Carnival

Carnival !

It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.

I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.

Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up
Taxis, lights, flags: Things are ramping up

The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.

Jostling for position
Jostling for position

This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.

Fuelling up
Fuelling up

Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.

Elevated viewing points are in demand
Elevated viewing points are in demand

People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.

Some will go to any length
Some will go to any length

Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.

I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.

Setting the tone
Setting the tone

At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.

Funchal or Rio?
Funchal or Rio?

The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.

Centre of attention
Centre of attention

It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!

Carnival !
Carnival !

The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.

Hold on to your hat
Hold on to your hat

Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production

Putting on a show
Putting on a show

The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both

Leading Lady
Leading Lady

The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.

Stayin Alive
Stayin Alive

Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation

Music and rhythm
Music and rhythm

This is not a night for introverts.

Everyone is a star
Everyone is a star

The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.

Capturing the moment
Capturing the moment

I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.

A alegria da vida
A alegria da vida

The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.

For one night only...
For one night only…

It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.

Life is a cabaret
Life is a cabaret

I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.

All good things come to an end
All good things come to an end

For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods

Taking flight
Taking flight

Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.

For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.


Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…

The morning after
The morning after

The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days

Until next time...
Until next time…

Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?

Madeira – Garden of Eden

Madeirans love a festival

Why haven’t I written about Madeira before now? Probably the same reason I haven’t written any blogs for a long while – I’m now a farmer (see all the allotment posts). Better late than never, which also describes my feelings about not having visited Madeira until relatively recently.

Craggy Island
Craggy Island

This rocky island is the summit of a dormant volcano poking out from the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. If you haven’t visited this Portuguese outpost you will probably be aware of the wine and cake bearing its name. So far so good but there’s more. So much more that it passes the test of one of the (few) places on my travels that I could happily live in under different circumstances, such as a lottery win or bank heist. Let me elaborate …

Getting there

This may prove your major obstacle. The airport runway has been dramatically extended into the sea in recent years but that hasn’t solved the problem of cross winds.

Garden airport
Garden airport

My inbound flight was unable to land due to high wind speeds and after instead touching down on the neighbouring rock of Porto Santo the flight was eventually diverted to Tenerife where the passengers had to spend a night before the journey could be completed the next day. This sort of thing is happening a lot and it’s a real blight on the islands substantial tourist industry.

Climate and Topology

Once you are there you can enjoy fabulous mild to hottish temperatures all year-round – great if you want to sit on the beach. Except there aren’t any beaches of note. Recently some homes have been lost to wild fires and storms that have flooded some coastal areas washing people out to sea. Still want to come?

Mild & sunny in Funchal
Mild & sunny in Funchal

Madeira boasts a remarkable landscape and has been described as Little Switzerland, which really doesn’t do it justice. There is barely a flat surface on the island. It rises as cliffs from the sea up to heady peaks that look down into vertigo inducing valleys. You can be basking in the sun in the coastal capital Funchal at the same time somebody is trying to peer through the mist in mountains just a few miles away.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds

The North of the island could pass for the Scottish Highlands with sturdy cattle grazing the verdant rocky hillside.

The interior - lush and humid
The interior – lush and humid

Until relatively recently the many villages and small towns on the island were connected tenuously by a crude system of roads and tunnels that effectively discouraged travel.

How it used to be
How it used to be

Today you can travel around and through the landscape with great efficiency due to an astonishing number of modern EU funded tunnels and bridges that have transformed life on the island and made exploring Madeira a joy.

The new road system
The new road system

The toy town road system has only partially domesticated travel. Rock falls are a frequent occurrence and my own travel plans have been scuppered by closed mountain routes. Furthermore the very steep narrow roads of the capital Funchal will leave nervous drivers needing a glass of Madeira or two. Another pitfall awaits if you fail to appreciate the fuel demands on a car mercilessly flogged up hairpin roads for 45 minutes. When the fuel gauge on my rental hit zero I was able to coast downhill for 25 minutes to the nearest fuel station using nothing but the brake pedal.

Flora

If I had to choose one thing that makes Madeira a must-visit island it would be the truly astounding array of plant life that thrives in this environment. There are a number of popular gardens you can visit in Funchal but there’s really no need. The average roadside verge may well provide home to the sort of exotic plant life that you would pay to see at home.

A typical Madeiran flower stall
A typical Madeiran flower stall

Madeirans take great pride in their gardens and a walk of the streets will reward you with an abundance of front garden colour and more species of Orchid than you knew existed.

Stunning flora
Stunning flora

It is perhaps because of the isolated history of Madeiran communities that the people here have learned to be very self-sufficient. A high proportion of residents grow their own produce. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients for growing and the climate is great, which just leaves the need for water.

Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture
Even the steepest slopes are terraced for agriculture

And that leads to another remarkable Madeiran tale. A vast network of water channels called levadas has been constructed over the years to bring water from the mountains down to the communities.

Levadas for irrigation and walking
Levadas for irrigation and walking

The closest parallel to UK agriculture would be the endless pattern of dry stone walling hand-built and maintained by farmers over generations. Today the levada network draw a considerable numbers of tourists who come to walk the paths alongside the Levadas. I’ve walked a couple myself and these utilitarian paths traverse parts of the dramatic interior that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.

Food and Drink

I don’t write about a place without mentioning food, usually in too much detail. It goes without saying that the produce grown in this garden of Eden contribute to fabulous cuisine but this is overshadowed by the seafood. Supermarket fish counters groan under the weight of species we can only dream of in the UK, although that doesn’t explain why the islands of Great Britain offer such an impoverished selection of fish to consumers.

Grilled limpets - simply exquisite
Grilled limpets – simply exquisite

Specialities here include the vicious looking Espada – a prehistoric fish caught at great depth which looks less threatening on the BBQ, and limpets grilled in butter and garlic. They are to die for!

Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores
Espada being prepared at the timeless Mercado dos Lavradores

The legendary Mercado dos Lavradores fish market in Funchal has long attracted more tourists than serious shoppers due to its enticing displays of fresh Espada. As a side note I recently read a 1970’s National Geographic featuring Madeira which included a picture of the fish market. It hasn’t changed one bit in 40 years.

Every day is a seafood day
Every day is a seafood day

Many tourists travel home with a bottle or three of Madeira wine. It’s great. Then there’s the madeira cake. It’s not great. That’s just my experience.

Life and all that

Life in the populous capital of Funchal is doubtless a little different to that in an isolated hillside village but there are some universalities. This is a low-rise island. People have gardens and grow things. There appears to be is a cohesive social infrastructure. All good things. As a tourist I particularly like the numerous quinta that are available to rent. A typical quinta is a grand colonial era villa with impressive dimensions and a thriving garden.

Grand designs
Grand designs

I would heartily recommend you seek out a quinta ahead of some sterile hotel half way up the hillside. Nothing beats drawing open curtains in the morning and walking onto the balcony to smell the intoxicating aroma of hibiscus and see the sun beaming off the sea. My quinta had the bonus of a banana tree which thoughtfully deposited breakfast onto a sun bed each morning.

Manna from heaven
Manna from heaven

I took to reading an English-speaking news blog throughout my stay and it was full of the domestic issues we might have at home albeit on a smaller scale. Traffic jams in the capital resulting in just 10 minute delays – yes please! As a tourist you can dodge all this by staying in bed a little longer or delegating responsibility to the excellent bus service. Don’t get the wrong impression – life here seems to run at a mercifully slower pace than in mainland cities.

Flower Festival
Flower Festival

Madeira hosts its fair share of festivals including the appropriately named Atlantic Festival. I arrived at the end of a Flower festival which was spectacular if not a little gratuitous on an island that is effectively home to a year-round flower festival.

Madeirans love a festival
Madeirans love a festival

Each village seems to host some festival of its own such as the lemon festival that I attended. It was just lemons.

Tourism

Even when the flights are disrupted a steady stream of huge cruise ships dock in the harbour at Funchal. There’s a port-side area of Funchal that seems to be geared up for bewildered folk who wander in from their ship, sit in the first tourist restaurant they find, buy some Madeira wine and then drop by Starbucks before returning to their vessels for the night.

Sailing into Funchal
Sailing into Funchal

Madeira – tick. I guess they generate some tourist income but that’s the equivalent of travelling to the UK and just visiting Stratford Upon Avon. You’ll leave without much authentic experience of an island drowning in authenticity and individuality.

Nothing to see here
Nothing to see here

One such icon of Madeiran individuality is the Monte toboggan run – a bizarre rapid descent of Funchal’s steep roads while seated on a wicker sofa being “driven” by sturdily shoed gondolier types. It makes little more sense when you see it first hand but it does look like fun. This all takes place on the public highway and the only thing preventing a collision with cars at junctions is a potentially intoxicated marshal wearing high vis.

Just a 15mph sofa
Just a 15mph sofa

A couple of weeks after I returned home there was a news article about one of the toboggans careering into a parked car and injuring the incumbents. You just know their insurance isn’t going to cover that.

Celebrating a proud heritage
Celebrating a proud heritage

I can’t finish without mentioning Madeira’s most famous son Christiano Ronaldo. CR7 (as he has been branded) is omnipresent within these shores. There is not only a statue (obviously) but an entire Christian Ronaldo museum. I haven’t been but I imagine a series of wax works all in various horizontal states – lying down, rolling around, waving imaginary wax red cards, etc.

Branded bear
Tourist Cr7p

I hope to have painted a picture of Madeira, although it feels like I have hardly scratched the surface. There can be nowhere else like it on the planet. This remote outpost of Europe packs so much into such a small space and has so much to call its own. If travel is about experience then there can be nowhere finer to visit than Madeira. Just so long as your plane is able to land…