Visiting the ‘smallest country in the world’, meeting adventurers old and new in Funchal, and appreciating art in the Zona Velha
I was eagerly anticipating a day spent wandering the streets of Funchal’s Old Town before taking a wine tasting tour at the famous Blandy Wine Lodge in the city centre. However, I was intrigued by a small fortress I had spotted in the harbour at Funchal and thought it might be worth a visit. I stepped up the red carpet-covered stairs and found myself entering the ‘Principality islet of Pontinha’, a country self-proclaimed by Prince D. Renato Barros, which, according to their publicity, is recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest country in the world! It is also known as the ancient fort of St Jose and used to be a tiny, rocky islet before encased within the harbour wall. It allegedly provided the landing point for Portuguese sea captains Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristao Vaz Teixeira, who discovered and settled on the uninhabited island of Madeira in 1419, in the service of Prince Henry the Navigator. They carved the steps and cave-like shelter still seen today. At one stage in the last century it was apparently owned by a British teacher. After providing a small donation, presumably to the upkeep of stray cats that lived there, I was allowed to climb the steps to the top where I had a wonderful view of Reid’s Palace hotel and surrounding coast.
I set off east towards the Old Town pausing at a statue of the aforementioned sea captain, Joao Goncalves Zarco who was appointed governor of Funchal. Fellow sea captain, Tristao Vaz Teixeira, became governor of Machico in the northeast after the Island was split into two regions. Zarco stood proudly before the attractive buildings of the Bank of Portugal surrounded by Jacaranda and Tulip trees.
I walked down to the seafront and followed the promenade to the east and the pretty Old Town. There is some building work taking place to improve the area around the harbour and strengthen the walls of the 3 main ‘Ribeiras’ or streams responsible for draining water coming down from the mountains into the sea. I hoped to visit the Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately it was closed, but the grounds, which contained the restaurant O Forte, were open and provided some attractive photo opportunities including a vintage car advertising the renowned Goya restaurant, part of the chain which includes O Forte and nearby Mozart.
I strolled back through pretty, bustling streets lined with restaurants vying politely for business. I liked the atmosphere of the Old Town. If I were to return and stay in the city of Funchal, as opposed to my lovely retreat, the Casa Velha do Palheiro, high up in the hills, I would consider the popular hotel Porto Santa Maria 4* hotel right on the seafront near the Museum of Modern Art as opposed to the many Pestana hotels further along the coast to the west.
Every side street offered an interesting view, the sea on one side and the hills on the other. Cable cars soar overhead from the station situated on the sea front opposite The Madeira Story Centre – a unique interactive museum.
The beauty provided by the natural world of flowers and trees in the Old Town, is supplemented by The Art Project Open Doors. In 2010 artists were invited to reinvigorate 200 real, old and forgotten doors of houses and shops in the area by covering them with innovative works of art. Busy with my camera, I almost lost track of time as I wandered through the open air galleries. It was time to head back west to Blandy’s wine lodge.
The Old Blandy Wine Lodge
The old wine lodge, situated in the city centre near the magnificent Municipal Gardens on Aveniga Arriaga has been producing the famous Blandy Madeira wine since 1840. They run tours and tastings every day except Sundays. I had been booked on to the 45-minute Premium Tour which included an explanation of how the grapes were transformed into Madeira wine and a tour of the museum with unique items from Madeira’s wine history.
The tour was extremely interesting and informative. I was surprised to learn the wine is matured in barrels stored in warm rooms above ground.
The tasting of two contrasting glasses of Madeira was included in the ticket which also offered a discount off any wines purchased that day. Additional tastings could also be added, the cost being deducted from any wines purchased. Chocolates were also on sale to enjoy with our samples. I had decided to buy my brother and his wife a bottle of the 10-year-old Verdelho, to celebrate their 25th Wedding Anniversary, and was pleased to discover it was the discounted wine of the week. I was faced with three options: buy now and take away (but remember to pack in hold luggage or it would be confiscated at security); order now and collect at Blandy’s shop inside the Airport by the boarding gates, to take as hand luggage; or have it shipped home (at an eye-watering cost of 34 euros for just the one bottle!). After our experiences of only just making it to the gates at Manchester airport, I decided to buy the bottle and pack it in my luggage. It was sold in a sturdy cardboard tube and, carefully swaddled in my clean underwear within this tube, arrived back home safely in one piece. (Note to self – remember to remove underwear before wrapping!)
Although I had only drunk three samples, I was feeling quite squiffy and took a seat in the Municipal Gardens watching a swan showering beneath the fountains.
Wandering through the backstreets to meet the shuttle bus, I came upon the Igreja da Escocia, or Scottish church – an interesting building in stark contrast to its surroundings. The gates and doors were locked and subsequent internet searches have yielded no further information.
With time to spare, I decided to seek out the restaurant I had been recommended for our evening meal before the fireworks display later in the week. Rounding the corner I came face to face with this bizarre spectacle: red bull or mad cow? The wine tasting had definitely gone to my head!
Close by were doors to the Dolce Vita a shopping centre which turned out to be a vast shopping mall sprawling over a couple of floors with friendly, welcoming assistants. I spent time browsing in a couple of women’s clothing shops finding some very reasonably priced tee shirts. Well worth a visit if you are looking for something different.
- Madeira Island – Day 1 – Casa Velha do Palheiro
- Madeira Island – Day 2 – Walking along the Levada
- Madeira Island – Day 3 – Exploring Funchal – Part 1
- Madeira Island – Day 3 – Exploring Funchal – Part 2
- Madeira Island – Day 3 – Exploring Funchal – Part 3
- Madeira Island – Day 5 – Jeep tour into the mountains
- Madeira Island – Day 6 – Tasty food, fireworks and rock music
- Madeira Island – Day 7 – Vivaldi and Apollo