The Madeira archipelago includes 3 islands or island groups. Madeira
is the largest and, by far, the most populated. Porto Santo is
38 nautical miles to the north, thinly populated and much less
developed. The "Islas Desertas" are actually two large
islands (and some number of smaller ones) which lie some 20 nautical
miles to the east of Madeira. They are unpopulated.
All the islands are volcanic and Madeira, in particular, shows
it. The island virtually springs from the sea. Its "shores"
are vertical. In fact a significant downside is that, according
to local information, there is no beach on the entire island of
Madeira ... although Porto Santo has a beautiful beach, 9 kilometers
long. Likewise according to local information, the second highest
cliff in the world is on Madeira. It is Cabo Girao and it rises
549 meters (some 1800 feet) vertically out of the ocean. We drove
to the top and looked straight down to the waves breaking at its
base. It is awesome! Don't go there if you have vertigo or kids
Driving around the island is a trip. There is lots of new road
building going on, most, if not all, of it being financed by the
European Economic Community of which Portugal is a relatively
recent member (1984?). The portions of the new roads that are
already in use are spectacular. In some places they hardly touch
the surface of the earth.
As you make your way around the island one minute you drive over
a bridge that virtually soars across an incredibly deep chasm
then at the end of the bridge you enter a tunnel through the ridge
that forms one side of the chasm. Emerging from the tunnel, as
often as not, you are on another absolutely spectacular bridge.
It must be a highway engineer's dream
or perhaps, nightmare.
Driving across the island is no less dramatic. Pick one of the
few roads that go up and over across the backbone of the island
and you're in for a treat. Up you go along the edge of one of
the aforementioned chasms (maybe canyons is a better description?).
Up, up, up
switchback after switchback, often on the edge
of the cliff, it is very cool! We crossed over going north, away
from Funchal, at about 1000 meters (3250 feet). We had left humid
heat at sea level and it was cool, misty and otherwise completely
different at the summit.
Over the summit and down to the north shore where we planned to
turn west and visit the northwest corner of the island. On arriving
at the north shore a cop told us that it was best if we didn't
drive west from there. The sea was particularly wild that day
and we could see hundreds of good size rocks that it had thrown
up over the roadway. We took his advice, turned around and headed
east along the north shore.
The north shore is not nearly as developed as the south. There
were no spectacular bridges spanning the many many canyons. To
negotiate a canyon, one has to drive inland along one edge to
a point where it becomes relatively narrow, cross a small bridge
and then drive out to the coast again along the opposite side
of the canyon. Most of the roadway is one lane and negotiating
your way past oncoming traffic is a constant challenge.
Heading back across to the south shore and Funchal we followed
a switchback road to the top of a ridge that separated two canyons.
The ridge was very narrow at points and at one place there was
a 1000 foot drop off on each side of the road.
A half an hour or so after leaving the hot humid coast we were
again at the top of the island. We had a beer and warmed our butts
by the fire in the fireplace of a bar/restaurant at the summit,
1400 meters (about 4500 feet) above sea level. This mountaintop
spot is one of the places where it snows on Madeira each winter.
Funchal is the city on Madeira. There are several smaller towns
and villages. Funchal has a population of 120,000
good size. It is built on a very small section of flat land, and
on the sides of ridges and hills that surround the flat section.
The effect is that of an amphitheater and it is beautiful from
the sea and from the top of the hills that form the amphitheater.
The city has a constant but mild pulse such that when walking
among the streets you know that your are in a city but a gentle
one. The people know that they have a beautiful home and they
appreciate it. It apparently is a prime reason for their almost
universally cheerful attitude.
Looking back over the stern as we left Madeira the island was
green, green, green. Its peaks wore their normal cloud cover,
the clouds being more a part of the visual scene than a part of
the weather. Pretty fine!
Chuck and Andy in
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal