Sunday, July 5, 2009

Trip Report: Madeira

I've made three business trips to the U.S. in the last five months, and frankly, that long-haul flight zaps any interest I might have in flying for fun. But we looked at the June calendar and discovered much to our surprise that we had very little planned. Clearly we needed to go somewhere.

Madeira is an island way (WAY) southwest of Portugal, closer to the Canary Islands and Morocco. It's an autonomous region of Portugal. It's got both coastline and mountains, lots of walking alongside its intricate man-made canal system (called levadas), and Madeira wine -- a sweet dessert wine. This seemed like a place we needed to visit.

We arrived pretty late on a Saturday night, but we knew we wanted to get into town quickly -- there were going to be fireworks at 10:30 that night. We made the walk from the hotel district to the marina, where thousands of other people were also heading to watch the fireworks. After seeing that most cafes were overflowing with people, we wandered into a fancier looking place that turned out to be a yacht formerly owned by the Beatles called The Vagrant, now docked in Funchal. My guidebook listed it as super-touristy, but we had a nice meal here, had a delicious bottle of vinho verde, and had a fabulous perch for people-watching -- and, it turned out, for the fireworks.

Sunday we checked out the pool at our swanky hotel, and JT even took a dip in the ocean. Later that afternoon we wandered around Funchal a bit, and took the cable car from Funchal up to Monte. It's a 10-minute ride and about a 500m elevation gain. Monte is pretty, but definitely very small! If we had more time, we would have then taken the cable car to the botanic garden, which is supposed to be phenomenal. There's also an orchid garden I would have loved to go to if we had one more day.

Monday we wanted to go up into the mountains and take a walk. I mentioned the levadas; we would have loved to take one of these walks, but many of them tended to be hours long and involved a fair amount of planning. Since we had such a short time there and didn't want to spend eons doing research, we did this walk. We missed the bus we were supposed to take, so we took a taxi up Up UP to about 1100 m above sea level to Eira do Serrado. The views were breathtaking! We admired the villages below that seemed so small. We then set off on an hour-and-a-half walk down Down DOWN to the village of Curral das Freiras. It was nice to get out, get moving, and breathe some fresh air in the gorgeous scenery. We admired the people who were walking UP. Good for them -- we'll stick to downhill.

We caught the bus back home, which was an experience in itself. Drivers here seem to hurtle down narrow mountain roads with abandon. It's a workout in itself to keep yourself from flying out of your seat. After grabbing some cold drinks and freshening up a bit, we visited Blandy's, one of the big Madeira wine producers. We enjoyed the tour, but decided we'd hold off on buying any of their wine.

Tuesday was our last day there (aside: we kept getting asked, "are you here one week or two? They were really surprised to hear us say "3 ½ days." That's not typical, I gather.), and we didn't really feel like spending it wandering Funchal again, so we took a bus to the fishing village of Camara de Lobos. It was definitely a change of pace from Funchal! The fishermen were already done with their day's work and were spilling out of the bars that line the waterfront. We walked along the water and got a great view of the 580-m cliffs of Cabo Girao. We visited a beautiful church, and the Madeira wine lodge of Henrique e Henrique. We liked the wine here better than that at Blandy's, so we picked up a couple of bottles.

We headed back into Funchal and paid the obligatory visit to the market, a must-do in any city we visit. The most impressive part was the fish market -- huge tuna, tons of espada (black scabbardfish, a local specialty), and dozens of other kinds of fish. It all looked so good! We wanted one last Madeiran meal before we left, so we headed to a restaurant recommended to us by a local, called Restaurante Jaquet. Seafood only -- and no menu! The proprietor will tell you what he has that day, and his sister will cook it for you. Delightful! We had the local specialty, espada, battered and pan-fried for two, with plenty of boiled vegetables and some cold beers.

(Just to round out the food situation, I can tell you that bolo do caco, a type of bread spread with garlic butter, is fantastic, and is served in almost every restaurant. There are street vendors who make it along the water with chorizo baked right in, and this is heavenly. We had delicious steaks at a restaurant called Paradise in the hotel district, and a perfectly fine (but not out-of-this-world) dinner at a restaurant called O Jango in old town Funchal.)

We then headed up the hill to look for one last Madeira wine lodge. We got to where we thought it should be, and there stood a slick-looking operation (well, not as slick as Blandy's, but not what we were expecting, either), Perreira D’Oliveira. Sure enough, we were one number off -- just one door over was Artur Barros e Sousa, a family business that has shunned any technology in their production process and doesn't export their wine. In fact, we stood and watched the bottling process for a few minutes -- one of the brothers was filling glass bottles with a hose and spigot directly from the barrel! We spent quite a while here and brought home a couple of bottles of their delicious wine.

The wine lodge visit was a great way to round out our last day -- it made us feel like we saw the real Madeira rather than just tourist Madeira. After one last swim in our hotel's pool (speaking of tourist Madeira ...), we left for the airport. It was a lovely trip -- and a great way to get our travel bug back.

Full photo album here. If there aren't captions, check back later.

1 comment:

david said...

Hi

Nery good article, only one "error"
Madeira wine comes in 4 main types
(from very sweet to very dry) anyone saying "it's too sweet for me"for example, has choesn the wrong one Most of the lodges offer free tastings, not only flavour but age. 3yr 5yr 10yr 15yr then much older €€€€€!