‘That was a bit near’
I remarked, as a mountainside sped by the window of the 737 coming in to land at Funchal Airport. Indeed since most of the island of Madeira is over 500 metres above the Atlantic’s waves, it really should not have been much of a surprise that the airport approach was so close to the cliff face. In fact the whole island is just the tip of a thankfully long dormant undersea volcano, there is another five and a half kilometres beneath the Atlantic.
Despite having enjoyed many holidays in the Spanish Canary Islands, we had never been to the Portuguese island of Madeira before. Madeira lies 520 kilometres west of the coast of Africa, so it is one of the most extreme geographical points of the European Union. When the Portuguese settlers first arrived in the 1420s, they found a land devoid of an indigenous population, which saved the colonists the bother of either enslaving or forcibly converting anyone to Christianity. When we arrived the first thing we did, once we had dropped off our bags, was to head for the Caminho das Babosas cable car station to buy a ticket (€15 return) for the village of Monte some 560 metres above Funchal.
The view on the way was stunning.
The highest pylon supporting the cable car is 39 metres above the ground, so if you don’t like heights, don’t look down!
At the top there are plenty of things to see, including the Church of the Lady of Monte and the tomb of Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary, who died in exile in Madeira, in 1922. We chose to explore the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens (admission €9.50).
The gardens were founded in the late 19th century around the Mansion of Quinta do Prazer
and cover over 70,000 square metres. Aside from Madeira’s own unique Laurissilva Forest flora, there are plants from all over the world, including heather from Scotland! At every twist and turn of the path a new surprise awaits,
like these exotic oriental gardens,
There are also museums featuring exotic minerals and Zimbabwean sculpture, but for my money one of the most interesting inorganic features were the tiled panels showing the history of Portugal that adorn the paths. I was particularly taken by this one,
not particularly for the artistic merit, but because I vividly remember watching the events of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution unfold in 1974. The largely bloodless revolution signified by the carnations placed in the rifle barrels of the military was the first in a wave that saw the crumbling of Europe’s last remaining post-war fascist regimes in Portugal, Greece and Spain, that had been tolerated by the governments of America and her allies. In my opinion these events were every bit as significant as the Velvet Revolutions that brought about the downfall of Communism.