You have to be fairly determined to stay in Madeira for more than 2 or 3 weeks in the year 2021. A spike in popularity has seen near full occupancy rates for the island and consequently we have had to navigate our way through availability calendars and split our stay into multiple locations, starting in the ever-expanding suburb of Sâo Martinho, a couple of miles along the coast from central Funchal.
We are new to Sâo Martinho. It is peppered with an increasing number of hotels and apartment blocks as it looks to cater for tourists, retirees, Funchalian professionals and absent property speculators from Russia and China, often intent on obtaining a golden visa via their investment. During our stay Sâo Martinho simultaneously delights and frustrates us – a theme which is set to continue as we move on.
Our apartment is functional, on paper at least. We have space to live and work. We are close to amenities. It was on the cheap side, though that cannot justify rock hard beds or a lack of cookware. It’s beyond me why landlords would skimp on such essentials as the ability to eat and sleep in comfort. They should live for a week in their properties before renting them out to learn what works and what doesn’t work.
One more thing that most definitely does not work for us is noise. We cannot comprehend how the council are allowed to noisily empty the bins beneath our window at 1:30am most mornings. Nor can we understand how a single person can be allowed to leave a dog barking on their balcony for hours at a time to deny 100 neighbours their sanity. Madeira is revealing its quirks to us.
The best feature of our flat is the ability to walk out of it and be somewhere better. Up hill the Forum shopping centre is classier than it might sound. There are good shops and nice cafes where you can sit in the sun. There’s a bus stop where I can watch hotel guests play tennis while awaiting the short ride into town. Then there’s the friendly bakery where I soon abandoned any attempt to speak Portuguese in favour of English and at one point, to my embarrassment, Spanish.
Down hill the sea awaits ready to cleanse my mind of any piffling domestic or work thoughts. I can never tire of the views towards Câmara Do Lobos and beyond it the staggering 584m cliff of Cabo Girão. It is from this vantage point at the end of my street that I stand and watch the sunset as often as I can. Even on days where low cloud obscures the peak of Cabo Girão it is a view that cannot be ignored.
It was possible until recently to walk along the sea front from here to Câmara Do Lobos but the short section of foot tunnel carved roughly through the cliff down to the beach of Praia Formosa is now closed for unknown reasons. Instead it is necessary to walk up to the coastal road and then down again directly to the beach, adding a mile into the journey. It’s worth the effort though just to appreciate the rugged nature of Praia Formosa with its sunset poncha bars and rocky bay, where a few bathers seem to take to the water whatever the conditions.
Here the journey to CDL is hindered yet again by a barrier at the entrance to the boardwalk. There was a landslide last year and the path was closed – in the most typically Madeiran way. There is a barrier and sign saying not to enter but hang around and you will see dozens of walkers and joggers hopping over and continuing their journey. This lip service to regulation seems to be a feature of island life, whether it’s compliance to motoring, building or covid laws. When in Madeira…
…CDL is simply charming, whether you are sitting at a cafe overlooking the picturesque bay, catching a glimpse of an octogenarian barber wearing a traditional Madeiran hat in a backstreet walk-in, or staring out to the blinding sea from the modern seafront terrace at the other end of town. The icing on the cake is the discovery that Câmara Do Lobos translates as Chamber Of Wolves.
Despite the attraction of CDL most of the walks from our apartment take the opposite direction. A stroll along the cliff path towards Funchal takes in rocky ocean views dotted with marine traffic ranging from the regular stream of harbour bound cruise ship megaliths through to catamaran ocean trippers. The walk is blessed with endless exotic plants that grow vigorously in their native habitat from even the most unattended plot. There are no weeds by any definition I would recognise.
A highlight of this route is the impeccably maintained Lido area with its open-air swimming pools and limitless views. We visit one autumn afternoon when the water is warmest to swim a little in the pool before drying off in the sun. I venture down the steps to the sea where a colony of large red crabs basks on some rocks. A few braver swimmers than me bob around in a protected salt water inlet. “It’s warm!” one assures me. OK.
Autumn turns out to be very much like summer, just a little cooler in the evenings. A few deciduous trees shed their leaves, perhaps based on memory rather than reaction to the elements. At some point my fellow residents start to wear thick tops, fleece jackets and sometimes even gloves. This must be a signal and so I decide to wear long trousers in the evening.
Another sign of the season is the quite staggeringly comprehensive array of Christmas lighting being set up in main streets and side streets radiating for miles out of the centre of town. The festive period is an international attraction and a massive switch-on of city lights is scheduled for December 1st. I’m like a boy again and I can’t wait.
We have taken to walking into Funchal on most days and if we are not taking the cliff path we are following the busy Estrada Monumental road. In Madeira you are mostly travelling up or down unnervingly steep roads so this level approach to the centre is a relief, though it’s fair to say that our fitness has been transformed since we wheezed up our first hill back in October.
One of my favourite aspects of this walk has been stopping to watch games of Padel on the courts near Jardim Panorâmico. This highly popular sport is a cross between tennis and squash. I find it pleasing to watch as it seemingly lacks the high skill requirement of tennis or the brutal physical demands of squash needed for the average person to play out an entertaining game.
I’m learning that Madeirans like their sport. Cycle lanes are popping up and club riders favour Sunday mornings for their forays in to town and along the harbour front. The cooler evenings attract countless joggers who for the most part look totally unfit, as if they feel that it’s something they should be doing rather than something they want to be doing.
For many the relationship with Madeiran sport is from the side lines. Funchal plays host to 2 professional football teams. The red and green of Maratimo play at the modern Barreiros stadium in the Premeira Liga alongside the giants of Porto, Sporting and Benfica, who recently thumped them 7-1. The green and white of Nacional play in the second tier at a stadium so high up in the hills overlooking Funchal that they must sometimes play in the clouds.
“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.”Brian Clough
On one Saturday I walked over to the magnificent grounds of Quinta Magnolia to watch the Madeira ladies tennis tournament. This WTA event sees players ranked from 100 to 1000 compete for singles and doubles titles as they seek to earn ranking points. I’m blown away by the standard and can only marvel at the power and precision of players at this level. There’s a mix of diminutive 17 year olds playing with grit and tenacity against seasoned thirty something opponents applying all of their experience as they attempt to hold onto their former rankings. In typical Madeiran style you would barely know about this event from any online publicity. You just have to somehow “know” about stuff here.
Local favourites the Jorge sisters fall by the wayside and I decide to support young Croatian Antonia Ruzik because she just seems to be having fun playing against (and mostly beating) more seasoned professionals. Ultimately ranking plays out and the winner is top seeded Kristina Kucova.
I will return to Quinta Magnolia to enjoy the peace and the views of this green oasis in the city. It’s an example of how much there is to discover in and around Funchal.
And this is how we spend our time in Sâo Martinho. We work during the week, explore locally in the evenings and try to be more adventurous at the weekends. It’s a good way of living, for a limited time at least. Soon we will be moving closer to the centre of Funchal where there will be new experiences and opportunities. Perhaps most of all we are hoping to get a good night’s sleep. Is that too much to ask?