It’s been a very full week of thrilling experiences and exciting new adventures here in Madeira!
There’s nothing like visiting a place where you know a local.
While we were studying Tai Chi in China we were fortunate enough to meet Alex. He fast became a big part of our China adventure, as well as a great friend. Well, when Gav decided upon Madeira as a possible place to retire we were delighted for a number of different reasons, one of them being that our dear friend Alex is a very proud Madeiran.
This trip to Madeira was primarily a great opportunity to spend time with Gav, but it also allowed us to fill a promise of visiting Alex, and discovering his much loved island.
On the night of our arrival, as we were taxiing to Gav’s place after a very long transit, Alex and his wife Mercedes were at Gav’s place preparing a banquet of Madeiran delights to welcome us. It was so wonderful to see them there, waiting with big smiles and warm hugs. Nothing quite like a greeting like that after almost 40 hours in transit. Alex was super keen to show us around his island so as soon as the sun showed its warm rays we started our tour, Alex in the lead with the 4 Smythies happily following behind.
Day one we headed into Funchal. I really like this city, and I really, really like the old town called Rua Santa Maria. Its cobblestone streets and tall aging buildings are charming and the display of the local artwork on all the doors is so colorful and interesting you just can’t help but stop at each one. We spent ages just wandering about picking out our favorite doors. I was in photo opportunity heaven!
Apparently about 15 years ago this area was a run down, dodgy red-light district. Cleaning up the area became a local council project. They have retained the old buildings, houses and streets, and commissioned local artists to use the doorways and walls as their canvases. The result is fantastic, it’s like walking back in time, but with bursts of brilliant color, artistic flair and craftsmanship – it’s not all Picasso or Monet but every piece contributes to a pretty amazing open-air art gallery!
So, back to our day … once we had charged our bodies with our daily ‘bica and chenesa’ (our chosen styles of coffee) we then took the gondola up to Monte. It’s a gorgeous ride over the city which takes in the most amazing views spanning over the valleys and ridges towards the sea.
Once at the top we wandered around a bit and enjoyed a small part of the gorgeous botanical gardens. We didn’t really allow ourselves too much time here but vowed that we would return. Madeira is known for its micro-climates, hot and cold/ wet and dry. The benefits of an island with micro-climates, mixed with rich volcanic soil, is that almost anything will grow here. We’ve seen stunning hydrangeas and magnolias alongside hardy eucalyptus and white gum trees. So you can imagine how beautiful these botanical gardens are. I look forward to returning to wander further.
We then headed towards the beginning of the ‘Monte toboggan ride.’ I’d read a bit about this unique ride that had been tagged as one of the ‘top 10 commutes in the world’. It looked like a good mix of history and fun so it made it onto our ‘to do list’ while we were here. My thoughts were that it’d be a bit of a thrill for both the kids and the adults alike – it was certainly that, and a super fun way to get back down the mountain.
As history has it, the ‘Monte Sledge’ was originally the first means of downhill public transportation. The ‘Carro de Cesto’ was originated early in the 19th century and apart from the fact that most of the toboggans now transport tourists rather than locals or goods, nothing looks to have changed that much! The main body of the toboggan is made of a large wicker basket with 2 seats, the runners are made of wood. The toboggans are driven by two carreiros (men dressed in white with straw hats, all looking very serious). Deni was the one that pointed out that they all were wearing the same shoes, black rubber boots, which we later noticed acted as the brakes, and the thicker the better I say. When you’re skidding down the narrow and very steep (bitumen!) slopes at up to 30 km’s an hour you wouldn’t want those brakes to fail you! They somehow also used big lengths of rope to steer the toboggans. To be honest I wasn’t brave enough to look around to see how that actually worked. It was a strange feeling, a thrill yes, but also an unnatural feeling that we were travelling just a little bit fast, and a little bit close to that bitumen. Needless to say I was clinging onto my babies pretty tightly, and when I did manage to open my eyes, every now and then, the views were unbeatable.
(Yes, yes… the boys are looking very relaxed aren’t they? A slight contrast to the pic of the me and the kids at the beginning of this post right! )
Next on tour was a trip to the highest peak of Madeira (by car). Once again we braved the crazy treacherous roads and headed for Ribeiro Frio.
Since arriving here I have been yearning to get out and discover what Madeira is very famous for – its walks! There are walks all around the island, a lot of them running alongside the levadas, which are the irrigation channels that run throughout and around the island. From what I understand some of these channels are still in working order – some are now obsolete, but all take in some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen.
This day we did a walk beginning and ending at Ribeiro Frio with the destination of the Vereda Dos Balcões’ belvedere. It was a short walk of perhaps a few hours that took us along a lavada through some beautiful forest and tunnels. Our destination was the much talked about Balcoes belvedere that would usually delight us with a 360o view of the mountains, today we were completely engulfed in cloud – white, white and more white.
It’s quite an eerie feeling actually, to know that you are standing on a platform with sheer drops on every side of you and you can’t even see a meter in front of your hand. The urge to just step out into that carpet of pure white cotton is a little unnerving to say the least. Top that with 2 kids that are bouncing about with lungs full of the invigorating mountain air and … yep, time to turn around and complete the loop. Of course the kids loved it. The misty, foggy, white cloud that surrounded us became the perfect backdrop for their next adventure. We were now all in a cast of goblins and dragons and Gandalfs and wizards and once again I was reminded of how different, and gorgeous it is travelling with kids. They have a knack of changing a situation from what was a seemingly disappointing outcome to something completely different indeed.
Bless their precious hearts.