Many kilometres north of the Canary Islands and east off the coasts of Morocco you will find a tiny archipelago belonging to Portugal: Madeira. Before the opportunity of a short holiday presented itself, I didn’t even know they existed, so don’t feel guilty if you didn’t know about it either.
The main island is Madeira and its capital is Funchal, which is where you are most likely to end up staying at if you ever decide to take a trip over there. It’s the only city with an airport and boy, what a way to welcome you! The moment we were landing, the wind was rather strong which made the airplane a bit unstable and probably took the pilot a steady hand to make it land. Nothing out of the ordinary… if only the runway wasn’t extremely short and surrounded by mountains and the ocean. When we talked about it to the driver on our way to the hotel, he told us the flight that arrived before ours had to try three times before it landed. To add to that trivia, I later found out that Madeira Airport is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world! One of the very few times I was glad to find out the truth later rather than before it all happened…
The island is beautiful. Its nickname, the garden of the Atlantic, couldn’t be more adequate. Curvy narrow streets, dark rocks, green mountains and orange roofs. Temperatures hardly ever go below 16C or above 33C and stay on an average of 22C all year round, with a humidity that allows the soil to be very fertile and green in every season. It’s possible to plan and grow almost any kind of tree or plant, with some species being native to Madeira.
The best place to visit in Funchal is the tropical garden. It’s rather large and extremely humid, so be sure to take your time to walk around and wear something comfortable and light… Visitors apparently go there to smell flowers, not anything else!
The place is a jungle more than a garden, only fancier than any wild one, with a little bit of oriental décor (including a tiny open-air temple with a Buddha statue) and a taste of the 1800s. You will spend at least a couple of hours walking around, taking pictures and staring horrified at the creepy fish in the koi ponds… ok, maybe that’s just me.
It won’t be long before you get hungry (still just me?), but not to worry! Together with your entrance fee (12euro) you get the chance to do wine tasting, which sounds great, if only the act consisted in choosing a tiny sample of three different kinds of local wine; slightly disappointing. However, if you want to get serious about it, you have the option of going down to Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal where they will take you on a tour covering everything about the history and the making of Blandy’s Wine, aka Madeira wine. Can’t get more traditional than that. A wine tasting session is included, of course!
Something you should definitely try while at the garden’s bar, you know, as a snack to go with the wine, is the bolo de arroz, which is nothing more than a sweet muffin made with rice flour. Not as bland as you’d think, trust me!
And since we’re talking about traditional foods and drinks, you should know that Madeirans love their poncha (no, it’s not related to Mexican clothing). My mom was the one that told us we had to try it because she had read it was a must and apparently sweet and delicious. So the first time we sat at a restaurant we asked three ponchas as a dessert, confident that we’d give our tasting buds a treat. Not quite so…! We realized my mother’s mistake by the time our fist sip of poncha hit our oesophagus and our eyes doubled in size. Turns out, poncha is a liquor, usually with a mandarin or passion fruit and honey taste, served with fresh lemon juice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely worth a try, just not with the confidence you’d have drinking orange juice. The drink my mom got confused with was the nikita, by far my favourite Madeiran beverage – very similar to a piña colada, made primarily with vanilla ice cream and pineapple liquor. Delicious!
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as if Madeira was all about nature and alcohol. It’s so much more than that! There’s tons of great food too! But you will have to read more about it on the next post…