Madeira Paradise

Bem Vindo a Madeira tem cuidado com a carteira**

Translation: Welcome to Madeira be careful with your wallet

** jokey saying about the island.

After weeks of  Portuguese lessons from Carlos, Helder and occasionally Roberto when he felt like it, we were finally about to jet off to Portugal and more importantly meet the family in Madeira.

To be honest I knew nothing of the group of islands off the coast of Portugal before I met Roberto. All I really knew is what he had told me –  that they called it paradise and that it was his home, world’s away from the life we had created in London but a mere three hour plane flight. Except if you’re me and book flights to Rome with Ryanair before deciding to change the flight to Madeira but not being able to change to a flight direct to Funchal through that carrier so having to book flights to Lisbon then a separate flight to Funchal from Lisbon via easy jet.

So we had a short stopover in Lisbon in a lovely hostel that felt more like a guest house. The moment we stepped off the plane into Portugal it was noted that the air was fresher and the sun warmer than London. We had the most incredible bed and after the nightmare experience of getting from our place in Norwood Junction all the way to Stansted airport for a ridiculously early flight we simply melted into the pillows after a mini feast of fresh bread and cheese.

The next evening we were finally headed for Madeira. I was filled with nerves and excitement and immediately saw Roberto’s face soften and eyes light up as we stepped onto the plane bound for his home.

This is a video I put together of our experiences on the island.

My first glimpse of Madeira was at nightfall and all the twinkling lights that dotted the cliffs of the island that sprawled in abundance. Not skyscrapers but houses lining the most impossible cliffs of Funchal the main city on the island. As we began our descent into the airport Roberto noted the tiny size of the platform and how only the most experienced pilots can land planes at the airport as there’s mere metre’s between where the plane comes to a halt and the sea. He wasn’t joking and as our plane ground to a halt the entire plane applauded which apparently is a common occurrence upon landing.

Watch this example here!

The weather was warm when we stepped out of the plane and we all boarded a shuttle bus that literally took us  20 metres to the actual airport which was quite ridiculous but funny. Roberto’s parents and sister were waiting for us at arrivals and we jumped in the back of the car and I was immediately submerged in the Portuguese language as they all spoke excitedly, Roberto translating for my benefit occasionally. As I stared out the car window my mind searched for familiarity, but this place was different from anywhere I had ever been. The streets were fairly quiet and we would disappear into and out of tunnels etched into the cliffs momentarily spotting the sea and neighboring villages from Funchal.

Camara de Lobos (meaning chamber of wolves) referring to the sea wolves that used to feature quite prominently in the area is a beautiful little seaside town not far from Funchal and is the town in which Roberto grew up. It has a bay dotted with fisherman’s boats, a small lighthouse. A charming old village with cobble stoned streets lined with bars and cafe’s. There’s also churches all over the place as there is a large catholic following on the island and one particular church that chimes on the hour and is often the first sounds that you hear in the morning. Roberto’s house overlooked the beautiful plunging mountains to the right and to the left the sparkling sea. The charm and serenity of the place is undeniable especially as you go to sleep at night and all you can hear is the water running from the tops of the mountains along waterways all through the town.

We had a beautiful home cooked meal for dinner as we settled in that evening. It seemed that not only was the air different but also the water and more importantly the food. I finally felt like I was on holiday, and was enjoying just sitting back for a change and not stressing about anything. We walked down to the village and Roberto took me down to the bay and up along the huge cliff lines and told me stories they were told as children about witches living in the caves and evil spirits. I had my first fresh poncha which is a Madeiran alcoholic beverage which comes in a variety of flavours including tangerine, passion fruit, lemon etc all locally sourced and freshly made. It blows your head off when you first sip it but the more you drink the more it tastes like juice and devilishly starts to go to your head quite rapidly. I also had my first bolo do caco which is a popular bread which is often served with garlic butter or chorizo. Freshly made it’s the best garlic bread you’ll ever eat and  the recipe is one of Madeira’s best kept secrets passed on from generation to generation. Although we did get a tip off that the dough has sweet potato in it. Which is quite common here and makes the most beautiful fluffy tasting bread you can imagine. My mouth is salivating just thinking about it!

Getting around Madeira you really need a car, so I was so excited when we managed to borrow one off Carlos’s brother as I hadn’t driven in ages and was excited about having the freedom to explore the island at our own pace. What I failed to take into account was that they drive on the right side of the road here and that all cars are manual. Oh and having sprawled from a giant dormant volcano the entire island is comprised of giant hills, mountains and cliff side roads. Sometimes narrow, sometimes filled with potholes but stunning nonetheless. I got stuck on some crazy hill starts and  I wholeheartedly believe if you can drive here you can drive anywhere!

Obviously this isn’t me driving but you can just picture me shitting myself in my little manual renault clio.

It was stunning to see the coastlines and bays turn into rugged bush and arid looking countryside, the higher and higher you climb up into the mountains the colder it gets. We even found snow and drove until we were in the clouds we were so high. Even the flora changes dramatically as you trek across the island that is dotted with banana plantations and exotic flowers some of which are reminiscent of flowers and trees that can be seen in Australia. The land is so lush and fertile on the island that you walk into the supermarkets and the produce is really big with huge lemons, strawberries,  and massive pumpkins that can be seen drying on rooftops in neighborhoods everywhere.

Another favorite here is Espetada which is the Portuguese version of a BBQ  made usually of large chunks of beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a bay leaf stick cooked over hot coals or wood chips. One evening we had something similar on the terrace with Roberto’s family with a few different types of meat and fish and an amazing garlic butter his dad made. All while the sun sank into the sea nearby, it was a lovely afternoon.

Madeira is also famous for beautiful seafood like Lapas (it’s a shellfish with a slighty chewy texture) cooked in garlic and fresh lemon juice. Often served with the Bolo da cacao. Between that, the huge variety of fish, the variety and cheapness of the wine, the fresh bread and the divine pastries and great coffee it’s almost as if this island is catering to all of my weaknesses!

Another food highlight was the swordfish with fried banana served with fresh salad and olive oil, boiled potatoes and a passion fruit reduction. Sounds unusual I know but it just melts in your mouth. Their local beer Coral washes everything down like water. I now know where Roberto get’s his love of food from.

One night we went fishing off the rocks with Roberto’s brother Fabio at my request. Although Roberto only managed to catch a tiny fish it was such an exciting moment for me. As the waves crashed against the rocks I stared into the openness of the sea. Life is a lot simpler here, although difficult sadly because of the economy which apparently went downhill after they switched to the euro.

The only downside was my lack of Portuguese which can be quite isolating at times – although as a tourist visiting the island this isn’t really a problem as most tourist places have English speaking staff. Another downside was an apparent hayfever reaction I’d been battling since we arrived which I attribute to the change of climate.

As we drove to the airport on the last morning as the sun was just rising I looked out of the window of the car as Roberto was transported further and further from his home and tears began to well up in my eyes and stream down my face. Although I didn’t speak much of their language his family and friends welcomed me and I hoped that my silent gratitude was enough. For I felt such sorrow knowing that I was taking their boy away from them, but we both knew the reality of the situation we’re in. I cried for him, but I also cried for my own home that I am missing and this strange sometimes isolating city of London that we have found ourselves caught in halfway between our two worlds. To think that two people who lived on opposite sides of the world with different upbringings, culture and language; one on a small island and one on a much bigger island could find each other is quite poetic in the midst of such a cynical world.

I am not sure what our future holds but I know that the long and winding road will lead me back to Madeira once more. What a unique place. Australia –  the bar has been set so you’d better roll out the red carpet for Mr Roberto when we arrive in October!

To anyone reading this post and thinking about visiting this island I highly recommend it. The island thrives off Tourism and one of it’s many charms is that it isn’t overcrowded by tourists and as such has gone relatively unchanged for many years. For another taste of paradise neighboring island Porto Santo with it’s stunning beaches is just an hour boat ride away. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit but that just gives us more reasons to return. To those who visit I implore you to embrace the culture, learn how to say please and thank you because it is appreciated and don’t try to find an English breakfast at a cafe! The island really touched me and is a must see at least once in your life.

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