From The Madeira Island Web Site

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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

Here, on an odd green island off the North African coast, are flowers in riot and rare fruits in profusion. Here is a tiny hardscrabble harbor full of fishing boats in colors so fetching that Winston Churchill, amateur painter and retired British prime minister, once came to work them into his landscapes.

Here is fresh and cheap seafood: tuna caught this morning, fillets in banana sauce. Here is the birthplace of a world-famous sweet red wine. Here are tall, ragged seaside cliffs, raked by smogless gusts, and a green mountain that juts 6,106 feet above the Atlantic. Here are cobblestone streets and narrow, heart-quickening coastal roads navigated by a fleet of spotless yellow-and-blue Mercedes taxis. And here's the governor's big pink mansion. We're in Portuguese territory, you see, even though this island lies nearer to Morocco than to Europe.

Columbus' getaway

Madeira is one of Western civilization's oldest tourist destinations, arguably the first vacation spot the Europeans established outside their own continent. The first settlement there was founded by Portuguese explorer Joao Goncalves Zarco in 1420. Before he found his way to the West Indies, Christopher Columbus made Madeira a regular haunt. For several centuries, the island was a required stop for seafaring Portuguese and English imperialists, who relaxed and restocked their ships on the way to and from Africa (just 440 miles east), the Americas and Asia. With those ships acting as a distribution system, Madeira's distinctive wine soon became a requisite feature in cellars worldwide. It was drunk by Shakespeare's Falstaff and invoked in song in the 1950s by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, the British composers of the playful tune "Madeira, M'Dear." The island's wine industry perseveres today, revived after the great grapevine phylloxera crisis in the mid-19th century but marginalized by changing tastes in the global marketplace. For the last century or so, Madeira has attracted many retired and moneyed British folk who promenade through the fragrant gardens, admire the fruit in the downtown market of Funchal, the main city, and dress for dinner. In the epicenter of this society are the hushed and handsome halls of 101-year-old Reid's Hotel, where a certain atmosphere prevails and afternoon tea service, with tiny sandwiches and all the trimmings, runs about $20 per person. For thrills, many of these visitors taxi to a church at Monte, about three miles uphill from Funchal. There, a crew of white-suited men in straw hats awaits. In a ritual drawn from the days when wicker baskets were used to carry materials up and down the island's slopes, the men help the tourists into rickety wicker sleighs ("carros de cesto"), then set them hurtling down the steep street. While the tourists laugh and holler, two of the hatted men stand on the back of the sleighs like sled-dog mushers, adjusting the direction with their feet. It' s silly but exhilarating. A 10-minute ride, which covers more than a mile, runs about $10 per person.

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.

'The washing machine'

The following day, I hire Fernando again and we circle most of the island, periodically pausing for me to hike a little in the high country near Serra de Agua and Rabacal to lunch above the crashing waves and black lava rocks of Porto Moniz. Mile by mile, the scenery gets stranger and more wonderful. And the road itself gets steadily more memorable, especially R101 on the north coast of the island, between Porto Moniz and Sao Jorge. "We call this the washing machine," says Fernando a little later, grinning suspiciously and slowing the Mercedes. And sure enough, we approach a modest waterfall that splashes down not near the road, but on it. We slowly roll through, our windshield and roof bespattered, sheer cliffs falling away on our left. In two days, I have traveled from sea level to 5,000 feet and back, and from disdain to something like euphoria. On about my third island day, I make peace with Funchal. Walking Avenida Arriaga between my hotel and the center of town, I pause to admire caged peacocks and the sculpted garden of the Quinta Vigia (the governor's house), and the harbor views of the public Parque de Santa Catarina. I take in the sights, smells and sounds of the Mercado dos Lavradores, the island's foremost market, where strawberries, tomatoes, cherimoya, mango, citrus, cherries, fish and handicrafts are artfully arranged.

Singing the blues

Later, I settle down to a fine dinner on the upstairs terrace of O Tapassol, one in a row of popular restaurants next to Largo do Corpo Santo, Funchal's oldest quarter. At the next table sits a young Dutch couple, and they tell about their last visit to Madeira, when they took a too-ambitious levada path and ended up marching for 10 hours. Later we head down the street to an agreeably dark and mysterious bar, the Marcelino Pao e Vinho, where a series of singers step up to join a guitarist and lose themselves in "fado," Portuguese folk music's answer to American acoustic blues. The singers are good, full of "saudade," the sense of nostalgic melancholy that is supposed to suffuse the Portuguese character. But I keep thinking: Here we sit on this wonderfully odd island, 440 miles off the coast of North Africa. What's to be melancholy about?

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