The Ups and Downs of Madeira

Its 3 days since we started to explore Madeira – and our first impression is that it is a classy place . For a start it is physically very impressive , arising out of the sea and reaching for the clouds – and often through them – as we found out.  The mountains are rent by impossibly steep valleys , the upper reaches of which are terraced into millions of allotment sized plots with associated dwellings clinging precariously to the sides.  The roads tell their own story. First there are the little cobbled tracks that were the first to be built. They climb at a very steep gradient and the cobbles are laid in a wave pattern that matches exactly the slow measured pace of a heavily laden ,climbing man.  They have pretty much disapeared from the built up Southern coast , but are much used by walkers in the hinterland and the more agricultural North coast . The next generation of roads are tiny tarmacked routes  at about half the gradient which snake and weave round the contours so frequently they are impossible to follow on a map . Then come the major roads , which are only distinguishable by being marginally less steep and terrifying  , and last of all the ( fairly recent) Via Rapida ( I knew my Latin would eventually come in handy!)  which is simply a modern motorway that either tunnels through the hillside or is supported on vast bridges over the valleys. For there is no such thing as a flat surface. The airport is simply a huge bridge on the side of the mountain . Little things that we take for granted such as sports pitches can only exist if they are cantilevered out over the hillside.

Madeira is all about water. The heights are usually clothed in clouds , so that even if it doesnt rain there is plenty of moisture to feed the streams and rivers that have carved out the deep gorges and valleys. This moist climate contributes to making it a Botanists dream ( Darwin wrote more about the flora , fauna and geology of Madeira than he did about the Galapagos , with which it shares the distinction of a unique and isolated ecosystem), and whilst the vegetation is no longer “native” the profusion of flowering plants certainly make it very attractive. Generations of Madeirans  have channeled the streams from the highlands into open watercourses  called levadas which run around ( and sometimes through) the hills to the agricultural lands of the valleys and the coast and these make superb walking trails.

Next , whilst Madeira has embraced tourism , and probaly increasingly relies on it , it has managed to avoid attracting louts , and the percentage of tourists to the population at large seems to be below that critical level beyond which places become false caricatures of themselves. It probably helps that it remains a pretty anglophilic place with all the wine firms having particularly British names , and the  Grand Theatre in Funchal putting on a production of the Sound of Music  in English by MADS. Now if that isnt the “Madeiran Amateur Dramatic Society “then Im a Dutchman ! Who said the  British Empire was dead!

Our exploration started in the best bookshop we could find in Funchal , where we found really good maps which I feel often tell you more about a place than any number of guide books. We decided to go for broke and dawn the second day found us already up the mountain and setting off for a circular walk between the two highest peaks. We were early as we had heard that on a hot day the cumulus envelopes the top of the mountain by midday. Halfway up in the car  things were not looking good as we were already in cloud , but we soon broke through that and were sitting on a peak sourrounded by clouds through which were poking other peaks and ranges of impossible grandeur. The island of Porto Santo , 40 NM away , lay like a little pebble in a pond and we got the impression that we might have just stepped out of a passing 747 onto the mountains whilst the island slumbered below under  its blanket of clouds.

In places the path had been hacked and sometimes tunneled out of the mountainside , and some of the most vertiginous sections had wire guide ropes to either side. At first I was a bit snooty about this but before long  was grabbing both and very glad to! It wasnt more than about 5 km between the peaks as the crow flies , but of course neither of us were crows , so it was down down down , and then up up up and half an hour later we had only travelled 200m, rather like step aerobics with altitude and a particularly brilliant video. 5 hours later two very tired individuals limped back to their car with grins all over their faces!

Todays walk was chosen to be less strenuous by which I mean that there were at least some bits that were within 30 degrees of horizontal.  We started up one of the steep old cobbled paths , emerged onto a plateau and descended down a heavily wooded valley following the course of an old levada  ,down which water raced as  it contoured  down the valley. The views were not as spectacular but the moist atmosphere gave birth to a riot of ferns , mosses and lichens as well as the native laurel and bilberries , and ones nose was assailed with that special woody mushroomy smell . Lynda originally thought the berries were juniper  and was convinced that she could smell gin , but in retrospect this was probably wishful thinking! At the bottom we met a more modern levada which took us back  via gentle contours to our starting point , and more importantly a cafe for coffe and cake , of which the Madeirans seem very fond. At least it should have done so , but just short of the road it passed through a high wall wherein the gate was locked and chained. Some helpful people the other side  said there was a notice declaring the path closed . Its surprising how the thought of another 3 hours walking lends strength and we scaled the wall in a way that was almost Bonningtonesque.We  had wondered why we had met no other walkers, most of whom follow the “proper “paths rather than do their own thing with maps.

Tomorow we will take stock , but I wouldnt be surprised if we stay  to explore  this pleasant Island a while longer , but before   I close I should just mention that Lynda tells  me (!) that to-day is our 33rd wedding anniversary. Let me just say that I am a lucky man to have such a cheerfull brave and willing playmate , and that an adventure like this would be impossible without her!



  1. Sounds fantastic on Madeira! Nothing is better than sailing one week and walking in the mountains next week! I’m off to a diabetes meeting in Montreal tomorrow – our route from Amsterdam will probably be a bit more northerly so I won’t be able to spot you from the plane.

  2. Happy wedding anniversary from the Waughs – Damn … another place I have to visit!

  3. PS Hope you’re taking photos for the book

  4. Hi Lynda and Phillip, Love reading the blog, giving Nigel and I lots of inspiration and making us more determined to try and do some long distance cruising sometime soon! Sounds as if you are having a great time in Madeira. Nigel and I visited some years ago and thought it a beautiful place and definitely a place we would like to reach in ‘P’.

    Happy Anniversary and stay safe.

    Love Karen
    p.s looking forward to the next instalment.

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