We’ve been wanting a Madeira hiking experience for awhile. We’d heard good things about the walking on the island. We knew there was a network of levada’s, irrigation canals, that snaked around the steep volcanic mountainsides, bringing sweet water to the rich soils across the island and that they were nowadays very popular routes for the rambling type.
Sally’s birthday was more than enough of an excuse to pack our packs and drive across the width of the country to get on a plane to Bristol where we waited a couple of hours in the newish, eerily empty terminal extension.
It didn’t look we , or anybody else,were going anywhere.
But eventually we did escape this strange airport limbo land and flew for 3 1/2 hrs due south and into the night, thankfully saving us the sight of our arrival runway.
It’s built on stilts !!
We had organised a night in a hostel in the capital, Funchal,20km west and they had sent a lovely man to meet us who regaled us with tales of how safe it is and how friendly the people are as we sped through the tunnels and along the newly built highway system.
Funchal was our stepping out point for a 6 day circular route of about 100km. Sally isn’t too keen on travelling on switchback mountain roads so to avoid any motion sickness we were going to walk the whole way after a quick cable car ride.
Our first views of the island on our way downtown were of old narrow, very steep back roads with little houses clinging to the vertical hillsides and the flat looking blue Atlantic stretching out to the south. It was all a bit higgledy piggledy with wires filling the sky above the streets and many abandoned houses left to rot in the sub tropical humidity.
The first leg of our trip began in Monte, 600m up from the Funchal seafront where our cable car was just lurching into life.
We knew that Madeira had suffered a terrible tragedy in 2010 when heavy rains had caused floods and landslides but as we rose up from the harbour for a birds eye view of the charming capital we could see more evidence of destruction by fire.
When we got to the end of the ride at Monte we had saved ourselves a 600m ascent and were keen to set off. Unfortunately the fires ,which we learnt from Google had claimed 3 lives around Funchal and caused the evacuation of thousands, meant that the lack of vegetation which holds the soil to the steep slopes had resulted in more landslides and the very beginning of our weeks walk was barred. There could be no turning back for us. We had a string of beds to make it to so rather warily headed on.
Fresh green growth sprung from the blackened soil and piles of debris littered the route. I hope it can be cleared again to reveal the well made cobble track we made our way down.
Winding our way around the scorched earth valley we could look back towards Babosas and take in the extent of the damage.
It was heartening to see how quickly the recovery was happening. There was already a luxurious growth of flowers that need to be carefully
nurtured at home like the blue flowered agapanthus of which there were banks all along the path side.
The way was partially blocked by fallen trees and debris from landslides but they were easy enough to negotiate.
The way reached a small settlement, Curral dos Romeiros, where we finally met our REAL start.the Levada’s dos Tornos.
This is a fairly recent water moving system from the 60’s that goes from the north to the south of the island and we going to be beside it all the way to Camacha. Soon after we came across a tiny stall selling home grown bananas- the perfect slow release energy bar.
We followed the sinuous line of the levada through more charred landscape splashed with the vivid green of new growth. There were waterfalls and landslides and a beautiful old mansion now ruined and deserted.
The levada had been completely buried by rocks and boulders in places and the stout steel fencing poles at the 4* Choupana Hills resort crushed. There were huge eucalyptus trunks cleared from the burnt forest that was already sprouting anew.
In a small farm clearing in the woods, mercifully spared the fire, an old farmer chopped sticks and his wife sold us some flower bulbs dug from the plentiful surrounding supply.
Now we finally passed into the area untouched by the fire and the glories of sub tropical Madeira appeared around us. There was oxalis, exotic vines and flowering climbers like clematis and Chilean glory vine and datura, there were beautiful splashes of red poinsettia and the bottle brush plant and a variety of trees. Oak and chestnut and laural were the main competition to the blanket of eucalyptus that has been planted and which probably hasn’t helped the wild fires with the carpet of bone dry oily and highly flammable leaves covering the forest floor.
We stopped for coffee and their traditional apple pie at the Hortensia Tea House. This well known Refreshment stop for walkers on the levada was just on the cusp of the fires and so luckily it’s lovely gardens had survived unscathed.
Back to the mini canal. We were at about 700m and the carefully graduated slope made for easy walking with the day’s end only about 100m higher. There were more carefully tended gardens and our first sight of what was to become a common one. The use of old tyres to build walls and steps. Some of the banks of earth revealed the amount of flowering bulbs packed beneath the fertile soil.
The Levada’s are dotted with tunnels cut through high ground sometimes for very long distances. We came to our first, thankfully only about 200m long. Starting out with a fairly wide and high path halfway through the ceiling started to drip water and drop lower towards us but by the “light at the end of the tunnel” was guiding us through.
We shortly passed another tunnel entrance, this one bigger and part of the fairly recent expansion of roads across the island.
At the head of a cleared valley we caught sight for the first time of the Desertas Islands, a string of steep cliffs rocks jutting from the ocean and now a nature preserve.
Winding alongside the water, slowly slowly uphill past steps of tyres and over a pallet bridge we made our way past some willow trees to Camacha, the wickerwork capital of Madeira.
On the way in there were more lovely plantings along the levada and gardens andbeautifully crafted cobbled steps.
Our room for the night was above the wickerwork factory and shop so we had a good look at the amazing work before a welcome meal.
The wicker sledges are used to toboggan tourists down through the steep streets of Monte, an activity we had avoided. we wondered over the exquisite cobbles of the town square to admire the Christmas tree and the knitting ladies, had a strange 4 layer steak some fine wine and then collapsed into bed.