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…

World Cup – Tuesday 29th June

Misery has a name – Alan Green

We are down to the final eight now. The match schedule is thinning out and any respite is drowned out by the sound of punditry. At least we might have time to cheer ourselves up between Alan Green commentaries…

Results – Tuesday 29th June

  Second
Round
(pens) Paraguay 0 – 0 Japan
    Spain 1 – 0 Portugal



Duncan’s Dive Watch – Spain vs Portugal

 Who hasn’t been looking forward to this competition between fierce Iberian neighbours Portugal and Spain! It promised to be a feast of falling but did it live up to it’s billing? Here are the highlights…

16 minutes: After a slow start we have our first dive – and who else could it be but Ronaldo? He raids down the right, cuts in between two players and it’s a classic legs together full length dive. No marks awarded by the referee who waves play on. I think that lacked a little commitment.

 34 minutes: Ronaldo again. Left flank run across the halfway line. He over-runs the ball and a defender gets there first. Ronaldo launches into the defender and executes a passable mid-air half twist culminating in a traditional arse landing, garnished with quizzical hands in the air. Still no marks from the referee, which seems a little harsh.

49 minutes: Man muppet Carlos Puyol – the sort of character parents tell their kids lives under a bridge – gets tickled from behind and slumps to the ground wearing the expression of a slain samurai. It’s disappointing fare with no technical merit and a lack of expressive arm movement so once again no points.

 57 minutes: David Villa plays a one two with Iniesta on the edge of the Portugal box. He’s not going to make the return ball and pulls off the imaginary trip with some aplomb. The ref waves away his appeals but I’m giving him 3 out of 10 for fake boyish innocence. “What me – diving?!”

74 minutes: Controversy! Substitute Pedro Mendes thinks he has pulled off a majestic fouled-from-behind back flip with an exquisite double leg slide. It’s a high scoring move, but what’s this? The referee actually awards it as a genuine foul! What a shame, that would have been a lovely dive.

 84 minutes: It’s Ronaldo again – you can’t keep a good man up. This time it’s an innocuous mid-air collision with Capdevila which Ronaldo free-styles into an awkward landing. It’s desperate stuff now with just 5 minutes left and once again there’s nothing given

88 minutes: The stroke of genius we have been waiting for Capdevila brilliantly pulls off a text book ghost slap in the box. He rolls around holding his head and Costa is shown a red card! Video replays confirm there was no contact – it’s a brilliant deception and that’s a full 10 to the Spaniard!

The whistle blows and it’s a Spanish victory despite Ronaldo’s bravest efforts. The king of collapso has his head in his hands and knows he will have to work hard on the training pitch to work on those polished cons he is famous for.

View from the sofa
You may think from my (seemingly) endless reportage of the World Cup that I catch all the games live on TV. Alas, my up-tight employers weren’t amused when I asked if I could spend a month at home on full pay watching every match live. I thought I was being reasonable as I had intended to go to South Africa and pass on my costs as expenses, but it seems you can’t get away with anything nowadays.

Anyway, the upshot of my workplace incarceration is that I have followed a fair few matches on Radio 5 (you see the BBC let their employees go to the world cup on full pay and expenses) while commuting. One of their principal commentators is Alan Green and if you have heard him you will probably know what I am about to say.

There can never have been such a negative, permanently dissatisfied football commentator in broadcasting history. He can suck the joy out of any occassion. The man must be a rain god because I can only imagine he walks under a continuous heavy black cloud of negative energy.

To repeat myself let’s just remember – he is paid to go to sunny South Africa and attend the worlds biggest sporting event. All he has to do is talk for a couple of hours, and yet even this can’t bring any light into Mr Green’s dark and burdensome life. He watches every game with disdain picking fault with everything he beholds. The games are all unremittingly dreadful and the players on show were born under a bad sign because they can do no right. The officials are always a disgrace and woe betide anything distracting him off the pitch because whatever it is will be a sham.

I can imagine his response to accusations of misery. “I’m not here to dress things up, I tell it like it is“. Let me put if to you Mr Green, there have been a few tense matches with little beauty on show but I have been listening to your commentaries for years and they are ALL THE BLOODY SAME. Driving home today you described Paraguay vs Japan as if it were some personal slight upon your unworldy standards. Well I got home and caught the end of the game and what I saw was an admittedly stuttering affair with plenty of honesty, grit and no shortage of half chances. It had an enjoyable tension that real football fans would recognise. When the stakes are high that’s what you get – if it makes you so unhappy pack in your job.

And on the offchance that you have children I would like to offer them my support and say that they must cast off the burdens of your impossible expectations and realise that nothing they could ever do would be good enough to warrant fatherly praise. It’s just your way.

World Cup – Monday 21st June

Dancing in the streets of Lisbon

Today in a nutshell: Ronaldo’s Portugal thrash North Korea. Spain thrill on the pitch to get points on the board and set up an exciting tie with Chile who maintain their 100% record with a win over Switzerland. It’s official – the World Cup is no longer boring!

Results – Monday 21st June

  Group G: Portugal 7 – 0 North Korea
  Group H: Chile 1 – 0 Switzerland
  Group H: Spain 2 – 0 Honduras
Post Match Review
Ron Atkinson Some in the media have been guilty of taking their eye off the ball. They were busy talking up the likes of Brazil and Argentina and forgot about little old Portugal. Well people with football manager coats like me never took them lightly and their 7-0 demolition of North Korea sends out a reminder that Ronaldo’s team are not just here to make up the numbers. Neighbours Spain meanwhile could have scored a similar amount against Honduras and those two teams could find themselves up against each other in the next round. What a special tie that would be – something like Crewe against Port Vale on a wet Tuesday evening in the Johnson Paint Trophy.

Fixtures – Tuesday 22nd June

  Group A: Mexico vs Uruguay
  Group A: France vs South Africa
  Group B: Nigeria vs South Korea
  Group B: Greece vs Argentina
Gazza’s Daily Football Factoids
 Nigeria has a population of 129 million yet none of the players in the National Squad actually play in the Nigerian League.
Mystic Ron’s World Cup Horoscope
Mystic Ron The final round of matches starts tomorrow and we find out who will stay and who will go. Let me help you with your betting slips as I ask folk from the spirit world to help with the predictions…

…I’m hearing a voice. I think it’s Dickie Davies! What’s that Dickie? You think Mexico and Uruguay will draw? What else? France and South Africa also to draw. That’s good Dickie. Now what can you tell us from Group B? Argentina to beat Greece. Yes – I got that… and another draw between Nigeria and South Korea. That’s a lot of draws Dickie – are you sure? What’s that – you’re going faint…. well there’s no need for that kind of language from beyond the grave! I’ve never heard such crude profanity from the netherworld!

What a sweary man – I was only asking. I’m going to have a fig roll with my cocoa to get the blood back in my cheeks.

Hang, on, isn’t Dickie Davis still alive?

Pundit Corner
In a strip bar somewhere in South Africa I would like to imagine the following exchange…
The tournament reached its half way stage today with 32 of the 64 games completed and we have seen each team play twice. Which players have put in the eye catching performances so far? Well the player that entered the tournament with the most expectation against him was Lionel Messi and it has to be said that he has certainly been the dominant influence for Argentina. Would you agree with that Sven?
 
For sure Messi is capable of great things. He would walk into any team in the world, but the tournament is bigger than one person. I have been impressed by other South Americans too. Here’s a young talented Brazilian that I have been keeping an eye on.
We must also mention a young German – the talented playmaker Mesut Ozil. Many viewers will have got their first sight of him in the last week and I have to say he really lived up to expectations with some wonderful touches. He really does look a star in the making.
 
There is certainly a lot of German talent on show. I have been on the look out during the matches this week and here’s another young German that aroused my interest.
I know England have barely got out of the blocks and most fans would feel that all of the players have underperformed, but do you feel there is anyone we can look forward to seeing before this tournament is out?
 
Well it’s not been the best start for England and we can only hope to see better later on this week. That said,
it’s been hard for me to ignore the WAGs. They see to be getting a lot of coverage and I can’t help but watch.
That’s a good spot Sven. Let’s just hope that JT doesn’t take his eye off the ball with these sort of distractions in the back of his mind.

View from the sofa

We are at the half way stage of the tournament which is a good or bad thing depending on whether you are a tournament half empty kind of person. With one group game left it can all change but at the time of writing there are some huge potential shocks in store and most of them concern European teams. Consider this:

  • 1998 World Champions France are in disarray. If they don’t beat Mexico it will be au revior. Oh, and very funny.
  • England almost certainly have to beat Slovenia to progress, despite their “easy” group
  • Germany could still slip out if they lose to dangerous table topping Ghana. Why do I have visions of a penalty shoot out with them at some point later?
  • World Champions Italy have to beat tricky Slovakia to ensure qualification
  • Surely Portugal won’t lose 2nd spot with a plus 9 goal difference over Ivory Coast! Except they play Brazil, while Sven’s men take on the North Korean whipping boys. It couldn’t happen. Could it?
  • Spains unbeated qualification campaign counts for naught as they take on mightily impressive Chile in a game they must win to be sure of progressing further

Only the Dutch have made light work of qualification from the group phases as far as European teams go. The African teams had little genuine hope resting upon them and only Ghana have a better than 50% chance of qualifying. The predominant force so far has been the South American contingent with Brazil and Argentina looking like they could go the distance and Chile and Paraguay also set to progress.

We may still be in the group stage but from now on every game is effectively a cup game. Lose and you are probably out. This is when the competition really begins…