Apr 22

LAND HO! Exploring Madeira

by in Europe, Road School

Madeira Portugal basket Sleigh ride“In Madeira, everything’s about the flowers,” our cab-driver Roberto explained.  “If you have a home without flowers, people talk.  They tell you it’s not a home; it’s a stable.”  (Note to self: remember to put those vases to use when we get home.)

Madeira slipped into view in the early morning hours today as we sailed into Portugal’s waters.  No matter how crusty a traveler,  the sight of land after a trans-Atlantic crossing conjures images of yesteryear, explorers, conquistadors, and early adventurers spotting these little islands after bobbing at sea for weeks.  Columbus’s Santa Maria  (or at least its replica) sits docked at Madeira, looking more like a weekend run-about than an ocean faring celebrity up against our behemoth cruise ship.  For us on Holland America’s Westerdam, the “Crow’s Nest” is an elegant, window-bedecked lounge at the top of the ship where sunsets are welcomed with cocktails and slack-key; on the Santa Maria, the shimmy to the nest must’ve made the view (and the cocktails) all the better.

Roberto took us first to Monte, a tiny village up in the hillside where screaming down steep, narrow winding, streets in a wicker basket sleigh  – dodging cars, dogs, and pedestrians – is the main attraction.  (You can’t make this stuff up.  Really.)  Roberto knew the sleigh drivers – the guys who pull the basket and keep it from sliding into the gutter on the way down – and he quickly ushered us to the front of the line, tucked us into a prime basket and snapped photos with our cameras as we took off screaming down the lane.  Whoosh!  Drivers’ straw hats slipped under our basket seat (to keep them from blowing off, we guessed?) we careened wildly through the streets, narrowly escaping guttural demise then holding our breath through a movie-like moment barreling towards a fork in the road, wondering whether we’d go left,  right, or God forbid, straight into the pastoral cottage (with flowers in the windows, of course).   We veered left, but relief was tempered when, like at the top of a roller coaster before the tip to the other side, gravity rocketed us to the bottom of a particularly steep finale.  Like all skilled adrenaline junkies, we beamed and giggled hysterically, itching to hike back up the hill and do it all again.   Roberto counseled us to stick to our one early morning trek, however, before heading off to the rest of the island.   “It’s safe and I recommend, before lunch,” he confided.  “But after lunch . . .” he whispered, tipping his hand in cup-like fashion near his mouth, “they’ve relaxed a bit, get more adventurous you know…  After lunch, not so much.”  Good to know.

For Sacagawea, Dundee and me, Madeira was one of those special places  –  an utterly captivating spot with cobblestone streets, moss-covered cobblestone step-ramps, and terraced gardens nestled into the hillside, along with just enough chaos, color and corruption to give it character.    Vehicular bedlam ensued each time Roberto took his claim to the narrow streets simultaneous with the next guy, generally resulting in two cars barreling headlong towards one another in a version of Portuguese chicken.  Fortunately for us, Roberto was a skilled gamesman, leaving us unscathed but for the pounding heart.   Detouring around a particularly grizzled fisherman as we strolled through the streets of Camara, an old-world fishing village, Roberto discreetly explained our man of the sea had seen more jail than bait in recent years, a result of the area’s increasing drug trade.

With snarky local waiters to entertain us with their sarcasm, humor and street-side antics, we wiled away the afternoon enjoying perfectly grilled fresh local fish with a bit of local wine and port to wash it down . . . it is Madeira, after all.  (Me of course, not the kids; they were entertained by the kooky Canadians at the next table )  Ah yes.  Back in Europe and loving it.

One Response to “LAND HO! Exploring Madeira”

  1. From jayne:

    “Guttural Demise” I love it! Sounds like a great start to the trip. I’m home with a sprained ankle, so I look forward to your entries for entertainment and sanity. Enjoy all you encounter! Jayne

    Posted on April 23, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

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