Madeira – A Stately Queen, an Intrepid Explorer and the Beatles

Madeira’s position in the Atlantic Ocean made it an ideal stopping off point for travelers throughout the ages. From the Portuguese navigators who opened up the sea lanes to Africa, South America and the Far East and the cocktail set of the roaring twenties to today’s package cruiser the island has welcomed them all.

While we were walking along Funchal’s promenade I spotted some sails out to sea.

The Alexander von Humboldt.

It was the German sail training ship the Alexander von Humboldt, named after the German explorer and naturalist who visited South America at the tail end of the 18th century, who has amongst other things a species of penguin named after him. This ship oddly enough was originally built in Bremen as a Baltic light ship back in 1906. It was only in 1986 that she was converted into a three masted barque for the German Sail Training Foundation and very beautiful she is too.

We decided to get closer to where she was moored to get a better look . As we were approaching our vantage point we heard a cruise ship’s horn. Well nothing unusual in that , after all Funchal is a popular stop off for most Atlantic cruise ships, but this one was a bit special.

Creeping up from behind

It was the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth. sadly not the Queen Elizabeth 2 that I remember being launched on the Clyde in 1967, she’s presently berthed in Dubai awaiting someone to determine her fate. This new Queen Elizabeth was launched in 2010.

The Stately Queen makes a pass at the German Explorer

She still looked pretty magnificent, even if the band was playing Achey, Breaky Heart as she steamed into Funchal’s harbour

Approaching Funchal Harbour

However the stately queen was being stalked by a smaller vessel, the Santa Maria de Columbo,

The Santa Maria de Columbo

a replica of the Portuguese caravels that were used by explorers such as Vasco de Gama.

The previous night we had a drink on another famous vessel, moored in Funchal,  The Vagrant.

Rainbow over The Vagrant

This boat was briefly owned by the Beatles back in the 1960s and later by Donovan. It’s now a floating bar and restaurant.

Madeira – Donna Maria Restaurant

“No honestly I can’t eat anything else, I will explode if I do!” was the response when desert was offered.

Rustic Interior of the Donna Maria

And it wasn’t too far from the truth, I was having a real Mr Creosote moment, because the first time we set foot in the Donna Maria Restaurant (Rua Santa Maria 51), we had seriously underestimated the generosity of the portions.

The Donna Maria used to be some kind of grocery store and it still retains elements of that in the interior decor, like the set of scales on the counter and the mocked up shelves of provisions. The food is basic Madeiran dishes and very good they are too.

Bread Soup

This bread soup that Mab had is, we were told, a good hangover cure. Made from stale bread and other leftovers, it’s also delicious and a bowl of it is a meal in itself. What you can’t see in the photo is the massive tureen of it, that our pork-pie hatted waiter left on the table just in case anyone fancied a top up.

Nick and I had gone for the lentils with spicy sausage as a starter.

Lentils with Spicy Sausage

It was enormous! Personally I would have liked it a bit spicier, compared to a Spanish chorizo, the Portuguese sausage was a little bland, but it was our first taste of local food after a very long day traveling and it certainly filled a hole.

Then this arrived.

Espetada on Laurelbay Skewers.

It’s the local specialty,Espetada, massive cuts of beef marinated in red wine, bay and garlic and roasted on a skewer of the local laurelbay wood. Yes that is blood on my plate, but the rare meat just melts in the mouth. I have to admit that I am just not used to eating such vast quantities of meat, but I valiantly struggled through it, along with the cubes of deep fried maize and salty smashed potatoes that kept it company. It was carnivour heaven.

That night’s meal only set us back about €60 complete with a bottle of wine, which I though was pretty good value. Needless to say we ate there again a couple of times. On our second visit we tried the special of the day, a mixed grill of beef, chicken, two different kinds of sausage, bacon and a lamb chop. I can’t remember seeing so many species all together on a plate since we ate in a Brazilian restaurant.

More meat

The specials were great value for around €9 per person, and left room to sample the deserts. I had the passion fruit pudding which was heavenly.

In fact I liked it so much that on our third visit I played safe with the starters and had the tomato and onion soup in the hope that I would not be to stuffed to enjoy the desert again.

Tomato and onion soup, octopus in vinegar beyond,

This had an egg poached in it and a really rich tomato flavour, It’s quite probably the best tomato soup I have ever had.

If you ever visit Funchal Old Town do try this place out. You won’t be disappointed, not only is the food good, the portions are vast and the bill will be surprisingly modest. On average with drinks expect to pay €20 each.

Madeira – Funchal’s Art Deco Wonders

It’s exactly the kind of  place where Poirot and Hastings discover the body of the heiress sprawled in a deckchair, shattered Martini glass with a faint odour of bitter almonds at her feet.

Cliff Elevator, Funchal

This cliff elevator links the Rua Portao Sao Tiago with Funchal’s sea front promenade. In style it reminds me a lot of Berthold Lubetkin‘s 1934 penguin pool at London Zoo. Unfortunately I have not been unable to find out much about this structure, but I do think that set in the cliff face it looks absolutely stunning.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Funchal is quite rich in Art Deco buildings, the best in my opinion being the Mercado dos Lavradores (Worker’s Market).

This is the former power station in the centre of Funchal. It is no longer used for electricity generation and I believe that it has now been converted into offices.

Funchal Power Station

To me power stations are the cathedrals of Art Deco architecture. Where before God inspired architects like Wren to design great buildings, in the machine age of the 1930s electricity had become the power illuminating the world, motivating the likes of Giles Gilbert Scott to design such modern cathedrals as Battersea Power Station in London. Funchal’s power station is not quite as impressive as Battersea of Bankside, but it does belong to an age when the functional could also be beautiful.

Madeira – It’s a Long Way Down

Five hundred and eighty metres down to be precise, from our vantage point at Cabo Girao, on Madeira’s western coast.

Not Exactly a Beach Front Property

Cabo Girao was the first photo stop on our Western Highlights tour of the island. To get here we had been driven up through agricultural terraces of bananas, the vineyards  that produce the grapes for Madeira wines, and finally the Eucalyptus forests before reaching the native Laurisilva forests, that are to a large part watered by the clouds.

Up in the Clouds Cabo Girao

The Laurisilva forests of Madeira, along with the smaller remnants found in the Azores, Capo Verde and Canary Islands (Macaronesia) are a leftover from the Pleistocene era 10,000 years ago, when much of the Mediterranean and north Africa were covered in evergreen laurel forests. In Madeira the Laurisilva covers about 150 square kilometres of mountainside between 300 and 1600 metres above sea level. The unique climatic conditions of Macaronesia  preserved the Laurisilva forests on the islands when the continental mainlands dried out. In recognition of their uniqueness Madeira’s Laurisilva forests were declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1999.

Photography done it was back in the bus for the trip down to the coastal town of Ribeira Brava.

Church of Sao Bento

Ribeira Brava means angry river in Portuguese, but fortunately the river is only angry during the rainy season. This was only really a pee stop, but we did get a chance to look at the splendid interior of the Church of Soa Bento. There is also a tiny castle that was used whenever the Barbary Pirates from north Africa came a raiding for Christian slaves back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Pirate Proof Castle

From Ribeira Brava it was back up into the mountains until we reached the central plateau of the island 1500 metres above sea level, where the Laurisilva forest gives way to moorland. It looked a lot like Scotland.

Central Plateau Moorland

The Plateau do Paul de Serro is cattle country and several of the beasts had to be encouraged out of the path of our coach before we began the descent to Porto Moniz for lunch at the Cachelote.

Porto Moniz

And a very agreeable lunch it was with a nice red and an indifferent white all included in the price we paid for the excursion. Porto Moniz Castle was also built to offer protection from those Barbary Pirates. Today it is now an aquarium.

Porto Moniz Castle

After lunch it was back up the mountains for a brief visit to Sao Vincente with its church and monumental cemetery before our final photo stop at Encumeando about 1000 metres above sea level.

Misty Mountains at Encumeando

We booked the excursion, which for a change actually included lunch with wine, through Thomson for £38.99 each.

Madeira – Bom Dia Senhor Presidente

‘Is that a Bond villain’s lair?’

I mused as the massive black BMW narrowly missed where I stood on Funchal’s Avenida do Infante and glided on through the open gates.

The Gates of the President's Palace

No, if it had been Ernst Stavro Blofeld, it would have been a Merc not a Beamer and this was the entrance to Quinta Vigia, Madeira’s Presidential Palace.  Although it’s a Portuguese island, Madeira has been an autonomous region with its own elected President since 1976.

The Presidential Sea View Balcony

The present resident is Alberto Joao Jardim, who has been in power since 1978. This makes him one of the longest running democratically elected leaders anywhere in the world and surprisingly he does not mind Joe Public poking around in his garden one bit, so of course we had to go and take a look.

The Gardens at Quinta Vigia

Quinta Vigia was established with a chapel to Chapel Nossa Senhora das Angústias (Chapel to Our Lady of Sorrow) in 1662, taking its name from the chapel’s builder, Daniel da Costa Quintal. The original chapel was refurbished in the 18th century and was then first incorporated into the 19th Century Mansion of Quinta Vigia and then subsequently into the 1970’s Grand Season Hotel, that is today’s Presidential Palace. It’s the only part of the Presidential Palace open to the public.

Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows

The gardens are beautifully landscaped with statues, fountains, aviaries and some stunning flowers.

Bird of Paradise Flower

Further up the Avenida do Infante we found a stretch of Art Deco villas. As we were discovering Funchal has a lot of Art Deco buildings. Unfortunately many of these buildings have at the very least, had their original, and no doubt thoroughly corroded original window frames ripped out and replaced by something rather more modern and durable, but at least this old ruin still had most of its original features.

Art Deco Ruin

Having had our fill of of Funchal’s western side we headed back towards the old town, pausing to enjoy Santa Caterina Park with its statue of Christopher Columbus, who settled on the neighbouring island of Porto Santo and married the governor’s daughter.

Christopher Columbus Santa Caterina Park

In the Avenida Arriaga opposite the Municipal Gardens, I came upon a familiar site.

Pillar Boxes

Back in the in the UK Airmail pillar boxes were painted RAF Blue between 1919 and 1939, however I think the blue boxes are for express mail in Portugal.

Madeira – Plovers, Gulls and Exotic Fruit

Tucked away in a corner Funchal’s old town was our hotel, the Porto Santa Maria. Right on the seafront, the location could not have been better. Along the way to the shops we’d stop off to watch the plovers on the sea wall.


These little birds were remarkably confident, allowing people to get much closer to them than their British cousins do.

Beyond the sea wall is the beach. One thing that people don’t visit Funchal for is the beach.

Herring Gull Housing Estate

Unless they are herring gulls that is, the freshwater mountain streams that empty into the Atlantic through the black volcanic scree of the beach are just the sort of place to wash that salt out of your feathers.

Right in the centre of Funchal is this amazing huge Art Deco building,

Mercado dos Lavradores

It’s not a cinema, but the Mercado dos Lavradores (Worker’s Market). Now I thought I’d seen most kinds of fruit, but the stall holders had a bewildering array of exotic wares on display

Amazing displays of exotic fruits

There were pomegranates, chilis, bananas, mangoes, guavas, custard apples and several different varieties of passion fruits, but I had never seen these before.

Pineapple Bananas

According to the stall holder they were pineapple bananas and indeed the fruit’s flesh had the texture of banana, but a sharp flavour close to that of pineapple. Incidentally should you find yourself in the Mercado, don’t buy fruit from the stall holders upstairs, for some reason they think it is fun to rip tourists off.

The fish market operates from the back of the Mercado.

Fish Market

The long black fish are a local delicacy, the Black Scabbard Fish, which are often served with locally grown bananas. Handsome beasts aren’t they?

Black Scabbard Fish

The Mercado was designed by the architect Edmundo Tavares and the build completed in 1940. More recent artworks could be found on our way back to our hotel. The 19th century houses of the Rua Santa Maria form a Bohemian enclave of workshops and restaurants. Local artists have painted many of the doors with their own designs.

Half a Turtle

Some reflecting their own concerns about surveillance in society.

Keep Watching the Bag Heads

This one was right at the bottom (groan) of the street.

Painted (rear?) door Rua Santa Maria

Madeira – It’s Tall

‘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.

Off we go (well obviously not us, otherwise I could not have taken the picture)

The view on the way was stunning.

We are on our way to Monte

The highest pylon supporting the cable car is 39 metres above the ground, so if you don’t like heights, don’t look down!

Down below

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 Monte Palace Tropical Gardens

The gardens were founded in the late 19th century around the Mansion of Quinta do Prazer

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,

Entrance to Chinese Gardens

like these exotic oriental gardens,

Japanese water garden

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,

1974 Carnation Revolution

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.

Iberian Fish Stew

I first blogged this recipe in 2007, but it has evolved a bit since then and become even more delicious. It’s inspired by the Spanish or Portuguese fisherman’s stews that used up the stuff left over after market. I used left over odds of fish from the freezer, plus whatever veg was left over from the weekend.

First empty a whole can of anchovies in oil into a pan, add a glug of olive oil and let it fry away for a bit. Add two chopped chilis, four to six crushed garlic bulbs, two chopped leeks and a chopped onion and let them all soften up a bit in the heat.

While that is going on chop up some root veg and chuck it in, carrot and potato are compulsory, but any odd bits of turnip, swede or parsnip can go in too, then add some paprika and freshly ground black pepper. Then finely chop some green herbs, I used a whole pack of dill and one of coriander, and stir it into the mix. Top up with half a bottle of white wine and some chicken stock and bring to the boil.

Then chuck in whatever fish you like, I had some salmon and haddock portions in the freezer, you know the sort of odds and ends you have left over after a dinner party with an odd number of guests. Bring the heat down to a simmer, cover and go and watch University Challenge or something for about half an hour.

Half an hour later chuck in some shelled prawns, go away and come back in five minutes and it’s ready to serve on perhaps some cous cous or some rice.