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Madeira is rough-hewn, European version of Bermuda




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The Portuguese island of Madeira, located in eastern Atlantic Ocean, 310 miles off the coast of Africa, is home to a toboggan run that is about 150 years old.

Every day, in the village of Monte, conveyances called toboggans can be found gliding beneath the palm trees down a certain steep slope high above the capital city of Funchal.

These toboggans, which resemble pieces of wicker furniture with sledlike bottoms -- do not glide over snow or ice.

Instead, they are guided down two miles of a narrow, cobblestone street that snakes through an old residential neighborhood by two drivers dressed in traditional white shirts and slacks with stiff straw hats.

The toboggans have been following roughly the same downhill route since at least 1848, according to local drivers. Before becoming a tourist attraction, the carro de cesto, as the toboggan is called in Portuguese, was used to transport grapes and casks of Madeira wine, for which the island is famous.

No longer utilitarian in the automotive age, these oversized wicker baskets are throwbacks to slower times. Today, they are to Monte what horse and buggies are to New York City's Central Park.

Madeira was a heavily wooded (the name ``Madeira'' means ``timber' ' in Portuguese), uninhabited archipelago when it was settled by the Portuguese at the outset of its seafaring glory years in the early 1420s.

Through the centuries, the island has been supported by economies that evolved around sugar cane, wine and now, tourism. Since early in the 19th century, Madeira has been a warm-weather retreat for affluent Europeans.

Especially favored by the British, who have long enjoyed a chummy relationship with the Portuguese, the island remains largely untrammeled upon by North Americans.

In some ways, Madeira is a rough-hewn, decidedly European version of Bermuda.

Although short pants and motor scooters are rare on Madeira, the Savoy, a five-star resort in Funchal, still serves high tea with finger sandwiches in the afternoon.

Because of Madeira's volcanic origins, the main island has only dark, rocky beaches. So there isn't much of a lotion-soaked, sunworshipping culture there.

Also, flat land is so scarce on the mountainous terrain of Madeira that the airport, which wasn't even built until 1964, has one of the shortest runways in the European community, which makes it almost impossible to land the kind of jumbo jets that would fly in droves of tourists.

Both of these factors allow Madeira to cling to a modicom of Old-World charm, while remaining relatively uncrowded and affordable.

Funchal is a modern, bustling seaport with a busy cargo harbor, frequently visited by cruise liners.

But it is possible to step back in time a few blocks away from the harbor by visiting the frenetic Workers' Market, where fresh produce and fish are sold every day.

Beyond downtown Funchal, the island is doing a slow, if not reluctant, march into the 1990s.

It remains possible to find church festivals that serve food cooked the old-fashioned way, over open wood fires. The fishing village of Camara de Lobos, with its colorful boats, still looks much the way it did in 1949 when Winston Churchill came here to paint it.

And, of course, the toboggans are still running up in Monte.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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