Celebrating in Madeira

Kathrin and I had two good reasons to take a trip somewhere during the middle of September, our anniversary on the 19th and my birthday on the 20th. We had considered several destinations–Austin, where we have family, quite a few of whom have birthdays in September; a cruise along the Croatian coast; touring through England’s northeast area, including a stop at York, where my brother lives. Each idea, however, was met with an obstacle that took it off the list. After another search, Kathrin suggested Madeira, a Portuguese island lying west of Morocco and north of the Canary Islands. 

When you think of an island vacation, you probably imagine Hawaii, with its sandy beaches and palm trees. Madeira is nothing like that. It’s a volcanic island with rugged coast lines, stone beaches—with a few exceptions — and mountains. It’s a hiking paradise, not a beach get-away. 

Our trip did not start off well. When we landed at the airport, and had our luggage, we went to the GoldCar rental car counter. The woman informed me I was over 6 hours late and my reservation was no longer valid. I had prepaid, and I was not eligible for a refund. My only choice was to rent a new vehicle. Kathrin tried to argue the point (we were 15 minutes over the 6-hour limit) but the employee was having nothing of it. She stood firm. I wanted to start our vacation, so I signed a new rental agreement. Looking back on it, I should have walked over to Hertz, but in the heat of battle, I wasn’t thinking strategically. Once we were at our rental flat, I emailed Booking.com to explain the situation, but they said they couldn’t do anything until the trip was over. Afterwards they told me that since I didn’t contact them at the time of the discrepancy, and instead handled it myself, they couldn’t do anything for me. I was out the money. Lesson learned for me, no more unknown rental car companies. Saving money comes at a cost, I will rent from Hertz directly.

Modern living while exploring the island.

During our first phase of our trip, we stayed at a chic holiday flat in Machico, on the east coast of the island. It was an ideal location to explore the west and south coasts of the island. I felt like a jet-setting playboy in this flat. It had a pool table, Andy Warhol inspired art hung on the walls, very well equipped, everything you could want. The only things between us and the beach were a fort and a restaurant.  

Our first visit during this phase of the trip was St. Laurence Point, a peninsula on the eastern tip of the island that offers great cliff views along an easy hiking path. Kathrin and I hiked half the trail one afternoon. It’s a popular spot for tourists for good reason, it really is beautiful. Later that evening, I came back alone for a sunset photo shoot. This time, I walked all the way to the end. Mother Nature didn’t provide the best conditions for a great photograph, but I stuck it out in the hopes that something would happen. When I was finally done, I realized that I didn’t allow myself enough time for the hike back. I ended up walking the most of the way in the dark. Fortunately, my iPhone had plenty of battery power for the flashlight! That didn’t put me off, though, as I went back for a sunrise photo shoot the next morning. It was just full of photogenic sites.

The Capital City

The next day we explored the island’s capital and biggest city, Funchal. The scenic drive along the coast was enjoyable, but eventually the highway turned inland and brought us to the north side of the city. This means that we had to navigate the narrow, winding streets down to the city center. It’s not a drive for the faint of heart. Picture it as a toboggan ride with obstacles. By the time we parked, Kathrin was a nervous wreck. It took her quite a while to recover. 

Funchal is nesttled between the mountains and the beach. “Beach” in the sense that the ocean meets the island. There isn’t any sand, it’s a pile of small, smooth stones, a rock beach. But we weren’t here to spend the day on the beach, so that didn’t matter. We admired the views, then we took a 15-minute cable car ride back to the north side of the city to visit the Botanical Garden. It’s a worthwhile visit and you can easily spend half a day here. There’s not only the usual plant and flower exhibits, but also a mineral showroom, a Japanese exhibit, and water/fountain displays. It was a peaceful, enjoyable afternoon for us. 

At one point, as we were walking past a fence that offered a view on the street running parallel to the garden, we noticed some people waiting expectantly on the sidewalk. We put two and two together after seeing the street markings. They were waiting for one of Madiera’s most well-known tourist attractions, a Monte Toboggan, to pass by. 

Originally, back in the 1850s, this was simply a fast mode of transportation from Monte downhill to Funchal. Now it is a popular tourist attraction. A team of two drivers take two passengers in their wicker sledges down a street, using their feet to steer and brake. There was a lengthy queue of people waiting to ride, but we decided not to join them. This area offered more to explore, so we kept going.

There is a cathedral that sits prominently on a high point in Monte, which we had admired from the promenade below. The closer we got to it, the darker the sky became. That motivated us to not simply admire the outside, but to take our time and see the inside as well. Unfortunately, there was a wedding just moments from starting, so stepping into the church wasn’t an option, so instead, we stood under the “porch” and waited, along with a bunch of other visitors and wedding attendants, for the bride to show up. The rain shower came and went, and 30 minutes later we were back on our walk, taking a leisurely route back to the cable car for the ride down to Funchal.

Arguably one of the most famous street in Funchal is Rua de Santa Maria. Its claim to fame are the artistically painted doors. Doors have become canvases upon which artists show off their work to the public. All types of styles and scenes were on display. The paintings are the result of the Painted Door Project, initiated by a photography who wanted to beautify this area.

Time for some R&R

Phase 2 was the quieter, less active part of our trip. We said goodbye to Machico and made our way to Arco Sao Jorge. Along the way, we stopped at this village that had a group of colorful, traditional island houses with thatched roofs. It reminded me of a scene from a fairy tale.

After lunch, we made our way to our home for the next week, a charming garden flat in a small village on the north side of the island. Once settled, we took a walk around the village. It was a workout, as the village is on the side of a mountain. Quite by accident, we came across a wine museum. Hmmm, this could be the town’s biggest tourist attraction, so we inquired about opening hours for the next day. Before we could ask, the owner invited us to take part in a wine pressing event. Grapes were on their way in from the field. Upon their arrival, the grape stompers took off their shoes and socks and climbed into the stone tub to run barefoot through the grapes. The group included two professionals to ensure us amateurs were doing the job correctly. It was an uncomfortable, oozy feeling at first as the grape flesh and stems squirmed between my toes, but I soon got used to it. Fellow stompers included a Dutch man who, with his wife, was visiting the area and also helped pick the grapes. After a bit of stomping, a camera crew from the local TV station came to interview the owner and highlight this traditional way of making wine. During their coverage, they also interviewed my new Dutch friend and me. Once we had pressed the berries to the satisfaction of the overseers, we were all offered the chance to taste the juice. I was hesitant at first, but everyone else was tasting it, so I did as well. It tasted like grape juice, with no hint of feet or socks. The experts took care of the finishing steps and put the juice into two kegs. The owner then took our names and addresses and promised to send us a bottle of the wine we helped make. It really was an unexpectedly enjoyable surprise, and we were so happy we stumbled onto this place.

Let the festivities begin!

To celebrate our anniversary, we went to the finest restaurant in town, Restaurant and Tea House Roseiral. It was one of two restaurants in the village of Arco Sao Jorge and was within walking distance of our cottage, which made the choice easy for us. We had a very satisfying meal of local dishes with a delicate glass of wine. The staff was friendly as well. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening. 

The next day Kathrin prepared a nice birthday morning for me, with some decoration, coffee, and a birthday present, a DJI mini2 drone. I was overwhelmed. It was a wonderful surprise. We spent the day relaxing at our villa, just the peace and quiet, except for the sound of the drone. Later we went for a walk down to the beach, an easy 10-minute walk away. Of course, coming back was a bit more strenuous, all uphill. 

We couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate my birthday dinner than the restaurant from last night. The food was as delicious as the day before. This time one of us let on that it was my birthday, so they gave me a slice of cake with “happy birthday” written in syrup on the plate. This restaurant won me over.

The remaining 6 days of our trip drifted by like a cool ocean breeze. I flew my drone around our garden for a few days before mustering up the courage to take it to the beach and fly it along the shoreline. In between flights I would photograph the beautiful flowers in the garden. Kathrin got some much-needed rest and relaxation, and caught up on her reading. We went on a hike one day, following a trail that led along the cliff face where the town sits, gently descending to the shoreline. The further we went, the narrower the trail became, until at a certain point Kathrin turned back and waited for me at the town’s other restaurant, where we had dinner (it wasn’t as good as our favorite.) On another day, we were brave enough to go on a drive along the north coast of the island. We explored some typical island villages, rugged coastlines, and even a waterfall. Like so many others, we watched a group of climbers rappel down from the top of the falls. We ended our drive at Port Moniz, at the northeast corner of the island, where we had lunch at a touristy restaurant with a magnificent view. The view was the best part of lunch; the food was underwhelming. 

This part of the island offered some nice photography opportunities. The rocky beaches were one such spot, but the highlight was the morning I drove to Ribeira de Janel. The gorgeous sunrise and the dramatic rock formations made for some fantastic photos. I was so happy I got out of bed and navigate the windy roads in the dark that morning!

Adeus Madeira!

Like rain showers or high tide, our time here eventually came to an end. We said goodbye to Arco Sao Jorge, but our flight wasn’t until late afternoon. Our route to the airport took us past Funchal, so we strolled the streets on the west side of town. We paid homage to Madeira’s favorite, and most famous, son, footballer (soccer player) Cristiano Ronaldo. There is a museum and hotel devoted to him. We found a monument to Christopher Columbus in the Santa Catarina Park, which also offered pleasant views of the harbor below. Turns out Mr. Columbus was a lived in Funchal in 1475, 1480, and 1492. Our tour ended at the colorfully painted Sao Tiago Fortress, built in the 17th century to protect the city from pirates. All in all, a very pleasant walk. 

If you would like to see more of my photos from Madeira, head over to my flickr page.

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