Madeira

The alarm went off at 7 and we awoke to find the ship manoeuvring across the approach into Funchal. It was still dark but the shoreline was lit up with lots of twinkling lights.
By the time we’d had breakfast at 8, we were alongside and soon after the formalities were concluded and we were free to go ashore. We had booked a ½ day tour with Happy Tours, http://www.madeirahappytours.com/ a company we have toured with before in Madeira. We would have liked a day tour but because we had to be back on board by 430 latest, they thought that was a bit tight, so a half day to Nun’s Valley it was.
When the minivan picked us up, we were surprised and pleased to hear that it was just going to be ourselves and one other Portugese lady for the tour, so even more of a private tour than we envisaged. At 15e each, a total bargain. Our tour guide/driver spoke excellent English, drove well, and was a very good guide. First stop was a viewpoint above Funchal near the church of St Martin. At this point, the sun was still hazed but it was a spectacular view down to the sea on one side and up to the mountains on the other. Madeira is particularly green, and probably one of the most fertile environments you can imagine without being jungly. At eternal mildness guarantees that all but the upper reaches of the hills can be cultivated year round with a huge variety of trees, fruits, vegetables and flowers. Everything from bananas to figs, walnuts, sour cherries, apples… you name it.
We then drove up incredibly winding hill roads to the viewpoints over Nuns’ Valley, so called because it was granted as a refuge from pirates, to the convent based in Funchal back in the 15th Century. The Portugese name is Curral das Freiras (Corral of the Nuns). We drove up to the viewpoint looking down over the valley, an incredible sight, 1100m beneath us. It was a cloudy drizzle as we walked up to the viewpoint which was a shame but we could still see clearly, thank goodness. We were totally alone. Wonderful! Coming back down we called into the hotel where we were parked and had a hot coffee liberally laced with local rum. Well…. We had to warm up!
We drove down the winding hillside into the main village of Nuns’ Valley. The Christmas decorations are still up on the island and most villages have a nativity scene on display. The one here is particularly large and elaborate and is housed (and fills) the village underground car park. Coach parties of Portugese visitors tour and visit all these nativity scenes and they are very popular. The decorations in this one were really brilliant. The walls of the car park were completely screened by a sort of crumpled plastic sheeting that looked just like rock. I actually thought it was some sort of grotto at first!
Next stop was Camara de Lobos, a fishing village near Funchal, beloved by Winston Churchill who spent a lot of time there in the 1950s and painted many local scenes. By now the sun was out and it was very picturesque. Lucy called us at this point and we had a nice Facetime chat as we walked around the village in the sun.
Our final stop was a viewpoint over the sea nearby, atop some stratified cliffs, with beautiful views in every direction. There was a cable car there used not only for people to take them down to the narrow strip of land at the bottom of the cliffs but also to transport crops up to the top. There are fig and mango plantations at the bottom and we looked down on them.
A really enjoyable tour around this beautiful island and incredible value for money. We chose to be dropped off in town, rather than back at the ship. Although it was Sunday, a lot of shops were open and the cafes were crowded with both locals and holidaymakers. Funchal is quite beautiful, with lovely gardens and old Portugese style buildings. We wandered around, bought a few supplies and then found a very nice old bistro in a side street, Cantinho Dos Amigos, for lunch. It was a random but really good pick. I had a fish soup made with saffron and fennel followed by grilled limpets in a lemon, garlic butter sauce. I had to have the limpets, remembering them from the rock pools of childhood. To be honest, I expected them to be tough and chewy but they were tender and succulent. I asked the café owner how they were cooked and he said they were simply grilled for a short time. He said the secret to the tenderness was to serve them totally fresh and cook them very little. Bob had a vegetable soup and then octopus in white wine and garlic. Oh, and we had two rounds of the garlic bread which was epic. And two glasses of white wine each! Just delicious and not expensive at 15e each all in including coffee.
We walked back to the ship which was an easy 15 minute walk around the harbour.
I would definitely like to come back to Madeira and spend a week, tour around a bit and see a lot more of the island. It is a very pleasant and unspoilt place. I suspect it’s not a place for you, if you crave nightlife and excitements, but paradise for lovers of scenery and nature.
Sailing at 430pm. Just a shortish trip to Tenerife, arriving tomorrow before breakfast.

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