Madeira appears as a smudge of green treetops and red tile roofs surrounded by a deep obscuring fog trapped between the mountains. The light trickling of cool rain splashes on our overly warm skin as we walk to our coach. We both woke this morning feeling a little under the weather. Up the mountains we go. The hairpin turns and sheer cliff sides we drove along yesterday in Santa Cruz seem like childs play compared to today’s death defying mountain road. Having to reverse at some nail biting tight turns to make them without our front end going over the edge of the thousand foot drop into deep clouds. The drive is as beautiful as it is deadly. Stunning wide trunk pines rooted in deep velvety green moss surround the road with small mountainside towns dotting the way to Eira do Serrado.
Madeira, officially the Autonomous Region of Madeira, is one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal (the other being the Azores). It is an archipelago situated in the north Atlantic Ocean, in a region known as Macaronesia, just under 250 mi. to the north of the Canary Islands and 3,200 mi. west of Morocco. Madeira is geographically located in the African Tectonic Plate, even though the archipelago is culturally, economically and politically European. Its total population was estimated in 2016 at 289,000. We docked at the capital, Funchal, which is located on the main island's south coast.
I can honestly say I didn’t know what to expect. We pulled up to a long building structure with a restaurant and a few tourist stores. The faded sign points past the building up a paved pathway for the Nun’s Valley overlook. The rain has upgraded to a downpour by this point and the clouds seem to be surrounding us. We are the only one’s that decide to make the trek up that slippery pathway into the mysterious clouds. The frigid wind picks up the higher we climb. Finally at the top of a cobblestone platform we stare out over the dense clouds and the surrounding mountaintops jutting above the milky white like lush islands of green. Then it happens… the rain stops, the clouds dissipate and Nun’s Valley is revealed like a curtain being pulled back. The terra cotta tiled roofs dot an emerald green terraced landscape thousands of feet below. The story of the quaint hidden town is said that French pirates were attacking Funchal so the Nuns took the children deep into the mountains to protect them. They ended up staying in the protection of the valley, thus the name Nun’s Valley. It’s magical. The rainbow that comes out is merely the cherry on top.
Down at the shops we toast a traditional drink called “Poncho” (distilled alcohol made from sugar cane, honey, sugar, lemon rind, and lemon juice) and absorb the incredible view before trekking back to Funchal. The town sits like an amphitheater amongst the high mountains ending at the port. It’s gorgeous- the prettiest city I have ever seen. It’s clean and uncrowded for being so huge. The Spanish style casas pour down from the mountains, all with little gardens and patios overflowing with grapevines, squashes, kale, apple trees and covers of vibrant bougainvillea in bloom.
Our next destination brings us to the Church of Our Lady of Monte; an old church that overlooks the city. The stone pathway is cushioned with lime green moss as stairs climb through the wet forest within the town. We walk through the old wood church viewing the religious reliefs, all faded and worn with age before we board the Monte Cablecars. Starting high above the city the slow ride leads down to the ocean providing intimate views of the homes and shops in old town. After a Madiera wine tasting in a cellar below old town we venture out to find some food. Finding a little hole in the wall Cuban place we have the best food we have had in over a week. The lime and mint marinated pulled pork with black beans, cilantro rice and plantain chips was divine. They also served the local beer Coral which we had to sample while here.
On the way back to the port we wander through mosaic tiled walkways, bridges and alleys to the water side. The arts are apparent here. It makes the city vibrant and festive. Various food vendors offer fresh steamed clams, sweet gelato and sandwiches as we stroll along the waterside. Like a distant magical dream come to life, this enchanting island will stand out as one of the most beautiful places I have ever happened upon.
Words // Bimini K.