Madeira: Portuguese jewel of the Atlantic
It is just before noon in the solemn interior of the Chapel of Our Lady of Penha de Franca in the centre of Funchal, capital of Madeira.
Sacred music is filtering, candles are flickering and the lights are warming the sacred images and icons around the walls and ceilings of the beautiful 17th century building. Tourism and penitence mingle in companionable tolerance in an oasis of serenity away from the teeming world outside.
The sudden extinguishing of the lights is the first indication that God here works in His own way. As people peer through the gentle half light, the rattle of keys and the creaking doors confirm that the church is about to close. Confirmation is delivered politely - you can leave at 12 or elect to maintain a four-hour enclosed prayer vigil until the church opens again.
Not the first or last surprise on Madeira.
There is an inevitable whimsical contrast invoked with our own bastion of Catholicism which might value an opportunity to actually usher people into churches at noon or indeed any hour of the day. Masses in Madeira's churches are generally thronged and religious devoutness is evident.
It is another unique custom in this predominantly Catholic island which has links to a diverse range of world-famous personalities, from Cristiano Ronaldo born in the humble village of Santo Antonio down the road, to Winston Churchill who visited here to write his memoirs and paint cliff views, and George Bernard Shaw who came to learn to tango.
Outside, there is the ultimate and constant consolation of immersing in the colour, sounds and atmosphere of this Portuguese jewel of the Atlantic just 280 nautical miles off the Moroccan coast. Madeira is the mainstay of a triple volcanic archipelago - Porto Santo and Desertas are close neighbours - rearing 20,000 feet from the Atlantic floor. Its tropical climate nurtured by the combined Gulf Stream and Canary Current maintain temperatures between 17 and 27 degrees centigrade depending on the season and the position on the island making it an ideal year round holiday attraction.
Its rich and luxuriant beauty - both in human and physical terms - which extends to mountain roads above the clouds, mirrors its unique geographical position between Europe, Africa and beyond, which influence extends back to the 15th century era of Portuguese exploration and discovery. Now the island, in both the varying characteristics of its people and in terms of its diverse verdant vegetation, flowers and trees, reflects that middle earth crossroads status. The island is rich in exotic flowers originating from all over the world from orchids to bougainvillea, geraniums. azaleas, acacias and hydrangeas etc, flowering magnificently at various times of the year.
Madeira has employed two stunning engineering systems honeycombing the island hundreds of years apart to support its economy. The first is a series of levadas or aqueducts ranging over thousands of kilometres dug into the ground or channelled through rock to irrigate crops like sugar beet or bananas. Many of these are still in use and some have been cleverly adapted for guided walks such as through Paradise Valley, so called because it meanders for miles beneath a canopy of eucalyptus and oak trees and fringed with exotic flowers. The second more modern system is an astonishing series of tunnels through mountains funded by the EU and Portuguese government to expedite travel across the island.
Overall impressions after a week-long visit score the island high on climate, scenery, value for money, relaxing atmosphere and not least, the disarming patience and friendliness of the islanders. Forget the issue of the lack of sandy beaches. They are available elsewhere. And as for the steep hills - on balance they are cancelled out by the island's other natural endowments. There is a good bus service and taxis are not expensive by Irish standards.
Madeira enjoys a deserved reputation for being a relatively sedate destination compared to other holiday islands. Its visitor profile leans heavily on mature couples - the class sometimes described in travel industry circles as 'DINKS' - double income, no kids. That is a testimony to the reputation of the island as a quiet, peaceful, safe location. It is certainly borne out by the appeal of the Travel Department holiday packages to Madeira which are marketed on the basis of ease of booking, direct charter flights to Funchal with Air Contractors, another Irish company, and thoughtful organised tours featuring experienced local guides. The Travel Department is unique in its ability to retain clients - many on the Madeira trip had used the company over 15 times previously, bearing testimony to the firm's reputation for good value in organised city breaks, long haul, lake and multi-country holidays.
A recent seven-day West Madeira holiday with the Travel Department featured a half day city tour of Funchal, including the main market where a spectacular selection of flowers, fruits and vegetables are sold. It also included visits to the Botanical Gardens, a factory producing beautiful, intricate embroidery including copies of famous paintings.
It also featured a full day guided excursion exploring the west of the island with stunning drives including spectacular views literally above the clouds. It enabled first-hand views of the ingenious ability of the inhabitants to utilise every inch of ground on what is basically an island of rock. Roberto Loja, the guide provided by the local Windsor travel agency, was excellent in terms of knowledge, advice and humour. A journalist and columnist, he has all the credentials to be the island's Tourism Ambassador.
Accommodation was at the 5 star Hotel Melia Mare just outside Funchal which can provide half-board packages. However, the area is teeming with good restaurants which serve high-class food, including local specialities like Black Scabbard fish and Estrada - large chunks of skewered beef suspended over the table. Start or finish with a glass or two of the famous Madeira fortified wine and rest well.
Madeira has a long and splendid associations with the British Royalty and political establishment, not least through its world famous Belmond Reid's Palace hotel. Its list of distinguished guests include Winston Churchill, whose suite is still there on offer for about €3,200 a night. Winston did some painting here in 1950, was greeted by a standing ovation every time he entered the dining room, travelled round in a grey Rolls-Royce for a few weeks and finally departed by flying boat for Southampton.
Empress Elizabeth of Austria who was mourning the death of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, was consoled each morning by a gun salute from visiting Royal Navy ships.
Other luminaries to grace the halls of the Belmond Reid's Palace were: Prince Edward, Gregory Peck, Robert Newton, Sir Ralph Richardson, Lloyd George, the Duke of Kent, Margaret Thatcher, Lord Widgery, Nick Faldo, Frederick Forsyth, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, John Le Carre, Peter O'Toole, Roger Moore and George Bernard Shaw, who learned to tango at one of the hotel's famous dance evenings.
Traditional English afternoon tea is still served on the terrace each evening. You can have delicate finger sandwiches, scones, homemade pastries, select from 24 teas or have an 'indulgent glass of champagne'. No shorts or jeans. All for approximately €47 per person. Booking is advised as it is a popular choice.
Cristiano Ronaldo's family home in Santo Antonio may have been demolished as part of an urban renewal but his links are preserved through the CR7 Museum in a Funchal side street.
The museum is surprisingly understated with soft lighting and lack of pomp. For €5 you can view all his personal awards which he has donated, as well as replicas of all the major team trophies.
After running costs, all the money goes to Ronaldo's charity.
Travel Department has a range of holidays to Madeira, departing regularly throughout August and September, which include return flights directly to Madeira's capital Funchal with Air Contractors (www.aircontractors.com).
Prices from €679pp based on two sharing, and the holidays also include guided transfers, accommodation and excursions with a fantastic local guide.
When booking a holiday to Madeira with Travel Department, you can choose from 3* Dorisol Buganvilia Hotel, the 4* Hotel Girassol or the 5* Melia Mare Hotel.
Travel Department offer two different itineraries; Highlights of Madeira and Scenic West Madeira. Both include a half day Funchal city tour including a visit to the market, botanical gardens, embroidery factory and wine tasting. traveldepartment.ie
Three to try
Take a leisurely walking tour around Funchal, a city with colour, character and vibrant personality. With its numerous gardens falling to the ocean, it also contains examples of interesting architecture - the 15th century Se Cathedral with its Manueline pulpit, the Santa Clara convent with its 18th century tiles and the Fortaleza de Sao Lourenco with its turrets, cannons and daily flag ceremony.
Take the cable car from the seafront near the Funchal Marina for a stunning spin up to the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. Enjoy a stroll in the clear mountain air around these oriental gardens with amazing flora, fauna and trees. Boasting a stunning view of Funchal Bay, the site also contains the Monte Palace Museum containing a collection of minerals and gems, African sculptures and 40 tile panels depicting Portuguese history.
Belmond Reid's Palace Hotel
Worth a visit to enjoy a sense of indulgent decadence in one of the famous hotels of the world and walk in the steps of many famous figures. Visit the rooms where Churchill gazed out to sea as he wrote some of his memoirs and stand in the ballroom where George Bernard Shaw learned to tango. Taking the afternoon high tea may seem an indulgence but it is done with great style and pomp. It is a memorable experience. Pre-booking essential.
Sunday Indo Living