Sunday, 31 January 2016

Gentle way of life

I am slightly surprised by the lack of drama in my blogs from Madeira. In fact, almost everything we've seen has been so gentle, so well-mannered, so bloody English, it's hard to pick things out to write about. The whole way of life is just terribly English. Polite. Soft spoken.
I did see, today, a woman evidently sleeping rough - living in fact - in a sort of tourist gimmick shelter down on the promenade, hanging her pitiful laundry out on a bit of string, and that wasn't too long after we'd sauntered round the English Church, of which more in a moment, where there was a begging bowl asking for coppers to help the homeless..... And we've seen a few, just a few men crashed out in doorways. To be honest, the street dogs appear to get a better deal, as many cafes have water bowls out for the canines, and sometimes food too.
As for other animal life - there are small lizards about every 18" once you get to quieter or rockier environs. Hardly any small birds. Quite a few gulls, and flocks of pigeons, and the very occasional blackbird, but no sparrows. (Why not?)
The shoe-shops are absolutely not English. At the moment, for women, the fashion is very wintry, clumpy, very awkward looking - and very heavy looking, and/or metallic. Me no like.
We hauled up a bit of a hill this morning, to an old fortress dating from the time of Vauban, but not so exciting. A trip down a Bico (alley) afterwards was quaint but it was a dead end. We felt sorry for two dogs chained up on watch but all alone. Once again, someone had a lot of old rags drying or abandoned on a washing line. Why do I notice these things?
The English Church experience was hilarious. I was hard-put not to be chortling out loud, while telling myself off very severely at the same time. It's a time-capsize, of course. All these sweet, whit-haired ex-pats and retirees, huddling together as no doubt the English do worldwide, shared values, a nice cup of tea, you know where you are, etc.  Where you are is the 1920s.  We wandered up the entrance alley, adorned as it is wth a few blue and white tiled Stations of the Cross (one paid for by Michael and Val Blandy, nice of them). Holy Communion was nearly over. A man in white blazer and boater was very convivial, manning a stall with ghastly cards, knitted tea-cosies and pots of jam for sale. He said there would be a reception after the service, with soft drinks or something stronger, right after the service. We peeped inside the square/classical church - it was stuffed to the gunwales with grey heads. We didn't stay, but I did buy a history ... Also very funny, with various contretemps in detail. (More anon).
We also called into a Quinta Museum which we thought would be shut but which was open (ground floor only, no cafeteria, no photos). A stunning, breathtaking display of 16th and 17th c Portuguese furniture, and silver .... Staggeringly beautiful.
Lunch was back in the tourist quarter (past the gauntlet of greeters), and dull. We should have known better. (Supper back in our apartment was much nicer - an avocado, some peasant bread, watercress, an onion tortilla, and then a custard-apple. If you pick carefully you can get lovely things family the market - and this shopping was done yesterday. What forethought!)
The beach is packed with large black pebbles. Hard to say if it's natural or landscaped.
The town was doubly-quiet being Sunday and the day of the marathon, with few buses running and many roads closed. We saw two runners. Missed the rest.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Bus terror, altitude, wealth, nature and shopping

Taking a bus up or down the hill (mountain) is TERRIFYING. The drivers are nonchalant, one elbow out of the window, steering with one hand, chatting to a pal nearby, and they hurl the damn thing round the hairpin bends at top speed. It's truly remarkable. The buses may be equipped with special gears because they whip round, accelerating on the steepest slopes, squeezing through the narrowest of spaces through sheer dynamism. Honestly, people would pay extra for these thrills, but in fact they're really cheap and regular, keep to the published timetables, and go all over the place. You don't really need a car, but be prepared to lose pounds of weight through terror-sweats.
We went today to a private garden, at Quinta de Palheira - originally set up by Count Carvalha I in the early 19th century, after he'd visited England and became inspired by the idea of landscape gardening. Later the Blandy family (rich wine merchants) bought it, and successive Blandy wives lavished money in it. It has a distinct South American feel, and contains various rare and endangered plants. Growing together or near each other we saw meadows of agapanthus, arum lilies, fuchsia and monbretia, then camellias, oaks, masses of plane trees grown as hedges and avenues, succulents, datura, flowering shrubs of many kinds, mimosa, topiary, and countless nameless things. Unknown to us, at any rate. The old house is now a very grand hotel, and there's a golf course and stunning views.... And the nice young man in the ticket office at the gate was endlessly helpful about bus times, and gave me a little orchid. This garden is not geographically very far fun Funchal's Botanical Garden, but it could not be more different in design and feel. Both are superb. I was particularly moved by the acres of pebble paths, which make beautiful and safe walkways around the huge layout. I can only imagine how many bushels of small pebbles were laboriously hauled up the hill -  about two thousand feet - and then laid in intricate patterns and panels. It must gave taken hundreds, thousands of man-hours, and the labourers presumably paid very little.
Leaving the garden we walked on ip the hill and found our way to the Levada de Palheira - one of the many historic aqueducts which since the 16th C have been built to bring water from the cooler north of the island to the sun-facing southern slopes. Roman engineering in healthy condition. We walked along the maintenance pathway beside the swift and even flow of clear water, for about four miles.  The forests keep everything cool. Cottages clinging to the hillside occasionally feed an illegal water-hose into the stream to siphon out a small private supply. From time to time, a natural watercourse down the hillside is engineered to go over or under the levada. The channel is about a metre wide and deep, and follows the side of the mountain to maintain its gradient. Only every now and then does a walker find himself on a vertiginous bit of track, where the downslope is really steep.
We reached Hortensia Tearooms, sat in the garden, had a soup and sandwich lunch between us. A small lizard ran up my leg.
Then we took another bus back down that nerve-racking route, holding in for dear life as the driver bashed it and us back down to the city. I for one staggered off it as if I had only narrowly escaped the experience with my life. Shaking.
In the fruit market we bought a HUGE bunch of watercress for a euro, and some tiny Madeira bananas and two avocados. In the supermarket we got flat bread and sheep's cheese. Then back o the flat to get the laundry dry in the breezy sun, and recharge the phones. It could be June, in England, or sunny May.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Street life

One very endearing thing about street life in Madeira is that you can cross the road any where and any time you want. Obviously, it's up to you to avoid being run over, and there are very helpful green 'men' on the traffic lights to show you when you have precedence, but basically - it's like home. In England, regardless of what the lights say, if there are no cars coming, you can cross when you like. This is a blessing, as far as I'm concerned. In Germany, the U.S., Denmark etc, this careless attitude is deeply frowned upon. You have to be obedient, whether there's any traffic or not. Obeying the rules is more important than anything else, so you can see crowds of people standing waitingfor the light, when there is no earthly reason why they shouldn't amble across. Cars are effectively more important than pedestrians - the little people. I guess there will be howls of righteousness against this laissez-faire approach, but the daily experience of millions of Brits and Madeirans proves that 'health and safety' regulations are not always necessary.
Another wonderful thing about the streets here is - the amazing pavements. There are various styles.
Millions and millions and millions of small black pebbles have been used to create pleasing patterned walking surfaces.  The pebbles are mostly laid in general alignment, in rectangles or zigzag stripes. They must have been bedded in by hand - and the archaeological digs here and there - sometimes quite deep below the present surface, show that this has been a tried and tested method of pavement-making for a very long time, maybe centuries.  It gets used for courtyards, car parks, terraces.....
Another favoured - and very attractive - pavement surface is the use of small flattish fragments of 'white' or black rock, about an inch it two across, set down in simple but eloquent patterns, like mosaics. The sections are usually a foot or two in width. Some are geometric, maybe simple stripes or squares, but others are graphic and representational - showing the old human-pannier method of ferrying people around, or trees, or boats.  These are very nice indeed - although very slightly nervous-making in the wet. The surface can be surprisingly slippy.
Lastly, there are the setts or rectangular cobbles of granite in other very hard igneous rock, arranged in patterns, and not unusual, but they are a pleasing grey-black, and conservative, and plain. About one in several thousand has a marking of concentric rings - presumably the mark if some ancient fossilised tree. There is a single example of exactly this kind of stone in Faversham, among some coloured granite blocks, a bit of a mystery in Kent, but presumably carried as ballast long ago, and set down as a matter of chance.
My last observations today are about the Internet. Every cafe or resto has Wifi, but you have to ask for the password. These ciphers are sometimes very long and difficult to copy onto one's phone, being a mix of lower and upper case letters and numbers. They reek of paranoia and excessive needless security. At least, we have to be grateful that the wifi exists.... Just a few short years ago, it was impossible really to find anywhere with a connection, and you had to pay extra to use it.  I guess in another year or two, access will be universal and need no passwords.  I have already discovered that ready access to the Internet (and autocorrect is capitalising that word, not me), has changed my blogging experience, as I am in happy and useful dialogue with friends who comment on Facebook about our travels, thus diminishing the distance between us. I have decided to go in wth the blog, however, as the means to producing books in due course.
Today we walked, and went by bus, to Camara de Lobos. We ate at the Vila de Peixes on the recommendation of friends at home (sent via FB). Nice views. Came back, had a quiet sunny afternoon resting in our very nice central apartment, and later strolled around before coming home again for a bread and cheese supper. Once again, we ran the gauntlet of the polite, soft-spoken greeters in the many cafes and restaurants we passed. Can't help it - I find it unsettling. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Up and down the mountain

It marks a change that I can try to write up the day's adventures before going to bed. More relaxed. We did quite a lot today - I wrote the earlier bulletin posted here, we had breakfast - yogurt with blackberry jam, and cheese and fruit - and set out to get the bus to Monte. Somehow I imagined this would be quite a long trip, but the bus rattled up the mountain in no time at all, hurtling round bends and bagging the narrow two-way road so that drivers coming the other way cowered in barely adequate corners. The sea and the sky would have pleased Turner - great sweeps of silver and massive parallel bars of light, with pleasing indistinction muffling the horizon and the headlands. The villages are hugger-mugger, the verges covered in agapanthus not yet in bloom boo hoo, and the sky weeping and drenching itself as we climb up.
Monte must be very full in the season, but is wonderfully empty in the soft drizzle of January. We put up our umbrellas and sauntered off, past the launch-place for the wheel-less wicker charabancs or sleds in which you can hurtle back down the hill, guided by handsome young men who stand on the back ready to push if necessary, or apply their legs as brakes. We decided not to do it, remembering that our son and daughter-in-law had done this mad trip on their honeymoon - family honour satisfied. Across the road is a small classical water fountain installed by a Scottish grandee in the 18th C as part of an irrigation system for his garden. He kindly included the local population in his aquiferous improvements, especially if they were pilgrims to the church - hence the wall-fountain, which is topped with his coat of arms in white marble.
We walked on, past the gleaming cable car station, past the Monte Botanical Garden, and in to a different teleferique which leads to the Funchal Botanucal Garden. We had a lovely coffee in the must, and I managed a small landscape watercolour... Hurrah! It was accurately rather bleak and wintry looking, unlikely to sell, I should think. We boarded this second cable car line and hurtled out over the deep ravine and valley which would otherwise take hours to cross by road. It was so mysterious - travelling through the air, with rain and mist around us, and silence. Lovely.
The Gardens are absolutely superb - set up as late as 1960 by an enlightened visionary called Rui Vieira, who us described on his plinth as 'notorious investigator'.  The official translations from Portuguese to English are much more endearing than the Autocorrect which dogs my every essay these days.
We wandered down these gardens, entranced. Everything is immaculate, beautifully managed. We peeped into a tiny nursery area, where seedlings are growing on in polystyrene fish boxes, which look like butlers' sinks. Local plants, endangered plants, palms, cycads, topiary, food plants, historic plants - all quite reverently displayed.  I did another watercolour at a cafe, and a couple from Cardiff off a cruise ship were terrifically enthusiastic about it - how pleasing! This one was definitely more colourful. They mentioned a Welsh painter who did mountains, whose work sells for £10,000 now, prices going up since he died. It was impossible to know how to answer this - I would honestly be pleased if someone offered £30 for one of these paintings.
We caught a bus, walked to the Combatantes restaurant which has been recommended by friends, and after waiting 20 minutes or so, got a table between some architects and a couple with a baby if 8 months. Lunch was utterly gorgeous - costing €44 with one glass of wine and a tip. The main novelty was the limpets - grilled and very hot, dressed with lemon juice.
Our last call of the day was to the Museum of Electricty - a superb (or mind-numbing) collection of generators, rheostats, switches and alternators, plus some old lampposts. It is an exemplary display, all set out in a nice wide building with the shiniest floor in the world. Actually, of course, it's a shove towards remembering the centuries, millennia, of darkness which most humans have lived in..... How utterly fortunate we are, with all this light, and fresh water, and travel, and freedom.... blah blah blah, you may say, but I think of those steep mountainsides, and precarious terraces, and tiny fields and gardens, and the savage marauding corsairs who could strike at any time.... We do not know, we do not know, how lucky we are.


Following yesterday's post I heard from several readers that they were sad or shocked to hear the touts had moved in to Funchal - their memories of Madeira were all very positive. I apologise if I gave the impression things were totally rakish. Certainly not. Our day was altogether relaxed and interesting. I only highlighted those little incidents because they were like vinegar on the chips.
There are always undercurrents, other things going on, especially in places devoted to looking after tourists. The local population is concerned in putting in a show, creating an experience.  Am thinking of Venice, for example, which is barely a real community. Almost all the Venetians you meet live not in the island but in Mestre on the mainland. Properties are far too valuable for locals to actual live in them. And here in this beautiful bit of Portugal, which is hardly the chest country in Europe, I am sure they are feeling the cold winds of the present economic situation.
So if one restaurant has a greeter standing outside in front, well, they must all do the same. In the narrow lanes, a quiet stroll at any time between, say 11am and the evening, means saying 'No, not yet'  or 'Thanks we've already eaten' maybe twenty or thirty times. The greeters are quiet, very polite, understanding.... But it's still not ideal. Any interest one might have in perusing menus or glancing inside a place to assess the decor or lighting or comfort - all gone.
However - we had a lovely day.
I just wanted to record our arrival on Tuesday night, after a slightly delayed flight. We came in from the airport by taxi, and showed the driver the address - 2AA Joâo de Deus. He had no idea where it was, and asked the other drivers. They clustered round, scratched their heads. They spotted the phone number, and together, using a phone belonging to one of them, they rang the apartment owner.  Having established contact, they passed the phone around and eventually one took charge of the conversation while they established where to go. When everyone was satisfied that they could find the place, the call was ended, and we set off.
It was like hurtling through one of Piranesi's engravings. Last time we were in Venice (as it happens) we spent a happy hour or so at the Piranesi exhibition, and the pictures are more or less indelible. The engineering of the road from the airport, the emptiness of the place at 9.30pm, the huge arching viaducts over the steep cliff gorges, the twists and turns, the tunnels, and the nonchalant but silent speed of the driver - it was really quite exciting. I was glad someone had warned us about the ferocious driving standards on the island.
On Madeira, it's not so easy to detect the early history of the place (compared with, say, Tenerife). There is an even thicker overlay of modernity. And the signage and mapping of the museums (and post offices) is poor. Most people say in hotels, I suppose, where leaflets are available, or the come from cruise show and aren't interested in archaeology etc.  We have followed signs which confidently send you to this or that cultural institute and then the trail goes cold. We'll do better today.  Though we see that the postcard industry is absolutely thriving here (it's almost vanished elsewhere in this Instagram age), so the death of postboxes is baffling.
But the settlement of the island must bear resemblance to the Canaries - we see the same courtyard architecture, the English sash windows which were extolled as an early method of air-conditioning,  the successive installation and destruction of coastal fortifications in the centuries of piracy.... We will discover what happened. The French remember their pirate de Monluc, for instance, who in 1566 not only broke through the defensive wall by the sea, but slaughtered all the inhabitants including the women and children who huddled there for protection, ransacked the houses and churches, and apcarried everything away. The great sugar boom (slavery) had been and gone, leaving inadequate defences. The islanders turned to growing bananas after that, and delicious they are too.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Keeping things brief on this first full day in Madeira... I just want to record a few pieces of evidence of very a curious, malevolent core to the popular culture here in the historic capital, which is - on the surface - sublimely friendly, laid-back, sophisticated, hosputable, etc.

In the cathedral, this morning, while we admired the Manueline triumphs of the interior, noted the significantly large number of people actually praying, photographed the charming and very English-looking bannister-rails which protect the altars down each aisle, and marvelled at the slender proportions of the basalt (?) columns down the nave - we also decided to buy and light a real candle, in memory of some recently departed friends and relations. In fact there are three large circular candle-holders with 'normal' sized candles all round the edge, real flames, something very attractive and holy about it all, as well as the ghastly electric display with orangey fake flames bobbing about.... We went to the tiny little shop near the west door, where a truly tiny woman in black had two boxes of wax candles laid out for sale. We pointed at these - asked how much it would cost to buy one - and she hissed, nearly spat at us, in a rage. She held up four fingers. 'Not till four o'clock!!!!'  She was adamant. Gave no reason. It was a remarkable, short and unpleasant conversation.

In search of some modern art, we walked (ran the gauntlet past dozens and dozens of small restaurants with polite but beseechung 'greeters' imploring us to come in) so - we made it along the shoreline to the old fort, painted an extravagant mustard yellow. This - according to every publication and guide and signpost - houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, except that when you get there, a piece of paper in a flimsy plastic cover pinned to a telegraph pole says that the Museum has been moved elsewhere. It turns out that it's now two-and-a-half hours away by bus, and the move was made last October. 

So, still looking for art, and wandering around slightly higher up the hill, we were pleased to find a smaller but interesting-looking gallery open in a splendid late Deco building, entry was €1.86 each. It's devoted to two brothers, Henrique and Francisco Franco - previously unknown to me but friends with Picasso and Modigliani. Wow oh wow! Wondrous portraits, sculptures, prints, landscapes. So much to say about them, but maybe not on an iPad with one-finger typing, but it's worth looking them up. I decided to buy some postcards. 14 of them, as happens. I was allowed to choose from a well-indexed box, containing reproductions of almost all the works on display - bliss.  However, paying for them led to an indecent spat between the two women behind the counter....  One was ready to take my money. The other utterly refused to accept any such deal, but took all my cards, laid them out on the counter, tried to find them again in the selection box, shuffled them, selected others which were identical, re-counted them, lost count, went back to the beginning, snatched my first selection out of the hands of the friendly one who caved in (subordinate?), oh it was painful. As it happened, the Museum had a customer-satisfaction survey form right there .... and so I was able to tick lots of 'Excellent' boxes, and then add that it seemed remarkably difficult to buy postcards.... Then in a sort of agonised fury of impatience, I swept up my cards, and asked the nice woman how much? She said €11.20.  I produced a twenty-euro note, plus €1.20, needing €10 in change. Disaster! The nice one only had a five-euro note at her disposal.  She explained, implored her colleague to open the till - a small red cash box.   Her colleague promptly started to count out €8.80.... But I said, loudly and firmly, 'No! TEN euros please!' And after an agonising eye-to-eye confrontation, she very slowly handed over a ten euro note.  What, what was that all about?  The customers, art-lovers, may not choose their own postcards.   However, as a reward, or apology, the nice one gave me for free a set of photographs of architectural treasures of the city.  Really nice.

Lastly, we were accosted by a young woman near Funchal's The Ritz. She was doing a survey, and had the weirdest accent - Manchester crossed with slum-Algarve. We answered her slightly repetitive questions about how long we were here, what we enjoyed most, etc and then she gave us a lucky dip of tiny envelopes. I won a free glass of wine, and Andrew won a week's free holiday in the Algarve. She, she squealed, had thereby won a bonus of €100! This turned out to be an invitation to a presentation about holidays - timeshare, no doubt... Her boss, a big English bruiser, rapidly established that we weren't going to play ball. So he took our envelopes out of our hands, and no doubt took her 'bonus' out of her next paycheque. 

The frantic underbelly of life in this ambling, amiable, English-dominated paradise is never far below the surface.