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On the first day of the new year, I got on a plane in grey, miserable Düsseldorf and stepped off it four hours later onto warm, sunny and wonderfully green Madeira. A Portuguese archipelago, Madeira is situated at approximately the same latitude as Morocco and composed of two nature reserves, Desertas and Selvagens, as well as the inhabited Porto Santo and, of course, the main island of Madeira where we spent the entirety of our trip.
If you ever go to Funchal, you’ll immediately notice that it’s seen one too many boatloads of tourists and they’ve notably left their mark; almost everything – from cafés to shops to the Christmas market that was there at the time– is obviously geared towards them. Over the past few years, Madeira’s economy has seen a dramatic shift from agriculture to becoming dependent almost exclusively on tourism. Over the course of our ten-day stay, we see a new cruise ship in the marina almost every day and drive past countless half-empty tourist apartments, hotels and houses – the kind you see on the news whenever teenage girls get kidnapped and murdered on vacation.
Still, once you get out of the city, Madeira is really worth it for the scenery alone. It’s a popular destination for hikers who wander along the levadas (old aqueducts) criss-crossing the island or take the more strenuous routes across the mountains. Being a volcanic island, these are numerous and, in the case of the Pico Ruivo, up to 1872 metres high. Except for those areas affected by recent wildfires, the island is covered in breath-taking flora and fauna, with the laurel forest to the north of the island being the largest one left in the world. As you drive through the winding hills, you’re rewarded with sights of an older Madeira: farmhouses clinging precariously to the sides of hills, steep steps leading up and down to terraces laden with vegetables and fruit.
One of our first stops in Madeira was the Jardim Botânico. Having survived the adventurous bus journey up (at breakneck speeds around narrow, winding one-way streets with a gaping abyss only about a metre to the side) it is a lush oasis of tranquillity. Here, you can admire the wealth of different indigenous and important plants in hopeless but picturesque disarray, glimpsing the ocean every so often through the green. The museum, with some truly shocking attempts at taxidermy, is worth a quick look in too. My favourite part of the whole gardens, however, was a glorious Madagascan Hydrangea tree (Dombeya wallichii, if you’re botanically inclined) in the centre with pink buds that suffused the surrounding air with a heady scent of vanilla.
In the city centre of Funchal, there are a few nicer, quieter alleys away from the throng and some of the attractions – like the seasonal ‘Traditional Market’ with its larger than life nativity scene – were worth looking at. A highlight was the baroque Igreja do Socorro, a Jesuit church built in 1748. Whitewashed and rather plain-looking on the outside, I was completely unprepared for the ornate splendour within. Tastefully lit with quiet music playing in the background, it was also almost empty so we had the luxury of admiring it in peace. I can recommend the Museo de Arto Sacro too – if weathered, zombie-esque remains of once beautiful wooden statues are your thing, this is the place to go.
Food on the island is relatively cheap, as long as you’re in the city and stay away from the obviously touristy dives. Stay away from the Café Ritz (if only to avoid the terrible rendition of ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ being sung on repeat) and look to places where you see locals eating instead. Two of our best meals on the island were consumed on rickety plastic chairs in small side alleys: once having a delicious vegetable stew outside a local pub and the other having beautifully hot, buttered limpets drizzled with tangy lemon juice and the freshest grilled sardines. Also, a note: bread is not free, especially when it appears on your table although you haven’t ordered it. If, however, you happen to be like me and appetite wins over logic, you’ll likely be rewarded with the taste of fresh, home-made garlic butter so heavenly you’ll forget all about how you’ve just fallen for the oldest trick in the tourist-scamming book. And speaking of forgetting: have I mentioned the rum punch? Best made with rum from local sugar cane and, if you’re lucky, one of the seven different types of fresh passion fruit found on the island, it’s one sweet and tangy trip to oblivion.
In the neighbouring town of Monte, the Jardim Tropical Monte Palace, one of Condé Nast Traveller’s ‘Most Beautiful Gardens in the World,’ is a wonderful place to spend a quiet afternoon. A little further to the east you’ll find the Palhiero Gardens, my favourite ones of all. I love them not only for their dreamy Camellia tree lined avenue but also for the unique experience of seeing little old ladies harmlessly strolling about amongst rather explicitly phallic shaped hedges in the sunken garden.
Back in Funchal, the Mercado dos Lavradores offers anything from rather sinister, never before seen types of fish to a plethora of local fruit and vegetables. I highly recommend both Anona (a sweet fruit with a mango like taste and texture) and Split Leaf Philodendron (with a flavour somewhere between banana and pineapple), two fruits I’d never tried before but have been dreaming of ever since. Other things to do at the market: try as many of the different types of fruit samples offered as possible, in order to make up for the extortionate price you’re about to to pay for one rather small passion fruit. Things not to do: buy an interesting-looking yet unidentifiable root on impulse, then almost set fire to the hotel kitchenette in an attempt to make it edible.
And to finish a day in Madeira? A leisurely stroll along the marina is hard to beat. If you can, get up close (the ‘no-trespassing’ signs are more like guidelines, anyway) to really admire the fancy boats and, more interestingly, all the marks left by passing sailors on the walls of the harbour.