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.

The Last Savoy

Our stay in São Martinho has come to an end. Today we move to the Savoy Next hotel near Funchal harbour for 2 weeks that we hope will feel like a luxury holiday rather than a custodial sentence. It will turn out to be all of this, and yet less.

Our arrival is notable for the wrong reasons. Our taxi, overloaded with baggage reminiscent of some expedition from the Grand Tour era, is flagged down in the harbour by a police officer who explains that the final leg of our journey is closed due to a classic car event. Despite protestations we are dumped at the foot of a steep hill with 60kg of luggage and no alternative but to lug everything step by step up hill in the heat of the morning to the bemusement of baseball capped tourists.

Funchal Harbour

Our dishevelled arrival at the Savoy could only have been more humiliating were a piglet or hen to break free from one of the bags. Fortunately they stayed still and kept quiet during the check-in process. I should go easy on myself. It will turn out that our expectation of superior quality accommodation, sea views and access to a pool area will be tempered by a reality yet to reveal itself.

This looks promising

Our self-catering studio is a marvel of compact refinement, with the emphasis on compact. The balcony enjoys incredible views out over the pool area and to the sea. To our left we can see the end of the harbour with a glimpse of the latest docked behemoth. To the right the outline of Reids, a rapidly efficient way to dispose of your wealth for the sake of being able to tell friends you have spent a few nights in Madeira’s most famous hotel.

Spying on the visitors

We soon come to comprehend what the Savoy marketing team describe as “relaxed ambience”. It starts in reception with a loud loop of soulless muzak that needlessly imposes itself. The management team are slapping themselves on the back somewhere thinking they are creating appeal for a younger clientele. Meanwhile the large comfortable reception area that they have specifically marketed to young and/or affluent Digital Nomads remains empty because who wants to work in a noisy environment.

Great views from the balcony. Shame about the sounds.

The music continues to be piped loudly into corridors, most likely seeping into the rooms. We escape this Guantanamo level discomfort in our studio across the road but the hotel has found plenty of other ways to steal our peace. First there’s the hob extractor fan that does not turn off and disturbs our sleep. We keep complaining and they keep fixing it but the noise always returns. Then there’s the oh-so-clever lighting array controlled by an escape-room level of puzzle solving complexity. When you finally work out how to turn all the lights on you are still stumbling around in relaxed ambience x-files levels of gloom. On two occasions the lights just turn themselves on in the night and wake us up. Because reasons.

Beer out of a Saxophone – On brand for the Savoy

And there’s more. We specifically requested the top floor to minimise potential noise disruption from other guests – who were fine. Less fine was being kept awake half the night by a private karaoke party booked at the hotel poolside bar. Yes, the hotel management actively decided to prioritise a few hundred euros for a private event at the cost of annoying guests collectively spending thousands for their stays. They also, inexplicably, managed to ruin the poolside experience for guests during the daytime, by taking the relaxing ingredients of sun, fabulous sea views and comfortable chill-out beds and adding that same looped muzak all day long. Relaxed ambience. Also known as weapons grade incompetence. A lesson in how to trash your brand.

OK, thanks for bearing with me while I got that out of my system. It would be churlish not to mention some of the good points of the Savoy. One high point, literally, was the rooftop terrace bar. On Saturday nights it hosts the weekly Nomad meet-up where exotic creatures from around the world (albeit mostly Berlin) come to exchange stories of adventure, hope and fascination. I seemed to be the only one taking a second to enjoy the views.

Nomads – serve cocktails and they will come

Credit also to the pool terrace, at least the part furthest away from the bar muzak. We never actually swam in the pool, instead jumping into the sea because it was warmer. After emerging from the brine I baked myself dry on a sun bed and reminded myself it was December and I really shouldn’t be able to do any of this.

Not bad for a work week in December

The hotel does open up new possibilities for us due to its location. The tranquil beauty of Santa Catarina Park is just a short walk away. It becomes one of my favourite places. In a city of sights on an island made for instagram it stands out for its breathtaking views across the harbour, into the distant hills or simply across the pretty lake where you can sit in the shade a world away from the noise and pollution of Estrada Monumental.

Santa Catarina Park

The harbour provides a portal into another world as major cruise liners come and go like debutantes at the royal ball. Amidst the supersized hulls you can often see paddle boarders, kayakers or a flotilla of dinghies from the sailing club. This is a harbour for everyone. Especially if your name is Cristiano Ronaldo. His sprawling family home sits at the foot of the hill up to the Savoy. The inner harbour, a few hundred metres away, is defined by his CR7 museum where there is always a line of people queuing up for a photo next to his bronze statue.

Golden Balls, in a rare upright pose

When you are staying in central Funchal it is impossible not to become slightly obsessed with the comings and goings of the cruise ships. Arrival or departure is generally heralded with three long blasts on the ships horn. Most of the arrivals are regulars, like the TUI or German Mein Shiff fleets which shuttle in from the Canaries each week. A less regular boat like the Azamara Journey tends to cause a stir so you can imagine the excitement when the Queen Elizabeth floats into harbour after a 10 year absence. For all of her standing she really looks extremely dated when compared to some of the other ships in town.

Look who’s back

It can be easy to forget the extreme physical nature of Madeira when you are sat working or gazing out at the sea from the balcony. It is a volcanic sea mount situated 500 miles off the coast of Africa, rising an astonishing 4km up from the sea bed and then a further 2km to the mountain peaks. It depends heavily on outside goods and you are only ever a storm away from shortages.

No zoom background required for this meeting

In this case the weather prevents the Funchalese supply ship from mooring and some shops soon run short of a few supplies. I can at least be assured that, in the worst case, there will be no shortage of the home-produced oranges, honey and rum required to make the island’s signature Poncha cocktail. Panic over.

When the morning light comes, I’m back out watching the surf whump into the harbour walls. We can just about see the Porto Santo ferry moored up safely. All ship movements have been postponed today for obvious safety reasons and it is sobering to think that in previous years the waves have been known to throw surf right over those massive harbour walls.

Getting tasty out there

The winter squall hits us as our Savoy stay comes to an end. I have been secretly hoping for some rough weather and so it’s thrilling to be woken at night by flashes of lightning and the pelt of rain against the pool outside. We stand together in silence on our balcony at 3am in a dark salty mist just absorbing the energy of the storm.

A stormy send-off

Our two weeks are up. With pig and hen corralled into hand luggage we drag our wooden chests through the aural assault course of reception and await a taxi to our Christmas digs. The rain has abated and the sun is out. There’s no hint of the storm battering the other side of the building, just the ghostly wailings of a deceased ambient musician stuck in limbo between this world and the next for all eternity.

So long Savoy. We’ll be back once you grow up.

Highs and Lows in Sâo Martinho

Sao Martinho

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.

How long before our neighbouring banana plantation becomes another apartment block?

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.

A rare daylight sighting of a refuse lorry. Only the most glamorous pictures in my blogs.

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.

Bakery delights of Pastel De Nata – nothing short of a religion in Madeira

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.

The beach of Praia Formosa and beyond it the half kilometer high cliff of Cabo Girão

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.

Praia Formosa

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.

Boardwalk to Chamber Of Wolves. No landslide today.

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…

Câmara Do Lobos – pretty and serene by night

…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.

Public saltwater pools at Lido

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.

Changing seasons

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.

Preparations for the big switch-on

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.

Not a bad view for a walk into town

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.

Estádio da Madeira, home of C.D. Nacional – 632m above sea level of Funchal Harbour below

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

…sorry Brian.

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.

WTA Event at Quinta Magnolia

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.

The resplendent Quinta Magnolia

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?

The Impossible Isle

It is November. Autumn has arrived, temperatures have dropped and my garden is gradually succumbing to the annual drop of leaves. This much I know because I’m checking in on my webcam from a remote island retreat in the Atlantic. I close down the IP camera session and return to the here and now. Here is a cliff top cafe outside the Madeira capital of Funchal. Now is Sunday afternoon and my immediate concerns are shuffling into the shade of a parasol so I can sip an iced coke out of the 25 degree heat.

Of course, none of this needs any justification but I feel the need to explain this is not a holiday but an extended stay during which I will be working during the week and exploiting whatever opportunities Madeira has to offer the rest of the time. This is not my first visit to Madeira. On previous visits I have been wowed by the impossible beauty of this fantasy island and have immersed myself into notable cultural events including the annual Carnival and Flower Festival.

Catching the end of this year’s festival

Regardless of my familiarity this latest visit is going to take some adjusting to. It’s not just that I’m swapping the gloom of a British winter for the promise of unbroken sun and warmth. My overriding discombobulation comes from swapping 18 months of Covid-dodging isolation with rare distanced meet-ups and zero trips to the pub / restaurant / cinema etc, for an almost daily routine of socialising in bars, cafes and restaurants. That this is possible stems from the implementation of firm covid management policies that are not only keeping a lid on cases in Madeira but inspiring confidence amongst the population, swollen as it is by a rotating influx of tourists.

This feels… normal

On face value I have adjusted almost seemlessly to this flick of the switch but it feels surreal nonetheless. It reminds me of the time Bobby Ewing returned to Dallas a season after being killed off and we were asked to dismiss the intervening episodes as the product of a dream sequence.

The collective and personal cost of pandemic life to each of us is something I feel will take a long time to appreciate let alone fully move on from. Madeira will be my medicine. Each day I feel a little more human, a little more hopeful. It turns out that my batteries were lower than I had realised.

This is not our first winter escape. Last year we spent 10 weeks in Spain combining work with the mild outdoors. We had a great time although covid restrictions left us socially isolated. This year is already shaping up to be a much more human experience thanks not just to the relative safety of the island but specifically due to an initiative that is seeking to redefine Madeira.

An example of traditional tourism in Madeira

A destination synonomous with older or retired tourists is attempting to attract a younger and more dynamic demographic by promoting itself as a community for Digital Nomads. The concept is simple enough: if you can work remotely why not swap that home office for somewhere more exotic. Digital Nomadism is not a new concept but, in an age where remote working is an accepted norm its time has come.

Based on the first year of operation the Madeira Digital Nomad initiative has been a success with many hundreds converging on the island so far and many thousand more expressing an intention to do so in the future. They come from around the world and stay for a week, a month or even a year. Some are buying property and moving in.

It’s called Ponta Do Sol for a reason

The authorities have backed the scheme by offering various incentives to travel and stay. The calm town of Ponta Do Sol has been energised by the many Nomads who have taken lodgings there so they can access the free co-working facilities. There is the coordination of a busy social calendar with daily events in PDS, Funchal and a number of other towns.

Living the high life

We have been using the Slack channel to keep track of events and integrate with fellow nomads. There are many opportunities to hike, paddleboard, surf, dance, paint, etc. Some nomads are doing skill swaps or collaborating on work projects. In our case we are going to social events to meet great people, share unlikely stories and support the regions drinks industry. There are all types of nomad.

Rooftop nomad meet-up

It seems impossible that in just 2 weeks we have transformed our lives. We handed keys to our house sitter and left a cold damp country where our lives had contracted due to disasterous handling of the pandemic and Brexit. We have begun to breathe again in the temperate climes of outward looking Funchal, where we can live the outdoor life and shoot the breeze with a Pole, Canadian or Italian over coffee.

It has turned into a quiet balmy November evening and I’m putting the finishing touches to this blog on my balcony 100m from the coast.

How it’s going

Jupiter and Saturn are blinking out from the night sky. A gentle breeze is rolling off the Atlantic through the banana enclosure behind my apartment block and to the mountains beyond. Madeira is alive with possibilities.


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.


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.


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…