Saturday, November 26, 2016

Madeira, island of tunnels and levadas

Steep cliffs, beautiful coastline, rich fields

One thing is for sure: It is practically impossible to go on vacation and simultaneously update the blog, at least when one travels with someone else. Case in point: Sabine and my trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira last week. Here we are, four days after our return to Freising, and I still haven't written much--and it looks as if completion of this update will have to wait for a few more days since I am about to get on a plane to Berlin to see my brother.
View of Madeira's northern shoreline after crossing the island
Regardless, the memories of Madeira will stay with me for quite a while. What an amazing place! I had of course heard of the island before, but quite truthfully, until about a month-and-a-half ago I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint it with accuracy on a map of the world. When, thanks to my clavicle fracture, we had to scrub our planned trip to Croatia and had to make new plans, I looked at what direct flights we could find from Munich to interesting locales. My search produced Air Berlin's once-a-week non-stop to Funchal, Madeira's capital. Cashing in 40,000 British Airways Avios points and paying $116 in taxes and fees for our two round-trip tickets, we were on the way to the island that's somewhat northwest of the Canaries yet south-east of the Azores. Yep, smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic. Good thing that the pilot had the GPS on and landed us safely on Funchal's tricky airport after our 4-hour flight.
The tiny port of Paul do Mar, five minutes by car from our domicile, 2 1/2 hours on foot

It's possible to trek along the waterfall to the next village
Our rental car was already waiting, an 80-dollar gem from Bravacar that featured close-to-bald tires and wipers that hadn't been replaced since the car had been built, in addition to scratches all around--thus perfect for the narrow lanes that we'd encounter in villages. From the airport it was about an 80-minute drive to Jardim do Rio, the tiny hamlet where our vacation villa for the week was located. As usual, we had gone back and forth between various housing options, from AirBnB and HomeAway as well as other sites. Practically everything was located in the mountains or away from the coast, but somewhere I ran across the Casa Pontinha, which immediately caught my attention: a luxurious villa with private swimming pool, set among a beautiful garden, overlooking from a promontory the Atlantic 20 meters below. I had contacted the Welsh owners of the villa and had received a rate that was a little more than 100 euros a night--totally insane when similar places had been fetching three to five times as much during our search. Sabine had been a bit hesitant first, thinking there'd be a catch, but we now can both say: This was by far the best vacation home we have ever rented, and I doubt we will top what we had for a price that is comparable. I think the photos speak for themselves.
View from our terrace; the port of Paul do Mar is visible in the  background

Our private pool, between 71 and 72 degrees
The villa Casa Pontinha--all ours for a week

Casa Pontinha was our private haven for one week. The pool was warm enough for daily swims, and when neighbors are not able to look over walls you know what that means: No wet bathing suits afterward. Imagine swimming in this pool, looking over the Atlantic, hearing the waves roll in, and seeing the verdant mountains rise immediately beyond the village limits. We had our breakfasts outside, enjoyed two "pool days" when we were too tired to go for long walking excursions, and were able to barbecue in the evening after enjoying toddies from the deck. Our bedroom's veranda door opened toward the sea, and we slept to the sound of the relentless waves below. OK, let's be frank: I am planning to go back to this heaven on earth. The Dolmans, who own this place, are truly fortunate people.
Hiking the levadas; I managed not to break anything
Steep in Madeira means really steep
Overlooking the Atlantic on one of our hikes
But we hadn't come to Madeira just to enjoy luxurious digs; that just set the baseline. No, we had also been attracted to Madeira because of its moniker, the "flower island," and its reputation--at least among Germans--as a hiker's paradise. Going to Madeira in early to mid-November put us right in the middle of the rainiest part of the rainy season, but we figured that rain gear and umbrellas would go a long way in keeping us comfortable. Maybe we were just damn lucky, but we had only one really rainy day when we got fairly inundated on our first walk. From then on, we were rather fortunate and enjoyed high temperatures around 72 F, low temperatures around 67 F, and lots of sunshine with just the occasional intermittent cloud in between. From what we understand, the temps go up somewhat in the summer but seldom exceed 80 F, thanks to the leveling effect of the big pond around the island. The overall climate is what is called "subtropical," as evidenced by the largest export crop, bananas. But it is cool enough to allow the cultivation of wine:


Maracuyas of all types and flavors

Weird exotic fruit in the market
Dinner in Old Funchal
Of course we had to sample and learn about this wine that we all know but maybe don't understand. During our day excursion to Funchal, we spent a delightful hour and a half at Blandy's Wine Estate, where we learned about how Madeira differs from other reds. Fascinating. If you want to know more, ask Google or Wikipedia or better yet, go to Madeira. Or come to my house for dinner once I am back home. The bottle of fine Blandy's that I bought should last until February, or so. Funchal has other attractions, such as a quaint market where you can buy exoctic fruit that look as foreign as anything you've seen at Marketstreet or other grocery stores. The weirdest was probably the thing that looked like a banana but tasted a bit like a passion fruit yet looked like a  green pine cone. The old town of Funchal has some narrow streets and tourist-oriented tiny restaurants  galore. Fun for an evening, but about as authentic as the restaus and their barkers in Paris' Quartier Latin.
Funchal's old harbor
Oak barrels that are holding decades' old madeira at Blandy's

The remnants of the tasting
As mentioned somewhere above, there was a lot of balance in our stay in Madeira--pool days, a look at the capital, and the hikes. About one hundred years ago, the first levadas popped up, irrigation canals that were to bring much-needed water from the mountains (the highest peak on this tiny island is around 4,500 feet tall) to the sugar-cane (now defunct) and banana fields. The project to expand these canals was accelerated in the early part of the past century, and today's tourists benefit from the engineering work that went into building the levadas: One can now hike for 10, 15, even 20 miles through the mountains along a 2-foot-wide concrete canal that loses all of maybe 100 feet in elevation along the way. One hikes along the hills' contours, not across the mountains! What a concept! All levadas are intimately paralleled by footpaths that used to allow (well, they still do) the caretaker of the levadas to open sluices or remove twigs or leaves and in general access this intricate irrigation system. Nowadays, with only limited banana production, the network has become an increasingly important part of the island's tourism infrastructure. No complaints from us!

If I bemoan anything about our stay in Madeira, it is the lack of more time to explore other parts of this microcosm. Such a small island, and so many things to see (and hundreds of miles to hike!). I am quite determined to go back, and I hope that will be sooner rather than later. I'm not crazy about staying in the same place twice, but here I'll make an exception (just like in our domicile in Tuscany in 2014 and 2015). Assuming that Air Berlin--taking honors as Worst Airline in the Known Universe, or WAKU--maintains its non-stop Saturday service from MUC to FCN and the Casa Potinha is available, Sabine and I will revisit Madeira before we turn 70, but quite likely much earlier. Hell, the levadas are navigable almost in a wheelchair!
Easy hiking

Bring your raincoat

Relaxing after another (albeit short) hike
Last evening before heading back to Munich and winter