Walking Madeira still open for business
By Rupert Parker
There was bad news from Madeira. On one terrifying Saturday, in February, a freak storm washed away roads and bridges and reduced the streets of Funchal to a morass of mud. I wasn’t so surprised since, a few weeks earlier; I’d been at the Madeira Islands Walking Festival when the weather was also playing up, drenching intrepid hikers. But, that was the winter that was, and now springtime in Madeira is back to normal, the streets have been cleared and the damage is being repaired.
Madeira Islands Walking Festival
Since it doesn’t have any beaches, Madeira sells itself on its many walking trails. A network of Levadas, irrigation channels which transport water across the island, are the main routes but, less well known, are a series of “Royal Roads”, cobbled tracks built in the nineteenth century, linking small villages.
The week long annual walking festival offers three or four walks every day, with guides and transport included. It caters for a mix of abilities but, as always at these events, there’s always someone in your group who’s not quite up to it. My favourite excuse was from a middle aged American woman who blamed her slowness on altitude sickness, hardly likely when we were at less than 2000 metres.
Do it Yourself Hiking
Although the walking festival is a good introduction for novice hikers, the joys of Madeira are open all year round for the independent traveler. Arm yourself with a bus timetable and one of the many walking guides and you’ll be off to the hills in no time. EU money has built many fast roads, often tunneling through the mountainsides, so getting around the island on local buses is a breeze.
Funchal Travel Agencies Offer Guided Walks
If you’re wary about finding your own way, there’s no shortage of agencies offering guides and transport, but they’re not cheap and don’t necessarily go where you want to. Easier, and far more fun, is to go it alone and an extra bonus is that you will probably have the paths to yourself. Some of the Levadas, however, are not for the fainthearted, clinging to the steep mountainside with sheer drops down to the valley below, or entering long dark dripping tunnels where a torch is essential. But the tourist office website offers useful information about the state of the trails and you can always drop in to chat to one of their officials.
Funchal, an Attractive Colonial City
The capital city is not much larger than a small town and nestles attractively at the foot of the mountains facing the raging Atlantic surf. It’s easy to explore on foot and the old quarter is remarkably well preserved. What’s surprising is that, given the number of large hotels, and the volume of cruise ship passengers, it retains an authentic colonial feel and life proceeds at a leisurely pace. There are restaurants and bars to suit every budget and it makes a great base to return to after a hard day’s walking.
Walking in Madeira by Paddy Dillon is one of many guide books
Rotas Selvagens is a one-stop online booking agency for a variety of activities including walking, climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, canyoning and dolphin watching.
Estalagem Quintinha de São João (+351 291 740 920) is a comfortable hotel offering all facilities.
Pensão Astoria (+351 291 22 38 20) is basic but close to the bus station.
Restaurant Adega da Quinta (+351 291 91 05 30) is a couple of miles outside town, in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, and serves typical Madeira cuisine.
Restaurante do Forte, (+351 291 235 470) is situated in the old fort in Funchal and has a more up-market take on Madeira specialties.
Armazèm do Sal (+351 291 241 285) is a converted salt warehouse and the kitchen delivers imaginative local and international dishes.
O Funil, Rua da Carreira, 132, (+351 291 237 327) is cheap and cheerful but none the worse for that.