Footloose on Madeira

by David.Cawley

Madeira’s historic hiking trails wind through the gorgeous mountains, valleys and coastal scenery of this ’floating garden'

There is a general sense of anticipation and giddy excitement. It's day one of a week-long walking holiday through the mountains and valleys of Madeira, and we huddle expectantly around Miguel, our guide, as he primes us for our day to come. While Portuguese is mother tongue of this autonomous island of Portugal, some 300 miles off the coast of Morocco, English is both the second language and the dominant language for us today, amongst a mixed group of varying ages, nationalities and walking experiences. It’s January, the morning sun is warm but not oppressive, and we’re eager to get our first taste of the island's 20 sanctioned levada trails.
 
High above the capital Funchal, picturesque fishing villages and holiday resorts, we’re amongst forest-covered peaks and fertile valleys that continually draw admirers above the cloud base to marvel at the unique flora and fauna, stunning vistas and one particular wondrous feat of civil engineering. From the 1430s onwards, a network of irrigation canals known locally as levadas – from the Portuguese “was taken” -  were created to bring spring water from the island peaks down thousands of feet to the increasing population and crops needed to feed them. Perched high on mountain sides, local builders and slaves with the simplest of tools and often barely a few inches between them and certain craggy death in the precipices below, worked to cut hypocaustal marvels into the hard basalt rock and dense forest.
 
Whatever the trail chosen on this emerald isle jewel, Miguel tells us that all should be treated with the utmost respect, and guides are thoroughly recommended on any expeditions taken. Appropriate stout walking footwear should be brought, a lightweight waterproof jacket to fend off the occasional and unpredictable mountain showers, and a travel torch to navigate the labyrinthine narrow tunnels dug to keep the levadas and ourselves on course through the always gorgeous and fascinating scenery.
 
Following an hour’s journey by chartered coach from the capital, walking begins with an ascent along dusty paths, past vibrant fruit, neat root crops and indignant goats, until we enter the darkened canopy of the 20-million-year-old Laurissilva (laurel) Forest and the levada trail itself. The paths along these miniature canals level off to match the gentle gradient needed to control the water supply, and amongst the smell of damp earth, the plethora of endemic plants, birds and unique invertebrates, the only sound is the gentle babbling of the spring water as it wends its way downhill to the thirsty farms and population below.
 
The pace along the sometimes paved, sometimes rocky route is gentle, giving time to admire breathtaking views and plant life, and the low tunnel entrances through which both the small canals and we must pass, offer us all a chance to regroup as we fumble around, check batteries and attach torches to our heads.
 
The 20 sanctioned walks range in extremes, from gentle ambles through flat, comfortable routes of less than two miles to the Vereda dos Balcões (past black-clad elderly ladies selling local knick-knacks within their wood-smoke scented homes) to a more ambitious foray along jagged mountain passes to the island's highest summit of Pico Ruivo at a blustery 6,100 feet. Some offer vertigo-inducing trails along plummeting valley edges, high above pristine white-washed, flower-smothered villages and colorful patchworks of agriculture and horticulture, kept in place by tidy dry-stone walls. Alternatively, some take in the bracing sea air along dramatic cliff top walks above the crashing, thunderous Atlantic.
 
Today, not only do the levadas function as well as they did when first created, by providing the island with 95% of its water supply, their accompanying 870 miles of service paths form many of the increasingly popular walks made available by a local Regional Forest Bureau, who are keen to share the exotic sights, sounds and smells of this easily accessible island.
 
For visitors who would rather see some of the abundant exotic flowers and plants without taking to the hills, they can opt instead for the 15-minute cable car ride out of Funchal to the Botanical Gardens in Monte or simply wander amongst the lady’s slippers, flamingo flowers, orchids and birds of paradise tended in the many parks and gardens within the capital city.
 
The “Floating Garden” of Madeira is generally not regarded as a beach and nightlife destination; rather a place for those who like to fill their backpacks, slip on some sensible footwear and get out amongst the great outdoors, actively appreciating the wonders of both nature and human ingenuity. Come the evening, and back in the island's excellent collection of hotels,  time is spent resting feet in anticipation of tomorrow's walk, whilst mulling over the day with a glass of Madeira and a slice of its famous cake.
 
 
 

 

David.Cawley

I’m a freelance travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers specialising in UK destination writing that contribute to guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles across the globe. Publications include, Thomas Cook, Britain Magazine, Heritage Magazine, Ryanair, Stars & Stripes, Compass Guides, Daily Mail online, MSN, WTG and 10Best.  My face for radio also occasionally  pays dividends – though not cash - when I’m asked into BBC and Independent radio studios to blather on all things travel.

With a degree in History and Archaeology that's actually been put to practical use, I also spend my spare time as a tour guide ‘harrying’ York and Yorkshire with overseas visitors taking them to places not often covered in mainstream travel itineraries.

As a card carrying, banner waving English northerner now living on the North Yorkshire border, I spend long days and nights ambling and poking my Roman nose into York’s ancient streets and hidden alleyways. When it’s time to rest my head I've been lucky enough to hit the city’s most expensive thread dense, chocolate topped hotel pillows as well as it’s more budget bolsters.

My York

Where I grab a beer: Sadly past the age where my drinking needs to be accompanied by pounding backbeats, The Three Legged Mare is one of my favourite places to head for those traditional pub pleasures of ambient noise made up of conversational murmurings accompanied and helped along by an intriguing choice of brews. Head to my York nightlife for some of my other suggestions.

Where I head for a warm drink: If the sun is out then it’s down to the small riverside terrace of La Place Verte for some seriously good D.I.Y Belgian hot chocolate. For coffee or tea infusions the calm and refinement of Grays Court is also hard to beat rain or shine.

My favourite dining spot: Another tough call amongst a vast buffet of good places to eat but the panache, quality and sheer joy of J Baker's Bistro Moderne  is currently hard to resist. A recent return to the elegant D.C.H was also a good reminder of what a fine place this is too.

Best place for people watching: Busy St Helen’s Square corrals local shoppers, tourists, city workers and a collection of street entertainers whose talents or otherwise bring the crowds to a temporary halt.

Most breathtaking view: Loins girded, I make the 275 step ascent to the top of York Minster for some literally breathtaking and blustery views across the city and Vale of York beyond.

My favourite stroll: Has to be around the wonderfully preserved York City Walls that corset the heart of York, where  its vistas offer a wonderful and ever-changing overview of York’s streets and rooftops. It takes me about an hour to do the loop and I find it best done early before the day trippers arrive or late in the day when they start to make their way back to the coach parks or train station. The New Walk along the Ouse is not too shabby either.

The best spot for peace and quiet: I head to the grassy and riverside spaces of Museum Gardens where close by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey I can sit and watch the river traffic chug by. Like strolling the walls the best time is first or last thing in the day. Rowntree Park, just outside the centre comes a close second.

Secret shopping: The popular Stonegate and Petergate areas have their charm and rewards but for a small collection of retro clothing and foodie rewards away from the crowds I head to the lesser trod Fossgate. More details of these and more can be found on my Shopping in York.

Don’t leave without...a plan to come back. There's way too much to see and do in one visit