The Portuguese island with slave roots

Published Feb 12, 2016


Madeira, Portugal - Feet propped on a balcony rail, I'm gazing through a small vineyard lined with palms, then out over the edge of a thousand-foot sea cliff.

And on the far Atlantic horizon, a sudden apparition: probing forelegs, followed by a colossal spider.

That was just optics. The spider - a small and ordinary one - had suddenly crawled out on the top rail at eye level, a few inches away. But here on the island of Madeira, west of North Africa and Europe and hundreds of miles from either, the traveller's musing question applies to both me and the spider: How did we get here?

Each of the hundreds of species of birds, plants and insects within the rich mantle of rain forest that greens Madeira is a miraculous wanderer. They have drifted in on the wind, or on floating debris, over epic spans of time and ocean, since volcanic convulsions pushed this land a mile above the surface 5 million years ago.

I got here more conventionally, looking for an easy but unfamiliar destination to explore. Madeira, though part of Portugal and only a 90-minute flight from Lisbon, qualifies. It offers some options that may sound zany - a narrated tour in a motorcycle sidecar, for example, or a slaloming ride in an upholstered toboggan, sans snow. The best reason to visit, though, was a week of inn-to-inn hiking on remote, high-elevation rain-forest paths. We carried only daypacks with lunches supplied by the inns, occasionally clambering but usually strolling, for five or six hours on each outing. Then, a long soak in a hot tub and maybe a glass - of course - of the namesake fortified wine.

There are a quarter-million permanent residents here, but Madeira is still in the process of being discovered, at least by Americans. The United States accounts for a very small fraction of tourism - most visitors are Europeans. We may figure that with the Caribbean and Hawaii closer by, another tropical island destination would be redundant. But in its venturesome recreations, history and stunning landscape, Madeira is a place quite apart. Its even climate invites travelers year-round. We had come through Madrid and its string of sweltering days in the high 90s prior to our arrival here in late July. Madeira stayed in the high 70s and occasionally low 80s.

This was among the first encounters of the agile Portuguese when their Age of Discovery gathered conquests in the 1400s. It was a rarity: a big green fertile island, completely uninhabited. By people, anyway. On the much smaller neighbouring island of Porto Santo, settlers let loose a litter of rabbits to multiply, and they soon ate everything but the geology. That island became a desert that has persisted for 500 years.

Madeira's fate was gentler, though it was set on fire to clear land for farming and the southern districts burned for years. The steep, wet, lush north was spared, and its water was coveted for the drier south. But from the rugged shore up through hanging forests to a skyline of tall, barren crags, most of this island is a landscape of near-vertical rock. So slaves were suspended by ropes to etch a tracery of hundreds of miles of narrow levadas, or canals, onto cliffs and canyon walls to move the water. That often sacrificial form of labor lasted centuries.

Today, hikers are the happy beneficiaries. You can stroll along the easy gradients of the network of levadas for days at a time, much of it through a globally rare native laurel forest - a Unesco World Heritage natural feature. The paths lead to shreds of cloud at the edge of yawning canyons, occasional tunnels, spectacular waterfalls and views out to the breakers battering distant coastal cliffs.

These narrow watercourses were “of vital importance,” the British traveller W.H. Koebel wrote in 1909. “They are the arteries that nourish the land.” It's true now, too: They still supply water to Funchal, the capital, for instance. That port city, a cruise ship destination during the October-to-May season, accounts for more than half of the island's population. The rest of the Madeirans inhabit a thin scatter of villages, with centuries-old churches and tiny cafes. They are blissfully free of high-rise hotels and blaring traffic.

We were ready to descend from our final day of hiking along the levadas and into Funchal. One conveyance for that part of the trip is available nowhere else on the planet that I know of: You can slide down the high, curvy, cobbled streets into town on the runners of a big wicker toboggan.

These popular rigs were invented more than a century ago for the citizens of the hilltop suburb of Monte to commute. Each is steered by two men in vintage white uniforms and boaters. They hop on for the ride down the fast, straight portions and nimbly alight to run alongside and nudge you around corners or over slower spots. We opted to come down from the mountains instead via a long, exquisite glide in a teleférico - an overhead cable car.

Another piquant way of making our way around the island, and getting to know it a bit more on our last full day, was a tour in the sidecar of a shiny blood-red motorcycle. This service is offered by a native Madeiran who is a former corporate finance officer, Filipe Freitas.

He is one of a wavelet of entrepreneurs who, with the help of loans from the European Union, are staying afloat in what the Portuguese call their crisis economy - bad enough that it is sometimes compared to that of Greece. Precariously high unemployment drives many educated Portuguese to emigrate. Visitors, however, will find that the shaky economy keeps prices low, especially out beyond the most crowded tourist destinations.

Filipe picked us up at our hotel on one of his Russian-made Ural bikes. It hauled my wife in the sidecar and me on the rear pillion seat over narrow, steep roads along the western coastline. Motorcycles may make you apprehensive, but we were comfortable through the entire four-hour ride on this stable vehicle - especially because the safety-conscious Filipe rarely broke 30mph. Through speakers built into our helmets, he narrated the cultural and natural history of the passing panorama.

We looked out over tile-roofed homes strung along the hillsides far below, where cane, beans, corn and garden vegetables had been sown for the first time in a long while. “It's beautiful to look at, and the work and the food are probably healthy for us,” he said. “But those people are doing it because they are unemployed and their families must eat, so it is not a completely carefree thing to see.” An unusual number of houses along the narrow roads, most with exquisite veranda views out over the ocean, are empty and for sale. Many others are just abandoned.

Starting in the early 1930s, Portugal and Madeira endured the fascist dictator António Salazar for 36 years, and his successors persisted for a short time after he died. Salazar used secret police to enforce his grim view of the cultural values that should define national life, several guides had told us. The Portuguese still joke ruefully about “the three Fs” that Salazar preached - Fatima, futbol and fado (miracle-religion, sports and the mournful national folk music) - to distract them from their privations.

“My wife is a schoolteacher,” Filipe said. “Under Salazar, she would not have been allowed to marry me unless I made more money than she did. Women, especially the few working women, had to be seen as subordinated.” Part of the impetus for ending that brutally repressive, backward era were the ruinous wars that Salazar waged to try to hang on to Portugal's African colonies, Mozambique and Angola.

Exhilarated by our ride along the undulant coastal road to the 2 000-foot-high headland of Cabo Girão, we saw remnants of that national history, still vivid for the Portuguese. Some of the abandoned houses we passed, scenic ruins now, had been hideouts for young men evading conscription and the colonial wars.

In 1974, army officers led a nearly bloodless coup, freed the colonies and established the current democracy, but a chaotic period of adjustment followed. Two of Filipe's uncles, for instance, returned from Africa but soon left again, one for Boston, one for Venezuela - part of Portugal's continuing, melancholy diaspora.

We stopped at a 1950s-era venda, an all-purpose neighbourhood store and gathering place that is now something like a small museum, full of the old wares, remedies and notions, with a bar. Filipe's friend Maria Jose made us tangy, locally celebrated ponchos - lemon and orange juice, honey, and rum (Filipe abstained, of course). Avoiding thoughts of our pending departure, we traded stories about our rich week of exploration on Madeira.

Learning some of its sombre history had the effect of intensifying our appreciation for the beauty of the heights, the cliffs and the sea. It was good to know, after all, that Salazar is long gone and the economy on enterprising Madeira is showing signs of revival.


Planning an inn-to-inn hiking adventure in Madeira

This was our third inn-to-inn hiking trip in as many years. The tour operator supplies maps, directions, lodging, breakfast and dinner, and moves our luggage when we change hotels. Several companies offer a Madeira package. If you make this choice, be aware that the travel industry is a shape-shifting landscape. Ask who is really responsible for the local arrangements.

We planned to use a tour company that had given us good results before. We were told, though, that the Madeira trip was now offered by another US packager instead. So we booked through that outfit, which is really only a pass-through marketer for a British company that has recently been sold to a German firm that in reality handed us off to a Madeira-based operator that took custody, more or less, as soon as we landed. We would have saved money just using the Madeirans to begin with.

And there were distracting glitches - nothing calamitous - that surprised us after our prior trouble-free trips. The person at the “24-hour emergency number” was on vacation, for example. There were mix-ups about the hotel bookings. The Madeiran personnel who cleared things up were uniformly genial and conscientious, and English is spoken widely.

Ask your prospective inn-to-inn hiking planner for references you can talk with by phone, people who have used the same tour operator for the same trip in the past year. You'll want to know how well the transfers were handled, the quality of the hotels and meals, and, crucially, that the point-by-point hiking instructions were perfect, or nearly so.

If you have time to do your own planning instead, several good guidebooks are available for hiking the levadas (some of them are not safe). The hotels you choose can routinely arrange for luggage to be transported to your next destination. Many of them know the trailheads and pickup locations well. Madeira has surprisingly good cellphone service, and many hotels can easily get you to and from the hikes by cab. Happy trails!

* Stephen Nash is a freelance writer in Richmond.

The Washington Post


If you go...

Where to stay

Hotel Quinta do Furão

Achada do Gramacho



Located about two minutes from Madeira Theme Park and 45 minutes from the airport. Summer season double rooms are $175 9about R2 000), much less off-season.


Where to eat

Casa de Palha

9230-143 Achada Grande

São Jorge


Local cuisine served in a traditional thatched cabin. Dishes include savoury chicken, goat, watercress soup. Expect around $15-$30 for lunch for two.



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