Monday 23 October 2017

Some more Madeira, m'dear?

BREATHTAKING: Sunset in Madeira, which is 'a riot of colour. Everywhere you turn, there's another blaze of exotic flowers – Jacaranda trees, Agapanthus, Birds of Paradise, to name but a few', says Eleanor Goggin
BREATHTAKING: Sunset in Madeira, which is 'a riot of colour. Everywhere you turn, there's another blaze of exotic flowers – Jacaranda trees, Agapanthus, Birds of Paradise, to name but a few', says Eleanor Goggin

Eleanor Goggin

I have a rather theatrical friend whose party recitation is 'Have some Madeira m'dear' about a woman losing her virtue, so it was with this ditty in my head and the knowledge that my virtue is well gone, that I embarked on a trip to said destination.

We didn't undertake the regular route, but also managed a wonderful city break to Lisbon on the way, basing ourselves in the Lisboa Plaza hotel, a boutique hotel just off the Avenida de Liberdade in the historic centre of the city and an ideal location for easy access to all the city sights.

It's a homely, friendly hotel, and the staff couldn't do enough for us. After a visit for drinks to one of their sister hotels, the Heritage Avenida Liberdade, an equally beautiful place, it was on to Solar do Presuntos, a traditional Lisbon restaurant for a divine meal of mixed starters, tuna pie, prawn risotto and desserts to die for. Eusebio and Ronaldo rank among the many famous clients and pictures of both adorn the walls.

I'm a lover of traditional music and no trip to Lisbon would be complete without a trip to a fado house and a taste of the traditional Lisboan music. As the city is built on seven hills, it's a bit of a hike up to the old town and the fado houses, so what better way to travel than a funicular, which drops you right at the edge of the buzzing cobbled streets?

The singing is haunting and while I didn't understand one word, I made it up. I'm good at that. The following morning we visited the Lisboa Story Centre, a museum telling the story of Lisbon, its earthquake of 1755 and the city's subsequent restoration. With all of this in mind, we took a sight-seeing tram ride which brings you through the older residential winding streets of the city, where locals go about their daily business. After a wonderful lunch in Aura in Praca do Commercio, it was time to head for our Sata airlines flight to Madeira, and the second leg of our adventure.

Madeira is a riot of colour. Everywhere you turn, there's another blaze of exotic flowers – Jacaranda trees, Agapanthus, Birds of Paradise, to name but a few. We stayed in the five-star Melia Mare hotel on the outskirts of Funchal, the capital. As I get older, I find continual sun-worshipping something of a bore, so it's wonderful to have a city to explore. Although compact, Funchal has a population of approximately 120,000. There's a fabulous market in the centre, selling fish, including espada, the local black fish, and tuna the size of sharks, and an abundance of flowers and fruit and wicker crafts. I bought copious bulbs to adorn my city garden, but knowing my lack of green fingers I have my doubts about turning my patch into a mini Madeira.

A trip up to Monte, a hilltop town, by cable car is a must. The views of Funchal on the way up are spectacular but it's the coming down that I won't forget easily. We sat in what can only be described as a wicker basket with two men on either side to steer.

It didn't help that my guy was elderly and breathing heavily in my ear. Was it a come-on or was he suffering from a lung disease? I'll never know. We careered at speed down winding hills, screaming hysterically. I might add that we could just as easily have come back down by cable car. Nothing like an ageing lunatic in a wicker basket. When I refused to buy the photo at the end of the ride as I looked so vile in it, the vendor brought me a picture of two random people and tried to get me to purchase the 'better' alternative as "you're not in it". I'm not sure about the Madeiran sense of humour and he's lucky his face is still intact.

The food in Madeira is sublime, and lunch at the O Regional restaurant in the Zona Velha, or old town, was memorable. Sitting in a cobbled street with the sun beating down and watching the world go by while partaking of espada, huge chunks of tuna and limpets is hard to beat. The nearby Rua Santa Maria has been revitalised with painted doors, restaurants and bars. Later that night, we sampled the local drink that is poncha, a blend of rum, lemon and honey. It's also available with other flavourings, but is certainly quite strong with a large measure of rum. Maybe I should have had vast quantities before I travelled in the wicker basket.

The Melia Mare provides a wonderful buffet selection at dinner and that's where the part of my brain that tells me I've had enough disappears and I like nothing more than traipsing up and down to fill up again. For pure indulgence, the hotel also has a wonderful spa, providing dental care and Botox treatment. We had a little 'lost in translation' incident when we were being informed of the 'Botox treatment' and one of our gang wondered what they would be doing to his 'buttocks'.

Madeira is known for its quintas, manor houses with gorgeous gardens. Many have been converted into small hotels, and it was in one of these, Adega da Quinta, that we tasted another speciality of Madeira. Espetada is a rump of beef on a skewer, which hangs over your table and you help yourself. Again my lack of a satiety nerve came into play. It was accompanied by fried maize and sweet potatoes with molasses. Divine.

Levadas are Madeira's system of irrigation channels, and provide great walking trails for all abilities. It's a great way to see the island and take in the spectacular mountain views. We travelled up through the clouds to Pico de Areiro, which is the highest point reachable by car on the island. And then it was back down to Quinta Splendida and its botanical garden and yet more delicious food, much of it from its herb and vegetable gardens. While the local specialities are enough to fill any one's brain and stomach with choices, it's also possible indulge, which we did, from other culinary cultures such as Mamma Mia, a gorgeous Italian restaurant in the Vidamar hotel just outside Funchal. They will also be opening a sushi bar in the near future. So with good food high on my list of priorities for a holiday, I will definitely be back. And that's not to mention the sun, sight-seeing, two championship golf courses, shopping and good fun. I'll have some more Madeira m'dear.

Irish Independent

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