Second, and The Life of Sir Richard Burton) almost certainly not destined for poolside reading.

At one time Reid’s was to Madeira what Raffles Hotel was to Singapore, as evidenced by the displays of photographs of some of the hotel’s more prominent guests from the past: George Bernard Shaw taking a dance lesson in 1924; David Lloyd George arriving with hat, cane, and topcoat in 1923; Winston Churchill (who had first stopped by Madeira in 1899 on his way to cover the Boer War), returning for a stay in 1949.


And there are also photographs of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s longtime dictator who, in 1959, after Fidel Castro chased him out, fled to Madeira – where he demonstrated the advantages of prudent financial planning by being able to afford the entire third floor of the hotel during an extended stay.

Pouring a second cup of tea, I find I have to keep reminding myself that Reid’s is really an island within an island. It is a realm in which it is entirely possible to lose sight of the fact that Madeira, this “pearl of the Atlantic,” this island of flowers, this place in the sun, is not British at all, but in fact Portuguese.

there are several versions of the story of the discovery of Madeira. The most romantic and, of course, the most poignant, is the tale of a young English adventurer, Robert Machim (or Machin, or Machyn, or MacKean) and his love, Anne d’Arfet (or d’Harfet, or d’Orset, or Dorset, or d’Eufet), a young lady from a wealthy, noble family that strongly opposed the match.


In 1346, the story goes, the two of them fled from Bristol on a small ship and sailed toward France. But a violent storm carried them off course until, about two weeks later, they managed to land at a wooded bay on Madeira. Sadly, however, Anne soon died, followed by Robert a few days later, reportedly of the proverbial broken heart.

The story of the star-crossed lovers (and more important, the discovery of the island) was reportedly carried by survivors from the ship’s crew, who, in the best traditions of melodrama, managed to build a raft and sail away from the island – only to be captured by pirates and held as slaves in Morocco. However, word of their find eventually reached Lisbon, and the Portuguese, the most far-ranging sailors of the time, began searching for the island. One of them, Jo¿o Gon¿alves Zarco, finally found it in 1420.

In matters of storytelling, facts seldom stand in the way of a good tale, so it probably matters little that an Italian map from the mid-14th century clearly shows Madeira and its neighboring islands. At any rate, the discovery of Madeira is still credited to Gon¿alves, who named the densely forested island Ilha da Madeira – Island of Wood.


The island’s early settlers promptly set about improving that forested landscape by setting fire to it; the fires, legends say, burned for seven years. That last detail may be apocryphal, but the fact remains that Madeira is no longer an island of trees. Instead, virtually every usable inch of the landscape is devoted to crops, from bananas to sugarcane and, especially, grapes.

Almost from its earliest days Madeira was an island vineyard. By the 16th century, Madeira wine was a European favorite not only of kings but also the likes of Falstaff, who, as Shakespeare wrote, sold his soul to the devil “on Good Friday last for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon’s leg.”

And across the Atlantic in 1776, celebratory glasses of Madeira were lifted by the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Although blight and insects took their toll of the vines in the 19th century, Madeira vintners rebounded, and today’s bottles have labels still bearing the long-distinguished (and often British) names: Blandy, Leacock, Rutherford, Miles.

For all its fertility, Madeira has never been an easy place to make a living. Drive through the countryside, and you’ll see families at work in garden-size terraces high on steep hillsides. The tiny plots, carved out of rock and filled with dirt brought up by the basketful, have been passed from one generation to another.

Because the island was never able to support all its sons and daughters, many left, first for Brazil and Portugal’s colonies in Africa, later for Guyana, Hawaii, and Cura¿ao. In recent times the islanders have set off for Venezuela and South Africa, which today are home to very nearly as many Madeirans as Madeira itself.

Many who leave come home again. Often they spend their holidays working on houses in which they plan eventually to live out their days; on one trip they finish the roof, the next they work on the bathroom. Their unfinished houses, works in progress, are familiar sights in every village, monuments of the islanders’ ties to their land.

Building for the future of Madeira can best be seen along the southern coast, where a rash of new hotels is spreading almost daily. The skyline, changing from hour to hour, reminded me of Waikiki some time ago, where a friend once quipped that the state bird

of Hawaii was the construction crane. Those cranes have now migrated to Madeira, and it appears it soon may be possible to traverse much of the island’s shoreline by swimming from one hotel pool to another.

Funchal seems a city transplanted from the European mainland, in large part because of its population: More than 100,000 people live in the metropolis, about one of every three persons on the island.

It’s a city best seen on foot, to savor the continental collection of mosaic sidewalks and narrow streets, parks and gardens, caf¿s and, of course, pubs. (Listen to the local radio station and you’ll hear advertisements for one pub, the Prince Albert, alternating in English, French, and German.)

The car is, so to speak, the city’s Achilles’ heel: Parking is scarce, gridlock is common, and the veneer of civilized behavior ever-present on the island masks a deeper, darker side of Madeirans that surfaces when they sit behind a steering wheel.

Driving in Funchal is a Pac-Man game come to life, in which you are being chased at high speed from all directions, always on the verge of being swallowed if you drive too slowly or make the wrong turn. Like the one I made on a narrow, steep uphill street that left me pinned against a wall, whispering a prayer of thanks that I had not asked for an Avis upgrade, as a bus inched past, leaving a busslike souvenir of bright yellow paint on my rear fender.

Exactly why everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere on a small island is a bit mystifying, but outside Funchal the driving is much the same, only speeded up because there is less traffic. Madeiran drivers love to pass, and will at any opportunity, sometimes even when there is no opportunity, such as on a blind curve posted with signs that warn against trying to pass.

One day as I drove through the steep hills above Funchal, pondering the fortunes waiting to be made in the local brake repair business, I made my way to Monte, where the streets go beyond steep and have actually inspired one of the more unlikely modes of transport on any island.

Near the cathedral a coterie of men wearing straw boaters and dressed in whites gently assist tourists into carros de cesto, wicker chairs on wooden runners, then push them off downhill.

Gravity does most of the work, of course, and two drivers (who ride on the backs of these snowless sleds, evoking images of intrepid mushers along the Iditarod Trail), jump off from time to time to steer and slow the sled with ropes.

It was raining lightly when I sat back in the wicker seat for the downhill run to Funchal. Because I was making a solo descent, I was accompanied by only one driver. His name was Carlos. He had one front tooth and said he had been drinking Madeira most of the morning. I had utter and complete faith in him.

My confidence was not misplaced. The ride was a tame one, despite the fact that it followed the route of what was once a Victorian funicular railway. Occasionally, the speed picked up, and the toboggan would start sliding sideways, heading for a wall, but Carlos, sweating and breathing heavily, would steer it back on course.

Most of the time, however, we sledded slowly, almost genteelly, over the wet asphalt, and by the time I reached journey’s end (and the start of a long hike back up the mountain) I had almost begun to regret that I had missed the thrill experienced by earlier generations, when the street was still cobblestone and, if slick with rain, offered passengers and drivers alike an opportunity for disaster.

While it is entirely possible to drive completely around Madeira in a single day, I had a more leisurely journey in mind. Someone had suggested to me that if a day dawned clear, with no clouds over the mountains, I should drive from the southern coast up to the center of the island, and then take the spectacular route along the mountain spine to the northwestern tip at Porto Moniz.

One day I did just that, resulting in an ear-popping, gear-grinding, rock-dodging journey to the north coast that included one brief, exhilarating stretch when I actually managed to get up enough speed in my mini-size compact to slip into fourth gear.

From time to time the road turned upward into steep, green valleys, where the grape harvest was in full swing, families at work filling wicker baskets with the dark fruit. Even on that autumn day, the landscape was dotted with flowers, and the gardens outside homes were a m¿lange of blossoms from all climates and all seasons, like pages of a Burpee seed catalog come to life.

At Porto Moniz, a small seaside town, the surf was splashing gently into large, natural saltwater pools on a rocky point, pools filled with families and young teens, despite a cool wind blowing off the sea. From the sun deck of a small hotel, I watched the scene, which, except for the bathing suits, was like something from a Brueghel painting. On the adjacent deck two women were reading while they tanned topless. One was French, her friend German. They had both come from Frankfurt, a four-hour flight, for a week in the sun. For Europeans, the French woman told me, Madeira is close, an easy holiday.

I spent a couple of days in Porto Moniz, exploring the cooler northern part of the island, which is not only the most beautiful part of Madeira but also ranks with any island panorama in the world. In one stunning miradouro, or viewpoint, after another, picturesque villages with red-roofed, white houses climbed the mountain greenery, a complementary-colored vision of village tranquillity that repeated itself valley after valley.

The road along the north coast is exhilarating – an unlikely cliffside course chiseled into rock walls and high enough so that only storm surf splashes onto cars as they wind their way along the narrow route from one tunnel to the next, sometimes passing through and under waterfalls.

One sunny afternoon I stopped at Faial, where the village streets were lined with decorations left over from a wine festival. In a small restaurant, an English couple touring the island was sharing a nearby table with their driver. The woman said the lush landscape astonished her. “We have roses at home, but it’s strange to see the tropical flowers and the roses growing together.”

I ordered lunch, not a difficult undertaking on Madeira, because an English menu is usually available. About the only real language demand imposed on visitors is distinguishing among espetada (barbecued meat on a skewer), espadarte (swordfish), and espada, the black-skinned, eel-like deep-water fish with features so terrifying that it makes a barracuda look friendly.

When my espada arrived (white, flaky, delicious) it was almost enough to make me forget the sight of those I’d seen draped over the edge of tables like thick black belts in Funchal’s fish market.

The north coast seemed an ocean away from frantic Funchal. The most excitement I ran into was in a village where I watched a pickup truckload of youths toss clouds of ticket-size fliers urging a vote for the PPD/PSD, a party which I assumed did not endorse strong environmental reform. As the truck drove out of sight, children appeared from everywhere to make an unhurried game of picking up the pastel-colored papers, for the simple fun of it.

Still, this was not a landscape for lingering. There are no bed-and-breakfasts in the mountain villages, and the narrow roads invite a motorist to keep driving, heading toward the next curve and around the next bend.

Boca do risco?” I heard someone ask. I turned toward the two men standing outside the market and said yes. They pointed to some stone steps I’d just passed. I gave them a salute, then started up the steps that began the path to Boca do Risco, which I later learned translates roughly as “dangerous mountain pass” (and which may have explained why my two helpful guides were smiling as they showed me the way).

The path was a good one, although it climbed out of a deep canyon. From time to time I could look back and down over the valley of Machico, which led to the shore where the ship of ill-fated Robert Machim supposedly sank six centuries ago, and where Gon¿alves first landed on Madeira.

It took me less than an hour to reach the top of Boca do Risco, the path ending at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking a cold, gray-blue sea and, in the distance, the island of Porto Santo.

To my left, another path led along the cliffs, supposedly toward the town of Porto da Cruz. A guidebook I was carrying described that route as “narrow, often slippery¿ with unprotected drops of 1,150 feet.” It warned of vertigo, said boots were essential, and advised against attempting this path in winter or any other time of year when storm-triggered landslides may make it impassable, and finally, concluding: “Never be foolish enough to attempt to cross scree here!”

Looking at a headland in the distance, I could see where the path became a thin scratch across the vertical rock face. I decided I would go (in my city walking shoes) only as far as I felt comfortable. At the first sign of scree, I would turn and flee.

A light rain started falling as I started along the path. Offshore, rain squalls were moving slowly across the sea. Far below me, where sea met cliff, a changing but constant lace of white water surrounded every rocky outcropping. It was not a friendly shore.

Occasionally the trail was sheltered by trees, but for the most part it was open, exposed. And just when the serrated landscape seemed most inhospitable, I rounded a bend to find a couple of small gardens terraced into the rock cliff. No one was around, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would actually come all this way for such scant pickings. Then I noticed, perhaps a hundred feet below me, a rusty, tin-roofed shack somehow rooted into the side of the cliff. It was a place only a mountain goat could love.

As the trail approached the rocky headland at Espig¿o Amarelo (“sharp yellow point”), a section of the path fell away completely, and I began to truly understand the definition of vertiginous, a word that appeared frequently in my guidebook, and which simply means that if you look down, you’ll wish you hadn’t. I was about to turn back when I noticed a cable bolted into the rock face as a handhold, and I worked my way across, and onto the path once again.

Then I heard a faint sound almost carried away by the wind. It was a bell. I stopped, listened, heard it again. Suddenly something caught my eye. On the precipitous slope far below me, a shepherd and his dog were following, unhurriedly, four black goats. One of the goats was wearing the bell.

As I stood there on the narrow path, I could not even imagine how the goats, let alone the shepherd, had made it down the cliff. But the sound of the bell, echoing up from the sea, somehow seemed to ring an anthem for this island, for a people who have struggled and survived and, in the end, made this island, this vertical landscape in the middle of a very wide ocean, their own.


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