A few years ago I spent the Christmas period in Romania and with shin deep snowfall it felt particularly festive. This year after a stint in São Martinho, followed by internment at the Savoy Next hotel, we have moved into a more spacious central Funchal apartment where we hope to find that festive feeling. All the ingredients are there – sun, palm trees, orchids, a warm Saharan breeze… hang on…
Despite all of the above there are good reasons why people flock to sunny Madeira for Christmas and the New Year. The build-up starts in November when a battalion of council workers set about weaving a vast web of street lighting across the city.
Their efforts extend well beyond some central square. Every arterial road out of the city is festooned with rope lighting and few side streets seem to be left without some sort of illumination. I’m taken aback by the scale of what I’m seeing and this is before they are even switched on. There’s a sense of anticipation I’ve never experienced anywhere else. What is all of this going to look like?!
After all of the build up I’m busy working when somebody flicks the switch. At home this would be at the hand of some Love Island reject who is set to appear in panto but I suspect here there is no need for such a sideshow when the lights will speak for themselves. And they do.
The city is transformed! There is almost too much to take in. Streets and squares that are beautiful all year round become enchanted with the most tasteful light displays. Palm trees lining the harbour twinkle beneath the mild night skies.
There is a psychedelic tunnel of colour you can walk through which pulsates and rotates in accompaniment with stirring Christmas music.
At the far end of the tunnel you are rewarded by a majestic cluster of snow white trees, the last christmas decorations before the Americas, if you ignore the cruise ships that have become temporary floating grottos.
The further you walk the more you see – it doesn’t seem to end. A glance to the distant hills, lit up by snakes of light, is enough to get a sense of what Christmas means in Funchal.
Back in our apartment we have tried to decorate the best we can. I packed a 20cm high desktop tree back in October and it looks somewhat … modest, but it’s the thought that counts and we have to be resourceful. Presents are wrapped and then bound using dental floss because we don’t have any sticky tape. The minty aroma makes an effective substitute for fresh pine needles. Best of all we nip out to the flower market and buy the most stunning flowers for mere pennies and instantly our living room is transformed.
As ever in Funchal there is a yang to every yin. During the day time we look out of our window to the 2nd floor balcony across the road only to meet the gaze of disinterested office workers taking breaks for cigarettes and personal phone calls. At night we are bombarded until midnight by noisy drunks falling out of the bar along the street. Still, we have relative space and comfort here compared to our previous accommodation.
Throughout December we only have to step outside to find ourselves immersed in the season. In one direction the illuminated thoroughfare of Dr Fernão de Ornelas is serenaded with classy uplifting choral music. At no point this Christmas will we be forced to endure Slade, Wizard or Mariah Carey.
Heading into town a suspended drizzle of lights twinkles above the small square of Largo Do Charafiz. I like to sit at the bench on a mild evening and just be in the moment. Other people have the same idea.
Continuing on past the Cathedral to Avenida Arriaga I come across a lavish nativity scene carpeted with exotic flowers. What could be more Madeiran!
Nearby at a pop-up Christmas village you can buy a poncha, the all year round speciality comprised of rum, orange juice and honey which works especially well as a Christmas drink. Amongst the many attractions is a hand-crafted island landscape in miniature, dotted with traditional scenes and images. Amongst the many clever touches is a levada with running water
Onward to the ever-classy Ritz where people sip cocktails and watch the world go by. Across the road to the horticultural oasis of Jardim Municipal which has been transformed into a magical village for Santa’s entourage of helpers and reindeer.
I head back home in a loop up Avenida Zarco with its colourfully illuminated trees and then through to Praca do Município which looks stunning in green and red. Every road, every square, has a distinct coordinated theme resulting in a high class of display.
There is so much to see within a few minutes of our apartment and you can only become saturated with the spirit of Christmas. Almost every night I step out into these streets after work and it is impossible not to feel buoyed by the sights and sounds.
In the final week leading up to Christmas a traditional xmas night market is held in the streets around Mercado dos Lavradores. This year the event has been scaled back due to covid. Most of the stalls are selling flowers or fruit. We dropped by a butchers for some meat and we were implored to try a tangerine from behind the counter, despite the fact they were not selling them. An odd proposition but you don’t argue with a guy wielding a meat clever. He explained this was a Madeiran tangerine that was in season right now and we should be careful to buy this and not some imported product.
We were astonished by the deep, smoky aroma of the fruit and its bitter-sweet marmalade flavour. Once outside we promptly bought a bag from one of the market stalls.
How do you celebrate Christmas when you are on a small island in the Atlantic 1,591 miles from home? You get together with others who are also away from home at this time.
We invited digital nomad friends from Prague to visit us on Christmas eve to share some good cheer around our dining table. In the best yuletide traditions of the pandemic age we cheerfully greeted them at the door, subjected them to a covid test and locked them on our balcony for half an hour until they proved negative. We exchanged some gifts and I gave them some of my freshly made gingerbread. Drinks, food, chatter and the best company made for a special night, until we kicked them out at midnight. No room at the inn!
And so to Christmas day, just the two of us, the small cow atop our 20cm Christmas tree and a tiny plastic duck called Emmy who we rescued from a life of servitude at the Savoy. A day of simple things. A stroll down to the sea. The streets quiet aside from a hand full of cafes still open for tourists. The churches with their doors open to the public. And socks. Lots of socks.
Inevitably we cooked and ate like kings. I was particularly pleased with my fabulous winter bombe crafted out of shop bought ice cream, packed with fruit and nuts before entombment in layers of panettone and melted dark chocolate.
The highlight was the thick smoky syrup I reduced out of the Madeiran tangerines we picked up at the market and swirled through the ice cream before returning it all to the freezer. It was a spectacular yule dessert yet so easy to make away from home with a minimum of effort.
If you put aside the fact that we didn’t spend any time with close friends or family it’s fair to say Madeira offered us one of the most memorable Christmas experiences ever. I didn’t expect to feel this way at all. Which makes more sense when you realise that Madeira’s reputation for delivering a great Christmas experience is dwarfed by its reputation for delivering a great New Year’s Eve party.
You see Madeira, population 250,000, is globally recognised as being one of the best places in the world to see in the new year. In 2006 Funchal was awarded a Guinness world record for the biggest fireworks show in the world, ahead of the likes of Sydney and Rio De Janeiro.
In the weeks leading up to new year many digital nomads or long-term visitors to the isle were asking where would be best to watch the fireworks. Everyone who lives on the island seems to have their preferred place to gather. Having spent a couple of months walking the length and breadth of Funchal I formed the idea that an ideal viewing point would be high up on the road above Estadio dos Barreiros, home of CS Maratimo.
We arranged to meet our Prague friends there shortly before midnight and at 11pm on December 31st we left our flat and walked through the town centre, which was an odd sensation in itself with crowds of people heading towards the harbour area. As we exited the centre of town we found ourselves walking almost in isolation against a mass of people heading in the opposite direction. Many people were dressed in formal evening wear, perhaps some party in their sights. The tree lined boulevard of Avenida do Infante was backed up with traffic, its pavements almost impassable due to parked cars.
Walking out of town felt like a good idea as we met our friends and climbed up steeply past Jardim Quinta Magnolia away from the hustle and bustle below. Inevitably when we arrived at our viewing point there were already hundreds of people stood at the roadside looking down into the bay of Funchal but I took that as confirmation we had chosen a good spot.
While our view was not perfect we could make out a multitude of brightly lit cruise liners in the bay who will have charged a premium for this experience. The normal harbour capacity is 3 or 4 large liners but I read that tonight 11 ships were in town with 7 anchored outside the harbour walls. Most of our kerbside neighbours appeared to have walked our of their front doors which must save a lot of time and money in the scheme of things.
On the imaginary chimes of midnight the display erupted. Trying to describe fireworks is perhaps even more futile than trying to capture them with anything but the best photographic equipment. The sheer scale of the pyrotechnics was hard to fathom. There were, apparently, 52 different launch stations distributed around the wider Funchal area, plus 5 more floating on rafts around the harbour. From our viewpoint I counted around 20 different launch clusters that proceeded to eject an intense barrage of fireworks into the sky in a computer coordinated display lasting 8 minutes. It was of a truly spectacular way to detonate over 1 million euros of explosive.
With the final thunderclaps echoing around the bay we popped open the bottle of bubbly I had carted up the hill and broke out the lamest rendition of Auld Lang Syne that would have turned the clocks back to 2021 if they hadn’t been suffering from temporary hearing loss.
We bade our farewells before edging down the pitch back hill to Avenida do Infantes which was already pretty much emptied of parked or moving traffic. In fact we saw very few people on the way back to our apartment. Where are all of these parties? Or has everyone gone home already?
Somebody is going to have some cleaning up to do tomorrow. All of this will happen magically and invisibly, as is the way in the magical festive bubble of Funchal. A lot of stuff gets organised and implemented here without any visible build up. Perhaps the wooden Christmas Elves in Jardim Municipal wait until the streets are dead before heading out to fill their sacks with party debris. I could think of nothing less fitting.