Madeira

A fabulous week in Madeira.

We’ve just returned from a fabulous week on the island of Madeira. Madeira is a little volcanic archipelago off the coast of of Africa, about 400 miles west of Casablanca. Part of Portugal since it was discovered about 500 years ago, it feels more like Europe than like Africa, but environmentally it’s a sort of Hawaii of the Atlantic. Tropical climate. Steep, dramatic verdant hillsides, luscious flowers everywhere, fabulous tropical fruits, and incredible seafood. Well, except the main island has no sandy beaches. 

See this photo gallery.

Hiking

For us the highlight was the walking. It turns out to be an incredibly nice place for hiking. The hillsides are beautiful, with stunning ridges and ravines, beautiful tropical forests, terraced fields, and neat rural villages. You’d think it would be hard going, with all that steep terrain. As it turns out, though, they have developed an extensive network (thousands of miles) of aqueducts, called “levadas”, over the past 100 years. It turns out that although they have plenty of rain, most of it simply runs down the steep slopes to the sea… so they capture it and route it through the levadas to all the fields. These levadas, about 2′ wide and 1-2′ deep, usually open to the air, follow the contours of the hills, of course, and are thus essentially flat. They are a public network, so in most places it is acceptable to walk along them. In some places, that means walking on a dirt path alongside the water channel. In others, the hillside is so steep that you walk on the concrete wall of the levada, which is maybe 18″ wide, and on one side you have the flowing water, and the other side you have a several-hundred-foot drop down into the ravine. It can be “vertiginous”, as the guidebook says. Other places, they tunnel through the hillside, and you crouch a bit and walk through the darkness for anywhere from a few feet to several hundred yards, trying not to hit your head or fall into the levada. 

On our first hike, a newer levada (only 30-40 years old), it weaved through the forests and occasionally through a small village. Here and there was a little sluice gate where the water could be released to flow down into a farmer’s field. These gates were controlled by the levadeiro, a man who manages the levada. While stopped for a late-afternoon snack one day, a very old looking man strode along the levada past us, in his traditional wool hat and turned-down leather boots, clearly comfortable with the hundred-foot drop along the levada. I’m pretty sure he was the levadeiro; he certainly looked the part.  [read detailed description, with photos]

But on our next hike, on one of the oldest levadas that flowed right into Funchal, it spent very little time in the forest and most of its time flowing alongside old houses. Indeed, this levada was mostly covered over, and the resulting three-foot-wide “sidewalk” was clearly the main path for transportation to and from the houses along the levada. We passed many people going about their daily business, making us feel silly in our hiking boots and backpack. We passed numerous neat little houses overflowing with tropical flowers, and countless banana trees, the principal cash crop at that altitude. In many places it was amazing to see extremely fancy new villas being constructed, most likely for an emigree returning from afar after making his riches.  [read detailed description, with photos]

Wine

They are of course famous for their wine, “Madeira”, so we of course stopped by a few wineries for a tour and a taste ;-). 

Vines were brought to the island by the first colonizing party, the Portuguese, in the late 15th century, and wine has been made ever since.  But, as the story goes, one barrel shipped to the New World accidentally remained on board and sailed back to Madeira.  The captain assumed that the wine was now bad, having sat in the barrel on his boat for so long.  But upon tasting, it had improved!

It turns out that the slow heating in oak barrels, which happened naturally during the sea voyage, and now happens naturally in oak barrels stowed in the attics of wineries (or in the cheaper varieties, in heated vats), was responsible for the special flavor.

We toured the Blandy’s winery in downtown Funchal, one of the oldest and biggest, run by the Blandy family of Britain. They had a great tour including a wine-tasting.

But for a more interesting experience we went to a little place, barely marked, off one of the side streets… the home and winery of the Barros e Sousas brothers.  Mr. Barros e Sousas was effusively welcoming, insisting that we climb up to his attic to see all the dusty barrels, that we taste some bottles, etc.  Neat place!  Most of his father’s and grandfather’s barrels had worn so much that the writing was not always legible, and thus many old old barrels are of uncertain vintage.  Thus he sells them as “extra reserve” (from his grandfather’s day) or “reserve” (from his father’s day) since he is not allowed to cite them as a specific vintage.  They thus cost less… but taste great!

They are also famous for their embroidery. Absolutely beautiful, but incredibly expensive, so we mostly had to just look.

Grand tour

Since we spent all of our nights at a hotel in Funchal, we wanted to get out at least one day to see some more of the island.  The roads are incredibly narrow and twisty, and the local drivers quite bold, so we were not too excited about renting a car.  The island bus system is quite good, but not terribly convenient for a day-long tour of the island.  So we signed up with a tour company for a tour of the northeastern part of the island.

The next morning a taxi arrived, rather than the expected minibus.  Change of plans… they were short a minibus so one of their drivers brought his taxi instead.  So we had a private tour! Our driver/guide, Paolo, was an ambitious young man who spoke several languages: Portuguese, English, German, French, a little Spanish, and was enrolled in classes to learn more.  He was also very talkative and informative, so we learned a lot as we drove.

From Funchal we zipped down the highway to the center point of the island, then north over the mountain pass in the middle, and then east around the north, east, and south coasts back to Funchal.

On our tour of the eastern half of the island, we passed numerous vineyards, all terraced into the steep hillsides. Given the terrain, the natural shape of all the roads is “hairpin turn”; coupled with the fact that all the roads are following the contours of a steep hill, and that nearly all the roads are barely more than 1 lane wide, this makes driving pretty hairy. The drive also gave us a flavor of the incredible diversity packed into a small space… as you change elevation from sea level up to the peaks at 6000′, the vegetation changes dramatically. The northern coast is much wetter than the southern coast (we spent most of our time in Funchal, the main city on the sunny south coast). And since the islands are volcanic, we were able to explore some grottoes (lava tubes, actually) formed by agent lava flows.

Terrain

Even the airplanes landing at the airport do a wild hairpin turn as they land. There is so little flat land in this place that the airport hugs the coast and the runway actually sticks out over the water, on stilts. For some reason, the planes fly low parallel to the runway, then make a sharp 180-degree turn to land on the runway, momentarily flying straight toward the hills. Yikes.

Orchids

Madeira’s tropical – yet mountainous – climate is perfect for growing orchids.  We visited an orchid-growing greenhouse and the gallery includes many photos of these beautiful plants. 

Funchal (the main city)

The city of Funchal itself is wonderful… 500 years old, young by European standards, it still has that wonderful European flavor, with narrow cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, ancient churches, and neat old architecture. On the left is one of the many beautiful mosaic sidewalks, Portuguese style.

Although quite a walkable city, we figured out the local bus system and found it quite handy. Because the terrain is so steep, a bus can be a handy shortcut to a steep climb uphill. Streets got a lot steeper and narrower as we climbed, stopping occasionally to press ourselves against the wall as a truck came barreling down the hill. 

We strolled through the city market, filled to the brim every day with every sort of flower, fruit, or vegetable one can imagine, alongside the fish market with the freshest seafood. 

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of Portuguese cooking in all the restaurants nearby. Yum… At Arsenio’s, the chef (Arsenio) stands out front grilling the most fabulous fish espadas, that is, fish and vegetables on a skewer. Inside, during dinner musicians play and sing “Fado” music. Although the food here was good, the atmosphere was a bit touristy… across the street, O Jango’s was much more interesting; tiny and crowded and also very good food. 

Tourists

Although it is part of Portugal, the British have been significant presence for about 400 years, arriving first as part of the sugar and wine industries. So it is a very popular place for British tourists, now, and quite a few Germans, although we saw very few Americans. So almost everyone, at least in Funchal and definitely at any tourist sort of place, speaks English. I hardly had a chance to dig out my old Portuguese. Unfortunately, the tourist industry is growing so fast that hotels are being built by the dozen. The  gallery includes a photo that shows a view of the western edge of “Hotel town,” a cluster of many hotels on the western edge of Funchal. We stayed at the five-star Madeira Palacio, which we highly recommend.

Beaches

Madeira is not a place to go if you want to sit on a beach and soak up rays. True, the little island of Porto Santo (a ferry ride away) has an incredible beach, but the main island itself has hardly any.  Most are rocky. The rocks are all smooth stones, not too bad really. Toward the water it becomes a dark sand. So, I actually tried to swim, but the water was cold and just under the surf were more of the rocks, churning in the surf, so it was actually rather unpleasant.

Overall, a fabulous place. See my photo gallery. See http://www.madinfo.pt/ for pointers to information.

Madeira – Levadas (2)

Walk along the Levada dos Piornais and Levada do Curral.

In our second walk along a levada, we followed one levada from our hotel into the country, then up through a village to another levada, and then deep into a river valley. See the photo gallery and the post about the whole trip.

The first levada was the Levada dos Piornais, one of the oldest on the island. We picked it up a few blocks uphill from our hotel, and followed it upstream, westward. The initial part was through some rather depressing shanty/farms, but the scene quickly changed as it began to pass older, established banana farms.

Most homes in Madeira, particularly the nicer ones, seem to be surrounded by walls, with an entrance gate. Here you can see a typical section of the early part of the Piornais, where the levada is covered over to become a sidewalk, with people’s doorways along the wall. Above we peek through the gate to an elaborately floral display along the steps leading up to the house.

I liked this spot, with an old wall and a tree leaning over the levada.

Here we leave the sidewalk section and enter a cliffside section, where the levada clings to the side of a cliff. Sometimes it’s supported by arched stonework, like a bridge, and other times it cuts into the cliff-face.

Truly impressive. I was glad for the recently installed railings, because the drop was severe… several hundred feet in some places. Look closely at the pictures… see the trucks down below? it’s a long way down.

Here’s a place where they decided to cut the levada through some cracks in the cliff. We hikers then must scramble through.

Another set of impressive views. Here, you can get a sense of the vertigo we faced.

Here, we had reached a point where I was able to walk down below the levada and snap this picture looking back up at it… here you can see the bridge-like stonework. (In a few places the levada actually was on a bridge, a few feet out from the cliff.)

At this point we left the levada and climbed up through a village to find the Levada do Curral. That levada, too, weaved through many villages, like a sidewalk, and then entered a wooded section with some more steep drops.

Quite a ways further, we climbed up through a village to join the Levada do Curral, another very old Levada. This levada led deep up the river valley. Here are two views upward into that valley… on the right we peek between two high ridges (and below a layer of clouds) to a village high on a distant sunny ridge.

This levada, after passing much of the same “sidewalk” sort of terrain, past villas and villages, entered a wilder portion with only an occasional small farm. Below is a grape arbor overhanging our route.

Here we have reached our turn-around point, where the steep drop becomes truly treacherous, and the hillside is so steep that the plants overhang the levada and a spring drips, no, pours water on your head. We’re actually quite far up a river valley, near the head of the levada.

Next is a view of the head of the ravine, and you can see a bridge where the levada curves across the ravine toward the left.

Here is a view looking back down the valley. We walked pretty much all the way up from that fancy bridge in the background. Actually, it’s a pretty neat suspension bridge, very high and very long, for the new coastal highway.

See the photo gallery and the post about the whole trip.

Madeira – Levadas (1)

Walk along the Levada dos Tornos.

During our visit to Madeira we took two hikes along the Levadas – irrigation canals that follow the contours of the steep hillsides. See the photo gallery from our walk, and the post about the whole trip.

Levada dos Tornos is a newer levada (only 30-40 years old). It weaved through the forests and occasionally through a small village.

The hike starts at the end of one of the city bus lines, high above Funchal. A few steps above the bus stop you find the levada, flowing along past these houses. 

This picture shows what most of the hiking is like on this levada. Flat, of course. Well, slighly downhill, as we were walking downstream. A pleasant dirt footpath follows the downhill side of the levada, which is about 2 feet wide and about a foot deep. This water irrigates fields along the way, and ultimately flows into an electrical generator serving Funchal. 

The island terrain is very rugged, with steep hillsides and deep ravines. The levada follows the contours, of course, which means it weaves in and out of the ravines. In each little ravine, typically, is a small stream. Here the levada is built up a bit on a wall as it crosses the stream. Yep, almost always the levada is carefully engineered so that the stream either flows over, or under, but never into, the levada. Adding water to the levada would only make it overflow. 

One of the neat things is that the levada is often integrated right into the architecture of the homes it passes. The levada path is a sidewalk used for daily traffic for many of the people living on its route; in some cases, the only access to the home (no road access). 

This levada is quite luxurious. There are two “tea gardens” along the way. This one, the Jasmine tea garden, is run by a British couple. We stopped here for some tea and cakes. The menu had a hundred varieties of tea. It was a hot afternoon so I ordered iced tea. Unfortunately, they don’t do iced tea… I received a can of Lipton iced tea. 

Shortly after our stop at the tea garden we passed through our first (and as it turned out, our longest) tunnel. The tunnel was just tall enough for me to stand, and just wide enough to leave a little path to walk. It was about 100 yards long, but took several minutes to get through because it was, of course, very dark and we had to move carefully (even with flashlights) to avoid bumping our head or slipping into the water. In the picture above, taken at the entrance, you can just barely see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Here Pam is nearly through… 

At this point a large pipe joined the levada, and was supported by these crosspieces. Note the steep drop to the right of Pam… this section was a little bit hairy, especially since there were tiny springs above that meant little waterfalls fell on your head.

The scenery along the way was quite spectacular. Here we look out over ancient terraces, many still active farms.

The climax of this hike is an incredible, huge waterfall. The levada flows on a bridge crossing the stream, just upstream of where we see the waterfall emerge in this picture. Because it was getting late, and we’d missed the last bus at the next road crossing, we stopped here for a snack and turned around. 

While we were snacking an old man came strolling by, in his traditional wool hat and turned-down leather boots, clearly comfortable with the hundred-foot drop along the levada. I’m pretty sure he was the levadeiro; he certainly looked the part. The levadeiro is a man who manages the levada, in particular, controlling the release of water into farmer’s fields. (We had passed many a little sluice gate where the water could be released to flow down into a farmer’s field.) 

See the photo gallery from our walk, and the post about the whole trip.

SeatPack

A quick invention made for easier travel.

We travel a lot with our kids.  Every trip seems to require at least one layover in a large airport, requiring us to lug three kids, 1-3 car seats, a diaper bag, and a few other carry-on bags from one gate to another.  Whew! that’s a lot to carry.

So I decided to convert the carseats into “back-packs”, so that I could carry the seats hands-free.  I often stuff some of the smaller carry-on bags, coats, sweaters, etc, into one of the seats.  It’s so much more comfortable than lugging them around in my arms!

One drawback is that you have to be really careful when you turn around, lest you bop somebody on the head with the carseat.

I ordered a simple set of back-pack straps from Campmor.  I spent about $30 per seat and got some nice straps, but you could probably find nearly the same thing at any outdoor gear store, or probably places like KMart, probably for less money.  You don’t need anything fancy: just a pair of straps, four sets of clevis pins with split rings, and probably a few washers.  (The pins and rings attach the pack straps to the seat.)  I was lucky to find holes in the seats in just the right places; I needed to add a few washers to strengthen the connection.  I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to drill a hole, if necessary, but I can imagine a seat manufacturer claiming that voided the warranty.

The straps don’t interfere with the seat’s usage in the car, so I leave the straps on all the time, ready to go.

Disclaimer

Strength depends on shear strength of the pin.

I would never use this rig to carry my kid on my back.  The parts of the seat to which I attach were not designed for that sort of stress, so the pins might pull right through.  Also, as you can see in the photo, the system depends on the shear stress of the ring, unlike in most back-pack systems that depend on the shear stress of the pin.  So I’d be afraid of the pin pulling through the plastic hole on the seat, or the ring shearing through, if there were a lot of weight.  If I’m just carrying a diaper bag, and it fails, so what… but if I’m carrying a kid, and it fails, I’m in big trouble.

I doubt it would be good for long distances, unless you added some padding along the back.

It’s not really a back-pack in the sense that I can carry big loads.  I guess it’s a car seat you can carry on your back.