DURING THE ELEVEN days we spent in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, the city was visited by two enormous cruise ships. Resembling huge blocks of flats (apartments, my North American friends!) floating on water, they arrived in the port at night, remained a whole day, and then departed the next evening.
When these vessels disgorge their cargos of tourists, the centre of Funchal becomes crowded; the queue t the cable-car grows longer; and the frequency at which toboggans slide down from the Monte increases.
The port at Funchal is designed to accommodate these ‘humungous’ people carriers, so their arrival does not have the same damaging effect (on buildings and the shoreline) as is created by them in Venice (Italy). Cruising in vessels of this size appeals to many but not to me.
We visited Funchal in Madeira in early June 2022. Although we were recommended to visit some of the numerous botanical gardens in and around the city, it was hardly necessary. I do not think that I have ever visited a place filled with such a profusion of flowers as is the case for Funchal. The whole city seems to be one great garden.
During our visit, we were in time to see a vast number of blue flowered agapanthus plants. Although they are commonly known as ‘lily of the Nile’ or ‘African lily, they are not of the lily family. They are members of the Asparagales order of plants, a part of the Asparagus genus. Had I not seen so many of these flowers in Funchal, I might never have bothered to find out anything about them. As the saying goes, travel broadens the mind.
WHEN WALKING IN central Funchal, it is worth looking down at the pavements. Like those in Lisbon and other towns in Portugal, their surfaces are covered with small black and white stones arranged to create pleasing patterns. I imagine that these compositions created using irregularly sized stones must be laid by hand rather than by using a machine.
Often the stones are laid on the pavements as well as on large
open spaces in such a way that fascinating optical effects are achieved. By making
such lovely places on which to walk, the cities and towns become beautiful in whichever
direction you look.
FUNCHAL IN MADEIRA is famed for its glorious gardens, which can be visited by members of the public. Actually, the whole city is filled with so many flowering plants and trees that it is almost like a huge garden. Nevertheless, we decided to see one of the gardens for which the city is known. We chose the Palheiro Gardens, which are located about 500 metres above sea level.
To reach the gardens, we took local bus number 37 from the
Pingo, a square near the Mercatos Lavradores.
While waiting for the bus to depart, we began chatting with another passenger,
a lady who spoke English with a Germanic accent, who last visited the Palheiro
18 years ago. It turned out that she is from Lichtenstein. As far as I can
recall, she is the first person from that tiny country next to Switzerland with
whom I have ever spoken.
The bus trip up to the Palheiro is spectacular. The road
winds ever upwards along the edges of deep ravines. As the road ascends, there
are many dramatic views of Funchal and its bay.
The gardens are well-tended and are laid out in a seemingly
informal way, in the English garden style. The gardens flourish on slopes
overlooking the city far below and a golf course nearby. I do not know enough
about trees and flowers, but suffice it to say that the place provides a
colourful feast for the eyes.
The Palheiro gardens are laid out in the former estate of the
wealthy Count of Carvalhal. The place was purchased in 1885 by the Blandys, a
family of British entrepreneurs, bankers, makers of Madeira wine, and merchants
who have been important in the development of Madeira’s economy. Part of the
gardens retain features laid out by the Count in the 18th century,
but much of the rest of the grounds have been developed since then.
Being at about 500 metres,
the garden is noticeably cooler than in the centre of Funchal. In fact, during our visit, we were close to
the clouds and occasionally felt the moisture contained within them. I am
pleased that we visited the Palheiro, but feel that given the profusion of
lovely plants all around Funchal, I wonder whether visiting gardens like this
one is a ‘must do’ activity unless you have a special interest in gardens and
The journey between Funchal and Palheiro and my first
meeting with a person from Lichtenstein enhanced my trip to the gardens.
FUNCHAL IN MADEIRA is a place well suited for unhurried exploration. At first, I was worried that 11 days might be too long for a stay here, but this is not the case: it is far too short. There is plenty to see and do without queuing for the famous cable car or for the toboggan ride down a steep road. There are interesting museums to see, but a great deal of pleasure can be derived from wandering leisurely around the older parts of the place.
One area, which despite being rather ‘touristy’, is the Zona
Velha. East of the old patrician areas around
the cathedral and the university, the Zona Velha used to be the poorer part of
the city, where fishermen and their families lived in rather narrow crowded
streets near the seashore and the venerable Forte São Tiago. This fortress was one of a chain of four or
five forts that used to protect Funchal from seaborne attackers.
The streets of the Zona Velha have become trendy and there has
been a conscious attempt to make the area bohemian. Many of the doors have been
painted with often entertaining designs and pictures. There are plenty of small
bars and restaurants, but we were
advised by some ladies who work in a museum that these tend to be of poor
quality and are best avoided.
High above the Zona there is a terrace overlooking a sea
bathing area. Near this, there is an old church, the Igreja de Santiago Menor,
which was closed when we visited the district. The café next to the terrace
provided excellent coffee at a surprisingly reasonable price given the
wonderful sea view from its tables: we paid 3 Euros for two coffees and a
As touristic areas go, the Zona Velha is certainly worth strolling
through. It is probably best to go there earlier in the day before the roads
are filled with tables and chairs next
to the eateries.
WE CAN EITHER travel into the centre of Funchal by bus or walk. From our guesthouse, the steep Caminho do Monte drops steeply down to the city centre. Most of the way, this almost a mile long thoroughfare has a gradient of 40 to 45 degrees. Walking down this slope does wonders for one’s lower leg muscles, especially the calves. The first time we descended it, my calf muscles began to go into tremor.
Our next attempt was altogether easier. On the way downhill, we passes a religious institution: a seminary called Colégio Missionário Sagrado Coração. Being Sunday, the gates were open for people who wanted to attend the Sunday mass. The institution is named in honour of the Sacred Heart. On either side of the door leading into the simply decorated chapel, there are car ings of hearts encircled by thorns.
There is a sculpture of a lion in the place’s large courtyard. Two busts of important religious figures stand near the chapel. One of them stsnds close to a terrace from which a wonderful view of part of Funchal can be enjoyed.
Although walking down the incredibly steep slope is slow, it is a wonderful way to observe deatails of life on the hills high above Funchal, and to meet locals standing on terraces over the road or in the entrances to their homes.
HOUSED IN AN OLD palace, the Quinta das Cruzes museum (‘Quinta’ for short) contains a collection of exhibits of various kinds and its beautiful garden has a small collection of archaeological architectural fragments. In a way, the Quinta is Funchal’s version of London’s V & A, but much smaller.
The much remodelled building housing the museum was initially built for João Gonçalves Zarco (c 1390 – 1471), who was the ‘discoverer’ and first Captain (i.e., governor) of Madeira. I am not sure how much of what Zarco would have seen in his time can be seen today. Nevertheless, it is an attractive edifice.
Several exhibits particularly interested me in the museum. One was a retable, a triptych, carved intricately in ivory. To our surprise, we discovered that this was an English production, created in the 19th century.
There were several fine paintings of Madeirans and their island painted by English artists including Eliza Eleanor Murray, Charles Scott-Murray, and Thomas Butterworth. The paintings by Murray and Scott-Murray were late 18th century. These pictures hung in rooms alongside English furniture including pieces by Chippendale and Sheraton.
Another exhibit that attracted me was a fine embroidery on which wild animals are depicted. This was produced in Portuguese Macau for a Christian religious order: the Carmelites.
Another former Portuguese colony, Goa on the west coast of India, is represented in the museum by three attractive paintings showing people and scenery in Goa in the 18th or 19th century.
These exhibits from what is now China and India remind us of Portugal’s pioneering and extensive colonisation of the world beyond Europe. The artefacts from the UK and by British artists recollect the importance of Madeira in the history of British trade and tourism.
I have outlined a few of the exhibits that are on view in the museum, but there is plenty more to enjoy including a grest collection of fine silverware (including models of serving women with black faces) and a very elegant modern refreshment area. It overlooks a fine panorama of part of Funchal.
Along with the Museum of Sacred Art, the Quinta is one of the cultural highlights of Funchal.
MANY ROOFS IN FUNCHAL are covered with terracotta tiles. Quite a few of these roofs have small sculptures on their corners. Many of them depict heads, birds, and scrolls ( leaves?) I have no idea why these things are added to the roofs.
Someone suggested that these ornaments are supposed to deter mice, squirrels, and birds. Maybe, they are for that purpose. In India ornaments depicting ogre’s faces (‘rakshasa’) are atteched to roofs to ward off the Evil Eye. Possibly, this is a finction of the ornaments I have seen in Funchal. Another possible function of these roof ornaments (finials) might be to distinguish one house from another. However, I am not sure about this here in Funchal because there is little variety in the firms used.
I would love to know more about them: their purpose and history.
BEFORE REACHING MADEIRA, many people insisted that we should visit Reid’s Hotel in Funchal and to take afternoon tea there.
Located in the western part of Funchal, Reid’s was founded by William Reid, a Scotsman
who arrived in Madeira in 1836. The hotel was his idea but he died before it was
completed (in 1891). The massive seafront establishment was designed by George Somers
Clarke and John Thomas Micklethwaite. It is not great architecture.
Since its opening, the hotel has hosted many famous guests including
Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, George
Bernard Shaw, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Apart from its celebrated guests, the establishment
is famed for its afternoon teas. We decided against partaking of this treat because
it contains far too many sugary confections. We had morning coffee and a pot of
tea by the swimming pools on a terrace overlooking the ocean. By Funchal standards,
it was costly (10 euros) but not outrageously so.
Undoubtedly, Reid’s is luxurious with good service. Its position
overlooking a rocky cove is superb even though it is located in a part of Funchal,
which resembles unexciting slightly upmarket seaside resorts on Italy’s Adriatic
coast. However, the well-appointed hotel seemed somewhat sterile. If sun and sea
is your top priority, then Reid’s is the place to go if you can afford it. However,
it lacks the charm of other places in Funchal.
Well, we did visit Reid’s as people had suggested before we left London but I must say that it is not my ‘cup of tea’.