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.