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.

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