Travelling Through Portugal – Madeira Island

It was only after booking my trip to Madeira Island as part of my Portugal itinerary, that I learned that the airport in Funchal is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world to land and take off from.  The Madeira airport, named after hometown hero and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, is so dangerous that pilots must undergo special training just to land there.  While a new airport terminal was built in 2002 there is only one runway that was extended in 1986 and again in 2002 to handle the new bigger passenger jets. The runway is surrounded by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean and instead of using landfill to extend the runway it was built on a platform, partly over the ocean. Despite the danger there have only been 3 crashes including a TAP Air Portugal flight in 1977. After learning all this I was a little nervous about travelling there, but there are only 2 ways to get on the island; by air and by sea (it is a popular stop for cruise ships and yachts.) My fears though were unfounded. The landing went off without a hitch and our departure was smooth as well. 

Our flight arrived in Funchal early in the morning on a Sunday, which meant we had to be up at 3:15am to catch our flight from Porto. The plane was almost empty so we were able to leave 7 minutes early.  I arranged for a car service to pick us up and take us to our hotel (but there are numerous taxis available at the airport as well). It was convenient at that time of day, the price was right, and the driver was friendly and gave us a running commentary on what we were seeing and the history of the island as we drove to our hotel.

We dropped off our bags at the hotel and went walking through the streets that were almost deserted at that time of the day. The main tourist area is full of restaurants and cafes and of course souvenir shops but there are also beautiful parks filled with tropical flowers, some of which are unique to Madeira.  I was actually surprised at the number of flowers that were in bloom, since it was early November, like bougainvillea, roses and anthurium

We took the Monte cable car to the top, experiencing some amazing sights from high above the city. The tram is very expensive, 16 euros for a return ticket but that doesn’t let you visit the botanical gardens or the tropical gardens or palace.  That would cost you 32 euros per person, slightly cheaper than if you purchased individual tickets for each attraction. If I was going to do it again, I would probably pay the price to get the most out of the site. We visited the church (Our Lady of Monte) which sits at the top of the mountain and overlooks the old town of Funchal.  There were services underway when we got there but we waited until they were over before going inside.  The church has a long history. Construction began in 1741 but an earthquake destroyed it a few years later.  It was rebuilt and finally consecrated in 1818.  After wandering around the area, we stopped for a nice lunch (and beer) at the top of Monte with a spectacular view looking out over the city. You can take the tram back down or you also have the option of taking one of the famous sleds downhill.  The wicker “toboggans” are on wheels and are maneuvered through the streets, dodging traffic by two men who are able to keep control of the sled as it reaches breakneck speeds of over 50 km/hr. But it will cost you 25 euros for one person or 30 euros for two people for the 2-kilometer trip. Since the sleds don’t operate on Sundays we opted for the cable car ride back down the mountain.

Before visiting the island I had booked us for a two day Hop on Hop off bus tour.  While it was easy transportation to some of the places we wanted to visit, it was one of the worst I have ever been on.  The commentary skips past a lot of the highlights and the drivers don’t seem to be aware that people want to take photos. They would stop in front of trees or a building, just a metre or so away from a beautiful vantage point.  The bus did take us out to Camara de Lobos and through the high end resort and hotel areas so we were able to see a lot of the area but I wish it was better organized.  

There was a small market set up along the sea walk where we found a fruit and vegetable stand that displayed some of Madeira’s unique fruits and vegetables.  Probably the most famous is the Passion Fruit. While other tropical areas grow the fruit, none do it quite like Madeirans.  They have developed several different flavours of Passion Fruit including pineapple, lemon, cherry and strawberry.  Each one has a unique flavour that you won’t find anywhere else and are well worth the price. The fruit stand also offered up something called a Delicious Fruit, a pretty ugly looking long, bumpy green fruit that is sweet and tastes like a cross between banana and pineapple. Its’ name says it all.  We also sampled some of their dates. I consider myself an aficionado and have eaten them all over the world.  But these were huge, tender and sweet, like the best Medjool dates you have ever eaten.  I was warned before going to Madeira that the fruit market and the fruit stands love to gouge tourists and that it’s better to buy your fruit from the supermarket.  But it is these innovative farmers who have developed these fruits and deserve to share the rewards.  Again, they were pricey but I didn’t mind paying the money to savour the flavour.

The market area also featured a few food trucks set up with everything from pork sandwiches to custard tarts.  But they are not like the typical North American food trucks. These are converted tuk-tuks so they are compact and make use of every inch of space.  

We visited the Mercado dos Lavradores, a market with shops and stalls that had even more of the unique fruits of Madeira; an open flower shop that featured some of the unique tropical flowers of the island as well as other stores that carried more specialties of the island including a liquor store that carried all the local favorites and even has a ceiling made from Madeira wine bottles and downstairs there was a fish market where we saw our first black scabbard fish, considered a local delicacy.  It resembles an eel, long and skinny with big eyes and razer sharp teeth. It lives deep in the Atlantic Ocean but Madeira’s famous fishermen use special deep-water lines to catch the fish, especially off the coast of Camara de Lobos.  It is often paired with sweet Madeira bananas, another fruit that is unique to the islands (and you can see it grown everywhere from people’s backyards to huge plantations across the island).  These bananas are small, dense and sweet with intense banana flavour.  

We did get a chance to visit Camara de Lobos, a quaint fishing village just outside of Funchal, and on the route for some of the hop-on hop-off buses.  We took the bus trip out there and wandered through the town and up into the hills, which made for a good uphill workout.  The views are spectacular, although I didn’t have the guts to visit Cabo Girao (basically because of my fear of heights,) where you can visit the famous Cabo Girao cliff walk.  It’s a glass-bottom skywalk over a 500 meter cliff over the Atlantic (said to be the highest sea cliff in Europe.) It’s easy to get to when visiting Camara de Lobos but I knew that I just couldn’t face that kind of adventure.    

Madeira is not known for its beaches.  The ones in Funchal are all rocky, not the typical sandy beaches you might find in the Caribbean or in the South Pacific.  Still that didn’t stop some hardy people from laying out and even taking a dip in the chilly Atlantic. 

If you have been reading my blogs or checked out my photos (or checked me out on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest), you will know that I have a thing for graffiti, murals and wall art.

Portugal is a treasure trove of urban art and Madeira is no exception.  In fact, in Funchal’s old town, a public art project was launched on Rua de Santa Maria (which has spread to some of the other surrounding streets as well) where homeowners and businesses have been encouraged to paint their doors and turn the neighborhood into a permanent art gallery. Most doors are painted with local scenery, or aquatic life or portraits while others have taken it a step further by including other media in their artwork.  It is a must-see if you are visiting the island.  The only negative part of it, is that it is on the main restaurant row for tourists so you have waiters trying to drag you into their establishment for a drink or a meal, at all times of the day or night.  

Madeira, like much of Portugal, has numerous statues erected in tribute to everything from embroidery to farmers and their oxen to an angel hanging in a steel frame in the middle of a square. They all have significance to the

community and the development of the island. One of the best known is the statue honouring Cristiano Ronaldo, who is a local hero in Funchal. The hometown boy, born in Funchal, and who most recently played football for Juventus in the Italian league, was also  captain of the Portugal National Team.  Many call him one of the greatest players ever and his trophies and goal scoring record can’t be denied.  Madeira even named its airport after him, the CR7 (for Cristiano Ronaldo and his number 7) Airport. He was on hand when they unveiled a bronze bust of him but it was mocked because of the goofy grin and because it didn’t look like him at all.  It was replaced, a year and a half later with a bust that is more befitting a local hero. There is also a museum in his honour, again called the CR7 where another statue of him has been erected.  The joke about that statue is the areas of his body that have been highlighted by the polished bronze; his hands, his feet, and his snug shorts which display his his um “golden balls”.  

Funchal has set up a very innovative safety feature in the tourist area of old town.  At the busy crosswalks, they have set lights into the curbs so that when the light changes colour, you can’t miss them.  It is especially important these days to keep people from walking out into traffic as they stare down at their phones. 

Funchal has also built a water diversion channel in old town, with wires strung across it where pigeons prefer to roost, watching the water rush in and out of the channel.  Nearby is an excavation site that you will miss if you are not looking for it.  Apparently after a flood in 2010, as work was underway to make repairs, some stone built structures “started turning up.” They were part of the Sao Filipe Fortress that protected Funchal Bay and was constructed in 1572.

For a small island, Madeira features a lot of amazing and unique food (aside from the fruit I mentioned earlier) ; Bolo do Caco or garlic bread is served at every restaurant and even at street-side stands that specialize in it. The round cake like bread is delicious and addictive.   

On the sweeter side of things is the Bolo de Mel de Cana or honey cake, a round dark coloured cake that like its name implies, is soaked in honey. Madeira is also home to the famous malasada, deep fried yeast dough that has been coated in sugar. They are delicious. If you can’t make it to Portugal there is a popular Portuguese bakery and restaurant in Honolulu called Leonard’s Bakery that makes the best malasadas west of Madeira and is well worth the visit.  

You also need to sample the fennel sweets that can be found in most candy shops on the island.  The licorice flavoured vegetable is actually where Funchal gets its name, Funcho (the Portuguese word for Fennel) and al (which is a suffix suggesting plantation) so Fennel Plantation.  

There was a lot of great food to eat everywhere in Portugal, but one of the best meals we ate was at O’Tasco in Funchal.  Our bartender was actually the owner of the restaurant and he walked me through their beer selection. I’m a lightweight beer drinker and usually stick to a light, blonde lager but I decided to try their dark lager and it was delicious.  The waiter will bring you to the kitchen area where they will explain what is available for dinner.  For our appetizer we chose a beet root salad that was refreshing, light and tangy; and scabbard fish nuggets. We had never tried them before but they were delicious; lightly battered and fried, they were soft and tender.  There was also a hot sauce (I suspect was Peri Peri sauce) that was the perfect match for the fish.  We also shared an octopus salad.  Normally I stay away from octopus because it can often be rubbery or stringy but this was butter tender with the fresh taste of the sea and a light vinaigrette. The garlic bread (Bolo de Caco) was freshly baked and buttered with garlic, not too strong but you definitely know what you are eating.  For a main we shared mixed vegetables, cooked to perfection and a skewer of beef, the Espetadas which are skewered on a bay laurel branch and grilled.  That was the only element of our dinner that wasn’t perfect.  While it was well seasoned, the cut of the beef made it chewy in parts.  We finished off our meal with dessert, the passion fruit mousse which is rich and creamy with a slightly sour fruit flavour. Unexpected but delicious.  Best of all? The entire meal cost us just 40 euros! If you find yourself in Funchal, make your reservation because we were lucky to get squeezed in for an early sitting but saw many wannabe diners turned away and told to make their reservation and come back in 2 days!

I should also mention a couple of other notable restaurants we ate at.  We had dinner at Taberna Madeira, down an alleyway just off Rua de Santa Maria.  Good food and nice staff although they sat us at the back near the kitchen. But we sat next to a nice couple from Australia.  He plays Australian rules football and she plays pro netball and they were great dinner companions.  I had chicken stuffed with sausage and vegetables that was good, not great.  My friend had tuna belly steak that he said was amazing.

If you have a craving for a  burger, the best burger in Funchal is Barreirinha Cafe, again just off of Rua de Santa Maria but with a patio section overlooking the Atlantic and some of the best sunset views anywhere.

One of the most popular snack foods across Portugal is also one of the most annoying vendors in the tourist areas.  Roasted chestnut stands are set up everywhere, but the smoke that is created from the briquettes used to roast the chestnuts creates a toxic cloud of smoke all around them and when there is more than one stand set up, it is almost unbearable. I don’t know what can be done about it, but it’s definitely not a pleasant experience.

Of course, when it comes to drink, Madeira has developed it’s own industry. Probably the most famous is Madeira wine, a fortified wine that ranges from a dry version to very sweet and usually served with dessert.   

Poncha is also one of Madeira’s most popular drinks but I’m surprised anyone remember what it’s called because after one or two shots, you definitely get a buzz.  It’s a strong rum drink that you can get in several different flavours. Lemon is the traditional Poncha drink but passion fruit is also a Madeiran favorite.  

And make sure to try Ginjinha or Ginja.  It is a Portuguese liqueur made from sour cherries (aka ginja berries) that have been soaked in alcohol and sugar. It is very sweet and dark red and usually served in a chocolate shot glass (which you can usually purchase at any of the stores that carry it.)  One shot will cost you €1 and you can find it just about everywhere.

Madeira also has its own lager beer, Coral that has been brewed on the island since 1872. But of course, you can usually find the other Portuguese brands Sagres and Superbock at most bars and restaurants

A couple of things that we didn’t get a chance to see or do while we were there (I’m saving it for my next visit) were the levada walks.  Madeira is full of the stone irrigation channels across the island are still used to bring water to the farm fields. They are great walking trails and are even rated from everything from the most beautiful walks to the most difficult.   

I’d also like to visit the Sao Vicente Caves and Volcanic Centre on the northwest coast, where you are able to go down into the volcanic tubes that created this tropical island. 

 

 

 

 

While the Azores islands and the Algarve coast get most of the attention of sunseekers, Madeira should not be overlooked. It’s a tropical destination that offers something for just about everyone. 

 

 

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