A long weekend in Funchal, Madeira

Madeira is an island that I knew virtually nothing about when we were invited to go on holiday with James’ family. It’s not somewhere I would have chosen to visit or that had ever really made it onto my list of places to see, but I was happy to go and explore somewhere new and different to where I’ve been before. The thought of getting some sun and warmth in the winter was also appealing! It’s a good location to go for a long weekend but like many places will also work for a slightly longer break if you planned to get out and explore the rest of the island.

This is one of the trips I have been most under-prepared for, for a variety of reasons, which meant that we did a lot of planning as we went and I only read through the guidebook properly on the plane. In hindsight, if we’d had a bit more of an itinerary we probably could have fitted more in but as it was we still managed to see a reasonable amount for the time we were there.

Day 1: Arriving in Madeira

We arrived in Madeira late morning of our first day and decided to stop off at Camacha on our way between the airport and Funchal. Camacha is a small town which is known for its wicker work. The wicker factory is set over several floors where you can wander round an extensive shop, a showroom with some much larger sculptures and furniture, and finally the ‘factory’ floor where you could watch people making baskets and other items by hand. It’s free to wander around and the best place to buy wicker if you want to take some home as a souvenir.

There’s also a small cafe where we enjoyed our first pasteis de nata (custard tarts) of the trip. Set up in the mountains, Camacha gave us a good view out over the ocean and our first experience of how steep some of the Madeiran roads are.

From Camacha we travelled down into Funchal down some incredibly steep streets to check into our hotel, drop off our bags and find somewhere to park the car. Parking the car took a lot longer than we’d anticipated (if you’re hiring a car try and find somewhere to stay which has parking!) but we still had some time left in the afternoon to get our bearings before heading out for dinner.

The historic zone in East Funchal is full of different restaurants which are designed to cater for tourists with menus in multiple languages and plenty of waiters out on the street trying to encourage you to eat with them that evening. Each night we ate at a different place in this area and really enjoyed everything that we had. Walking up Rua de Santa Maria did feel a little bit like running a gauntlet each time, but even if you aren’t planning to eat there it’s worth walking along to see the different paintings on the doors.

The brightly coloured painted doors, each with a completely different design, are quite eye-catching and came about as a regeneration project for that part of the city. Each time we walked down the street I noticed a different one, but I think my favourites remain the one that reminded me of Bristol, and the door with the ducks on.

Day 2: Funchal and Levadas

On our second day we made sure that we were up and out at a reasonable time so that we could explore the Mercado dos Lavradores which is a really colourful fruit, vegetable, fish and flower market. It’s only open until 2pm on a Saturday and like most markets it is advisable to get there early to see the best wares, particularly in the fish market. I really enjoyed walking around the market as it was a riot of colour from the many different fruit stalls. Fresh fruit, dried fruit, flowers, rows and rows of dried chillies… There was a lot to take in!

Most of the fruit was tropical and there were quite a few things that I didn’t recognise at all however a lot of the stallholders were set up for this. Many of them had samples of fruit cut open and would spoon a small amount onto the back of your hand so that you could try it before buying it. The market was set over two levels and I really enjoyed looking out over the inner courtyard from upstairs and people watching for a short while.

The fish market was already quietening down by the time we got there and it smelled exactly like you’d expect. We saw loads of Scabbard fish, long eel like creatures which are popular in Madeira, and some huge pieces of tuna. It was quite fascinating watching the fish get prepared, being washed with their scales rubbed off and then cut up with some incredibly sharp knives.

From the market we decide to explore some more of the city so wandered along the sea front a short way before going back inland to some smarter looking shopping streets and city gardens. There were plenty of cafes with seating on the pavements which were great for sitting and watching the world go by. After a bolo do caco sandwich for lunch (made with traditional Madeiran bread) we decided to head out of the city and further along the coast.

The first stop was the Cabo Girao Cliffs Skywalk, a glass lookout point over one of the tallest sea cliffs in Europe. It was terrifying! I hate heights so standing on a glass floored platform 580 metres above the seashore was not my cup of tea (particularly following my first experience of driving on the wrong side of the road which had involved a lot of hairpin bends up the mountain). The view from the platform was good and the experience was free but I wouldn’t have said it was necessarily worth a special trip.

We carried on west to Boa Morte to attempt a Levada walk along the Levada do Norte. Levadas are Madeira’s clever irritation systems which run along the terraced mountainside. Most are only accessible by car and the walks are linear so you need to be prepared to go back the way you came. We only did a short walk for the experience and sadly the Levada was empty as it looked like there was some maintenance work taking place, but we still saw some decent views and it meant we saw another part of the island. If you are planning on doing a Levada walk I’d suggest doing your research. Some of the paths can apparently be quite vertigo inducing or go through tunnels so require you to have a torch with you. The one we did wasn’t the most interesting, but it was good to have done one.

Day 3: The Botanical Gardens

Madeira is an island which is known for its tropical plants and flowers so it would have been a shame to visit and not see any of its famous gardens. We decided to go to the botanical gardens, which involved travelling via two cableways. The first goes over the city of Funchal and offers some incredible views up to Monte. Although there are a range of different things to do at Monte including a tropical garden, we took a second gondola down to the botanical gardens across a valley.

If you like plants, the gardens are a dream (James’s mum and aunt were in heaven) and even if you’re not passionate about them it’s still an interesting place to spend a few hours. Set on the mountainside it offers regular rewarding views back over Funchal and towards the coast, as well as a huge variety of different plants. I particularly enjoyed looking at the different cacti which were simply enormous! I’ve never seen cacti so big before. We also enjoyed watching little lizards scuttling about over the warm rocks.

We had hoped to also fit in the Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns) on our third day but sadly didn’t have the time which was a real shame as I think I’d have thoroughly enjoyed it. If I do ever return, this will be top of my list.

Impressions of Madeira

Madeira was in some ways exactly what I expected. It was very Portuguese, all the houses in Funchal were white with orange roof tiles and it was very green. What I hadn’t expected was quite how much we would bring down the average age of visitors to the island (which may have been due to the time of year or it may just be very popular destination with retirees).

I also hadn’t anticipated just how steep their roads would be! Some of them were ridiculously steep and involved lots of hairpin bends. However, for the most part the roads were incredibly well maintained and were part of a very impressive system with lots of tunnels, bridges and sections on stilts to navigate the landscape. On a main road, the driving was relatively straightforward because the roads were so nicely looked after.

I enjoyed our weekend in Madeira but I’m not sure it’s a location that I would rush back to, mainly because I didn’t fall in love with it instantly and because there are so many other places I’d like to see. However, if I did go again I’d make a few changes to our trip. Firstly, I’d go a month to six weeks later in the year (we were there in mid-March) when it was a bit warmer which would have given us the opportunity to see some of the beaches and not carry jumpers around everywhere ‘just in case’. I’d also get out of Funchal to see more of the interior of the island and do some hiking.

Have you been to Madeira? What did you think?

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