To say that I had been curious about what Madeira was actually like would be the understatement of the century! Marco's entire family are traced back to this small island which lies in the Atlantic, its location is actually closer to Morocco than the mainland of Portugal itself.
Of course most Australians (bar the indigenous population) immigrated to Australia some way or another be it by force, or by choice. I have always been fascinated that the De Freitas family and Marco's heritage all came from the one place. Imagine, knowing exactly where you all came from? Many of his family still live in Madeira including his grandmother (Oscar's great grand mother), various uncles and cousins, as their families had done for centuries before. In fact every second person in Madeira seems to have the name Freitas, De Freitas or Gonsalves (Marco's mum's family name).
Portugal was 'born' in 1147. The island of Madeira was claimed by the Portuguese and colonised in 1420 and was the first in a long line of steps through the next century when the Portuguese claimed provinces from Africa, India, Timor-Leste, China through to South America. The story goes that Prince Henry the Navigator during his exploration of the African coast came upon Porto Santo which is another island close to Madeira, and subsequently found its sister island. Madeira is called the 'Pearl of the Atlantic' and to the explorers must have seemed like an oasis in the never ending desert of the sea. They discovered a volcanic island of mountains literally covered in trees and abundant in fresh water (Madeira comes from the Portuguese word for 'wood')...
So fresh water, lush vegetation and a favourable climate ensured that Madeira would become an important trade route, growing everything from sugar (used to make the wine it's so famous for) to bananas, and oceans plentiful with fish to make it an important fishing hub. In fact THE James Cook stopped off at Madeira in 1768 on route to discover the 'southern continent' with Sir Joseph Banks. Legend has it this is where he stumbled across the Portuguese made map that would take him all the way to Terror Australias...
The people of Madeira consider themselves quite separate to Portugal, and while Portuguese they actually run their own economy, have their own president, own flag and even their own national anthem! In Madeira you are served Madeiranese food as well as Portuguese (I now own cookbooks on both cuisines).
Madeira is tiny, you can drive around the island in a day with the population at 260, 000 pers. Funchal is the capital, where we stayed, and where the majority of hotels and resorts are located - mainly populated with the pasty white English escaping the cold and dampness of their home land.
But enough of the history lesson, I guess what I really need to do is explain why this has become one of my FAVOURITE destinations off all time! Big call indead, and a big list of reasons which for simplicity I have narrowed it down to;
Sal's Top Ten reasons to visit Madeira! (in no particular order...)
It always comes down to food, doesn't it?
Two words - Espada and Espatada. The Portuguese word for sword is Espada, the word to spear something is Espatada . So as the name suggests both of these things mentioned are sword related, although for once on this trip this doesn't mean we visited yet another castle or military museum! In fact this is food related and on a good day if you are fortunate to eat both (which we did) it's a Madeiranese version of the surf and turf...
Espada is the local 'sword fish' which is fished usually by single line from the very deep ocean, the fish being almost black in colour with big sharp jaws like teeth (not the prettiest fish in the sea!). Never judge a book by its cover, its flesh is so soft it melts in your mouth and is simply divine. Espada is found at almost every restaurant in Madeira and is a local speciality especially served poached lightly with garlic and parsley or fried with bananas.
We enjoyed a lunch in a small village just outside Funchal called Camara de Lobos. This village is as raw as it comes, dried bacalau hanging from the roofs of houses and small fishing boats everywhere used to catch espada. The day we visited crowds of burley looking fishermen crowded around upturned wine barrels and played cards for cash as beer swilling onlookers laid bets and had the occasional punch up! Rustic indead, and grass roots enough to ensure that we would have a fantastic local lunch there.
We ate at a restaurant called 'The Churchill', named after 'The Winston', who convalesced here post- WWII after an illness where he famously painted from the balcony overlooking the harbour of Camara de Lobos.
The Espatada is the term used for meat or fish skewered with a sword, and is usually beef marinated in garlic and bay leaves and then chargrilled on the open flame. It is served from the skewer hanging from a hook at your table where you just carve off slices (see photos). It's absolutely stunning and the best we had was without doubt a small local restaurant Marco's enthusiastic and charismatic Uncle Eduardo too us to up in the hills at San Antonio. Uncle Eduardo is the infamous Tiago's father, a simply delightful man we enjoyed meeting thoroughly (during which time we also figured he taught his son to drive...!)....a cross between Ayrton Senna and Ray Charles.
Another Madeiran specialty is a Bol do caco. It's a simple snack really, usually served hot from street stalls in local villages. In Portugal too much garlic is barely enough, and so a damper like bread is smothered in buttery garlic sauce and then a slice of garlic-marinated tasty meat inserted inside before it's toasted with lettuce and tomato. Yum!!
Yes, in Madeira the jeans became even tighter.
2.Ponte Gordo (Fat Point) & Lido
Being volcanic, Madeira doesn't have white sandy beaches, rather it is famous for large sea baths carved directly out of the sea walls. Lido is the most famous on Madeira however it is currently unused as the sea wall was broken in a large storm. The next best thing is a place called Ponte Gordo , close to Lido, which was located close to where we stayed. It is in a word 'brilliant'.
Toddler pool, large enclosed sea baths where you can dive into the ocean and not touch the bottom (a 75-100 foot drop as soon as you dive in). Plus an enormous open sea area where all the local teenagers hang out on the pontoon (I had visions of what Marco would have looked like there as a 17 yo strutting around with the young ladies; and I saw more than a few lookalikes!)
It's important to wear sunglasses at the baths, not for the sun but rather to shield one's eyes from the tight white lycra and g-strings every second person seems to be wearing (I felt rather out of place in my one piece even though it had quite a plunging neckline I must have looked like I was wearing a wetsuit!) No matter what the body type, the motto seems to be 'if you haven't got it, just flaunt it anyway' - and they do. I think the vision of a 60+ year old gentleman doing star jumps in his speedos, gold chain and smile will haunt me for eternity. Oscar was also the only child I ever saw in a sunsuit, and probably the only one wearing 50+ sunscreen. Not 'slip slop slap'...'slip slop FLASH!'
You would be pretty hard to impress if you didn't find the swimming areas in the sea a gift from god. Floating in the ocean and looking high up into the mountains with the sun reflecting off the water was easily one of my happiest moments over the past months. Life is beautiful.
Madeira is the only place I can think of where you can swim in the ocean in the morning in the baking hot sun and then 30minutes later be 2000 metres high up in the mountains, enjoying a tranquil forest walk and need a jumper because the air temperature has dropped 10c!
Water in Madeira is in abundance and the greater the altitude the more water sources there are.
Levada's are man-made channels that very cleverly distribute the water from the top of the island to the bottom, equally dispersing to crops and villages down below. There are multiple Levada walks that are very popular in Madeira, and at 13 months old Oscar even did his own little Levada walk which resulted in his very first pair of muddy shoes and a beaming smile as he marvelled at the canopy of trees above.
Madeira is famous for some of the best walking tracks in the world and walking through the cool air under the canopy of the trees with the Levada's running beside the tracks is another fairy story in the making.
On a less positive note, visiting the mountains both by car and also in a cable car let us gain perspective into what the floods must have been like for the citizens of Madeira back in February 2010, when a reported 48 people died (although most locals say the figure is more likely 200+). The ravines are so vast and houses are literally built either inside them or on the sides. The enormous storms resulted in flash flooding never seen before in living memory. Some of the damage is still evident in some of the roads and houses in and around Funchal.
Some of the cliff faces are so steep with houses built into the rock so I can only imagine how terrifying the view must have been from outside their kitchen windows as millions of litres of thick black mud and water belted past.
As we flew into Funchal airport I asked Marco for about the 50,000th time to describe Madeira. What was I going to expect? What country or city is it like? It had been 22 years since his visit so the memory was a little cloudy, but he was adamant that it was like nowhere I had been before and was very special.
Madeira is literally like nowhere else. Flowers and plants are everywhere, all year round, so the island is always flush with colour. Some of the flora includes bouganvillias, azaleas, magnolias and palm trees, and every other kind of tropical flower you can imagine. There is a lush garden in the centre of Madeira that Oscar and I took a magical walk through which looked like a real life version of the forest in the movie ' Avatar' - which you really don't expect in a European country, especially Portugal.
The city of Funchal for many years has been awarded European prizes for its' annual flower festival in the springtime (Maderianese seem to have a festival of some sorts every week. During our stay there was a fireworks festival, Sao Joao Festival, Jazz music festival and a Swordfish Festival)!
As mentioned bananas have always been a vital crop for the Madeiran people and there are banana's everywhere (and being Oscar's favourite food this was his idea of heaven!). I imagine at one time or another every person in Madeira either owned a banana farm, worked on a banana farm, sold bananas or at the very least had a tree in their backyard!
What makes Madeira so special is while the island is a tropical oasis, there is absolutely no humidity as you would experience in countries such as Malaysia that have a very similar flora. The climate is dry, and sub-tropical which means it is mild all year round 23-27c max. Even on a hot day because you are surrounded by water or up high on a mountain there is always a cool ocean or mountain breeze to take the edge off the temperature.
Said to have three 'microclimates' - at ground level the weather is the Mediterranean sunshine all round. If you climb 500-1500 feet the climate is sub-tropical, hence the bananas and tropical fruit plantations, and above 1500 feet you are at cloud level and the temperature is much cooler and rainforest like.
Paradise found? As close to perfect as I can imagine.
6.Affordable & Family Friendly
This section is for anyone with kids who was wondering how we have coped the past two months.
England, Spain and even some of mainland Portugal were surprisingly not very children friendly. No high chairs in any restaurants and siestas which meant restaurants only opened after little boys bedtimes made life pretty though (and boring) there for a few weeks.
Enter Madeira which caters for kids brilliantly, every restaurant not only was Oscar fussed around and high chair provided, but the staff treated him as an important customer too (not merely a pain, like in Spain!).
Madeira was also the cheapest place for us to eat out with the best quality food of anywhere we had visited, so it was goodbye ham and cheese sandwiches and hello to seafood and more delicious red meat than we could dream of.
Madeira is beautifully presented, sophisticated culture - simply a stunning European island. But despite the appearance the price tag does not match and it's possible to dine in class without breaking out the credit card. However it's not a budget destination in regards to accommodation - most of the hotels are 4 and 5 star plus which keeps away backpackers, but once accommodation is sorted then living is definitely the 'sweet life'.
I have never seen a group of citizens more obsessed with fireworks than the Maderianese. In 2006 Madeira entered the Guiness Book of world records for the biggest fireworks display in history - which is a pretty big claim to fame when you consider the size of the island, and are familiar with displays in places such as Sydney Harbour New Year's Eve.
We arrived at the end of June, and discovered each Saturday evening in June there was an enormous fireworks display on Funchal Harbour which was a weekly competition between fireworks companies. Somehow we coordinated Oscar's nap times so that he slept in the pram after a long walk until just before 1030pm, when he woke up to see an almighty show of lights and sound with a gaping mouth, before falling back asleep for the long walk home. I can only imagine if he talked, the next morning he might have told me about the 'strange dream' he had the previous night...
Fado is that traditional Portuguese music which is largely famous in the city of Lisbon. If walls could talk then dark, dingy, smokey bars' walls in Lisbon can tell stories of years and years of Fado singers who have belted out songs of woe. Dark and dingy was not on our list of things to do in Lisbon so we were delighted that a local restaurant in Madeira was hosting Fado one evening, which fit into Oscar's bedtime, and ours. Imagine something close to the melancholy Irish Celtic tunes and you are close.
Fado is beautiful, haunting music, but very very sad and often sung by extremely rotund older Portuguese women (that's much more delicately put than Marco's description). Not speaking Portuguese much was lost in translation, but to give you an idea some of the lyrics go like this:
"The door was open,
And he walked away...
I should have closed the door,
So he wouldn't walk away...
And so now I am alllloooooooooooooneeee...
Sooo sad, woe is me, woe is me, woe is meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,"
(well, close enough...and now that I think about it perhaps the Crazy Lady of Braga was a Fado singer and trying out her lyrics on us?!?)
Possibly Madeira's most famous exports (next to Marco...hehe), due to the large quantities of sugar on the island the people did what any good nation does, and makes an alcoholic beverage out of it.
Traditionally used by sailors from Portugal, Spain and England, Madeira was said to fight vitamin c deficiency otherwise known as scurvy for their long journeys conquering the world on their Caravella's (ships). My theory however is that just like all military men throughout history, they just needed a good excuse to go against the no-alcohol policy of the captain of the ship.
Often served after dinner as a liqueur, Madeira is very sweet but rather addictive, just like the Madeiranese people. Mwwwah for you Marco ;-)
(I also should make note that Madeira is famous for its embroidery and wickerwork, both which fetch extremely high prices in the tourist market. Both are world renowned and if you are in dire need of a hand stitched table cloth or a wicker basket - Madeira is your kind of place)
If you ever find yourself in Madeira, which I sincerely hope you do, do yourself a favour and grab a sour lime caipirinha and see Madeira by night. Whether you are sitting by the harbour at ground level, high up in the hills, or simply on a balcony overlooking the shimmering dark Atlantic - you will see the light. Madeira twinkles so beautifully that it's difficult to tell when the stars finish and the lights of the city begin.
And on a clear, moonlit night the ocean becomes a glass tabletop and the light shines like a beacon towards the Americas out west, and you can almost begin to understand why the explorers of the 'New World' set sail time and time again...hypnotised by the ocean.
So as you can see, I have decided to claim Madeira as my own, and while I am pretty sure no Lister ever migrated to Australia from Portugal, this Australian felt very at home in the Madeiran paradise. I highly recommend anyone to add it to their list of travel destinations and can gush for days if given the opportunity...
So boo hoo...Marco, Oscar and I have officially set sail to the Southern Continent - not on a Caravella, but on an Emirates A380 via Dubai.
I won't lie to you that while I have enjoyed the past two months with Oscar and Marco immensely, I have carried with me constantly the heavy burden of my brother so recently lost forever. A tragedy still so raw, that I pat myself on the back each day I have managed to complete the journey away from home and the familiar.
I can share with you now we are at the end (and now that we are even better friends) that every post completed has been honestly, like a dagger through my heart. I lurched with pain every time I sat down at the computer with the realisation that Brent wouldn't be reading my tales. And I know he would have loved them.
I hope deep in my broken heart that somehow he has been listening.
So this will be my last blog, on this journey anyway.
Oh yes, there will be more...
Thanks for listening to my rambling, I hope you have enjoyed my tales and I certainly hope that I have inspired you to dust off the suitcase and live the life of the traveller.
And so to complete the 41 pages and 24,290 words I have written over the past two months, I have chosen to borrow a quote I recently stumbled accross:
"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow." (Unkown)
I couldn't have said it better myself.