In Madeira the word season has no meaning, due to its micro-climate, on this island that has fallen into the Atlantic, but protected by 1800 meters high mountains, it is always spring. The absence of winter allows the production of tropical fruits: papayas, carambola, melons, tamarillo, passion fruit, bananas and bizarre grafts that give singular fruits such as banana-pear. An ambiguous island not only for its climate, but also for its geography and identity. It belongs to Portugal but is located in Africa. In terms of language and politics it is Lusitanian, but in ways and culture it is very English. It houses one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, the Reid’s Palace, a myth more than a hotel, frequented since 1891 by kings, writers, politicians, princes, Hollywood actors and, above all, by Wiston Churchill. Since the nineteenth century, the English have been the most numerous tourists in Madeira: attracted by mild winters and generous wine. They are responsible for the botanical gardens of the island. And then there is a unique, fortified wine, the longest-lived in the world thanks to a unique winemaking technique.
In English style, the best views of Funchal, the island’s capital, can be enjoyed from the hilly Palheiro golf course. From here the road leading to the center passes in front of the botanical garden, a terraced park with over 2000 botanical varieties and pink, red and all shades of green hedges participate in an extraordinary vegetable mosaic: created as part of William Reid’s estate , builder of the hotel of the same name, has been public since 1960. The gardens are the main attraction of Madeira: the botanical, that of Reid’s, the municipal in the city center or the tropical park of Palàcio do Monte.
The latter is a green paradise among patrician residences, monumental fountains, ponds with swans and azulejos from the eighteenth century. It is located under the eighteenth-century church of the Monte, where tourists still descend on the cobbled street on wicker sleds pushed by young people dressed in white and wearing the straw on their heads: it was the traditional means of transport between the steep streets of the Funchal hill. The popular face of the most aristocratic Portuguese island is instead discovered at the Mercado dos Lavradores where women sell flowers alongside gardeners with an extraordinary variety of tropical fruits.
On the south coast, Camara de Lobos is a fishing village in a rocky cove, where the white of the houses climbing the hill contrasts with the bright colors of the boats on the shore. The southern coast is the center for the cultivation of bananas: they grow on the hills up to 200 meters high, and then give way to the vine. The art of terracing can be discovered in the nearby Cabo Girão, a promontory with a 580-meter wall overlooking the sea, a viewpoint from which terraces torn from the cliff and planted with banana and olive trees dominate, and a long beach of gray pebbles accessible (in Madeira there are no beaches).
Back in Funchal we go to taste the wine in the Adegas de São Francisco, the oldest on the island, housed in an eighteenth-century convent. It starts with the Sercial, dry and full-bodied, served cold as an aperitif. We continue with Verdelho, semi-dry served fresh with soups. Then the Bual, sweet with a hint of acidity: it is drunk at room temperature with cheeses and desserts. Finally the Malvasia, sweet, fragrant and generous: digestive for the end of a meal. Four varieties for as many grape varieties. Madeira is also judged by blends and aging. Ha vintage: the best vintages. And blend: blends from different vintages. Madeira wines are obtained with estufagem. Technique discovered by chance in the eighteenth century: the wine, loaded in barrels on Portuguese sailing ships en route to Goa, passing through the torrid tropics instead of spoiling, acquired body and bouquet. The estufas were then created, cellars heated to 45 degrees in which the wine is left to mature in cask for the first three months. Technique that makes Madeira the longest-lived of wines.
In Funchal an excellent restaurant is O Celeiro in Rua dos Aranhas 22: fish and meat dishes.
The interior and the north coast have a different island: due to the size of the roads, it is better to rent the smallest car you can find. From Funchal the road runs along the seashore between agaves and prickly pears, follows bends and precipitous cliffs to Ribeira Brava, announced by the bell tower with its roof covered in black and white azulejos. From here a canyon leads to the Serra de Agua and into the wild interior of the island: the strip of asphalt climbs between stiff mountains, besieged by pine forests alternating with pastures. Here and there, palheiros, thatched-roof houses emerge: the traditional houses of the island, now transformed into stables where the farmers close the cows to prevent them from falling into the ravines. A winding descent leads to São Vincente, on the ocean-beaten north coast.
In Sao Vincente, Quebra mar is an excellent fish restaurant built on a scenic promontory.
The coastal road up to Porto Moniz offers the most dramatic scenarios of the island: very narrow, it winds at the foot of vertical walls often interrupted by tunnels and waterfalls that precipitate the water on the asphalt. It chases dozens of small bays up to stacks that rise in the middle of the sea and to black lava rocks that form natural pools in Porto Moniz. On the other side of the northern coast we stop in Santana to see the last inhabited and well-restored palheiros. Returning to the mountain road that leads from Santana to Funchal, the women are seen cleaning the wicker on the side of the road: they prepare it for the workshops in Camacha, where artisans weave it to make furniture and furnishings.
If you can afford it, go for dinner at one of the restaurants in Reid’s Palace, or at least for five o’clock tea. Beyond the gastronomic aspect, it is an opportunity to cast your eye on one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. A labyrinth of rooms and lounges. The reading lounge with panoramic bow window with armchairs and chaise longue. The cocktail bar with live music. The lounges for the evening tea ritual. The billiard and bridge rooms. The silent desk. Then the swimming pool that slopes down to the ocean between terraces carved into the cliff, diving boards, a pier, secluded corners with tables and deck chairs. And the park on a promontory, a mosaic of 700 varieties of floral plants, trees and shrubs.
A Visit Madeira
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