So last weekend from Thurs 31 Aug to Mon 4 Sept, I was in Madeira for a conference on ‘Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa’. I have done a specific blog conveying my perspectives on the conference which can be read here. My intention with this blog is to give details on my impressions of Madeira itself and its main city where I was based, Funchal.
My flights there and back were both fine though also packed. About three and a half hours each way, just slightly less than the journey to the nearby Canaries. Lots of old people – the retired baby boomers going on their eternal holidays.
Similarities to the Canaries
Being in Madeira is similar to being in Canaries especially because of the constantly temperate climate – 25 degrees, blue skies, etc. Also they have a common Iberian heritage though people on Madeira speak Portuguese rather than Spanish which I kept forgetting. For instance saying in Spanish ‘Gracias’ and ‘Adios’ instead of the correct Portuguese ‘Obrigado’ and ‘Tchau’.
Madeira is part of Macaronesia. The specific geographic area includes a number of archipelagos in the Atlantic formed due to volcanic activity: the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries, and Cabo Verde. Some also define Macaronesia as including part of the nearby African mainland. This does reinforce the proximity of these islands to Africa though they are all officially part of Europe apart from Cabo Verde which is an independent African nation.
The big difference
Madeira is much greener than Canaries. The latter are more desert-like with often the main vegetation being cacti. Madeira is much more green and lush, indeed it is often called ‘the garden island’. There are lots of walks, gardens, and fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers being sold everywhere. There are loads of markets and stalls brimming with fresh produce. Some older people seem to just turn up in the street and start selling stuff they would appear to have grown themselves.
But there is an interesting story to all of this. Apparently the lushness is due to the irrigation system built by slaves when island was rich via the sugar trade (seventeenth century). These irrigation channels still exist and operate, bringing water from high ground at the centre of the island. Actually there is not significantly more rain than in the Canaries. And also it turns out that much of the fruit and veg is imported i.e. apples, oranges, nectarines. Perhaps some of the flowers as well?
This is an island that had its peak of success during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Portugal had an overseas empire and was a dominant power in world trade covering the import of tobacco, spices, sugar, pepper, and so forth into Europe. Much of Funchal is historic and harks back to that period.Indeed it seems to have been in a kind of stasis from the nineteenth century onwards.
This is not a party island like many of the Canary Islands. Madeira is much more sedate and older. It used to be referred to as a place for ‘newly weds and nearly deads’. A bit unfair but it is a conservative place with a few young straight couples but dominated by baby boomer tourists and old Madeirans. It is clear that many young people leave the island to work and live on the Portuguese mainland from the age of 18. A beautiful place but small and probably quite claustrophobic to be there for a long period. One of my friends who lives there told me how babies are quite rare and completely adored.
Hotel and views
I stayed at the charming and wonderfully old skool budget Hotel Monte Carlo. Good for me to realise not everywhere is super modern; no wi-fi in rooms but in the bar and ‘TV room’. However comfortable with a good shower. The building is steeped in history being built by a wealthy local family in the early 20th century and then serving as the school for British children evacuated from Gibraltar during WWII. Noted it did look like a haunted hotel from certain angles.
Funchal is hilly with local people driving very fast. My hotel was on a hill with good views over Funchal.
Lovely pastry, cake and coffee shops proliferate. Perhaps this is a legacy of the sugar trade? The pastries and cakes are small and very sweet. This also includes the famous Portuguese egg custard tarts. Coffees are small like solo espressos. It’s a real coffee culture with tables and chairs on streets and in squares for people to drink, chill, eat, and enjoy the weather.
Main food is similar to the Canaries in that it is very Iberian-type cuisine that does not suit the local environment. So things like steaks, cod, and duck. Though there was a definite identity of a ‘Madeiran cuisine’ even if it doesn’t quite fit what you would expect from the island. I did treat myself to an Indian on Sunday night. Noted there is a MacDonald’s on the seafront but no Starbucks.
This is an island with lots of wine, indeed a wine festival was happening whilst I was there. Particularly of note is local Madeiran wine which is very sweet, like a dessert wine. Also to be tried is the local fruit and alcohol liquor called Poncho. Apparently the English word punch comes from it. Fruity, sweet and very alcoholic. Indeed deceptively so as it doesn’t feel like drinking a strong spirit at all. The general view was that alcohol was not something to get uptight about.
There are lots of little museums. But I was busy at the conference for much of the time and many museums seem to be closed on Sundays and/or Mondays. Mon morning, I did get to the Museum of Sacred Art. Lots of the stuff that you would expect. I am always fascinated by stuff that heralds later artists. This demonstrates how people always strive to innovate and be different. There was some good stuff like this: a wonderfully desexed St Sebastian, the feet of an angel (no other part remains), and primitive / native style paintings ignoring other trends in Western art of the same period.
Wonderfully desexed statue of St Sebastian pic.twitter.com/MPoNFqtlzo
— Billy Dann (@BillyDann1) September 4, 2017
Water, swimming and boats
People like to swim and it is perfectly normal to go off as a group to have a meeting or picnic on the beach and swim. This was a feature of the conference at lunchtimes. However I wasn’t taking off my clothes and showing my flabby, white body to people I hardly knew. Apparently the water was wonderfully warm and you could see fish.
This is an island so has a focus on boats. The marinas and harbours include yachts and huge ocean liners parking up for visits. I also saw a reconstruction of Columbus’ Santa Maria in which discovered he America. It was so small (about the size of 2 double deckers buses) and it feels amazing that his crew was able to cross the Atlantic in it. Like Canarians (and Iberian mainland people), Madeirans are very proud of connections to Columbus (or Colon). There are lots of statutes of him.
Madeira is obsessed with Cristiano Ronaldo. He is most definitely the most famous modern person who was born there. The airport is named after him, though Belfast’s one is named after George Best. And there is even a museum dedicated to Ronaldo. I didn’t go and am totally unsure what the hell would be in there apart from photos, football kits, and some awards / trophies. However children of people at conference went and absolutely loved it.
Portuguese men can be very sexy in a masculine and peasant like way 🙂 Though they can also be pretty boys like Cristiano Ronaldo which is not my type. The women aspire to be very feminine and glamourous. There is very little gay presence on the island, it is quite straight unlike bits of Gran Canaria.
The single most annoying thing I came across was the insistence on putting plastic covers on the ends of straws (which I kept forgetting were there). Presumably to ensure they are totally hygienic. But it seems so completely unnecessary and environmentally unfriendly. More plastic to end up in the sea 🙁