New Year in Madeira

Wednesday 31st December 2014

Another very early start! We were up at 4am and away at 5am. By 6.15am we’d checked in and were through security, in plenty of time for our 8.30am flight. In the event, there was a technical problem with the aircraft that meant we had to return to the stand and wait for an engineer, so we didn’t finally take off until 9.45am.

The flight to Madeira is only three and a quarter hours and we landed at 1pm. The temperature here is pleasant by comparison with the UK, but is still only 18 degrees. As we travelled from the airport to the hotel it dawned on us how much of an ‘old friend’ Madeira is for us. However, we haven’t been here since just before Mali was born in 2009 when we came with Philip and Irene, so returning for the New Year’s Eve fireworks will probably overwhelm us with nostalgia!

Having checked in we explored the hotel and realised that the best view at midnight would be from the roof of the hotel - the last time we saw the fireworks here it was from the deck of a cruise ship, i.e. fairly high up. We then walked along ‘the front’ and were amazed at how much work has been done her since our last visit. The promenade has been extended into what was previously the sea, and new gardens and walkways have been created.

As on previous visits we’re staying at the Porto Santa Maria hotel. It was originally recommended to me by one of my Charlton friends and we’ll always be grateful to him for it. It’s on the eastern end of the south-facing bay along which Funchal has grown up and where the ‘Old Town’ is still situated. There are lots of lovely little restaurants within a 5-10 minute slow walk, and throughout the day and evening there’s a gentle buzz of  activity in the restaurant-lined area just beyond the hotel gates.

Most of the other premium hotels in Funchal are clustered with Reid’s Palace at the western end of the bay in what I call a 5-star ghetto because they’re remote from the more interesting parts of the town.
Porto Santo Maria is built rather like a capital ‘E’ with its ‘arms’ pointing towards the sea. On the sides of those arms the sideways-facing rooms (like ours) have angled balconies that give every room a sea view. We’re at the western end of the hotel and the sun reaches our balcony at about 3pm, which is about the time that we’re retiring from the garden for afternoon tea, so that’s handy!

Our hotel room has a very small kitchen area, so during our walk we bought food for impromptu meals that will reduce the cost of eating out every night! Included in our package is tonight’s ‘Gala Dinner’ - we’ve seen the menu and we’re already drooling! But before that it’s Happy Hour, so I think we’ll be having a Madeira or Malmsey ‘loosener’ – or two!

As I write (5.30pm) Gill is having a reflexology in the Spa. When she gets back I think our New Year’s Eve will get underway! More news tomorrow!

Thursday 1st January 2015

Well, that was quite an evening!

Took advantage of Happy Hour; Gill had a ‘Madeira Passion’ cocktail, which was pretty much just Passion Fruit Liqueur, Madeira and ice, and I had a 15 year old Malmsey. Sharp at 7pm we joined the queue outside the restaurant for what turned out to be an utterly fabulous meal. Throughout the evening waiters were topping up our wine glasses, which meant that by the time we left the table hours later I was a little unsteady on my feet.

The menu was as follows:

Variation of Foie Gras Tureen
Pureed Fig Bar
Praline in Cherry Jelly
Parfait Flavoured with Coffee
Champagne Cream with Caviar on Toast
Passion Fruit Sorbet
Angus Beef Fillet Tournedo
with Celery Puree, Berny Potatoes, Morchello Mushroom Sauce with Cognac, reduction of Old Port Wine
Blueberry Nougatine
with Almond and Orange Macaron, Apricot Confit with Madeira Wine and Mango Coulis

Quite a meal, but since all of the courses were quite small we didn’t feel over-full as we left the table.
A little before midnight we made our way up to the roof terrace to get a decent viewing position and enjoy the mild air. The fireworks display certainly didn’t disappoint, with the sky all around us filled with colour and explosions. We were told that the display was computer-controlled, which made sense when you considered that fireworks were going off throughout Funchal, right up the surrounding hills and even out to sea. There were at least six cruise ships in or around the harbour, and their passengers would have had a superb view just like we did in 2007. It was a much more enjoyable experience than last New Year’s Eve when we stood in the rain waiting for 90 minutes and then only saw part of London’s display.

We turned in at 12.30am without taking a glass of complimentary champagne and slept for nine hours solid!

This morning we didn’t get down to breakfast until after 10am, and by 11 we were out in the hotel garden with our books. It was beautifully sunny but with a gentle breeze. We’ve booked ourselves into the hotel’s restaurant for dinner at 6.30pm, but on other evenings we’ll probably visit restaurants in the Old Town.

Friday 2nd January 2015

Last night we had a very enjoyable buffet meal in the hotel restaurant followed by an early night. When we woke it was still dark outside but we’d already had nine hours sleep – not sure how that happened!
After breakfast, with the sun shining more brightly than we’d expected, we decided to go back to the garden and read for a while. However, there was a strong-ish breeze that became a little uncomfortable, so at midday we walked into town. Gill had gone on-line to book us into a highly-recommended restaurant for Monday night, so we went to take a look at it, and then we moved on to Funchal’s very impressive market.

Tonight we’re planning on self-catering in our room, and we thought we’d pick up some fresh fruit and bread to go with our meal. The range of fruits on display was incredible. At one stall the stallholder waylaid us and started offering us samples. She had seven, yes, SEVEN different varieties of passion fruit alone! We ended up buying two of each of them, plus a couple of ripe mangoes. All of these fruits had really intense, sweet flavours that I’m really not used to – well, I couldn’t pick out and identify specific flavours, but the sensation was amazing. Why can’t we get hold of fruit like this in the UK, I wonder?

We couldn’t find any fresh bread in the market, so started walking along one of the narrow back streets that lead back to our hotel. Lots of little shops but no fresh bread. On my mobile I did a quick search for ‘fresh bread funchal’, and amazingly I found just what we needed only 100 yards further along the street. So, together with a bottle of Vinho Verde that we picked up in the market we’re all set for a home-made ‘dinner’ tonight!

This afternoon we booked a full day excursion for Sunday covering the eastern end of the island that we haven’t visited before. There’s a visit to a small local market, a one hour levada* walk, a traditional lunch with Madeira tasting and a gypsy marker with original products. Sounds good – the only problem is that no other English people booked the tour, so we’re joining a party of Germans with German-only commentary. I think I’m going to have my work cut out with translating!

This evening we had ‘dinner’ in our room. I cooked cheese omelettes which we had with the Vinho Verde and followed that with the two mangoes. One was pineapple flavour and the other was banana flavour, not that I could tell!

We brought a DVD player with us and tonight watched half of the RSC’s ‘Hamlet’ with David Tennant before we got weary of the small screen. Tomorrow I’ll try to hook it up to the room’s TV.

* A levada is one of the many water channels that guide water safely down the hillsides at times of torrential rainfall – they’re to be found all over the island.

Saturday 3rd January 2015
It’s gorgeously sunny here in Funchal today, with hardly a cloud in the sky, although it’s only about 18 degrees.

We decided to take a walk around town, enjoying it at its best, taking photos and simply enjoying the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. There’s a craft market today in the parkland near the hotel and we came across an excellent school brass band playing in the centre of town. I’ve remarked a number of times to Gill that it’s a bit like being in an English seaside town that just happens to have a lot of foreigners in it. She’s quite rightly pointed out that the Germans seem to enjoy being here just as much as we do.

It’s now 9.45pm and we’re just back from a restaurant that we can see across the square from our room. Gill booked it through a web site, and when we arrived, with only one other table occupied, we were asked if we had a booking – clearly a popular place ! As other guests arrived they were greeted with ‘Welcome back’, and most of them were English. You’d assume that they spend their winters here. One of the couples that we met on New Year’s Eve live here for six months every winter and only spend March to September at home in the UK. Wonder if they claim their Winter Heating Allowance?

We had a lovely meal, with a different wine with every course, for only 39 Euros each - about £60 for us both. At the end of the meal we had only a very short walk ‘home.

Tomorrow we’ve got the day-long excursion to the east of the island in  the company of a coach-load of Germans – we won’t mention the war ;o)

Sunday 4th January 2015

Another lovely day with bright sun and clear blue skies.

We had an early breakfast because we had to be at the nearby pickup point by 9.15am. And given that this was a tour run by Germans for Germans the minibus arrived dead on time. There was a final pickup at a hotel about ten miles away but en route for the north-eastern corner of the island.

In the course of the day we were in and out of the bus fairly frequently, sometimes for as little as ten minutes to take pictures of breathtaking scenery, and at most for 90 minutes for lunch and wine-tasting. On our second stop we walked along a small levada on a steep hillside, dodging friendly cats and dogs and admiring the views.

The recession and unemployment have both hit the locals hard, and so there has been renewed interest in private agriculture. We saw lots of small allotments along the levada, with crops of mainly sweet potato and cabbage coming along nicely. The volcanic soil and the warm, damp climate combine to make ideal conditions for many crops, but even so some things just won’t grow. Olives, for instance, never fruit here, or so we were told.

At  Santana we saw small traditional local houses with thatched roofs that seemed too small even for a family of four.

When we boarded the bus the tour guide checked that I was OK with a German-only commentary, and during the tour he spoke distinctly enough for me to understand. The problem is that I can’t do simultaneous translation unless the guide pauses to give me time to explain what I’ve just heard and then listen again. So, I tended to wait for a break when I could bring Gill up to date, by which time I’d forgotten some of what he’d said. Frustrating.

Lunch was included in the tour price, and this provided another language challenge. We were sat with a German couple in their seventies who didn’t seem very talkative, probably because they’d worked out that we weren’t German and had no English of their own. So, after the soup course I drew them into conversation about which vegetables might have been used to make it, and after that we were away.
I told them about our various holidays in Germany and about my visits to Berlin when I was a student. Believe it or not, I didn’t mention the war … but they did! By the end of the meal we’d got on to German politics and history, and I was on the very edge of my capabilities because I’ve lost so much vocabulary through lack of use.

The main course at lunch was Scabbard Fish. Now, we’ve seen these in the Fish Market here, and they’re pretty much unlike any fish that any of us have seen before. They’re long, thin and black, and look more like eels. The other day in the market we saw some being prepared, which involves laboriously scraping away the black skin to leave the white meat behind. In the event, when fried in batter English-style, they look almost like what we’d buy from a fish and chip shop at home.

After lunch we went down to the wine cellar to try some Madeira wines. We enjoyed the 3 year-old ‘Duke of Clarence’ Malmsey so much that we bought some to bring home. You might recall that Richard III is said to have ordered the murder of his brother George, Duke of Clarence, by having him drowned in a vat of Malmsey :o)

The final stop of the day at the ‘Gypsy Market’ was a disappointment in that there were no local crafts on sale, just everyday clothing for locals. However, at an earlier stop we’d bought some flower bulbs to bring home with us, so maybe they’ll be brightening our garden this summer!

We had a couple of hours free back in our hotel before catching a double-decker sightseeing bus to tour around Funchal looking at the Christmas lights. The hour-long tour cost only four Euros each, which seemed good value. Back in our room we cooked boiled eggs for Gill and another omelette for me. Tomorrow night we’re eating in another highly-recommended local restaurant.

Monday 5th January 2015

We’d been on the cable car from the Old Town up to the Monte Palace Gardens twice before, once with Irene and Philip, but we’d never visited the Botanical Gardens which, we understood were also accessible by cable car. So. at 9.15am, just after the cable car was started up and before the cruise ship passengers flocked in, we bought our tickets.

I’m not wildly keen on cable cars. The worst bit for me is when the cabin jolts and wobbles as it goes past one of the pylons, so I prefer to sit with my back to the direction of travel. Gill’s a bit better, but not much – as far as we’re concerned fear of heights is NOT an irrational fear!

Buying tickets we discovered that on arrival up at Monte you have to walk about 400 yards to another cable car station that isn’t visible until you’re almost upon it. Whereas the Monte stretch takes you over the city, with magnificent views over the bay, the Botanical Gardens section heads off down a steep sided, uninhabited, wooded valley and crosses huge drops – gulp! We were almost holding on to one another at the end of the second leg!

It was a glorious morning again, warm with clear, blue skies in spite of a forecast that included rain. The Botanical Gardens are probably fascinating to horticulturalists and very keen gardeners, but I’d call them ‘worthy but a bit dull’. However, there were a few simply show-stopping blooms – I have photos! The site is on a very steep hillside with, again, superb views down over the city and the bay. Most visitors seems to enter at the lower end where there is road access and few seem to arrive and depart, as we did, using the cable car at the top of the hill.

We stayed less than an hour, and then gritted our teeth before climbing into a cable car for the scary return trip to Monte. The journey only lasts ten minutes but it seems longer! As we walked away from the station there were a few couples walking down to start their own journey. To our amazement we met up with the German couple that we’d had lunch with yesterday and whose hotel was the other side of Funchal! We warned them that the journey ahead was a bit scary! Two minutes later we saw another pair from yesterday’s trip, although we didn’t stop to talk.

Before setting off back down from Monte to our starting point we stopped at a little café and had the most exquisite fresh orange juice with passion fruit. Strangely, we’d heard yesterday that oranges are another crop that doesn’t grow on this ‘Garden Isle’.

Back at the hotel, after FOUR cable car journeys in a single day, we went up to the roof of the hotel where there are chairs and sunbeds. We hadn’t thought of doing this before, and neither have most of the hotels guests, it seems. We lazed around, reading and dozing, in surprisingly warm sunshine until 4pm, when as every good English citizen knows, it was time for tea. At 5pm Gill had an appointment with a nearby hairdresser and I walked into town to get some cash and get Gill’s sunglasses mended.
Gill had booked us into another highly-rated restaurant at 7pm. Like the one that we went to on Saturday night it had an option on its menu for a three course a la carte meal with an aperitif and different wine with each course all for 39 Euros – less than £32! Both were excellent, but the quality of service at tonight’s restaurant was superb.

Afterwards, we wandered around the town centre admiring the lights. We stumbled across a Twelfth Night open air concert and stayed for a while. By now all of the cruise ship passengers were back on board and most tourists were back in their hotels, so we were amongst the very few non-locals in the audience. Funchal really is a very homely place!

Tuesday 6th January 2015

Gill had booked us in at Reid’s Palace for afternoon tea at 4.30pm, so after breakfast we decided to spend the intervening time lounging, reading, on the hotel’s roof terrace in surprisingly warm sunshine. At 1pm I brought white wine and pistachios from our room to take the place of lunch and ensure we were ready for Reid’s.

At 4pm we picked up a taxi to take us to Reid’s. I’d been a bit sceptical about the place since I’d first heard of it years ago, but you only have to walk in the door and sample the atmosphere to know that it’s a bit special. It reeks of style of the very English type, similar in many ways to London’s Ritz.

We were taken to a table on the balcony overlooking the bay, and were given a long menu that listed only teas. We flirted with a couple of more exotic varieties, but in the end, being risk-averse, we settled for English Breakfast. It came as leaf tea in gorgeous china, accompanied by beautifully-presented sandwiches, cakes and scones with jam and cream.

Others around us were taking their time and spinning it out, but our problem was that we had arrived maybe a little TOO hungry and we were racing through it all. Still, together with the lovely view we had a really nice time at Reid’s Palace.

Afterwards, we walked all the way back around the bay to Porto Santo Maria and a leisurely evening watching ‘Sunshine on Leith’ in our room. Tomorrow we leave the hotel at 10.45am and head to the airport for the trip home. We’ve had a lovely break here to start 2015. Now we have to get ready for the weather at home!