Festive In Funchal

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.

Light goods vehicle

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.

A vortex of yule

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.

Not sure what these are but I like them

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

Madeira under the microscope

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.

Home to Santa’s helpers

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.

Putting on a show

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.

Liquid marmalade

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!

Christmas in a suitcase

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.

So very good!

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.

Lofty Estadio dos Barreiros by day

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.

A community takes to the street

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.

Happy New Year!

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?

After the party

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.

Twas the day before Christmas

Into the woods

I don’t like queueing in traffic. I don’t like shopping when it’s busy. In the build up to Christmas these are the modest first world problems we must face. My trip to the supermarket was played out in slow motion as the chaos unravelled all around me.

Shoppers teetered on the edges of their patience apart from a delightful calm frail old lady, wide eyed and static amidst the frothing sea of madness as if waiting for somebody to lead her across a busy road. Here’s to her! I wonder what she thought of it all…

Twas the day before Christmas
Last chance to shop
I had bought all the presents
This was no time to stop

The food now needs buying
A list had been made
Now out to the supermarket
In the rain I’m afraid

The traffic was portentous
Never such queues
I suppose it was obvious
This day all would choose

To stock up their larders
With seasonal fare
So I held my breath
And for battle prepared

The cars they went nowhere
So I parked up and walked
Past drivers tight lipped
And passengers fraught

A walk through the car park
Though huge, with no space
And into the foyer
Last basket, worried face

Such scenes I have never
Encountered before
Trolleys were bashing
Like uncut Robot Wars

Gripping my basket
I dodged down the aisle
Weaving staccato
Through chicanes with guile

Couples with trolleys
Piled to the hilt
Are they feeding an army
Or feeding their guilt

Screaming young children
I know how they feel
Dragged here unwilling
You got a raw deal

Bewildered old granny
Waiting in line
With patience unworldly
For sherry and wine

To add to the carnage
A bottle is dropped
And aisle 9 is coned off
Until it is mopped

The air hums with tension
And shoppers are stressed
Perish the thought
If it’s not Sainsburys Best

Staff work like trojans
On endless till lanes
Cliff Richard on loop
How do they stay sane

My wait for self-checkout
Is mercifully short
Unrecognised item in bagging area
That didn’t scan like I thought

I fall through the exit
And rain hits my face
I made it in one piece
Survived the rat race!

Twas the day before Christmas
A tale of our time
When we see friends and family
It’s all going to be fine

My thanks to Clement Clarke Moore whose considerably superior parable Twas the night before Christmas was a source of inspiration.

Merry Christmas!

I’m the Gingerbread Man!

Foodie that I am nothing says Christmas to me like Gingerbread men. At least I can’t remember the last time I didn’t make gingerbread at Christmas, and this year is no different.

This isn’t really a blog about how to make gingerbread as there are a thousand simple recipes out there but it’s more a journal of my happy seasonal routine. The recipe differs each year with the general trend towards more ginger (I love ginger!) but the only essential ingredients are fun and silliness! Oh, and a couple of special tips…

400g plain flour
4 tbsp golden syrup
4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g butter
200g soft brown sugar
1 egg
1 apple
Optional food colouring
Icing sugar (some)
Lemon juice (some)
Fun (lots)
Silliness (lots)

Syrup maketh the man
Syrup maketh the man


Made to a soundtrack of whatever music gets you in the mood…

1) Pour the flour, butter, bicarb, cinnamon and ginger into a mixer.

Trusty old Kenwood
Trusty old Kenwood

2) Whiz until you get a breadcrumby texture

Vaguely festive
Vaguely festive

3) Add the sugar and then, with the mixer turned on, drip the egg and syrup into the mixer

Getting distinctly Christmassy
Getting distinctly Christmassy

4) You’re going to end up with a firmish dough that needs to be wrapped up in clingfilm and refrigerated for a while.

A rare gingerbread flower
A rare gingerbread flower

5) Roll the chilled dough out on a floured board or work surface until it’s around half a centimetre thick

You gotta roll with it
You gotta roll with it

6) Now get to work with your cutters! This is a whole load of fun. Of course there’s no reason why you have to stick to gingerbread men. I have accumulated a great range of cutters including Christmassy ones, animals and gingerdead men.

Im gonna make you a star
Im gonna make you a star

7) Place your shapes onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper.

Baker street
Baker street

8) Throw in the oven until golden brown – around 10+ minutes. If in doubt remove earlier than later and bear in mind that your gingerbread will firm up after it’s removed from the oven. You’ll probably have to bake 2 or 3 rounds of these.

Space oddity
Golden brown

9) Once the gingerbread has cooled on a wire rack it’s best to store it for a while in a sealed container. OK, here’s special tip number 1: Add some sliced apple to the container with the cut face not touching any of the goodies. This Tyrolean grandmother inspired step will ensure the biscuits stay soft and take on a festive apple flavour.

Rhinestone cowboy
Rhinestone cowboy

10) If you are icing your creations then I would leave this until nearer the time of consumption. Here’s special tip number 2: Drip a little lemon juice into a bowl and mix in your icing sugar. This tastes infinitely better than water based icing. Now get creative…

Bear faced
Bear faced

11) I used icing modestly because I didn’t want to overpower the gingerbread but you can do what you want. Food colouring presents more possibilities and I was miffed to discover I was out of red, so no nose for Rudolph.

Pigs are for Christmas too
Pigs are for Christmas too

There’s no end to the fun you can have with gingerbread. It’s a seasonal affair in terms of ingredients but also in folklore and makes a great Christmas gift. Perhaps you can compose a festive scene?

Into the woods
Into the woods

Big kid? Me?!

Great Biscotti

What unlikely categorisation of comestible unites the “father of modern Italy” with the city of Florence and the Tuscan town of Prato? Here’s a clue – they go well with a nice cup of tea.

The answer – biscuits – obviously. The proclaimed father of Italy was Garibaldi who aside from his military exploits was a renown baker, inventing the eponymous Garibaldi not to mention wagon wheels. Florence lays claim to the chocolate covered Florentine biscuit while natives of Prato dunk “nooks” or “cantuccini” in their espresso, commonly marketed to Brits under the general term of Biscotti.

Here’s another question. Why do the biscuit obsessed British enjoy so many Italian confections while the rest of Europe steadfastly ignores our tea time treasures? You can’t get custard creams in Catalonia. The Turkish wouldn’t recognise a Tunnocks Teacake. The Italians have never heard of the chocolate bourbon, moorish brainchild of Field Marshall Sir John Peak-Frean who ironically introduced the Garibaldi to Britain – a spoil of war originating from his military service in Italy that ranks alongside the Elgin Marbles.

I can’t answer these questions – I’ll leave them to the biscuit historians and theologians. All I know is that Cantuccini makes a nice festively appropriate Christmas gift, and so for the third year running I decided to bake some for my family…

175g whole blanched almonds
125g unsalted butter
200g granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 orange
1 tbsp orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Cointrea, etc)
1.5 tsp baking powder
0.5 tsp salt
300g plain white flour
75g polenta
1 tbsp coriander seeds

See if you can spot the mistake below…

This is where it all starts
This is where it all starts

Luckily I noticed just in time that I had got cornflour out rather than baking powder. It would have been an embarrassing mistake because this substitution would have resulted in a perfect Clam Chowder – nice if that’s what you had in mind.


1) A little preparation first. Beat the eggs, crush the coriander seeds lightly with a pestle and mortar or perhaps a harsh remark. Also zest the orange – we aren’t bothered with the orange itself but the insides can be eaten raw or squeezed for a healthy drink.

2) Next lightly toast the almonds in a 160C fan oven for 5 to 10 mins. I set a timer because otherwise I know I will forget about them and they will burn. When the nuts have taken on a David Dickinson pallor remove them from the heat and once they are cool enough to touch roughly chop one third of them

Toast those nuts
Toast those nuts

I’ve made the same recipe for the last 2 years and previously made the mistake of buying marginally cheaper skin-on almonds and blanching them myself. HUGE mistake – it took me an hour and I got RSI.

3) Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until smoothish and then add the eggs, orange zest, booze, baking powder and salt. Give it a good old stir.

Forget the diet
Forget the diet

4) Add the flour, polenta, almonds and coriander and mix well. If the mixture is sticky add more flour until it forms a dough. You have to use your hands for all of this. It’s just more fun that way.

Cauldron of goodies
Cauldron of goodies

5) Divide the dough into 4 and roll each portion out into 5cm by 2cm strips on a floured board. Place the strips onto a greased baking sheet leaving a little distance between them for expansion. Note: I made double quantity which is why there are 8 strips in my photo.

Oven ready
Oven ready

6) Bake for 35 minutes until it looks like this…

After the first bake
After the first bake

7) Leave to cool for a few minutes – but wait, we haven’t finished yet – Cantuccini is baked twice. Cut each strip diagonally into 1cm slices

We're not done yet..
We’re not done yet..

8 ) Return the slices to the baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes before cooling again on a wire rack.

The finished article
The finished article

What we have is a sophisticated, nutty, orangey biscuit that goes remarkably well with coffee or ice cream and lasts for a good week, if you don’t scoff it in the meantime.

Merry Xmas as they say in Perugia!

Walking in a winter wonderland

Joining my parents for a walk on Christmas morning has become something of a tradition for me and this year there were perfect conditions with crisp snow on the ground and a clear blue sky overhead. The circular walk started from Ambergate, headed uphill via Alderwasley and then veered towards Crich until the A6 where we took in a pub and returned along the frozen canal.

Here’s the proof…

It’s beginning to feel a lot like heartburn

Christmas. That much used and abused date in everyones calendar that means what you want it to mean. A gluttony of commercialised excess for the consumer age spawned by coca cola? The picture postcard snapshot of Victoriana forged of Dickensian imagination? A celebration of the birth of a religious VIP according to a book selectively composed of bits of scripture dug up in a desert and reinterpreted centuries later by canonised warmongerers in funny hats? A pagan festival to celebrate the winter solstice? Or maybe an excuse to take a few days off work, see friends & family while reminding oneself just how bad Dick van Dyke’s cockney accent was.

Shiny things
Shiny things

Take your pick (I’m firmly in the latter camp) but unless you are mentally unstable there is something every year waiting to test your nerves. This year it’s Simon Cowell – a man frantically burying choice fragments of his autobiography in the hope he may be “rediscovered” as the messiah in 2000 years – again trying to steal the Christmas number one slot with his latest formula dirge. At least Joe Public is fighting back by getting RATM to the top slot. I struggle to think of a more potent statement of public opinion in recent years, a combined hatred for SC and everything he stands for that would drive millions of people to pay to download a track they weren’t even going to listed to. It is utterly futile of course. These people are just lining Sony’s corporate coffers and rewarding SC’s faceless business buddies, but that’s not the point.


The point is that despite all of the despair people presently feel about our world – unsanctioned wars and the victims on all sides, the corruption of our elected (and unelected) politicians, the threat of global warming and our clueless approach to tackling it, the loss of jobs as employers go to the wall while morally/financially bankrupt bankers are allowed to take tax payers money in one hand and bonuses in the other – the RATM episode proves that there is hope. It proves that while the voice of a man in the street cannot be heard (or is not listened to) when lots of men in lots of streets shout together then they have the unstoppable power to swing the balance. Today’s “victory” is a trivial one. Perhaps next time the common voice will speak decisively about politics, the environment or conflict. Maybe we are learning that the silent majority do hold the power after all if they just know how to collectively mobilise themselves.

Under the tree
Under the tree

Sorry for allowing my blog to slip knee deep into the murky depths of serious social commentary but it feels appropriate to look to signs of hope at this time of year and this might be as good as it gets.

I’ve just finished decorating the artificial tree and proven to myself that you can always eak out one more year from a threadbare wire frame with enough bling and sufficiently dim lighting. Most of the presents are accounted for and wrapped so next on my tick-list is the business of enjoying myself for the next couple of weeks. For me this will mean seeing family/friends, getting busy in the kitchen and attempting to smile more than I frown. Nothing I shouldn’t be doing every week of the year really.

The tree
The tree

Here are a few seasonal related things that have made me smile this week

Mr Christmas isn’t

Sir Cliff’s sleazy Christmas

You think WE find Christmas confusing?

Finally – I’m donating to charity this year rather than sending out many of the cards I would normally write so the photos in this blog are my alternative offering to you.
Merry whatever!

Mr Moocow - just for Archie
Mr Moocow – just for Archie