It was a beautiful sunny morning when we rose to prepare for our tour by jeep up into the mountains of “The Enchanting North” with Mountain Expedition. John was joining me as it appeared there would be little walking involved: we would mostly be in the vehicle, stopping off every so often to enjoy the fantastic views. I packed our waterproofs, just in case.
A young German couple were already in the jeep, so we climbed into the two vacant seats. I was therefore surprised when we drove around the coast to collect two British couples from one of the Pestana Hotels – possibly The Bay – and felt slightly guilty as they climbed into the back. However, we were assured we would all keep swapping places throughout the trip. Everyone was in good spirit: the roof was open, the sun was shining, and we were off!
As we climbed up into the mountains, the clouds gathered, a mist descended and it began pouring with rain. Our athletic tour guide leapt out to pop the roof back in place before we were completely drenched. At every twist and turn we caught tantalising glimpses of the stunning scenery that was rapidly disappearing behind the mist.
We stopped at a roadside cafe for a toilet break and to sample the Madeiran cocktail, Poncha, which we were promised would warm us up. As it burned its way through my system, I began to wonder whether this was such a good idea – especially at 10 o’clock in the morning!
As we climbed back into the jeep, there was some swapping of seats but the two other British ladies stayed in the back bench seats. We drove through several tunnels, one of which had apparently been built across the active caldera of the volcano, leading to the road constantly shifting and folding. Our tour guide kept up a fascinating commentary about housing, farming and irrigation in the mountains. Every piece of flat land was put to use. Farmers had to be incredibly fit to carry produce up or down terraces and into market.
There were some shrieks from the rear seats as we pulled off the main road and, employing 4-wheel drive, shot up a dirt track into the mountains, splashing through muddy puddles, bouncing over ruts. This was great fun until we hit a particularly large hump, and we all sprang several inches out of our seats. One of the ladies in the rear landed awkwardly and was in pain, so we shifted seats again to give her a more comfortable, forward facing seat, and then we proceeded at a more gentle pace. I felt slightly sorry for the young German couple – they were divers, and he had driven jeeps in the army, so I suspected that, like me, they had been enjoying the skidding and bouncing. However, we were all anxious to prevent our travelling companion from suffering any further discomfort.
Our guide had an unnerving habit of stopping the jeep and jumping out and over walls into fields and gardens to bring back handfuls of herbs, fruit and vegetables for us to sample. I warned him that he’d be shot at if he tried that in Yorkshire! However, everyone seemed to know him and waved at us cheerily, so I relaxed. At various points in the journey we sucked passion flower nectar direct from the flowers’ stem; tasted the creamy yellow flesh of the custard apple; sank our teeth into juicy loquats; crushed eucalyptus leaves, rosemary and thyme in our hands to enjoy the aroma and fondled soft, fernlike leaves of fennel – Funchal’s namesake.
We stopped at Santana to visit the village of preserve traditional thatched roof cottages that used to cover the slopes. Most have now been turned into barns or fallen into disrepair.
Further up the road we stopped for lunch. Having already eaten our way through an orchard and herb garden, none of us could make much headway on the delicious 3-course meal that was set out for us: vegetable soup, scorpion fish, banana and roast potatoes, fruit salad. However, we made the most of the wine that was offered, deciding it would help us relax and roll with the punches on the ride home. Before climbing back in the jeep, however, we were urged to visit another traditional house near the restaurant that was actually inhabited – to show how people used to live.
Our guide gave us directions, and we all marched off down the road for a hundred yards or so each assuming someone else in the group knew where we were heading. We stopped at a crossroads where we discovered that none of us had been listening and no one had a clue which way to turn! Fortunately, we spotted the young German couple loitering awkwardly and looking slightly bemused, beside a bizarre vision of what can best be summed up as Christmas in June! An old thatched cottage stood surrounded by plastic reindeer and jolly red Santas beneath fir trees covered in glass baubles. Stuffed toys were climbing palm trees whilst plastic ducks and stone rabbits and chickens roamed the grounds and perched on windowsills. My word that wine must have been strong!
From within the cottage a voice called, “Guten tag Damen, Herren! Hereinkommen!” The amiable, elderly inhabitant encouraged us to come inside and have a good look round, plying us with liquor and biscuits that we, regretfully, turned down. The interior of the tiny house was crammed with more Christmas decorations and knick-knacks: surely we had stumbled upon Madeira’s museum of the most kitsch souvenirs? Yet the wedding photos looked genuine and I felt this was a much loved and lived in home.
After a quick viewing of a very ancient bathroom and a bedroom festooned with more stuffed toys and crocheted crinoline ladies (the type that used to conceal toilet rolls) it was time to get back to nature, and we returned to the jeep, going off-road again with regular stops to admire the misty views, chat to passing people and dogs, or identify plants.
It had been a great day out, despite the bad weather. Mountain Expedition had provided a fascinating tour full of experiences and sensations. Back at our hotel, we learnt they had also had a wet and rainy day, but sunshine was promised for tomorrow. I was looking forward to spending time by the pool before setting off to the firework display in the evening.
- 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 4 – Exploring Funchal – Part 4
- Madeira Island – Day 6 – Tasty food, fireworks and rock music
- Madeira Island – Day 7 – Vivaldi and Apollo