Songs of the Portuguese – Part II: Madeira Island – Funchal and the East Island

The next leg of our journey brought us to a high rise apartment in the city of Funchal on the island of Madeira. This is the view from our balcony. 

Madeira Island is a 1.75 hour flight from Lisbon. Known officially as “Autonomous Region of Portugal,” geographically speaking it’s about the same latitude as Morocco to the East or Bermuda to the far west. Geopolitically, it’s the outermost region of the European Union. Though it’s closer to African than Europe, Portugal claims Madeira since it was Portuguese sailors who first colonized this tiny archipelago in 1420. 

Funchal is the capitol of Madeira. About a quarter of a million people live on Madeira, and we discovered that Funchal is a full-fledged metropolis with highways, suburbs, a major hospital, public transit, an opera house, a dock for cruise ships and, near by, an international airport. 

Funchal also has an exquisitely beautiful historical downtown. This treelined walkway leads up to one of its main squares.  

This is the avenue in front of Funchal’s opera house. We found advertisements for an entire slate of performance art, including classical music, operas, chamber music, jazz and rock. And along the streets? Outdoor cafes everywhere serving espresso, gelato and Portuguese pastries. 

Funchal’s Mercado dos Lavradores, otherwise known as their Farmer’s Market. Open every day, Mary and I stopped here to get some fresh fruit. Fruits and vegetables seem to grown with utter abandon on this island. 

Madeira enjoys a very temperate climate year round. As is common with ocean-bound mountainous islands, there are many microclimates here. Funchal is on the southern, or sunny side of the island, and the temperatures remain temperate all year long, typically in the mid seventies all year long. 

So…the climate is perfect, the economy is healthy, the food fresh, there’s internet everywhere. Any downsides? Yes, too many motorcycles. Motorcycling is very popular on the island. The winding, hilly roads, the tunnels, the bridges evidently attract daredevils from all over Europe. 

No place is perfect, but as we wandered about downtown, it almost seemed perfect. Lovely cafes everywhere, with all of the narrow and steep streets and walkways paved in the Portuguese style with gorgeous tiles and cobbles. 

My sweetheart enjoying a local beer at a sidewalk café. There was a guitarist playing “Hotel California” right behind Mary. If this place is like Hotel California and we never leave, that’d be ok. 

In addition to all the cafes and stores and restaurants, Funchal is full of gorgeous parks. 

The evenings from our balcony were gorgeous. 

A nighttime view of Funchal from our balcony.  

To the extreme right: the blackness of the ocean. 

Just left of center, the eerie blue light pluming into the sky are stadium lights from Funchal’s soccer field. There is so little flat terrain in this city that they had to build the stadium high up in the hills where they could just level off the cap of a peak. 

On one of our days in the city we took a cable car up to the heights. Madeirans have learned to live on the vertical. Madeira is a volcanically created island and so there are few level surfaces. Roads are steep with many sharp turns. Most buildings teeter on the edges of cliffs. Gardens are terraced. And the city itself is fingered with deep gorges. 

We wanted to see some stuff in upper Funchal. Rather than take a taxi, we took a cable car up. If you look closely at the center of this shot you can see the bridge of the motorway crossing the gorge and, beyond it, a cruise ship in the ocean. 

The cable car took us up to the Jardins Botanicos da Madeira. Here are Sam, Mary and I in front of the many flowering walkways. 

Mary and I at a section of Jardins Botanicos that shows up in every tourist guide. 

The next day the three of us drove up into the mountains above Funchal to hike one of Madeira’s famous levadas. 

Sam and Mary hiking along one of the levadas. It’s the narrow furrow running along the path to the right. What are levadas? 

The levadas are a system of channels or aqueducts that crisscross Madeira for miles and miles. They mostly ring mountains, channeling water from the northern rainy side of the island to the southern side of the island, whose climate was more suited to growing sugar cane. Most of these networks of levadas were built back in the 15th century. Because of this system of irrigation, Madeira became the number one supplier of sugar for Europe. Sugar cane is no longer grown here–Madeira has transitioned to winemaking. But the levadas remain.

Ages ago, individual plantation owners and farmers were responsible for building sections of these levadas. What is not much talked about was the labor used to build many of these. Yes, prisoners and slave labor accounted for much of the construction. It was grueling work.  

Today many of the levadas provide hydroelectric power for Madeira. 

The mountainous São Roque do Faial region north of Funchal. As one of the tourists on the trail remarked, “This reminds me of Kauai.” 

Mary and I at an overlook in the São Roque do Faial region of mountains. 

Our intrepid trio of Sam, Mary and I hiking the levadas up near São Roque do Faial.

Hiking our way back. When Portuguese plantation owners built these levadas, they often had to carve passages out rock. This shot shows you that water is indeed running through these canals. Remarkable; many of these channels are upwards of four centuries old. 

On Sam’s last day we dropped him off at the Madeira airport over on the northeast corner of the island. After dropping him off, Mary and I went to hike the remote peninsula north of the airport, Ponta de São Lourenço. 

While hiking Ponta de São Lourenço we spotted one of Madeira’s rare beaches. We weren’t sure how to actually get down there. 

Sunset on our last night in Funchal. 

The final leg of our trip will take us to the western half of the island…