Sister's Journal

Date: 26.October.1999
Location: Funchal, Island of Madeira, Portugal
Position: 32 degrees 38 minutes North, 16 degrees 55 minutes West
Madeira is beautiful

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 running loose.

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 … pretty 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


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