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Madeira, Easter 1999
  A walking holiday

"We saw a picture in a brochure and it looked nice." This proved to be fortunate because we enjoyed every minute of the holiday. Madeira is an island that seems to have been designed for walkers.


Plane approaching airport

I suppose that the photos we had seen and the "volcanic island" idea had led us to expect something very rugged and not very civilised. It certainly is rugged: in some respects it can be directly compared with Swiss Alpine valleys. It is very civilised. We had not expected such a large number of houses, villages and cultivated terraces. None of the island is flat. The airport stands on a platform bulldozed out of a hillside. The approach to the airport takes a curving path and the appropriate window seat can give you a view of houses, roads and gardens; many of them above you. Soon after leaving the airport you are aware of roads that are a cross between a roller coaster and a motorway intersection and there are many road tunnels.


Sat 27 March - Porto do Moniz

We were transferred from one corner of the island to the other in a pair of minibuses. As we travelled we found the Mountains steeper than expected. Also there was a lot of greenery and plants everywhere. To reach the North the road rises to over 1000m . Once on the northern side the road becomes ridiculously dramatic. It is carved out from a steep cliff, is single track and often passes under minor waterfalls which fall on to the road.

Rock-enclosed swimming pool We arrived at a charming hotel. The rooms were compact and beautifully kept. The curtains, covers and carpets were all in local cloth. The room had a balcony with a drop below to the dark volcanic rocks of the shore. Huge waves were breaking over rocks. Just below us was a rock-enclosed seawater pool for swimming, kept filled by the breakers surging into it at high tide.


Waves We spent the afternoon sitting on the rocks watching the waves. In the evening, after a short briefing, we went for huge and tasty meal in a restaurant some 20 metres from the hotel.


Sun 28 March - Porto do Moniz

Road down to Porto do Moniz We caught a local bus at 11, after shopping for bread and fruit at the local shops which were a steep walk up through the tiny town. The bus toiled up through a couple of villages and many hairpin bends to drop us near our first levada. Unexpectedly this was shrouded in large trees and stayed so for most of our walk. The walking was little different from any woodland path elsewhere, except of course it was always on the level of the water channel. Like most of the levadas it was quite small and flowed at walking pace or less. Our lunch stop in steep woodlands near some beehives. Later we broke out on to more open ground and left the levada for some footpaths. These eventually took us back on to the quiet roads.

Area around hotel We returned to Porto do Moniz down some old and very steep streets to the hotel; this descent was hard on the knees and a taste of many to follow on later days.


Mon 29 March - Porto do Moniz

Wet path! Out at 10. Today there was no bus and we ascended straight through town in a fierce climb. The levada we followed was larger and fast-flowing and it ran into an area of continuous woodlands with big trees, including many acacias. There were two tunnels that needed torches. There was also a waterfall with a shelter for the path. Unlike yesterday, we were well away from habitation and into an area where the hillsides were covered in mature forests. We return by same route by mid afternoon and I went for a brief swim in rock pool below the hotel.


Tue 30 March - Ribeira Brava

Small levada Today we moved to other side of island in two minibuses. The road led over the top of island and passed many modern windmills. At a high point on the road we all left the buses to continue to the hotel with our luggage while we walked down along a tiny fast-flowing levada. Eventually we reached the cultivated terraces below and there we stopped for lunch. Afterwards we followed down through steps and paths between the cultivated terraces until we reached the steep roads which service the villages on the hillside. We carried on down the steep roads to reach Ribeira Brava and our hotel. In the late afternoon we had a drink in open-air cafe near the sea. The evening meal was close by and the food was very good.


Wed 31 March - Ribeira Brava

Bus stop Today we went up by bus to one of the highest parts of the island and walked initially along a well-made path, contouring under the Pico Grande. The day became wetter as we went and cloud closed in. We plodded on and the weather relented a little. Eventually our descent reached a road near a parked German tourist coach. We carried on down to village where we took a bus to another village and then a bus down to the hotel. In the evening we had a fairly good meal on the sea front enlivened by a bottle of a local rosé wine which was rather good.


Thurs 1 April - Ribeira Brava

High bleaker levada Taxis today: we piled into four of them at about 08:45 and went off to the West end of the island. At a fairly high point we embarked into frost-covered scenery and set off along a small fast-flowing levada over high moorland. Later we dropped down into a tree-clad area and a touristy levada which went long a wooded valley with some waterfalls coming down from the rock walls above.


Waterfalls One of these waterfalls was built into a steep-walled bay in the cliffs, where the water fell into an attractive small pool (Risco Falls). We met several other parties of tourists, which is ironic since the levada was often built with a narrow "mantelshelf" ledge along its side and that was the only footpath. This did make it rather difficult to pass people going in the other direction.


Narrow shelf-like path The lunch stop was on a grassy bank which existed at one point below the levada. After lunch we dropped down to another levada for our return journey. At one point Sue missed her footing and fell some distance before being arrested by some plants; happily without any damage. We continued on down to a small village, where we had time in hand and sat having a coffee until the bus arrived. Our final return to the hotel was quite late, about 18:30.

Dinner in the hotel tonight, enlivened mainly by a huge group of Swedes who had arrived at our hotel. They were led by a young blonde girl of spectacular shape who wore a tight-fitting cat suit to dinner. There were some comments about changing tour leaders and a suggestion that Declan might wear a Linford Christie outfit for tomorrows walk.


Fri 2 April - Ribeira Brava

Scenery Taxis again today; going up the valley behind the town. The weather was good today and one could see something of the surrounding countryside. The route was up a road possible for 4wd cars, as someone was proving during our ascent. We could see the windmills away on our West; not turning today in the windless conditions. To our North was route of the day before yesterday, showing up clearly and looking quite spectacular. The details of our route were quite clear.


Calf a few minutes old As we approached the top there was a cow giving birth on the path and by the time we returned the calf had arrived but was not yet standing. The descent was pleasant though nondescript and we were on foot all the way to the hotel. We arrived down the hillside to the East of the hotel.


Tonight we were back to the restaurant near the hotel, where the service and food were good. Given a demonstration of how to prepare the aperitifs we are given: equal amounts of fresh lemon and orange juice mixed with their own volume of honey, then blended with an equal volume of aguardente.

Sat 3 April - Ribeira Brava

We used a local bus again today. We went initially to the cliff billed as the second-highest sea cliff in the world. This was a dreadful tourist trap with lots of tour coaches and their lumbering clients. In the museum was a surprising picture of George Bernard Shaw taking some lessons in ballroom dancing.

We escaped from there down a muddy rod to meet a levada which traversed mostly above cultivated terraces. At one point we passed the cafe of yesterday and continued onwards along a more wooded levada until finally reaching a descent with steep steps down a very steep cliff.

Steep road through viillage This led on to some small roads and paths which descended steeply, but often with well-proportioned steps down their middle. This led us back eventually to the hotel in Ribeira Brava, with the last bit down a main road from the North past the football ground. The descent was rather spoilt for me by a muscle in my left thigh which felt like I was being stabbed each time I stepped down.

A soak in a warm bath helped. Dinner this evening was at the same place we had been a couple of times before.


Sun 4 April - Funchal

A moving-on day with a departure at 09:30. Our luggage travelled on to Funchal by our minibuses, while we were dropped at the foot of a steep and unrelenting climb up an old overgrown cobbled road. This led to a platform among trees at the highest point, where we cooled down and watched the Easter Sunday celebrations at a village opposite in the next valley.

We could see puffs of smoke from the hillside and 8-9 seconds later we would hear the bang of the big firecrackers they were letting off. There was also the sound of singing to be heard; presumably from loudspeakers.

Path down through woods The descent towards the village was via a nice path down wooded cliffs on ground that had a less volcanic and more granite-like appearance about it. When we finally got down to the valley we had a long winding bus ride to Funchal.

Here our hotel was large and formal and set in a side-road fairly centrally. Dinner was in a restaurant by the yacht harbour with a sight of rocking masts to accompany our meal.


Mon 5 April - Funchal

Breakfast at this hotel was from a self-service table. It began at 07:30 when the waiter switched on the lights of the room and watched dubiously as the flood of waiting guests poured in from the hallway. Each morning he made some comment as we poured in; today's was "No sleep?".

Cliff path The trip today was a long one by bus, which went past the airport, which is shoehorned in to the SE of the island, and then on up to the North coast. Our target was a sea cliff path between two small towns. This was a beautifully-constructed path on steep and often very spectacular cliffs. Some sections were wooded and others very exposed. There was a minuscule section of a few steps only with a wire rope handhold where the path was narrow and wet over a sheer drop. Our destination had a pleasant tree-lined square where we sat eating ice lollies and enjoying the surroundings until the bus arrived to take us on the slow journey back to Funchal.

Dinner was down by the seafront road some ten minutes walk from the hotel.


Tue 6 April - Funchal

We took exactly the same bus as yesterday, but not quite so far. We got off after an hour and a quarter and took taxis to the most easterly end of the roads on the island.

Path out along East end of island From there we took paths winding over and around some hills and cliffs not dissimilar to some of the more spectacular British cliff paths. We were not able to reach the end of the island, but we got to a high point about half way or more.

The day was warm enough to sit in the sun and enjoy lunch. We watched lizards on the rocks near us, but we were somewhat startled when two small rabbits bolted from a patch of weeds alongside us after we had been sitting for an hour or so. I guess they were pretty pleased to be away from us!

On the way back we stopped and had coffee and a look round the small harbour. There they were building and repairing wooden boats and doing things like taking crushed ice out to trawlers moored offshore.


Wed 7 April - Funchal

Started earlier than usual in the hired minibuses. Went to a high point on the island at Pico do Ariero where we arrived before the coach parties: locals in warm clothes were setting up stalls for selling knitwear near the high viewpoint. It was certainly chilly in the wind and I was wondering whether shorts were really the best wear.

Path to Pico Ruivo From there was built a well-constructed footpath which led off along some ridges and picked its way through steep cliffs. Without the fabricated paths this would have been a fairly serious undertaking as a walk. However, it was full of good views and it did get out of the wind for most of its length. There were some fierce climbs on stepped paths. Eventually it led to a small alpine-hut-like building on a col near the highest point on the island at Pico Ruivo (1861 m). We went up there for our lunch and found it pleasant to sit in the lee of some scrubby bushes.


The journey down was a very much shorter route to a coach and car park, where our minibuses were waiting for us after a journey of over 50km from Funchal (longer than the morning route). We went to Santana for refreshment and then we drove back to Funchal. Got back in time to use the swimming pool on the roof of our hotel and do a little sunbathing before getting tidied for dinner.


Thurs 8 April - Funchal

Up at the usual time, but a lot of the party were planning a day off today. Set off at 9:40 and took a bus from the seafront up into the hills behind Funchal.

Our walk started along a levada through fields in fairly hot sunny conditions. This was an empty levada with a large gang of workers doing a tidying and servicing job on it. Unfortunately Rosemary was ill during the walk and had to go back down with John via bus from a village we had just passed.

Later we transferred to another levada, after lunch in a fire-scorched wood that had seen some recent logging. This was a water-filled one. It led eventually to a village where we could get some coffee and ice cream before an abortive attempt to go to some gardens (1500$ for a passing visit).

Road-sledge in Funchal A little further along we saw the start of the Funchal (Monte) sledge run. At first we saw lorries grinding up with the sledges, made of wicker baskets mounted on wood-runner sledges. The crews in white suits and straw hats were in the lorries. The start was on a steep tarmac road where the sledges were started by pulling on ropes and then the two crews jumped aboard with the passengers and slid off down the road and out of sight around a bend.

We did not fancy the walk down through Funchal in the heat and went back to get a bus ride back down to the hotel.


Fri 9 April - Funchal

Start at 08:55 to the bus for a ride up above Funchal. These buses certainly get crowded and the seats are very narrow, even if you are not wearing a rucksack. This year we have found some quick-drying non-greasy sun oil. This was fortunate since I have noticed that a lot of the ladies of Madeira wear light coloured trousers and skirts and are prone to prop themselves up against you during the bus journeys along the winding roads. I am not complaining of this habit, but saying in Portuguese "Excuse me, but do you realise I am covered in sun oil" is well beyond me.

An overgrown levada A pleasant walk along a levada and then a steep descent to an overgrown path leading though a bamboo thicket. Lunch was on disused terraces; in this area more than half the terraces were no longer under cultivation. Our second levada today was totally disused and overgrown. The walk finished at a village with a large basket factory and shop, but we stayed in the cafe having coffee and ice cream until the bus was ready to go.


Funchal has attractive pavements Back in Funchal we had some delicious Italian ice cream, although there was little room for it! We did a little shopping for presents, had another swim in the pool until ready for our final dinner at the initial restaurant which is the most westerly of the harbour front restaurants.


Sat 10 April - London

Plenty of time for packing this morning and the buses came for us about 10 o'clock. The airport is comfortable and informal and we spent our time in the sunshine on the roof watching our plane and others arriving and some departing until it was time to go.

Our memories of Madeira are all happy ones. Beyond any doubt it is a perfect place for relaxed walking holidays in attractive surroundings. It would be churlish to criticise the food, since it was excellent and delicious. However this is the only walking holiday I have ever had when I was overweight at the start and got home a pound heavier than when I started.

Ramblers Holidays ran the trip to perfection.

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