Where you can experience your green miracle

Madeira

15. November 2021
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14 min.
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Kategorien: All | Madeira | Publications
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Categories: All | Madeira | Publications
The floral emblem of the island, the blue giant adder head, also called 'pride of Madeira'.
The sister islands of Madeira and Porto Santo are each beautiful in their own way and have much to offer nature lovers: fantastically dense laurel forests, countless hiking trails of any difficulty and lush flora.

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Germany’s largest nature travel magazine
14 Pages | Text & Photos

Madeira – Fifty Shades of Green

On the way to the car rental drop-off at Madeira’s airport, my wife Annette and I look back at the highlights of the island and its little sister Porto Santo: in first place: dense, healthy nature, mostly under UNESCO protection and quickly accessible: from the capital Funchal we need 28 minutes to the parking lot at the highest point of the island. Second is not a place, but that which makes travelling in Madeira so pleasant. And that is a lot: no industry, at least hardly visible. No game that may jump in front of the car, in general: no dangerous animals. Intact motorways and country roads that, thanks to the long tunnels only appear as a few grey lines in the landscape. No discernable social hotspots. Long days with intense light: at 8 pm it is still bright like in Germany at 4 pm. No honking. No rip-offs: in a pub in the highlands of Madeira we paid €7,50 for 2 cappuccinos, 1 big beer and a pack of cigarettes.

No game that may jump in front of the car, in general: no dangerous animals.

If you want relaxing beach days, you can hop on a plane and fly to Porto Santo and be there in 20 minutes, regenerate your hiking feet in incomparably soft Thalasso sand, and then rinse it off together with the rest of your body in crystal-clear water. In any case, on it and in it, the water is a great place to meet kite surfers, divers and whale watchers. I forgot the friendliness of the Madeirans. But now one thing at a time.
A typical levada hike: dense vegetation, narrow path, hardly visited.

Where Ronaldo poked through the fog

I’m more of an adventure guy, so I need to get down and dirty. Physically. I will go for arduous, even the extreme. The streets of Funchal are a different extreme. The city seems like an amphitheatre, criss-crossed with sloping, narrow and winding streets with no sidewalks. “If you can drive here, you can drive anywhere” beams our Guido Fabio as he presses down on the accelerator. Road bumps and centrifugal forces press Annette and me into our seats.

Fabio asks us what we think is the reason that so many matches here must be halted prematurely.

We pass the Estádio de Madeira, the football stadium where probably the most famous son of the island once hit his crosses: Christiano Ronaldo. Fabio asks us what we think is the reason that so many matches here must be halted prematurely. We could guess, but can’t really figure it out. “It’s the weather,” Fabio reveals, “sometimes the clouds come down so low and are so thick that you can’t see anything.”

The jeep rumbles on over ancient cobblestones, the road lined only by giant eucalyptus and mimosa trees. Fabio explains, “This is part of the ‘Caminho real’, the ‘King’s Path’. Look at the stones we’re driving over. They’re shaped like steps so that the people, who carried loads back then, could climb up and down the steep path more easily.” Back then also, rich people had themselves carried up the mountains on palanquins. Until well into the 20th century these narrow paths remained the only links to get from the south to the north and to transport goods, timber and also people.

View of the northeast coast from the Vereda do Arieiro hiking route.

Laurisilva – the air is pure

Obediently Annette and I trudge after Fabio on the wide hiking trail. “I will now lead you along the Levada do Furado, one of the most beautiful of 30 hikes along our historic water channels” Fabio promises. It’s only slightly downhill as we continue. It is cool and damp – in contrast to the few minutes before, when we were still winding our way along sunlit serpentines past extensive seas of hydrangea and gorse. Hiking could hardly be more pleasant. “Now we’re in the middle of the Laurisilva laurel forest. This is a unique nature reserve and has even been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. The forest is so dense, steep and slippery that many rare plants have not yet been recorded and catalogued. Over the next few hours, we walk about 17 kilometres through a small section of the 15,000-hectare protected area, which takes up 20 percent of the island.

The forest is so dense, steep and slippery that many rare plants have not yet been recorded and catalogued.

Before the island’s settlement in the 14th century, Laurisilva covered almost the entire island. Portuguese settlers felled large parts of the forest. They used it to erect wooden buildings, to fire up the sugar refinery ovens and craft masts and planks for Portuguese merchant ships.
One of the few places that allow an unobstructed view of the enchanting laurel forest.
In addition to the eponymous evergreen laurel, countless other plant species are native here: Madeira mahogany, juniper, heather, lily of the valley tree, Madeira blueberry, tree heath, holly and orchid – to name but a few. The latter is a parasite that attaches itself to host plants, ensuring its supply of water and nutrients. “And the tree heath, Erica arborea, is what we would now call a ‘prepper'” Fabio continues. “The plant stores up to 27 litres of water per square metre in a single day. And right next to it, a eucalyptus tree. They were introduced in the 15th century. The tree grows fast. That was important for fast timber production. The wood was used to build dwellings. Today eucalyptus is rather a pest because it needs a lot of water which the neighbouring plants then lack. That’s why this heather looks a bit puny.”

“And the tree heath, Erica arborea, is what we would now call a ‘prepper”

Due to trade winds and dense cloud cover, the Laurisilva has a constant supply of moisture. A part of it is directly absorbed by trees and plants and the considerable rest returns as rain, fog or whatever kind of moisture back into circulation and soon ends up in one of the levadas, the typical water channels of the island.
Chaffinches pick up leftover bread crumbs at many lay-bys.
I ask Fabio about the peculiar, cobweb-like lichen swaying in the wind on many branches. “That’s the ‘Old Man’s Beard,’ yes, a lichen that is an indicator of good air quality. The more of it you see, the cleaner the air. Since Covid, the Old Man’s Beard has grown longer, the absence of man and industry seems to be favourable for the forest”, Fabio is pleased to observe.

Many animals find shelter in the laurel forest, of which the visitor probably sees the cheeky, fat chaffinch most often, otherwise the fauna is reticent. There are probably more interesting destinations for zoologists, but botanists and flower fans can roam here to their hearts’ content.

“Since Covid, the Old Man’s Beard has grown longer”, Fabio is pleased to observe.

Due to the dense vegetation and the often cloudy and foggy view, it is difficult for us to get an overall picture of this enchanting biotope. Moreover, the forest extends to altitudes between 300 and 1300 meters. They must have been free from fear of heights back then I think to myself, as we negotiate many of the extremely narrow passages which have been secured by wire railings only a few years ago. Again and again we pass close to the rocks – or go right through it.
View below the Miradouro do Curtado in the northeast of the island.

Channel clogging: encounter with a levadiero

Madeira has created generations of tunnel and water engineers. They honeycombed the island with ditches, cuttings, passages, bridges and tunnels of every imaginable length. The historic water channels of Madeira, the levadas, are also the result of this art of engineering. Even today the levadas still provide the entire water supply for the islanders.

At the next bend during our hike, I spot a man chopping down tall plants with a machete. Aided by Fabio’s translations, we strike up a conversation. Jose Spinola, 54, has been working as a levadiero for over 10 years, a kind of caretaker of the water channels. His job is to keep a certain part of the over 2,200 kilometre long water channel network in good shape. This includes maintaining the edges of the channels so that no plants, branches or other foreign material falls into the open channels.

The ancient system called ‘Geiro’, translated as ‘clock face’, ensures the equitable distribution of water.

His working day starts at 4 a.m., he then checks his preserve, about 16 kilometres long, ranging from sea level to 1,200 meters up. He was taught all about his job the oral way, mostly by from his predecessor. Another task is the regular distribution or supply of water. Fabio also draws water from a levada to irrigate his property. The ancient system called ‘Geiro’, translated as ‘clock face’, ensures the equitable distribution of water. Depending on the size of the plot and the water fee paid, one acquires the right to draw a certain amount of water. This amount of water is converted into a number of hours for which the levadiero at his distribution station diverts the water to Fabio. Fabio stores the water in a tank and uses it for watering the garden and for household purposes.
Jose Spinola, 54, has worked for more than 10 years as a levadiero, a kind of janitor for the water channels.
At the end of the hiking tour we pass by a large water reservoir, whose light grey walls do not exactly blend in harmoniously with nature. Fabio explains: “The water from the mountains is collected in these large basins. Then it is channelled through sloping pipes driving the electricity-generating turbines. The water is collected further down in another reservoir, from where it is then transferred to the irrigation channels as well as the drinking water channels.”
Having a blast

On the way back to the hotel Fabio takes another way back with the jeep. Obviously, Annette and I did quite well on the hike and we still have plenty of time left. We pass by small villages settled under many hundred meters high rock walls. I admire the lack of fear of heights of the Madeirans, who have cultivated almost every little rocky outcrop with agricultural crops: potatoes, strawberries, leeks, cabbage, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, sugar cane and bananas are harvested there.

His working day starts at 4 a.m., he then checks his preserve, about 16 kilometres long, ranging from sea level to 1,200 meters up.

In Santo António da Serra a Madeiran allows me to take his portrait, including the enormous load of cut grass on his back. This is a treat for cows, goats and sheep, who can feast on it every or every other day. I am impressed by the physical strength of the Madeiran, he, like many others his age, still appears to be quite nimble and agile. I understand that hours of daily exercise in the woods and fields is good for one’s health. Compared to mainland Portugal, Madeirans enjoy a significantly higher life expectancy and life satisfaction.
Some Madeira wines can still be perfectly enjoyed after 150 years. It is said that the older the Madeira, the softer, woodier, spicier, nuttier and more vanilla its bouquet.

The Presidential Liqueur

Today we take a break; the hiking boots can air properly. Our goal is to the Blandy Distillery in the centre of Funchal, an epicentre of Madeira liqueur indulgence. On creaking wooden floorboards we sneak past large oak barrels in darkened rooms. Water gradually evaporates in them over many years and even decades, intensifying and refining the wines. Madeira has an exceptionally long shelf life. Some can be stored and enjoyed perfectly well for up to 150 years. It is said that the older the Madeira, the softer, woodier, spicier, nuttier and more vanilla its bouquet.

Madeira wine was a product of chance.

For many hundreds of years, Blandy has been producing excellent wines. Madeira wine or liqueur is excellent as a dry aperitif or sweet digestif. We also get to enjoy it during a degustation. An expert tells us: “The alcohol content of a Madeira is between 17 and 22 percent, depending on the variety. Madeira wine was a product of chance. It was created from port wine, which the distilleries enriched with pure alcohol – for a better shelf life on the long transports to America and the Far East.”

Then at sea the barrels were exposed to intense heat. This chemical oxidation process, known today as wine warming, had a surprisingly palatable result, which from then on contributed to salons, fine parties and occasions all over the world. Glasses filled with Madeira were raised to toast the American Declaration of Independence as well as for George Washington’s swearing-in. Today, the liqueur is still in demand: Blandy produces a million litres a year, 70% of which is exported. A tiny part of it we take back with us to Germany.

Again and again, the barren highlands offer fantastic views over the tiered landscape.

Our favourite place Fanal

Barefoot I walk over damp, soft mossy grass; a light cool breeze touches my nose. I approach the end of the green slope. The breeze picks up, fed by the cold air coming up from the coast a few hundred meters below. Behind a few rocks, the descent is vertical, and I turn back, diving under the skewed branches of a til, a laurel tree that collects much of the moisture.

The til is the largest tree in the laurel forest, reaching up to 40 metres in height, and likes to grow in the upper zones up to 1,500 metres. Here it has room enough to form mighty branches and canopies. I imagine how beautiful the trees look in the morning mist, ghostly, mystical, like long-armed giants.

Fanal, you are my favourite spot here on Madeira now.

The sun is burning, we take a rest in the shade beside a til, rest our backs on thick soil, close our eyes. Insects are buzzing by, the wind plays a soft song, frogs croak in the distance – a soundtrack for meditation. We linger. Eventually we do rise, arm in arm we stagger back to the car, a smile on our face, voiceless and somewhat more serene. Fanal, you are my favourite spot here on Madeira now.
Fanal: The til is the largest tree in the laurel forest, reaching up to 40 meters in height. Here it has enough space to form mighty branches and canopies.
Healthily stranded on Porto Santo

Sofia guides her Land Rover along a bone-dry rocky track to the 517-metre-high vantage point of Pico do Facho, from which we overlook Porto Santo and the small uninhabited neighbouring island of Ilhéu da Cal. “We have no rivers. And therefore nothing to flush out filth into the sea. 80 percent of the wastewater is treated. And so we are happy…” now Sofia’s face brightens, “… with a crystal clear, turquoise blue sea!” In general, the island is committed to sustainability. The “Smart Fossil Free Island Porto Santo” project is dedicated to becoming the world’s first island to banish fossil fuels using electric cars and a smart grid. To this end, purchases of e-cars are subsidised with up to 10,000 Euros.

At one point, the islanders had to go twelve years without a drop of rain.

Porto Santo is a dry place. The mountains are not high enough to catch rain. At one point, the islanders had to go twelve years without a drop of rain. This hardship makes them inventive. Drinking water and electricity have long been obtained from salt water. Thanks to a huge futuristic looking seawater desalination plant, the fifth in the world. The water bubbles upwards through countless transparent tubes as high as a house.

But the island doesn’t have attractions for environmental engineers only, nature fans and those looking for relaxation get their share also. Porto Santo has something that its big sister lacks: a sandy beach. That even has healing properties. It has been scientifically proven to alleviate rheumatism, skin, joint and muscle ailments. The healing sand is rich in magnesium, calcium, sulphur, phosphorus and anti-inflammatory strontium. A walk through the fine, smooth powder is a treat for our feet, a do-it-yourself foot reflexology massage lasting for up to nine kilometres.

Porto Santo: The uninhabited neighboring island Ilhéu da Cal.
Since the 28th of October 2020, the island of Porto Santo has been officially classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Of the more than 1,600 species found on the island, 15 are unique to the 42-square-kilometre island.

The first settlers of Porto Santo found a forested island with many dragon trees, junipers and tree heath. There is no sign of this today, the island is largely treeless, if not bare. Christopher Columbus lived on Porto Santo for a while, married the governor’s daughter and devised his plan to discover America. The “Casa Museu Cristovão Columbo”, a museum in the house where the explorer is believed to have lived, still bears witness to this.

Now 95 years old, he still sells the famous ice cream called Lambeca.

More worth seeing and more lively, however, is the workshop and gallery of the artist Vera Menezes, of whom Sofia says that she gives things a second life. From flotsam and jetsam, shells and plastic, Vera and her partner create small works of art, many of which have Porto Santo’s uniqueness as their subject or even motif: the small Caracois snails, windmills or soft ice cream. Soft ice cream? Yes. Portugal’s most famous soft ice cream parlour was founded in 1958 by João dos Reis Leão in Vila Baleira. Now 95 years old, he still sells the famous ice cream called Lambeca. Connoisseurs think highly of the version that comes from the over 50-year-old ice cream machine.
Porto Santo: Annette marvels at the basalt formation on the southern slope of Pico de Ana Ferreira.
After enjoying the ice cream, Sofia leads us to the geological highlight of the island. It is the basalt formation on the southern slope of the Pico de Ana Ferreira. The amazingly regularly arranged, almost equally sized hexagonal stone columns captivate us. In the past, people thought that this must be the work of mystical beings. For a long time, scientists disputed the process of formation. It wasn’t until after 2010, when researchers experimented with solidified lava from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull that basalt formation could be understood. Only a very small portion of the basalt formation is even visible. It seems that only after a piece of rock was blown off, the columns underneath were exposed.

Some say the islands lack superlatives. For those unaware of that, they couldn’t care less. Because Madeira and Porto Santo offer more than enough variety, relaxation, contrasts, friendliness and nature for the perfect soft adventure holiday bliss.

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