Portugal travelogue!

The Wicker Man and the Vengeful Winds

I can tell I was writing that last post very late at night as I left a few things out as I raced to finish and go to bed. We actually fit in a trip to the Museum of Sacred Art as well before heading out to our suite.

Words to live by…

It was an interesting place, the building itself has apparently been variously church administration/housing, a school, a training center and now a museum. The collection is quite impressive for a small museum though not particularly well lit/designed in my amateur opinion. The focus is quite narrow but Madeira’s status for many years as the home base of what was the largest catholic diocese in the world (basically all of Portugals overseas territories back when they had a serious empire ranging from Brazil to Angola to Macau) means that some of the Church art it contains is of a larger scale/higher quality than one might expect on this tiny island. There is more or less an even split of silver church implements from the pasts of the island’s many churches (processional crosses, candlesticks etc,) wooden carvings (some from no longer extant churches, some which have seen better days) and a large collection of large scale paintings, many of which are triptych panels. The paintings are predominantly flemish and reflect the fact that at the height of Madeira’s importance in the lucrative sugar trade there were strong trading links with the low countries.

Friday morning dawned reasonably early as we’d booked the hotel’s courtesy bus for 9:45 (actually we’d tried for 10:30 but a german couple had hemmed and hawwed for 10 minutes the night before then taken the last two slots.) We ended up going down early and asking the front desk person to call the baggage company again, to hear that the bags would supposedly arrive later that day. Fingers crossed we hopped into town.

This hotel’s courtesy bus is kind of ludicrous. It doesn’t run on weekends, doesn’t run into town after I think 2pm? and only does 4 runs back for the 6 runs in it makes. There is definitely an odd current of “we couldn’t possible have a backup person for that job” at times in Portugal as we also ran into that at a restaurant the other night with ‘oh no, we can’t make you pizza tonight, the pizza making guy is off” even though that was like 1/3 of their menu. The most frustrating thing is that the last run back to the hotel is quite early so there’s no way to stay in town for dinner without paying a roughly $30cdn cab fare or taking the very slow city to city bus (though that barely runs saturday/sunday.)

Regardless, as it was a gorgeous day (we’d thought about running this itinerary an earlier day but the clouds were very low) we hopped the cable car up to the neighbourhood/suburb/town (it’s hard to tell) of Monte. The cabe car runs about 4 km up the hill to an altitude of about 1000ft. It’s far enough fast enough that the weather is noticeably cooler even without clouds hanging about but since we were having unseasonably warm weather it worked out well for us.

The view from the cable car itself was extraordinary, it follows one of the volcanic ridges for most of the path and is often right over people’s homes. It was an interesting new perspective on the areas we’d been around most at first but we quickly passed being able to peek at more domestic neighbourhoods. Somewhat odd was the frequency in certain areas for absolute ruins of houses, to the point where the tile roofs were gone, were right next to spotless homes that were either new or renovated so as to be indistinguishable, some with solar panels (solar water heaters appear to be making strong inroads here, understandably.)

Cable Car about to arrive in Monte

Must be nice having people staring down at you constantly…

Arriving at the top we found narrow cobbled streets, steep hills in all directions and the apparently famous gardens of the local hotel. The cost was a bit pricey for a visit and we’re planning on a later visit to the supposedly much better municipal gardens so we settled for a view from the overlooks and made our way up to the ‘Our Lady of Monte’ church, home of the burial in exile of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor. His tomb is a pilgrimage site for Austrian/Hungarian royalists and we saw many flags pinned to the archway. It’s a fairly small church but quite pretty and commands a fantastic view. That combined with the slightly cooler weather in summer is apparently what originally drew the wealthy types from the city below.

Our Lady of Monte

Near the church is the town square. ‘Town’ is a bit much as the neighbourhood is quite spread out. While originally in the 1800s I’m sure it was mostly a cluster of houses there are now small streets and houses tucked in more or less anywhere the geography allows it. Many of the houses are quite impressive and even in the smaller spaces there are beautiful gardens. There was also previously a rack and pinion railway leading up (and slightly past) the square, but it closed in 1943 and now there is just a very staight street leading part of the way down, most of it on large arches through the gardens. Actually there’s also a boarded up train station on the square that is apparently planned to be a tea room when the upper section of the track is eventually reopened but that plan appears to be on hold based on the age of the sign, my guess would be a pre-recession plan cancelled by Portugal’s austerity measures.

Monte Square

We found a small cafe in the square and Mom indulged in some early boozy coffee action since it was a bargain (and looked delicious if you’re into that sort of thing) and perhaps to calm her nerves for the excitement that was to come. As we were by now already quite missing our dogs the couple of pups wandering around the square were nice to see, though there are certainly a large number of strays on the island these seemed to be actual pets. The old man running the cafe was quite an oddball and it was somewhat of a production to get the drinks and eventually pay but the square itself was lovely and relaxing there with a drink felt like a very ‘european’ experience.

Monte Pup

The sleds themselves getting set to go

Next up was one of the things I’d been most looking foward to, the wicker sled ride! Something we’d seen on the Travel Man episode, sliding 2+ kilometers down the hill in greased wicker baskets has apparently been going on for more than a hundred years. They’re genuinely just more or less a wicker setee on a wicker sled greased up somehow and gliding on normal pavement. Part of me had memories of Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation. The origin of the baskets is apparently some of the original goods transport in the earlier days. Two pilots in uniform and straw boater turn and tease you but genuinely keep you under control however much they might want to tease you otherwise. Of particular note is the fact that this is a) a public road and b) has intersections with actual traffic which is disconcerting even if they clearly have someone watching. I did record some video, not yet sure how it turned out but here is the clip of Richard and Robert doing it on youtube ( https://youtu.be/ju-FpD6r57Y?t=127  ). The walled gardens/homes form pretty much the entire path and either side of the road is a narrow drainage channel that is often gushing with water as well and feels like something you don’t want to clip with the basket edge. You reach speeds of up to 40kph apparently and though it feels fast it’s also somehow very placid feeling. I was impressed with Mom not outright screaming but she did leave some claw marks in my leg on one turn. All in all it was a blast and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Mid-run on the wicker

Another basket arriving

We decided to walk down the rest of the way to Funchal. Regular readers will know I have a loathing of hopping a cab at any touristy place knowing they’ll try and soak you but I also actually wanted to see more of the real neighbourhood. It was incredibly steep by anyone’s standards, not just prairie folks, but was entertaining to see the odd mix of places that people live on this oddball island. In some places larger modern houses sit behind old walls and vibrant gardens or small ancient looking houses have spanking new wrought iron fences, in others you’ll find an older mansion turned into a guest house or hotel. The occasional small cafe appears on a tiny one way road and one wonders if they survive mostly on tourists walking downhill wanting a drink. That being said it has been rare here so far to see a business that is patronized by tourists only.

Average Street Width

The walk took a fair while altogether. Not only is it steep (my calves were complaining for a while) but the upper 3/4 are very narrow, most places only just wide enough for a car and a pedestrian. While some of the locals (mainly schoolchildren) who passed us may have nonchalantly walked by, in most places we pressed ourselves to the wall as a car came by (usually about 15kph too fast for what is probably safe.) Eventually we found ourselves reaching Funchal central and found the burger joint that we’d seen recommended previously (Lived up to its reputation, if you’re ever in Madeira seek it out.)

Lunch definitely continued the bizarro disconnect in prices here to me. Dinner (or full lunch) is not cheap. Some places have a dedicated lunch menu which seems to be smaller portions of the dinner menu) at a cheaper price but not universally. Most of the restaurants serve traditional Madeiran food primarily, this is usually seafood and some meats, usually 12-20 euro at most of the but it comes with full sides. These prices are pretty universal most of the places we’ve been with prices skewing somewhat higher out here in resortland and slightly lower in the oldtown. Yet ‘snack’ food (what I’d consider a more traditional lunch) seems ridiculously cheaper. Some places have burgers and sandwiches for sub 3euro, rarely ever more than 5. Grabbing an amazing gourmet burger (mozza di buffalo/pesto/tomato on a beef/lamb mix,) a delicious plate of panko chicken fingers, fries and two pricier but delicious scratch made lemonades clocked in at less than the price of a dinner entree. It seems to consistently be so too, there’s a lack of ‘in between’ options pretty much unless you want pasta. It just seems odd.

After burgertime we checked out the (surprisingly deep/large) mall below the fancypants hotel where Richard and Robert stayed but had zero luck finding anything we wanted clothes wise. The stress of the missing bags at this point was reaching a high point. We ambled slowly back through town and eventually each found ourselves some extra underwear at varying small shops, explored some nicer souvenir stores and did some peoplewatching (even at a well above normal 24C there were some people wearing ludicrously warm looking coats.) We both kept nervously making jokes about walking in to see our suitcases arrived and breaking down crying but there was an increasing worry our luck was never going to turn…

…and sure enough, the front desk man awkwardly met our hopeful gaze with an instant shoot down. Turns out the afternoon flight from Lisbon had been forced to turn back by high winds. He had no confirmation as to whether it had successfully landed the followup attempt or if our bags were even on board. Were we going to have ANY luck with flights this trip. Even the flights we WEREN’T on were having snags for us. I forget which one of us suggested it but the fact that happy hour had just started in the lounge for the central hotel was certainly serendipitous.

Sitting on the balcony of the bar overlooking the sea we couldn’t help but laugh. We ended up chatting with a couple from Ireland who thankfully put up with our bitching for a bit and shared some tours they’d taken that we might like. We tried but our thoughts obviously kept coming back around to the latest setback so after they went to dinner we stayed for our second drink (free for happy hour) moved inside the bar proper and watched the ‘Late Night Duo’ band play for a while. Hilariously there was a young (german I think?) girl who obviously did dance classes who ran into the bar not long after they started and began her own interpretive dance pretty much non-stop for 45 minutes while her parents finished up in the buffet next door. At first it was adorable but eventually she had moved right up next to the band and was pretty much amazing us with her inexhaustible stamina. Occasionally she’d run back to her parents but when the next song started she’d be back in the bar (liquor laws not so strict here.)

Our burgers had been so late (and augmented by a gelato) that hunger took a while to hit but eventually we went back and ate our leftover pizza as we listened to the waves crash in…

…until suddenly…

…the phone rang…

“Hello? Your baggage is seeming to be here”

I don’t think we’ll ever again navigate the maze of corridors and stairs to the main reception that fast again. I nearly fell on my knees and hugged my suitcase. Back at the room we quickly checked and found them untouched and both instantly changed into our actual bed clothes. I think we eventually watched another episode of something but the stress letdown was pretty instant and we dropped into a deep and finally peaceful sleep not long after.

Total distance travelled by us so far: ~7000km

Total distance travelled by our bags so far: ~10000km