Portugal: Madeira

A pile of clothes lies untouched in the corner of my room. A year ago grows closer. I wake up to find the world is all highlights and shadows. The forecast snow delivers three to five centimetres.  I leave the car semi-buried and walk to the train station. I don’t trust my car. I don’t trust the roads. I don’t trust other road users. I don’t trust myself. Snow crunches beneath my feet. This at least I’m comfortable with. Cars pass at a crawl. Better to avoid the road at all. Trees flex under the additional weight. Dumping handfuls at a time when it gets too much. Gangs of men in bright orange sweep snow off the steps to the station. Thick white flakes still fall. I flashback to the Routeburn. Kea on the chimney. A snowstorm in mid summer. The Tararuas too, every attempt on the tops held back by snow. One, two, three years or lifetimes ago. The snowmen last less than a day. Bergs of ice melt into green again lawns. An adventure is long overdue.

Rachael and I had slowly put together a plan to get away. Back when I thought I was big-time on Instagram, the travel-photographer-influencers were posting moody shots of the high, cloud wrapped peaks of the island of Madeira. It remained firmly on my ‘places to go one day’ list. Flights were booked, accomodation arranged, hire-care hired. Then all we had to do was count down the weeks until they became days. Dad asks me if I need to pack my Aeropress. I’m confident I won’t need it. We’ve got an Airbnb in Europe. There’s bound to be a fancy coffee maker in the kitchen that I’ll need to learn how to use. He doesn’t remind me to take a handful of Yorkshire tea bags. I’ll regret this more in the first few days. We get dropped off at the airport, check our bags and move through to the departure lounge. We’re sat apart because easyJet. I slip in to the liminal space of flight. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. I listen to a first podcast episode in probably a year. I read the majority of a book. I have no window so I don’t bother to look up until we land. Blue skies above. I step out on to the tarmac where I’m greeted by the warmth of eternal Spring.

The motions are familiar. Queue, display passport, wait for bag. Realise bag isn’t here. Check around the baggage counter. Read the screen that eventually advises to check oversize baggage. For whatever reason my backpack has been deemed unsuitable for the conveyor belt. We head out, scanning all the signs for something that might be my name, or the car company we’ve booked with Nothing comes up. Eventually I check the email which sends us out to a car park, where there’s no more signs. Eventually a man comes over to let us know he’ll be with us shortly. I’ve hired a car overseas a few times now and I never get what I put on the form. It’s a Volkswagen, not a Fiat. It looks big. Rachael assures me it’s the same size. We do the pre-delivery inspection where I pretend to have some idea of what’s going on. I’m already thinking about driving, driving a bigger car, on the wrong side of the road. I’m stressed, I’m anxious. Neither are good combinations. I remind myself I can drive, I’m just incapable of stretching my spacial awareness across the bonnet or to the right hand side of the car. Rachael keeps me in check and more centrally placed by occasional reminders to watch my right as I drift towards gutters, barriers and cars parked precariously on corners. We arrive at our home for the week, I’m relieved there’s a big parking bay on the roof and we’re seemingly alone.

Time to do the rounds. Check the kitchen. The coffee maker is one of those awful pod processing things that gives you a squirt of coffee. The worst. At least there are a few pods to start us off. Worse is there’s one black tea bag. We pop to the shop over the road to find an unnecessary amount of herbal blends but nothing black. Not even the will do in a pinch Lipton yellow label. I put the headache I suffer over the first two days down to caffeine withdrawal. We drop 200 meters to sea level in to Funchal proper for dinner. The first restaurant we try is fully booked. A sign of normal life post pandemic is once again in full swing. I ask the waiter where he’d go if he couldn’t get in here and he suggests the Mexican opposite, which is nothing like the Portuguese food we’re looking for. Another few menu boards later and we’re seated, alfresco, with a litre of sangria and a mixed grilled fish platter heading our way. As we work our way through the tray of fillets and steaks we exchange thoughtful looks as we extract bones from our mouths. After dinner it’s an exhausting 45 degree incline back to the apartment. We sleep late. Talk through my discomfort about driving and agree its for the best that I keep going. Allowing my confidence to grow and become more comfortable.

Out East we find full car parks so we opt for the less walked route. A seagull presents as a bird of prey and then we spot a falcon, the first of many. On reaching the first lookout a band of rain washes in from across the sea. By the time we’ve got our waterproofs on, the rain has passed us by. The views are lifted straight from high fantasy or sci-fi. Geographical drama played out in deep time. The endless battle between land and sea. We round a weather station, off-trailing. We climb sea cliffs to reach a trig point which we hold for ourselves. A row of ant sized humans streak across the cliffs ahead and below. Nobody else has chosen to come up here. Madeiran wall lizards join us to bask in the sun before we drop down to join the busy trail. The crowd contains a wide range of accents and languages and the full spectrum of footwear. We ride the trail out to the cafe before a stop at a cove. I don’t brave a swim, but plenty others do. I settle for getting my feet wet. The water is beautiful. We head back, tired but accomplished. We have to deal with a situation over food thanks to it being Sunday and the shops are closed. The restaurants all a drop and a climb away. We settle for omelette and salad. In the shower that evening I notice my body has found new ways to catch the sun and burn. The back of my hands, the band of skin between my eyes and my ears. That’ll teach me for not wearing my wide-brimmed hiking hat.

Each day my nerves are more settled. My driving smoother. It helps that the main roads through Madeira have never seen a frost. The car glides over the tarmac. Even the villages are ok. The real problem, as anywhere in the world, are the other road users. A man signals us on a side street as another car comes around the corner. Does he stand there all day I wonder? We leave the main town heading for the hills. Eucalyptus fills the air, the scent of another life. The tarmac gives way to gravel and the gullies of an old service road. We don’t have far to go. I deliver Rachael to Equine Village where she meets her horse for the morning, Apollo. He’s big and grey and the owner describes him as opinionated. I’m sure Rachael will handle him just fine. She trots off with the owner and another client. I stop at the car to tie up my boots and pick up my bag and head towards the trails. I follow a levada, one of Madeira’s many water courses cut in to the mountains. The concrete trough runs alongside a footpath that never seems to incline. Last night’s rain still drips from the trees. Lush and green from ocean storms meeting volcanic soil. I follow horse shoes and shit until the path narrows. The levada is often wider than the path. I pass a few people, squeezing in to the rock or the railing. I disappear into grottos and I’m sure the horses can’t have come this far. A stone xylophone disappears into a rift in the rock. I lose my way and have to double back, I was supposed to climb over the gorge and on to the summit track. Reviews of the watchtower declare no views but I get a glimpse of the islands rugged interior. Enough for me. I head back down a dirt road that resembles an old forestry road, back to the stables where Rachael has just arrived. We compare pictures of our journeys through the hills. Then it’s to the supermarket to try and find some proper English breakfast tea. An impossible task.

In the morning there are four cruise ships in the harbour, each larger than the last. A news story will later inform us almost 12,000 people descendent on the island from the ships. Not once is the word invasion used. Rachael and I drop in to town from above. We start at the old fort which would be free to enter were it open. Scaffolding suggests it’s either being repaired or it was never finished. A classic of the European sight seeing tour. We move on to Rua de Santa Maria, famed for its painted doors. We’re less impressed than the internet. There are primary school murals on underpasses in Basingstoke of equal quality and rightly, nobody is raving about them. We find a square with tables and parasols. Already I’m keen to get out of the sun. We find we’ve sat out front of a tea emporium. I take an iced lemon tea, Rachael opts for something more tropical. We sketch out a plan for what next. The cathedral with jazz guitar booming through the door. Not for the first time my favourite bit was the roof.  We head away from the centre towards another street lined with restaurants to the well named Regional Flavours. The owner is especially engaging, he regrets to inform me they have no limpets but he’s happy to up-sell some prawns in garlic butter, and why not some bread too sir? I end up with a plate of beefsteak with madeira wine reduction. Chefs kiss. Rachael has the parrotfish. We wander through a bookstore where all the books are cover out. Sprawling floors with classics such as Windows 3.1. Then it’s time for some more local flavour at Blandy’s Wine Store. We get a flight of 3 year and 5 year Madeira wines from dry to sweet with two in between. All of my tasting goes well. Fortified wine appeals to me more than the undiluted stuff. After working our way through we try some blind taste testing. Having reached the end and going back, I find the dry tastes nasty.

We walk the waterfront to the cable car. Eye to eye with the birds. Pigeons on the wire. High above the city built in the caldera of a long dormant volcano. The temperature noticeably drops as we climb out. Rather than look around Monte we opt to head straight for one of the 7 coolest commutes in the world. The queue for the toboggan is long, they stop for the day soon as well so we join straight up. A man points a family away and they come back with tickets. Rachael spies someone else leave the queue to buy a ticket and does the same. That’s how they manage the queue this close to closing. No ticket no ride. We get in to the wicker basket. We do our Richard Ayoade and Robert Webb off of Travel Man impersonations. Rachael claims the role of Richard because they share more similar hair. The road is shared with cars. Polished slick by the wooden runners. We supposedly gain speeds of close to 50km an hour. It’s fast enough to be fun, not so fast to be scary. The adrenalin rush takes us. At the end the offer of our photo can’t be refused, unlike the one after the cable car. I buy obligatory shit magnets while I’m at it. The rest of the return journey is less fun. The chance of a pavement is a fine thing. A collectors item if it stretches for over 50 meters. We make good progress on one pedestrian friendly road until the path ends and the corners begin and the traffic intensifies. Luckily, or otherwise, there’s a staircase that makes hard work out of a 300 meter ascent.

The following morning there’s an early alarm. Not sunrise early. There’s a time and a place for that. This isn’t it. Rachael impresses me by getting up immediately. We’re ready, out the door and on the twisty, winding mountain road. Ears popping. Sun coming up over the island. Just beyond my view I can see the clouds below us. There are already a lot of cars in the car park when we arrive at the not quite summit of Pico Do Areiro. The sunrise crowd. We climb the first stairs of the day to the summit, the cafe, the gift shop. The toilets are closed. Rachael is furious. I’m not too happy either. Toilet paper, piss and shit all along the trail. Just open the toilets. You know people are coming for sunrise. We make peace with our predicament and head out on to the narrow, knife edge trail. I’m surprised to find it reasonably well paved and semi-safety-fenced for the most part. Some old English speakers power past us on their poles, claiming we’ll overtake them. They pass us on their way back before we reach Pico Ruvio. Rachael points out what looks like a chimney. There’s a staircase cut in to the rock. The small trail doesn’t lead anywhere but is a quiet escape. The bush cover is thick and Rachael tucks away out of sight of the crowd. When we re-join the trail I notice a lot of anxious faces on women who couldn’t use the closed toilets at the cafe.

A red-legged partridge starts screaming at us. We’re in his space, probably. His little voice booming through the deep valleys. Everyone knows he’s here. I’m swept up in the rugged surroundings. Jagged massive rock. Tough climbs. Steep descents. The trail winds across one skinny ridge before disappearing. Tunnels cut through the rock, passing us through peaks. Nobody said to bring a torch but I’ve got mine anyway. We pass out in to the sunshine. Rachael thinks the grey runs through the red look like teeth. She’s not wrong. Maybe they’re magma tunnels. Presumably all of this once exploded, and then continued exploding for a bit longer. We stop for our first break. I am fully loaded with snacks. Eggs. Crisps. Sandwiches. And of course, the essentials. Gummy sharks. They should be in your first aid kit really. There’s one particularly unpleasant section of the trail. Steel ladders are plugged in to the cliff face, balanced on piles of loose looking rock. They feel sturdy enough but I don’t feel safe. Once we’re through, we drop over a saddle and follow a slow winding path to the summit of Pico Ruivo.

There’s a cafe. Maybe it’s a hostel too. We’ve seen a few people with multi-day packs on. I haven’t see anything resembling a campsite, not even a strip of flat ground. Rachael and I look for some shade away from the building and the crowd it draws. We tuck in to some trees to eat lunch. A chaffinch joins us, stealing the piece of cheese that drops from my sandwich. We take a break from eating to make the final summit climb. There are people everywhere. I don’t know if this is actually busy, or if I really did get used to having the whole of New Zealand to myself. The views are extraordinary. I’ve seen a lot of thing from high places and yet nothing really compares to this. A big ol’ bit of rock that just exploded, seemingly straight up, out of the ocean. We are above the clouds. Grey fades to white, then to blue where the ocean peaks through. We have to go back the way we’ve come. At least we know what we’re up against and where the challenges are. At either end. We wait for crowds from late tour busses, big groups moving slowly. The trail thins out, the advantage of moving with the crowd. The clouds begin to build and rise between the rocks. White tendrils reach up, smuggling away the view. Search and Rescue are out. Bright red jump suits lined with flourescent yellow. They’re calm, relaxed. I think that might be a good sign. Cloud comes in, swallowing the mountains. A helicopter passes through. I tell Rachael how the sound used to be a scary because it meant someone’s had a fall but it also means help is on the way. I’m less confident with the cloud cover. I hope everyone gets home ok.

We make it back to Pico De Areiro. Legs tired. Body tired. The sun returns and we drop a significant way back to sea-level. Half a day passes before we move again. A leg ache lazy day. We walk down in to town in the afternoon for a prego at a snack bar. Famous madeira bread, filled with steak bacon egg and salad, with a side of chips to share. Time is tight but we make the city walking tour, which in hindsight maybe we should have done first. The woman running the thing is interesting but not engaged. I suspect the whole routine is a chore by now. We go through parks, Blandys, through the cathedral and more churches still. The human history of Madeira only stretches back a few hundred years. My key take away from the tour is George Washington liked a drink, especially wine. Doing half a litre a day for funsies.  Rachael and I stop in the park before heading to a highly rated restaurant for more Madeiran specialities: scabbardfish and banana. The fish is good but its not hard to see why the locals never order it. We assume there must have been an abundance of bananas and the locals were struggling with ways to get rid of them. 12,000 tourists turn up? Tell them the banana goes with the fish. In defence of the fish, it is delicious. Our server suggests we try the poncha. Poncha is the local tipple. Sugar cane alcohol, which I assume is rum, honey, sugar, and probably lemon juice. All I know is if I have more than one I might be dead. Even now I think I might end the night breathing fire. Rachael seems to get on with far better than me.

Our last full day on the island is spent driving around it. When we looked and booked we realised that the whole island can be driven in a few hours. This way we can tick off a few more main attractions. First up is the Valley of the Nuns, so named because this is where the nuns came when they saw the pirate ships coming back in the day. I’m mostly glad not to meet a bus on the winding mountain road. The views are good, but we agree we saw plenty more on PR1. We head on to Cabo Girao and the Skywalk. Why we, as a species, have become obsessed with glass walkways over big drops is beyond me. The place is heaving, cars left on roadsides. Ours too. It costs a few euros to go and look at the view. Rachael is way more comfortable than me. I retreat to the concrete steps and sit down. Things have quietened down when it’s time to go. We head West, driving through the pretty villages, long tunnels until we reach the end of the world. Nothing out there until America. A lighthouse sits above big cliffs, down below are bigger waves. Another stop is the Cascata da Garganta. Whatever that means. The waterfall is but a drip. I’ll admit it does fall a long way. Again I find myself spoiled by what I’ve already seen elsewhere.

On to Porto Moniz. The road sweeping through the forest, beautiful but I can’t really enjoy it. I’m locked on to the road, though I feel I’m growing in to the drive. The roads are good. Generally wide, and often quiet. It isn’t driving so much it’s other people. Though things get a bit hairy in the town of Porto Moniz. The car parks are over filling. The street signing is questionable and I end up facing down the wrong way of a one way street. Somehow I manage to back out of there without anything worse happening. We find the paid car park is far quieter and cut our losses. The pools here look stunning on the Internet, on a calm day, which today is not. Colossal waves wash through the complex. If anyone was in there they’d be burger by now. Good excuse not to go in. There’s time and energy for another stop, another waterfall. This one almost impressive, if only for a sight of the old road. A lane cut in to the cliffs would have passed directly under the falls had a significant land slide not taken it out. We follow tunnels through the North shore of the island to the Casas Topicas. I park in a bus stop opposite, we step out, take a few photos and jump back in the car. Time to call it. From our little home just outside Funchal, we return the car in one piece, no worse than we received it. I’m not quite proud of myself but I’ve done alright with the driving. We’ve had a good holiday. Now only the French Air Traffic Control strikes to contend with and we’ll be home in time to return to a normal life on Monday morning.

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