MADEIRA ISLANDS - 5 MIAB 2014 - MADEIRA INTERNATIONAL ART BIENNALE 2014 (the other side from Madeira)

There’s a popular tune that says Madeira is a garden. And it is. But it’s also an amphitheatre overlooking the sea. A land with good air and good people.

With unique landscapes and undisputed flavours. A walkers’ paradise and surfers’ oasis. It’s as radical as it is conservative. The island that’s been enchanting humanity since the 15th century is a picture postcard from Portugal to the world.

1 – First things first

The archipelago of Madeira is volcanic in nature and belongs to Macaronesia – the bio-geographical region that also covers the archipelagos of the Azores, Cape Verde and the Canaries. Madeira is the largest and most populous island, giving its name to the eight-island archipelago: two are permanently inhabited – Madeira and Porto Santo – and six belong to the sub-archipelagos of the Deserted Islands (Ilhéu Chão, Bugio and Deserta Grande) and the Savage Islands (Selvagem Grande, Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora), both of which are nature reserves. This treasure of the Atlantic was discovered by chance by two navigators, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, who, charged with pioneering the west coast of Africa, were pushed west by a storm and ended up mooring at an island they named Porto Santo. That was in 1418 and it took exactly another year to “discover” the island of Madeira. Vine-growing and sugar cane cultivation brought economic prosperity and made the island famous. Later, towards the end of the 18th century, Madeira also became a tourist destination for northern Europe’s wealthy elite, partly thanks to its climate, which was thought to be ideal for relieving respiratory complaints: that’s why the Empress Sissi went to the island so many times. Along with the Azores, the archipelago is one of Portugal’s autonomous regions. The subject of autonomy was first put on the table in around 1920 by intellectuals such as Manuel Pestana Reis, but was only legitimised by the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic in 1976.

2 – Funchal

Start your trip by looking out over the sea and the bay of Funchal from Santa Catarina Park, one of Sissi’s favourites. It’s located next to the Funchal Casino – the only construction in Portugal designed by the master, Oscar Niemeyer. Continue down Avenida Zarco, passing the Baltazar Dias Municipal Theatre, towards the Cathedral, which includes a stunning Mudéjar ceiling. While you’re at it, take a peek at the Museum of Sacred Art, which holds one of the most important collections of Flemish paintings and sculptures in the world. Then go across the centre of Funchal, along the Travessa dos Fornos, because you really must pass by the Fábrica de Santo António to pick up supplies of fennel sweets, honey cake, ginger biscuits and whatever else you can fit in your bag to take home. All the products are hand-made. 

The next stop is the Lavradores Market, the most genuine in the city. You’ll be amazed by the explosion of colour, aromas, spices and goods. After that, take a short cut through the open-air gallery of Rua de Santa Maria. Thanks to the Painted Door Project, the vivacity of days gone by has recently been restored: this is one of Funchal’s historic streets. The street will take you to the Santiago Fort, one of the city’s several lines of defence, and now home to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Another museum that’s well worth a look is the Madeira Story Centre, which offers an interactive visit to the archipelago. Right opposite there’s the Funchal cable car. Get in, don’t be a sissy! Up there you’ll get an overall view of the city as it fans out, like a shell, from the bay to the mountains that flank it.

The journey ends at Monte, where you’ll find the Botanic Gardens and the Church of Our Lady of the Mount, the patron saint of Madeira. To return to sea level, we suggest you go for the basket car: a wicker sofa rests on wooden skis that slide down the slope aided by gravity, of course, as well as two men (the cesteiros) who drive it down the hilarious four kilometres. Don’t forget to visit the Frederico de Freitas Museum, which boasts a fantastic collection of decorative arts, sacred art, painting and sculpture, as well as a tile-making centre. If you want to save your legs for venturing out into the levadas (read more in basic number 7), you can go round Funchal aboard one of the tuk-tuk of the Tukxi – Eco City Tours. A different, environmentally-friendly tour during which you’ll learn everything there is to know about this wonderful city.

Museu da Electricidade / www.museucasadaluz.com
Tukxi \ www.tukxi.pt
Fábrica Santo António \ Travessa do Forno, 27/29 \ +351 291 220 255
Casa-Museu Frederico de Freitas \ http://casamuseuff.blogspot.com
StoryCenter \ www.storycentre.com
Museu de Arte Contemporânea \ www.museumac.com

3 – The sunny south coast…

Just after Cabo Girão, the highest promontory in Europe and Câmara de Lobos, whose silhouette inspired Winston Churchill on several canvases, there’s a magical place. It’s almost an island within its own island. It’s not surrounded by water on all sides, but it’s far away from any kind of commotion. We’re talking about the Fajã dos Padres, nesting beside a cliff over 250 metres high and right by the sea. With its own climate and highly fertile soils, it was first inhabited by Jesuit priests who grew vines there. Today, the priests’ houses take in guests. Whether you’re just passing by or staying here for a few days, there are three things you really have to do: one is to try the house wine, another is to take a dip in the sea and the third is to have lunch at the local restaurant. Stop at Calheta and have a look around the Casa das Mudas, the arts centre boasting a project by the internationally recognised Paulo David as well as a fabulous belvedere. Go for a swim at the beach and continue to Jardim do Mar (Garden of the Sea). Park the car and meander through the narrow streets of this village that lives up to its name: it’s Eden with a sea view. At sunset, the best place to be is at Maktub, Madeira’s equivalent of Peter Café Sport. Specialities are mojitos and smiles. Of course, there’s more to see on this south-facing bit of the island, but we’re not going give everything away. Go off and discover these treasures for yourself, then write to us and tell us what it was like.

Fajã dos Padres \ www.fajadospadres.com
Casa das Mudas \ Estrada Simão Gonçalves da Câmara, 37 – Calheta \ +351 291 820 900

4 – …and the indescribable north coast

To get from the south coast to the north, you’ve got two choices: either you go along the coast, looking out to sea, or you cut across the middle of the island, zigzagging your way through the peaks. If you choose to go across the heart of the island, you’ll see that the landscape changes drastically from one kilometre to the next. You’ll also come across deep valleys, high peaks and luxuriant forests. Or even discover desert-like plains and villages such as Chão da Ribeira or Curral das Freiras, which seem to float in time and space. When you finally reach the north coast, you’ll probably think you’ve landed in the middle of a Jurassic Park scene. 

It’s difficult, nigh on impossible, to put into words the luxuriance of the mountains that plunge into the sea. In these parts, the towns are further apart, smaller and more genuine. In Santana you can still see the traditional, triangular-shaped houses with their thatched roofs. In São Vicente, at the Volcanism Centre, trips are taken to the depths of the earth to understand exactly how the archipelago came about. 

In Porto Moniz you’ll see that it’s humanly impossible to resist a dip in the natural pools, and the same goes for the beach at Porto da Cruz. For your own good, you should continue as far as Ponta de São Lourenço and stride out along the track to the island’s most easterly tip. The landscape is more arid, but is still rich in native flora and fauna (both the land and sea are nature reserves). At the end of the path, you’ll find redemption: a dive from the quay of Cais da Sardinha. Looking across at the horizon, to the south you can see the Deserted Islands and, to the north, Porto Santo.

Centro de Vulcanologia e Grutas de São Vicente \ www.grutasecentrodovulcanismo.com

5 – Porto Santo

In Porto Santo nature is not as effusive as on neighbouring Madeira. But it’s still very generous. You might say that this small island – 11 kilometres long by six wide – is a halfway house between tropical Madeira and the Mediterranean side of continental Portugal. A favourite resort for the people of Madeira, among so many others, thanks to its climate, landscapes, warm waters and lifestyle, the island is known for once having been home to Christopher Columbus. The house where the navigator that supposedly discovered America lived is one of many attractions on the island. 

The others have more to do with the outdoors and include the golf course, the small zoo, the botanic garden and the omnipresent beach: nine kilometres of golden sand stretching out alongside the turquoise water. According to the inhabitants, and backed up by studies at Aveiro and Oslo universities, the sands of Porto Santo have therapeutic properties, particularly for rheumatic or orthopaedic complaints. The daily connection between Madeira and Porto Santo takes 15 minutes by air and an hour by sea.

6 – Non Stop!

There’s no better way of getting to know the island than putting on your walking shoes, filling your lungs with (the purest!) air and stepping out along the thousand kilometres or more of levadas that crisscross the island from tip to tip. And what are theselevadas? Basically, they’re irrigation channels built by colonists and farmers from the 15th century onwards to transport water to land that was hard to reach. 

UNESCO World Heritage since 1999, they’re the passport to breath-taking scenery that includes deep valleys, mountains that almost touch the sky and sea views that make even the stoniest hearts quiver with emotion. The most famous are: Caldeirão Verde, 25 Fontes, Risco, Balcões, and the one that joins Pico do Arieiro (at a height of 1,818) to Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island, which soars up to 1,862 metres. Many of the levadas are part of the famous laurissilva forest – a Madeira treasure we’ll say more about later. All the trails (of varying difficulties, including one adapted to people with reduced mobility) are clearly marked and can be done by walkers on their own or with guides. Take suitable equipment (appropriate footwear, something warm to wear, sun lotion, water and snacks) and stick rigidly to all the safety signs on the information panels. 

Other activities that make the most of Madeira’s hilly terrain are canyoning and BTT. Custom-made jeep rides are another option for thrill-seekers. The company Mountain Expedition runs a series of safaris and combined land/sea routes. Those who enjoy high flying might like to try paragliding. In contrast to the heights, we have the sea and with it a whole bunch of adventures. Swimming with dolphins, whale-watching, deep-sea fishing and diving in the marine reserves around the island are just some of the possibilities. Others are sailing, canoeing, kite and windsurfing or surfing. Did you know that Madeira is one of the favourite spots for surfers (Portuguese and others)? Jardim do Mar, Ponta Pequena and Paul do Mar have the best waves on the south coast. On the north side there’s Fajã da Areia, Ribeira das Janelas and Conteiras. These are where the world class waves can be found, which require advanced-level surfing – or at least, decent. If you’re still a novice, go to Porto da Cruz and learn at the Hotel Vila Bela surfing school. 

If you prefer a calmer programme, make the most of the highly inviting water temperatures to go swimming, but remember that most beaches in Madeira are rocky, with the exception of Machico and Calheta, which have imported sand from Morocco. In Porto Santo it’s another story: the long stretches of golden sand are worthy of a picture postcard. Of course, the list of pastimes wouldn’t be complete without golf. The Palheiro Golf and Santo da Serra Golf Club, 18 and 27-hole courses respectively, both on the island of Madeira, and Porto Santo Golfe (27 holes designed by the Spanish champion Severiano Ballesteros), are all internationally renowned.

Mountain Expedition \ www.mountainexpedition.pt
Vila Bela \ www.vila-bela.com
Palheiro Golfe \ www.palheirogolf.com
Clube de Golf do Santo da Serra \ www.santodaserragolf.com
Porto Santo Golfe \ www.portosantogolfe.com

7 – Nature

Today, it occupies around 20 per cent of the island, but over five centuries ago, when the first explorers arrived, the laurissilva forest covered almost the entire island, which was why it got the name Madeira (meaning ‘wood’ in Portuguese). Unique in the world, this forest has only survived in the archipelagos of Madeira, Azores and the Canaries, and is more luxuriant and more extensive on the former than either of the others. The Madeira laurissilva forest occupies a large part of the north-facing slopes and is not only included in the Madeira Natural Park, but has also been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage since December 1999. 

But it’s not just on land that nature is generous around here: the archipelago has several marine reserves. The oldest is the Garajau Nature Reserve, a paradise for diving fans, who’ll be able to see Goliath groupers, moray eels and manta rays over 20 metres below the surface. There are two more reserves on Madeira: Rocha do Navio and Ponta de São Lourenço. The list wouldn’t be complete without the Desertas Islands Nature Reserve, the safe haven for a colony of monk seals, and that of the Savage Islands, where the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau claimed to have dived in the clearest water in the world.

8 –Food Glorious Food

We might think that bolo do caco would be some kind of cake, judging from its name. But it’s not cake, it’s bread. And it’s not sweet, it’s savoury. On its own, with garlic butter, with a good piece of meat or freshly-grilled scabbard fish, it’s heavenly. But it’s not the only thing likely to make us fans of the flavours of Madeira. There are also limpets and winkles (a kind of sea snail) and the picado – beef fried in garlic. Other local delicacies are meat marinated in wine and garlic and kebabs on laurel skewers (now done on iron skewers because laurel wood is sacrosanct). When it comes to fish, scabbard fish and tuna rule. The best-known sweet is the honey cake, but the egg flans (velvet, papaya and passion fruit) and cheese tartlets leave nothing to be desired. There’s also plenty of choice in terms of drinks: Coral (the local beer), Brisa (a passion fruit soft drink), Nikita (a cool drink of cherry jam, pineapple juice and vanilla ice-cream) and poncha. The typical fishermen’s poncha is made from sugar cane alcohol, water, lemon peel and honey, but there are a thousand-and-one variations with exotic fruit juices created on the island, such as pitanga, English tomato or passion fruit. Madeira wine is also on the list, but deserves a chapter all of its own.


Il Gallo d’Oro
Estrada Monumental, 147, Funchal \\\ +351 291 707 700 \\\ www.portobay.com
Benoît Sinthon is the man at the helm of the only restaurant boasting a Michelin star in Madeira. The French chef’s superb cuisine is based on Mediterranean flavours with Italian and local touches, where everything mouthful is a delight.

A Poita
Estrada dos Lombos, 1, Madalena do Mar \\\ +351 291 972 871
This modest but superb eatery specialises in fish and seafood and is probably about the best value meal on the island.

Restaurante Fajã dos Padres
Fajã dos Padres \\\ +351 291 944 538 \\\ www.fajadospadres.com
A place with a dreamy location and divine food, where the options are many but choosing the house special (tuna specially prepared with salt and herbs) is undoubtedly your best bet.

Quinta do Furão
Achada do Gramacho, Santana \\\ +351 291 570 100 \\\ www.quintadofurao.com
Chef Rui Vieira creates a range of great dishes, including steak à Caldeirão Verde and tuna trunk, both made with the finest of local ingredients, many of them organic. The sea view is gorgeous.

Adega da Quinta
Rua Francisco Figueira Ferraz, 35, Estreito de Câmara de Lobos \\\ +351 291 910 530 \\\ www.charming-hotels-madeira.com
When you fancy eating the famous Madeira brochette: this is the place. The meat is so tender that it melts in the mouth and it’s seasoned to perfection. The restaurant also has a fabulous view of the ocean and Câmara de Lobos.

9 – Cheers!

You don’t need to be an expert on the subject to know that Madeira wine is one of the most famous in the world. Its history is as old as the island’s colonisation and it has been referred to on countless occasions: Thomas Jefferson toasted the Independence of the United States with it on July 4th, 1776, and it was for a glass of Madeira wine that Falstaff, the Shakespearian character, gave up his soul. A fortified wine of Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC), it is produced solely and exclusively using six varieties: Tinta Negra (the only red grape variety); Sercial; Verdelho; Terrantez; Bual and Malvasia. The vineyards occupy around 400 of the island’s 732 square kilometres and go from sea level to an altitude of 800 metres. The hilly terrain means that the area of cultivation – terraces known as poios – is small and some people even cultivate them in pergolas (or latadas) to maximise land use. The mineral-rich soils, containing iron and phosphorous, ensure the wine’s acidity. This is one of its most notable assets since it allows the wine to stay fresh, even years after bottling. One of Madeira wine’s interesting characteristics is that, unlike common sweet wines, it’s not aged in cellars, but in attics at the mercy of the heat, giving it its unique characteristics. If you want to know more about this incomparable wine, drop by the Madeira Wine Company in Funchal. The visit includes wine-tasting.

Madeira Wine \ www.madeirawine.com

10 – Flowers and embroideries

The bird-of-paradise isn’t a bird, it’s a flower. Perhaps you’ve even heard of it. It’s also known as strelizia! Got it? Well, even though it’s not an endemic flower – it was brought over along with other exotic species when the island was colonised – it’s one of the biggest stars of the great Flower Festival, which takes place every year between April and May in Funchal (in 2014, it’ll run between May 1st and 7th). For six days, the city is adorned with flowers and becomes even more luxuriant. 

If you don’t visit the island in the festival month, you can still admire the immense variety of hydrangeas, orchids, magnolias, proteas and a thousand-and-one other flowers at the Lavradores Market or in the city’s Botanic Gardens. Funchal has plenty of choice in this department: apart from the Botanic Garden – 35 thousand square metres and two thousand species – there’s also the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, which combines the functions of botanic garden and museum. The botanical collection comes from the four corners of the planet and the artistic collection includes African art, Portuguese tiles, Oriental art, precious stones and so on. 

According to the reputable travel magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, the Monte Palace ranks among the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world. Alongside the flowers, and inspired by them, there’s a trademark of Madeira (and the star of our cover): embroidery. Produced since the island was first settled, it achieved international fame in the mid-19th century. Unique, handmade pieces are the result of a team effort that includes designers, perforators and skilled embroiderers. The designs are generally floral and decorate refined fabrics (linen, silk and chambray).

Jardim Botânico \ Caminho do Meio, Quinta do Bom Sucesso – Funchal \ +351 291 211 200
Jardim Tropical Monte Palace \ www.montepalace.com
Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira \ www.bordadomadeira.pt

by Maria Ana Ventura photos António Gamito