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A lovely island off the coast of North Africa, it's Madeira, M'Dear
By Christopher Reynolds
Jun 3, 2008 - 10:07:45 AM


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The other Madeira

But there is more to Madeira than tea sandwiches and wicker sleighs. The higher you ascend above sea level, in fact, the more of it you discover. This other Madeira requires sturdy shoes and a robust cardiovascular system. Though the island is just 12 miles wide and 34 miles long, its slopes and valleys are crisscrossed by more than 1,300 miles of "levadas," ingenious irrigation ditches that now also serve as trail guides, leading hikers along dizzying cliff tops, along terraced cro ps and through dozens of tunnels cut into volcanic bedrock. I arrive in Funchal cranky from a late-night flight and damp from several days of rainy weather on mainland Portugal, and I do not begin as the island's biggest fan. First, I find that the Santa Isabel Hotel, my home for the next four nights, is a cheap but drab place, and my room faces one of the busiest, noisiest streets on Madeira. (If I had it to do over again, I'd stay part of the time at the Quinta Penha de Franca Albergaria, a more intimate, old-fashioned lodging in the same neighborhood, and part of the time in a higher, more rural part of the island.) In my cranky mood, I ignore the blooming jacaranda trees along the main drag and the patterned black-and-white cobblestones underfoot. I decide that Madeira's cathedral, which dates back to the 15th century, is homely. I dismiss the casino on hotel row, the island's most prominent piece of modern architecture, as too stark and oppressive. Surely, I think, things will start looking up. Then I start looking up, at all that greenery and those misty peaks. And in three distinct stages, my life improves. Stage 1: I hire a taxi and we head past fields of bananas, beans, onions, carrots and grapes. The higher we get, the more the fields tilt, until they fall into terraces so implausibly steep that they look like a cruel joke played on the slaves and laborers who cut them in centuries past. The driver, whose name is Fernando, steers me first to an overlook called Pico dos Barcelos. To the north and west, green terraces climb toward clouds, which cloak the island's highest peaks. To the south, the fishing boats of Camara de Lobos lie on the rocky beach like abandoned toys, freshly painted in yellows and reds. To the east of the viewpoint lies Funchal, its red-tile roofs climbing the hillsides from the Atlantic. I could have taken an organized half-day tour on this route - they run about $23 per person - but I decide I'd rather cover the same territory at my own pace for $40. (This is also a common arrangement for hikers who need to be dropped off one place and picked up at another. The island's main tourist office on Avenida Arriaga in Funchal hands out a list of routes and standard taxi prices.) Stage 2: Now bound for Eira do Serrado, another viewpoint, we climb the increasingly spectacular R107. A crucial stretch of the road is carved into a stony cliff wall, and if we zig instead of zag, our Mercedes will have a 1,500-foot flight down to the canyon floor. If a big rock should dislodge somewhere above us . . . never mind. "Anything can happen," Fernando says. "It is better not to stop here." Happily, Fernando zigs as required, and I am soon stepping past the hawkers who offer wool caps and wicker work. I follow a path to the prime viewing spot and take up a place at a safety fence built of crooked sticks, nearly 3,600 feet above sea level. This is my Stage 3. Beyond the fence spreads the Curral das Freiras ("shelter of the nuns") valley: tile-roofed houses that look like red specks and writhing paths carved into the forbidding topography. The name comes from the 16th century, when Madeirans protected their nuns from French pirates by hiding them in this hard-to-reach valley, which may be the caldera of an extinct volcano. With the help of European Union money, roads have begun to creep into landscapes like this. But even today, some villagers face a two-hour hike before they reach a paved street.

 

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