I know you thought it a little extravagant when I said I wanted to go to a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean 400 miles off the coast of North Africa just because I heard their two main exports were wine and flowers….but Madeira is so much more! It fills my eyes with so many beautiful sights that I have named it The Land of A Thousand Postcards. It is Portugal, with a touch of Bora Bora.
Today, Eric and I drove quickly through the capital of Funchal on the Southern coast, where most of the island’s residents live (and most of the tourists are); a bustling harbor city crowded with red tile roofs that fan their way up into the foothills. In no time, we were deep into the lush interior. Bright green mountains rise up 6,000 feet from deep, fertile valleys, their tops shaped like rows of grass-stained knuckles. Terraced farming is everywhere, like steps leading to the clouds. The farmers must be part mountain goat, we think. Palm trees share soil with evergreens, the heady smell of eucalyptus hits you in waves…and the flowers I came all this way to see! Purple bougainvillea, deep red poinsettias, hot pink hibiscus the color of cheap lipstick. And giant white calla lilies and birds of paradise, $5 each at the florist back home, spring from the ground common as dandelions.
It is rare to reach fourth gear in our car or to drive more than a few meters without turning the wheel to accommodate a curve. Hand-built dry stone walls frame the roads as if trying to hold back the foliage so cars can get through.
We stopped by the side of the road and watched a farmer in the distance, turning his soil with a long spade, dwarfed by the towering slopes. I wondered. Because he sees this splendor every single day, is he now blind to its beauty?
Dear Aunt Dodee,
Today, we visited a place so beautiful I hardly had enough room in my eyes to take in the whole thing: the Valley of the Jolly (Ho Ho Ho) Nuns. I’ll explain. Seems as though pirates – nasty, pillaging, raping pirates - drawn to the sugar cane riches of the island, found Madeira a great place to attack. One such raid occurred in 1566. This time, though, a warning came in the form of a smoke signal from a nearby island and the nuns of the Santa Clara convent escaped to the very heart of Madeira in a deep valley completely hidden from the rest of the world by steep, jagged mountains on all sides.
It became known as Curral das Freiras, which means Nuns’ Refuge, or Valley of the Nuns. (When I asked locals how to pronounce it, they said “Kcuraghdaschfreeisash”, so we took to calling it the Valley of the Jolly (Ho Ho Ho) Nuns.). A twisting road, chistled into the cliffs and snaking its way down into the village, was built in 1959 and the locals finally got television in 1987.
You must see this amazing place two ways: first, standing high above in the mountains, holding your breath because you can’t help it, looking down into this giant, green cauldron dotted with whitewashed houses and tiled roofs. Watching a hawk catch a breeze and gliding beneath you like a kite. Listening to the silence.
Then, you must weave your way down into the heart of the village, to the Nuns’ Valley Restaurant, and have a bowl of their famous tomato soup and maybe an omelet with a side of fried sardines and a slice of chestnut cake. Look up this time – at the rugged mountains gently cupping the village like giant hands. Wondering if there is some guy at the tippy-top of that one mountain peak watching you with binoculars.
Ho Ho Ho,
I’m writing you to tell you that you’re not my best friend anymore. I’m dumping you. I’ve made a new one.
I know I’ve told you before about my belief that a successful trip involves having an encounter with a native. A deep bonding between two countries. It doesn’t always happen, but you strive for it.
Well, Eric and I were driving through a gentle valley in the south of Madeira when we passed a man standing by the side of the road. He was dressed in a traditional Portuguese outfit, rather matadorish looking: black brimmed hat, black vest with colorful embroidery, puffy shirt like in Seinfeld…worthy of a photograph, I thought. I politely asked his permission for a snapshot and next thing you know, we’re sitting in a bar the size of a closet with our new best friend Manuel, drinking a concoction he called poncha.
Manuel, probably in his late 30’s, trim, and pleasant looking save for a few missing teeth, was a bundle of broken-English energy. I wasn’t quite sure if he was a gourmet chef or a construction worker or a professional singer or an auto mechanic, but he mentioned all of those things. In 15 minutes time, we had pretty much covered American geography, world politics, family history and favorite recipes. Suddenly, he glanced out the door and said, ‘I must go, my friends’, and he was gone. Suddenly, he reappeared with a ukulele in hand and burst into song; a wailing, heart-wrenching Portuguese ballad. Suddenly, he announced, ‘Now I must go’ and he was off, trotting down the road through groves of banana trees. Suddenly, I just lost my new best friend Manuel.
He left us standing in the closet-sized bar with a half-drunk glass of poncha in our hand - just us and a bartender so local he didn’t know what hello meant. We stood there in silence for a minute, blinking at each other, separated by language. To break the pause, the barkeep shared with us a plate of pickled pork knuckles, which we politely gnawed on so as not to hurt his feelings. Then we left.
I’ll never forget our encounter with Manuel because I’ll always have that photograph I took of him. I wondered – when he drinks his next poncha, will he think of us?
Wanting you back as my best friend,
P.S. I promise I’ll make you some poncha when I get back. It’s freshly squeezed lemon juice, orange juice, honey and firewater - the local grain alcohol - whisked together until frothy. Maybe I’ll use vodka.
As my accountant, I thought you’d want to know that we’re below budget here on Madeira. The trick is to go off the beaten path, to little villages you can’t find much information about in books. Here are some numbers for you: The 1872 antique-filled stone house we rented on the North shore in the village of Seixal is $45 a day including breakfast; a good bottle of Porguese red goes for about $3 in a village store; a freshly grilled fish dinner with a pile of roasted potato slices, a mountain of vegetable rice, a platter of salad and a loaf’s worth of bread in a cozy 6-table restaurant costs about $7; a pair of handmade sheepskin slippers ran us $12; and this postcard set us back 20 cents. But you’re worth it.
We’d also like to know if it’s possible to write-off our lunch today even though we don’t have a receipt. And the restaurant didn’t have a name. Or a roof. It was a farmer and his wife, by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, grilling long strips of local sausage and centering them on dinner plate-sized rounds of bread they called bolo de caco – thick, spongy sweet potato dough cooked on hot rocks until a thin, darkened crust forms. We ripped warm, chewy chunks off with our teeth, Neanderthal-like, moaning that it was the best bread we’d ever tasted in our lives and dreading the arrival of that last bite. Heaven. For 75 cents. I wondered. Could we convince the farmer and his wife to adopt us?
Dear Gus and Maria,
You’re the friends we are thinking of right now because we know you would love this.
At this very moment, Eric and I are on the Southern coast of Madeira, standing atop the second highest sea cliff in Europe, called Cabo Girao. There are no protective concrete walls, no fancy signs, no hot dog stands, no ticket-takers charging two bucks for the view. We are standing on a dirt path with nothing more than a patch of long grass separating us from an 1,800 foot plunge straight down. (Picture standing on the roof of a 180-story building.) Being the woman, I say, 'I feel a sense of great freedom and exhilaration looking out to sea from such a grand perch and knowing that there is nothing but water for 3,000 miles until it reaches the shores of my own country. I feel like an inspired poet must feel, with an overwhelming desire to somehow capture this moment in ink.’ Eric, the man, says, ‘I wonder what it would be like if a gust of wind came along and blew you right off the edge and you plummeted head first to your death.’
We study a house near the shore down below, a mere dot neatly framed by a stone wall the size of a pencil line from up here. One small family in a world filled with millions, living here at the bottom of this cliff. I wonder. Can they somehow sense that a perfect stranger is thinking about their very life on this earth?
Thinking of you, too,
You get two postcards from Madeira! I told you in my first one that I came all this way for the flowers and the wine and I forget to mention the wine.
Shortly after the discovery of Madeira in the early 1400’s, Prince Henry the Navigator sent vines over for planting. By the early 1500’s, this fortified wine, aged in barrels by the hot sun, was sold to passing sailors to prevent scurvy. It was tasty enough for Shakespeare to mention it in 1597 when he wrote Henry IV, with Falstaff willing to exchange his soul for “a cup of Madeira and a cold capon”; Captain Cook loaded up with several thousand gallons of it on his first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768; and even our forefathers clinked glasses of it over the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
There are four main types, each a different degree of sweetness, each appropriate for different courses of a dinner. I found, though, the best way to enjoy Madeira wine is to stand at a roadside bar surrounded by terraced vineyards, sipping the sweet nectar all by itself with four weathered, Portuguese men in the background playing cards so intensely you would think gold was at stake.
I wondered. Wouldn’t it be terrible if I got scurvy anyway?
How the heck do you get to Madeira?
From the U.S., you must first fly into Lisbon, Portugal. TAP Air Portugal airlines has about a half dozen hour and a half flights daily from there to the island. There are also direct scheduled flights out of London.
Two remote places to stay:
In the capital city of Funchal (“Foon-shall’) on the Southern coast, there are many hotels to choose from – big, fancy, pampering, English-speaking hotels, some with pools and casinos. If that’s what you like. If you prefer a tiny coastal village on the opposite shore that takes a good hour’s drive through splendid scenery to get to from the airport, try Seixal (“Say-shall”). It has a few restaurants, a couple of tiny bars and few tourists. The whole town is aware of your arrival and you’ll get The Big Stare. The locals are reserved, but not unfriendly. It just takes an evening at a local bar to warm them up a bit.
Casa das Videiras (“Vi-deer-ash”) – An antique-filled, stone-walled home on the edge of town, built in 1872 and perfectly restored by your host, Alberto. He has several rooms available, each with private bath for 50 to 70 euros a night, breakfast included. We were lucky enough to have the whole house to ourselves. Alberto even gave us a welcoming bottle of wine, because we seemed “like the romantic type”. I can’t help but think he’s the only local who loves computers: check out his colorful web site at www.casa-das-videiras.com.
Try a little Portuguese: No, they don’t speak Spanish in Portugal. It’s best to have a Portuguese phrase book duct-taped to your arm for the less touristy places. Even if locals know a little English, you get major brownie points for trying their tongue. The most important thing to learn is “Queria uma garrafa de vinho tinto, por favor,” (pronounced “keree-a ooma garrafa der veen-yoo teen-too, poor-favor). It means, ‘I’d like a bottle of red wine, please.’.
Take a hike: Right after I purchased my new, expensive hiking boots for the trip, Eric ruptured a disc in his back, or we would have walked like mad on Madeira. Narrow channels of water, called levadas, used for irrigation as far back as the 1500’s, weave their way over 1,300 miles of land. You can follow the paths that run alongside the canals to some of the most unspoiled scenery on the island. Unless you’d rather stay back at the hotel and watch tv.
All things Madeiran: Driving through rough-cut mountain caves. Waterfalls splashing down on the roof of your car. Traditional farm women, looking as though they could beat you up but good. Ham and cheese sandwiches. Road workers trimming vines in the middle of nowhere. Sliding down a steep cobble-stoned road in a wicker tobaggan like they used to do in the mid-1800’s. Chunks of skewered beef, rolled in garlic and crushed bay leaves, grilled over scented wood. Cows, tethered so they won’t fall off cliffs. Fences made from fronds of dried heather and gnarled tree branches. French fries. Dogs that look half Corgi, half Pekinese. Vegetable gardens instead of front yards. Limpits in garlic butter. Funny looking knit farmers’ hats, with ear flaps and a giant pom-pom on top. Hand-embroidered table linens. Green.
©2000 by Robin Benzle. First one-time world rights to The Underground Wine Journal. Published June 2000.