From The Madeira Island Web Site
Levadas: Dreamy Winding Paths on an Enchanting Island
By Jorge Barbosa
Jun 5, 2008 - 10:27:55 PM
The majority of Madeirans live along the coastline and in sight of the sea. Their forefathers were adventurers: seafarers with a thirst for discovery; soldiers of arms and fortune.
Yet they were also farmers who, centuries ago, reckoned the island’s volcanic soil and benign climate were ideal for producing sugar and wine. Just one problem: most of the rain seemed to fall in the mountains to the north and not on the warmer south coast, where the first canes and vines were planted.
Combining ingenuity with backbreaking work, the islanders created a unique system of manmade irrigation channels, which they called Levadas. Suspended from baskets, they would chisel away at a sheer cliff face; on all fours, they would tunnel inch by inch through a hill. And all the while, by instinct perhaps, they had to calculate a gentle downward gradient or the water might never go where it was supposed to.
Part of the network, which today totals hundreds of miles, was said to have been in place before any kind of road system existed. After all, who needed a road when there were no decent cars to drive? But with or without a faucet, you still needed water for those first vines from Crete and sugarcane from Sicily.
One of the oldest professions here (no, not that) is the levadeiro, the man responsible for opening and closing sluice-gates and general upkeep of the irrigation system. To this day, Madeira’s market-gardeners pay for their water not by volume but by flow-hour, called a pena.
Happily for nature-lovers, footpaths run alongside many of these water courses. New arrivals can start with easier walks: the 45-minutes from Ribeiro Frio to the breathtaking belvedere at Balcões or the 2-hour trek to Funchal along the levada from Papagaio Verde, a few kilometres west of the city.
See Madeira on foot and maybe you, too, will strike up a lifelong affair with its hills and valleys.
© Copyright 2008 by The Madeira Island Web Site