“…in America Madeira was esteemed above all other wine..”
John Adams, from correspondence Aug 1st 1783
Little did I know that when I tasted my first glass of Madeira last week I was stepping ~250 years back right into the shoes of the Founding Fathers. In fact not only was this wonderful wine a major import of the American Colonies in the 18th century, it was highly prized by every leading figure of the day and cemented history as the toast used at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. As such I may have entered Madeira naive and uneducated, but thanks to 7 full days of “research” and a local Wine Festival (that my internal alcoholic homing beacon just happened to pick-up -> with every single producer on the Island no less), I left feeling rather more qualified to drink the wine that’s helped to shape the country I RV in today (see how I managed to make that relevant to the blog….sneaky isn’t it?)
But to understand the wine you’ve got to understand the island, so we’ll go a bit back to the beginning and start there. The Madeira Islands are volcanic archipelagoes that started forming ~14 million years ago. Settled in the early 15th century, the rich soil made the place a natural spot for agriculture. Initially a sugar-cane producer, wine eventually became the more profitable crop and by the 16th century was a major export of the island.
The special taste of Madeira as we know it today, however, took a bit longer and like all great inventions was a total accident. You see wine has a habit of turning into vinegar on long sea voyages so to prevent that annoying trait, it was “fortified” with brandy. By happy chance it was discovered that months of subsequent voyage in the tropics churned the mixture into a most delicious beverage. Some enterprising island wine makers picked up on the idea and decided to mimic the whole deal at home by fermenting wine which was then exposed to both heat and partial oxidation, a totally unique method. Madeira wine was born and by the 18th century this exactly was how it was known worldwide.
But as interesting as all this is wine is not the only thing of note on this Island. Because of the unique geology of Madeira Island (a warmer south side, cooler north and peaks up to 1862 meters (6107 ft)) it’s got a whole plethora of flora/fauna and interesting stuff to do. In our week here we managed to explore quite extensively and hit on several other gems.
It’s not a spot for ”the beast”, but if you decide to ditch your RV and make the flight here’s my home-grown list of top 5 things to do:
1/ Explore Downtown Funchal
There’s lots to do in the main “drag” of Madeira and most of it is best done by foot.
- Wine Tour at Blandy’s - Did I mention the wine already? The best spot to take a tour is at the Blandy’s Wine Lodge where you’ll not only get to walk inside a giant barrel, but you’ll understand the 6 types of grapes and 4 types of Madeira (dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweet) produced on the Island. Oh, and taste them too!
- Take the Cable Car – Hitch a ride on the Cable Car to the top of the mountain at Monte to check out the traditional Monte Toboggans, city views and the Monte Church.
- Walk the Old Town – Explore the Old Town on the east side by foot. Pop into the Story Center for some history, hike over to see the Fort Sao Tiago, check out some old churches, peruse the little alleys in the back to admire their unique door paintings and peek in at the indoor market (Mercado Dos Lavradores). Lots of other museums around.
- Explore New Town - Hike around bustling New Town and have an expresso at one of the many café’s. Also make sure to go further up the hill to Fortess Pico for one of the best views of Funchal (the hidden entrance is at Rua Du Castelo) as well as the 3 museums up there (Quinta Das Cruzes, Convento de Santa Clara and Museu Frederico De Freitas).
2/ Eat The Food
The local fare is a “must do” and there are a couple of specialities worth trying especially the Black Scabbard fish (espada) and the meat skewers (espetada). Stay away from the tourist-traps in the Old Town and look for restaurants in the small alleys behind New Town, and of course remember to pair with Madeira wine. The best meal we had all week was at Restaurant Dos Combattentes and I highly recommend at least one stop there.
3/ Take An Island Tour
It’s worth getting out of Funchal to explore the outer reaches of the Island. Madeira boasts the 2nd highest sea-cliff in the world (Cabo Girão), lovely fishing villages (Câmara de Lobos), gorgeous mountains, neat lava pools (Porto Moniz), waterfalls, traditional thatched houses(Santana) and local culture. The best bus tours (in my opinion) are the smaller mini-bus tours offered by Happy Tours (€15-25), but you can also rent a taxi for a day (~€100). If you only have time to do one tour take the West Tour, the most interesting by far.
4/ Go For A Hike
The levadas are extensive water-ways that were originally built criss-cross the island to provide irrigation to local farms. You can do levada hikes along these old waterways for over ~500 miles from super-easy to serious mountain climbs. Either take a guided tour or buy the hiking book and do them yourself.
5/ Do Some People Watching
Madeira has a great café culture and it’s so much fun to get into it. Lots of great cafés all around the island so go out and explore. For a great downtown vibe check in at the Café Do Teatro, and for a totally local hidden gem check out the Tea House in the old house at the Centro Cívico Cultural de Santa Clara. For a nighttime drink try one of the rum concoctions at Number 2 (opposite the Madeira Carlton). Lots of other nightlife around.
And that, my friends, wraps up my Madeira visit. With the sadness that always accompanies a leaving, I say goodbye to a fabulous week in the Atlantic and head back to more adventures the RV. In the meantime I’ll remember my wonderful trip and all those colonists 250 years ago every time I taste a dram of that wonderful and unique Madeira wine.
P.S. For an extra little treat click on the video below for a sample of traditional Madeira folk music and dance