Harry’s Ramblings – Madeira day trip
Madeira is a Portuguese island in the Atlantic about a thousand miles off the northern coast of Africa. It has a population of a quarter of a million, about half of whom live in the island’s capital, Funchal.
This town has spread considerably over the years since we first visited in 1990, with villages now almost joining with little discernible gap due to development. There is plenty to do on the island for the more mature visitor, few night-life venues for the younger element, so have no idea what the local teenagers do for evening entertainment. Maybe they go to each other’s houses, or have dos in village halls that are excluded to outsiders.
A good visitor attraction is the open top sight-seeing bus. There are two competing companies, one red colour, the other yellow. Both are well represented with frequent services, their routes cover the same main areas, differing with the rural sections. They both charge about the same for a 24 hour ticket, which is in the region of E20 per person.
The buses are all driven by men, who have excellent knowledge of their daily route so they can find every pothole, of which there are many, overhanging trees, not difficult to find, and anything to catch the unwary human arm overhanging the side rail. I would strongly advise against standing to take photos while the bus is moving, because the driver has an unerring instinct to jolt. The camera has to be an excellent one with precision shutter to avoid a result taken by a shaking hand.
Each bus circuit takes about two hours, going to the western village of Camara de Lobos. This was where Winston Churchill came to paint in the 1950s. He would have stayed at the Funchal hotel called Reid’s, the expensive five star establishment where it is fashionable to enjoy afternoon tea. Very English in its traditions. A car would have taken Mr. Churchill the five kilometres along the winding coast road so he could spend his days painting the scene of rural fishermen. The men are still there, but in far fewer numbers.
The village is quite quaint in its own touristy way, narrow pavements protecting the unwary shopper from walking straight out into the road. Madeiran drivers have little regard for those not in vehicles, if you can’t afford a car, then you don’t count for a lot. Camara de Lobos residents don’t need cars to get around, the village is hilly, contained in a protected bay. There is a hill at the top behind the bay, which has houses on the lower section, the top half completely taken over by banana plantations.
The sight-seeing bus drops you off close to the main square, which is a euphemism for where people sit in cafes all day. There is a car park close to the waters edge, also a slip way for the boats, which occupy a small part of the parking. The main cafes overlook the slipway, with a small path between the half a dozen restaurants. Each place has a man masquerading as a waiter hovering to draw the thirsty and hungry inside. Just stop and look at a menu and he is there, speaking in English first, then maybe French, a smattering of German, often passable Scandinavian of some variety. Even in a provincial Madeiran village the waiters have a more than passable linguistic skills.
I once asked a local about languages, and apparently Portuguese is the first language to be taught in school for obvious reasons, but English is also compulsory. Others are optional, but the island has progressed a long way since the Portuguese mainland revolution against the military powers in 1974.
Camara de Lobos is one of the few places where you can find limpets on the menu. These are delicious small shells, not much of a meal, but embellished with garlic bread are yummy. Washed down with a beer, completed with a pastel de nata which is a small custard pastry (much better than this basic description). Two of the cafes are frequented by local men, but stroll five minutes along the main street to another square and you will find tables of ladies, sitting, chatting, drinking coffee, playing cards. Just like the two tables of men. Strange that they can’t share their pleasures.
The reason is that the European Union some years ago handed out huge grants to Portuguese fishermen in compensation for not fishing, because the sea was in danger of running out of stock. This munificence continues even now, subsiding the boats staying on the slipway, except for taking tourists out for a little trip. The men sit and play cards all day, probably with a cognac to wash down the coffee. The wives decided that what was good for the men was good for them, so they founded their own refreshment conclave sufficiently close but not too near to the men.
It is easy to spend two or three hours here, wandering around, sitting on a sea wall, looking at the same kind of scene that Sir Winston would have painted just after WW2. And there is also a hidden gem that is easy to pass by. When you have enjoyed your refreshments, go for a walk into the side streets. Look into the shops as you walk in the road, but also look into the dark doorways that are not shops. Because you will see a small church.
Full of wall paintings with gilt frames, a small number of wooden pews, a miniscule altar up three steps for the priest to precariously address his flock, this small room is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever visited. Simple, peaceful, don’t be afraid to sit in contemplation while you imagine how it hasn’t changed for who knows how many years. Remove your hat, leave a contribution as you leave.
Back on the sight-seeing bus to Funchal, I stood up to take a photo of the bay as we retreated away. But I held on firmly despite the driver pausing to negotiate yet another narrow bend.