Smaller than Co Louth, Madeira is a piece of cake

Walking the island’s levadas


During my age of innocence, Madeira was a dry-ish cake preferably served with a generous layer of butter. Later still, Madeira became an unpleasant smelling drink (to my young nose), a glass of which was favoured by my mother and aunties at Christmas – definitely not a drink for men.

As my knowledge expanded, I became aware of the island of Madeira and the archipelago and wondered how such a small an island could produce so much cake and alcohol. Having gleaned a little more knowledge with the passage of time, I seized the opportunity of a flying visit to the island and I am delighted to say that it was an eye-opening experience.

Madeira is smaller than Co Louth – our smallest county. Its coastline is 150km. Some 90 per cent of the land is above 500 metres, with the highest point reaching 1,862 metres (6,107ft). The island is volcanic – the last activity is recorded to have taken place 6,500 years ago. The east/west nature of the mountain range results in varying weather patterns between the north and south of the island.

As we prepared to land, the plane banked slightly and Porto Santo, an island north east of Madeira, came into view. The main island was blanketed in cloud but more was revealed as we came around on the southern side. Another check out of the window revealed an unfinished coastal motorway project – ah, the recession had even stretched its poisonous finger out to Madeira.

After another few minutes the plane banked hard right and I was looking down into the sea. Then I realised the unfinished motorway project was, in fact, the runway. Following a brief, private panic attack, the SATA pilot glided us in to an impressively smooth landing – on a ski jump.

Besides the white-knuckle landing, what also grabbed my attention was the city of Funchal nestling beneath dark, shrouded, volcanic peaks. Surrounded by terraced fields filled with vineyards, sugar cane, banana groves and much more, the capital enjoys an enviable location.

The main purpose of my visit was to investigate what the island has to offer to those interested in walking/trekking holidays. I was particularly interested in finding out more about the levada routes.

Early settlers on the island discovered that there was plenty of water in the north/northwest of the island and very little in the south/southeast. So, they built irrigation channels (levadas), often in precipitous, exposed locations. In many places, tunnels had to be excavated through to adjoining valleys and at one time there were over 40km of tunnels. The levadas, which vary in width from 20cm to over a metre, have maintenance tracks running parallel, which also can vary in width from a couple of metres to the width of a small backpack. There are more than 2,000km of levadas which provide a largely safe walking network.

My first exercise was to check out a levada route in the Parque Natural do Ribeiro Frio which contains part of the island’s treasured Laurisilva (laurus – laurel and silva – forest) the earliest specimens of which date back 20 million years when they became extinct in continental Europe during the ice age. The forest covers 20 per cent of the island and was classified by Unesco as a National World Heritage Site in 1999.

My starting point – Ribeiro Frio (Cold River) was only seven linear kilometres from Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island. I mistakenly believed that I would have a guide for this walk, but no, I was on my own. I know that many will tut-tut at the idea of someone walking on their own and that it is not good mountain practise – I agree.

However, people were aware of my route and my finish point. They knew how long it would take me and I was mobilised (I had a mobile phone and the signal was great) and I had all the recommended prerequisites. Additionally, there were lots of walking groups on my route.

Also, I had my levada – and water doesn’t flow uphill. So, happy days, downhill all the way, albeit a very gentle downhill, until the final few kilometres where the descent would make a heart-thumping uphill climb.

My one concern was getting blisters from my new Merrell boots. I have always worn stiff mountain boots and recently I have been taking walking breaks in drier, warmer climates where heavy, rigid boots seem superfluous.

Last year, I bought a pair of trekking shoes for a trip to the south of Spain. They were a disaster. I felt that my feet were on fire and that every stone was trying to force its way through the soles of my shoes. I got through the holiday by putting in extra insoles, but I dumped the shoes as soon as I got home. So I was very cautious about getting another pair of softies. Then Merrell popped up and they weren’t soft – they are well made with Vibram soles and were significantly lighter than my regular boots and much more suitable for a drier environment.

I didn’t want to hang around in the saturating weather so I set off at a brisk pace. From an initial width of two metres the trail narrowed at times to 20 centimetres and was for the most part quite narrow.

In many places the levada treversed some very steep escarpments, however on this particular route there was the protection of a sturdy post and (plastic covered) wire fence. The weather eased and then closed in again as I passed through man-cut defiles and tunnels (I had a torch), as the levada threaded its way to my destination – Portela – and on past it to feed more fields before dropping into the ocean.

For my second walk I was brought to an elevated location – at least 1,000 metres – overlooking Curral das Freiras, Corral of the Nuns or Valley of the Nuns. Originally, the valley was known as Curral de Serra (Corral of the Mountains), however, in the 1,400s the lands were donated to the Convento of Santa Clara, and when French privateers attacked Funchal, the nuns took refuge in the valley.

On this occasion, I was with Jorge, a local guide who was getting his Guia de Montanha license the following week. Again, it was downhill all the way, but it was a punishing descent with the steep-sided walls of the valley rearing up around us.

Most of the trees were Eucalyptus and the smell was everywhere. When I found a sapling, its leaves were covered in a silvery-grey moisture. When this was rubbed away the leaves were shiny green and the scent was really strong. Jorge pointed to wild oregano growing at the base of the young tree. This walk was taken at a more measured pace than the first walk, but it did not alleviate the pressure on knees, calves and hips from the unrelenting downhill trudge – it would be quite a challenge to reverse this trail.

I had two fantastic walks. In between, I went out on a catamaran to do some whale spotting – no whales – but was able to view the island from the sea.

The Cabo Girao cliffs, among the highest in Europe, are just west of Funchal, but what is more spectacular than the cliffs is what lies at their base: verdant, terraced fields which were formerly tended by people who had to lower themselves by ropes from points along the Capo Girao. Nowadays they use a cable car.

My time was short and while I tried to fit in as much as I could, I didn’t get to see the famed gardens, the dragon trees, the lace or the cestos do monte. However, I did get to taste the superb wine which makes me think that my mother had a more educated palate than I gave her credit for, and I did get to see the Avenida do Infante beginning to express itself with fabulous blooming jacaranda. And the boots worked out great.

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