Christmas and New Year in Funchal

by Joe Gregory

Forget all the hype about London, Edinburgh, or even Sydney. Funchal in Madeira is THE place to be for a fantastic New Year celebration

Some say Madeira is a place "For the Newly Wed and Nearly Dead". This could not be further from the truth. Yes it is a beautiful flower-drenched island with magnificent scenery that appeals to these groups, but it has so much more to offer.

Tastefully decorated Funchal

Every year the preparations for celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve start towards the end of November. The main streets in the centre of Funchal are decorated with lights of many colours, with various designs illustrating the Christmas season. As December progresses, the squares of the city centre are bedecked with seasonal flowers: poinsettias, Holly and Lady’s Slipper orchids, among others. An inventive miniature village complete with fields of seedlings is surrounded by local craft and food stalls. Meanwhile, piped music adds to the atmosphere when a local band or folklore group is not performing. Not that you will have to wait long for a performance, the tourist board have an extensive programme of musical events throughout December that will suit most tastes. Mandolin recitals in the church vie for your attention over a Venezuelan salsa band and dancers in the Municipal park amphitheatre. Many events are free to attend.

We stayed for 10 nights at the four-star Savoy Gardens, (Azinhaga da Casa Branca 9004 - 543, Funchal, Madeira, Portugal) a short bus journey into the centre of Funchal or a pleasant 30-minute stroll, the only issue being the short but steep climb on the way back. Many visitors take advantage of the Giro card (purchased from hotel reception) which you can use for local bus travel. This cuts the cost of the town bus from 1.80 euros to 1 euro per journey. Being reasonably fit we always walked both ways to the town centre, we could be halfway there before the bus arrived. Food and facilities at the hotel are excellent, catering mainly for the middle aged/retired Brits away from home.

We booked our trip through Thomson Holidays and opted for a standard room, which included a flat-screen TV, fridge, tea and coffee making facilities. We did not pay the supplement for a sea view (around £7 per person per night) but received the upgrade anyway, next time we would pay the supplement as the views and the sun on the balcony make it worth the extra.

A light snack?

If you are looking for a lunchtime snack, a prego is a good choice. It's a steak sandwich made with the local Bolo de Caco, a type of bread similar to oven bottom muffins. At the snack bar A Panela (located on the Rua Da Carreira, opposite the Apartment Sao Paulo and the Audi dealership) they serve a prego especial for around 3 euros, which comes with ham, cheese and salad. It's no thin steak canadian, this is a tender, well cooked thick steak and well worth the money. The place can be tricky to find though as it's off the main touristy streets and around the back of the newly built The Vine Hotel, (Rua dos Aranhas 27A 9000-044 Madeira, Portugal). We found it by accident one day, being full of locals it's the sort of place to head for. If it's cakes you are looking for head to the Lido area, in between the Monumental Lido and Raga Hotels is the Boutique Lido Pastelaria (on the Estrada Monumental). Only ask for one cake each if you are hungry and have a sweet tooth, they are huge portions, the coffee is good too.

Good walks without the need for transport

It's no secret that Madeira is a favourite for walkers and the book Landscapes of Madeira comes highly recommended - buy it before you leave home, it's much cheaper than in resort. You don't have to travel far from Funchal to enjoy good easy walking with spectacular views, just up the lane outside the hotel (yes this first bit is steep) is the city levada. When you meet the levada (an irrigation channel with a footpath running alongside) turn left. You can walk for miles enjoying the views over Funchal but if you do as we did and walk back down to the seafront after a mile or so, the Pestana Bay Ocean and Pestana Gardens Aparthotels can be reached with their own stretch of beach. You can normally take the pleasant walk back to the Lido area via the tunnel carved through the cliffs but when we were there it was closed for reconstruction, so we had to detour along the main road.

A lesser known walk is close to the centre of town, it runs under the road bridge that links the tourist hotel section to the port area of town. Start at the Quinta Magnolia Park that is situated just behind the Quinta Do Sol hotel. Aim for the tennis courts at the rear of the park and follow the path past the ducks, chickens, and peacocks. This short path, which is sometimes muddy in winter, takes you into a valley most people will see as they pass over the bridge but never venture into.

Just a little off the beaten track

A landmark not normally on the tourist trail is only a short bus journey from town - the statue of Christ at Garajau. This is definitely worth a visit, even if you only go for the amazing views back to Funchal and onwards towards Machico. Take bus no 109 or 155 from the small terminus next to the cable car station in Funchal and ask the driver if it goes through Garajau as it sometimes routes a different way. The journey will cost you less than 2 euros each way and will take around 20 minutes. Get off outside the Hotel Dom Pedro and walk downhill towards the coast. There is also a cable car that goes to the small beach nearby, although this was not running whilst we were there.

If you prefer things a little more organised take one of the tours offered by Strawberry World (Estrada Monumental, 284 9004 - 541 Funchal, Madeira, Portugal; +351 291762429). This travel agency, situated by the entrance to the Monumental Lido Hotel, runs full day coach trips that allow you to see the best of the island. We have done both the east and the west trips that they run, at 22 euros each they are good value and normally much cheaper than the same tours offered by your tour company representative. You may see cheaper deals advertised around town, but be aware that some of these deals are dependent on you attending a timeshare presentation.

The main reason to go.....

The event that really draws you to Funchal at this time of year is the Fim Do Ano (end of year) celebrations.  Hotels pull all the stops out with gala dinners and many will hold parties on the rooftops that enable you to get a good view of the firework display that Funchal is famous for. Lasting for approximately 10 minutes this display continues to impress each year as the show lights up the natural amphitheatre surrounding the capital. No video on YouTube can do this spectacular justice, you really just have to be there.