Pure, inspiring, introspective, this is a paradise in the middle of the Atlantic. The archipelago, which is made up of two inhabited islands and two sub-archipelagos that are natural reserves, Selvagens and Desertas, offers idyllic scenery, from the Laurissilva forest to beaches and pools. There’s also a busy contemporary cultural scene. Everything thrives here.
A Madeira is stubborn and always wants to give more. Between sea and mountains, the zigzagging roads always lead to somewhere worthwhile. Fajã dos Padres, on the south coast, is a special place. An island within an island, it stands next to a cliff over 250 metres tall. To get there, the route traverses breath-taking scenery by cable car. With a 13-hectare spit of flat, fertile land (six of which are cultivated), we enter a unique tropical world where banana groves and vineyards are explored to the sound of the waves lapping the pebble beach. They also say that the best mangoes and papayas can be found here. There are eight houses, which once belonged to the Franciscan priests who cultivated the vineyards. Nowadays, they can be rented, and there’s a winery by the sea, where you can try the house wine.
Sugar cane, which was originally brought to Madeira in 1425 by Prince Henrique, is another icon. In the small town of Porto da Cruz, the Engenhos do Norte factory is an example of past production. Equipped with 19th-century machinery, this sensory journey details the entire aguardente (sugar cane brandy) distilling process and, at the end, visitors can taste award-winning rums and poncha (a traditional cocktail of sugar cane brandy, sugar and lemon juice).
And there’s flora from all over the world, thanks to the naturalists who brought seeds and small plants here. In the Jardim Botânico (botanical garden) at Quinta do Bom Sucesso, with its stunning view of Funchal (green nature merges with blue sea), there are around 3,000 species to admire. Such natural exuberance extends to another Eden, in the archipelago’s capital: the Hotel Reid’s Palace garden (19th century), which preceded the hotel and has evolved over the years with species brought by the various directors. Walking through it, we sense the history and identity of the hotel and Madeira.
It was in Machico, on the east coast, that the Portuguese navigators João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira “discovered” the island of Madeira in 1419. Today, we go in search of the unexpected, aboard the Scorpaena. During our trip, we’re told that this sea is home to 29 cetaceans, and that dolphins often put on quite a show (the short-beaked common and the Atlantic spotted dolphins are the two species which interact the most). There’s also a good chance of seeing the Bryde’s whale or Sei whale, as well as cormorants, flying fish and seagulls, which we encounter. And there’s more to feast our eyes on: the Gruta dos Pombos cave is a mystical spot where we need to slow the pace and enjoy this natural marvel, as well as the warm water. Next is the Ponta de São Lourenço islet revealing its signs of erosion. At the top, hikers walk the path of the volcanic natural reserve. From this Land’s End we can see the Desertas (Ilhéu Chão, Deserta Grande and Bugio), and, weather permitting, the island of Porto Santo.
The archipelago’s volcanic heritage can also be seen in the basalt stones honed by the sea at Porto Moniz. The result of the abrupt meeting of incandescent lava and ocean are the village’s natural pools on the island’s north coast, where the sea brings cool, crystalline waters.
In Seixal, between Porto Moniz and São Vicente, a wind rose separates dips in the pool and those in the sea, which laps the black sand. Nature was equally generous with Porto da Cruz, whose beaches are the perfect starting point for surfing (Madeira has waves for almost all levels of proficiency), according to the instructors at Calhau Surf School, which belongs to Hotel Vila Bela.
There are places where the sunrise is unique, and the day always begins on the right foot in this archipelago of Macaronesia, the biogeographical region that also includes the Azores, Cape Verde and the Canaries. A good example of this natural spectacle can be seen at Ponta de São Lourenço, at the opposite end of the island, where the sun rises from the islet directly opposite the viewpoint. “Madeira offers impressive landscapes”, says atleta Luís Fernandes, who runs Madeira Ocean Trails. “Walking these trails is natural therapy. What Madeira offers you can’t find anywhere else”. It’s true. With this view between the sea and mountains (both are nature reserves), with the sound of the waves upon the rocks, there’s nowhere like it.
One of the trails stretches beyond the clouds, linking Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest points (between 1,818 and 1,862 metres, respectively); another traverses the Laurissilva Forest, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for two decades, and the main reason why the island is always so green. There’s no fresher air. And the best way to discover Madeira involves exploring the levadas: a mapped network of footpaths that stretch alongside the irrigation channels that were first constructed in the 15th century by settlers and farmers to transport water from north to south. After the valleys of Serra de Água, which was the first water station on the island and famous for the poncha sold on the side of the road, we make a stop at Encumeada, one of the vertexes of the Pináculo and Folhadal trails, 17 kilometres long, whose channel produces electricity and spans the Serra and Norte levadas. The temperature drops and we conclude that Madeira offers more than one season in a day. The islands natural obstacles offer many opportunities for fans of canyoning, a sport that combines walking, swimming, abseiling and jumping. Inside the Laurissilva Forest, there are rivers with ropes and the challenge becomes unique amongst remarkably varied vegetation.
Madeira demands reinvention. It demands constant challenge. “Creating something on the island offers many possibilities, but is also limiting”, we hear. This is how many local artists and enthusiasts combat inertia. They take inspiration from the archipelago, travel to absorb ideas and return to reinvigorate the place they were born. This also happened to Patrícia Pinto, owner of a studio-shop where she combines traditional techniques with contemporary thinking and style to produce unique pieces. The fashion designer mixes patterns influenced by both sea and land, inspired by women working in rural areas, “who have a specific way of dressing” to create characters with her clothes. “Living on the island allows us to view things with a different kind of calm. The circuits are always changing.”
This transformation is made by agents such as Porta33, a place that has promoted the marriage of contemporary art and local artists for three decades. Patrícia was invited by the cultural association, as a fashion designer, to the collective exhibition, Ilhéstico, in Funchal. This energy in the city extends to Rua de Santa Maria via the Arte de Portas Abertas project, an initiative that has transformed this part of the old area and rejuvenated the doors of houses, empty shops and dilapidated places with artistic interventions. One of the many participants is artist Bárbara Gil, who was responsible for Madeira’s first large-scale mural on Avenida do Mar: a game between observer and painting, where the ships and cruises come in. “It has to do with the context of growing up on a small island”, she explains. Other works, like A Baleia and A Cauda da Baleia, by the Funchal-based Argentinean artist Marcos Milewski, and Bordalo II’s fur seal, in Câmara de Lobos, stress the link between the archipelago and ocean, which highlights environmental awareness and the democratisation of urban art.
Next to the sea, near the Barreirinha swimming complex, there’s a hive of activity around the Barreirinha Bar Café. It’s famous for its ponchas, as well as the Aleste music festival (the next is in late May), which is organised by Fábio Remesso and others, with Portuguese and international names from the alternative scene performing. There’s also a small flat available above the café for artistic residencies.
West of Funchal, in Ponta do Sol, there are more revolutions and, “for them [the artists], being here is completely different”, says Nuno Barcelos of Concertos L at Estalagem Ponta do Sol, with performances scheduled from July to September. This design hotel, which overlooks the ocean and town, is home to one of Madeira’s greatest cultural incubators. In addition to Estalagem, people from all over the world take up residencies at the John dos Passos Cultural Centre (the American writer with ancestors in Madeira) or the Casa do Cacto. There’s also Cine Sol, which bears the inscription 1933 on the façade and hosts the Madeira Micro Film Festival (next edition in 2021). MUDAS, in Calheta, promotes the arts and boasts a collection of contemporary Portuguese art with around 700 pieces and work by local artists who pay tribute to the island. In December, it hosts MADEIRADiG, a digital arts and experimental electronic music.
The foundations of all this are traditional arts, such as inlay and wicker, which are now subject to innovation. Vera Morgado (ceramics) and Catarina Jesus (wicker), whose work is exhibited at the Loja de Artesanato da Madeira (Instituto do Vinho, Bordado e Artesanato), have managed to perpetuate the heritage of their homeland.
porta33.com \\\ arteportasabertas.com \\\ barbaragil.com \\\ fb.com/barreirinhabarcafe \\\ aleste.pt \\\ pontadosol.com \\\ digitalinberlin.eu \\\ fb.com/mudasmuseu \\\ fb.com/wickerinnovatingtradition \\\ ivbam.gov-madeira.pt
The golden island
In Vila Baleira, the capital and only city on Porto Santo, the Madeira archipelago’s other inhabited island, there is an anthem dedicated to its discovery in 1418 (one year before Madeira), written on the wall of a house. “Your sun is a delight / Your beach the most beautiful” declares one of Teodoro Silva’s verses, sung by Funchal-born Max, there for all to see. The tribute focusses on the attributes of this destination, from its nine kilometres of beach to its geological heritage. The golden hue that extends alongside the warm, crystalline waters has magical properties. Collected at the beginning of the year, the coral turned into sand is used in treatments. Heated to 41 degrees, the body absorbs the minerals and chemical properties in the sand baths of Porto Santo (the spa of the island’s oldest hotel is the place to go).
The same sea provides artisan Vera Menezes with what she needs to recreate the shells and stones that we find in the Loja do Profeta (Prophet’s Shop), a rather auspicious name when we are told that Porto Santo, where Christopher Columbus once lived, is a place of legends. “We’re called prophets.” If the gargoyles on the outside of the mother church ward off evil spirits, the cacti function as “a kind of protection against pirates”.
The island that measures 11 by seven kilometres has changed much in 18 million years. That said, the minimal impact of humans means a simplicity that’s its greatest beauty (the spontaneous vegetation is used in gastronomy and the endemic plants for medicinal purposes). Pico Ana Ferreira (the highest point in the western part) stands 288 metres high, brandishing marks of erosion.
This set of prismatic columns, otherwise known as Piano and caused by volcanic activities, is one of the island’s various geo- -sites, like Serra de Fora and Fonte da Areia, whose sea and land fossils dominate the landscape.
by Manuel Simões /// photos Marisa Cardoso
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