Funchal Fantastic In Madeira
Not only is Funchal a chic and delightful city, it is the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo, hailed as ‘the best player in the world” –that is what it says on the plaque underneath his giant statue by the picturesque marina. Tourists and his fans queue up to pose for photographs next to the statue – including myself. The travel article is about our visit to Funchal, the main city of the sub-tropical island of Madeira.
As befit an affluent city, pleasure crafts and yachts for the wealthy berth cheek by jowl in the marina along with cruise ships. It is a charming city steeped in history with well-maintained heritage buildings and churches. The streets and boulevards are spotless while some are paved in typical Portuguese mosaic style in black and white stones forming patterns of waves and lines like works of art. There are upscale boutiques, art galleries, a theatre and a beautiful park in the city centre. As an upmarket island, it attracts the middle-aged and older visitors who enjoy the mild climate and genteel atmosphere. There are no rowdy clubs and seedy bars in the city. Even the famers’ market, Mercado dos Lavradores, is like a posh supermarket with its amazing display of fruits and vegetables beautifully presented in wicker baskets. Bunches of dried piri piri chilli peppers hang on poles add colours to the already brilliant hue of the convivial market as buyers haggle with the traders for the best price.
Funchal: A Plantation of Fennels
When the first settlers landed in Madeira in the 15th century, they found a sheltered bay on the south coast of the island with a verdant vegetation of fennel growing in the wild and they named it ‘Funcho’ which is fennel in Portuguese. Later the name evolved into ‘Funchal’ that means ‘plantation of fennels’. Its sheltered position on a wide bay lends itself to be the perfect spot to set up a port. It soon developed into an important port of call for trade on the Atlantic routes. Christopher Columbus was said to have stayed on the island to study his route before embarking on his exploration across the Atlantic. Throughout the centuries, it had attracted many illustrious, royal and aristocratic visitors including “the empresses of Brazil, the archduchesses of Austria and Queen Adelaide of England”. Today, it is a destination for the discerning travellers who want to enjoy a tranquil place blessed with nature’s bounty of breath-taking landscape and a dazzling variety of flora.
Funchal: Doorway to Art
The old part of Funchal is a delightful place to explore with its narrow cobbled streets flanked by historic buildings, small churches and typical local shops and cafes away from the swanky modern part of the city. One of the most fascinating places to visit in the historic quarters of Funchal is Rua de Saint Maria. Once a dilapidated and poor part of the old town, it has been rejuvenated by the municipal council to “gain new life in order to sensitize people towards art and culture”. Abandoned derelict shophouses and buildings on this street are given a complete makeover and local artists are given the chance to unleash their talent by transforming all the doors into works of art. Every door is painted with murals in vibrant colours or black and white featuring all kinds of subject matter from visually pleasing, fantasy or surreal imaginations of the artists. The once run-down street is now an open-air art gallery “bringing new life to the gates of historic part of Funchal.” It is a doorway to art heaven.
Funchal: A Basket Case
We cannot go to Madeira and not experience the notorious wicker basket toboggan thrill. It was the mode of transport in the 19th century for wealthy people living in Monte, the 600m-high mountain backing Funchal. We ride the cable car up to Monte, affording a splendid aerial view of the city along the way. First we detour to explore the famous Monte Palace Tropical Garden covering an area of 70,000sq m, a botanical delight of exotic plant collections from all over the world. Its landscape design is an eclectic theme of Chinese and Japanese gardens, statues and pavilion; arbours of modern art and ornaments; with an artificial waterfall flowing into a lake teeming with koi, ducks and swans. At the toboggan station, once we are safely seated on the wicker toboggan we hurl down the mountain at break neck speed controlled only by two men on either side of the basket holding on to two ropes. The tarmac road worn smooth by years of friction from the toboggan helps in its speed hurtling 2km down the mountain where it terminates. Not for the faint hearted!
We decide on a more sedate activity the next day and embark on a dolphin and whale watching tour. Accompanied by Vanessa, a marine biologist, we set off on a Zodiac boat in search of the ‘acrobats of the sea’. With wind in our hair and ocean spray in our faces, we ride out on the waves of the Atlantic. Within half an hour, tell tale signs of fins and tails are seen bopping in and out of the water. Vanessa informs us that these dolphins are part of a pod of 200 Common Dolphins that are often seen along the harbour. They seem to enjoy human company as they swim close to the boat frolicking around us, some turning on their bellies like cats waiting to be stroked while others show off their acrobatic prowess by surfing the waves like synchronised swimmers. Sadly we do not encounter any whales on this occasion but we spot a lone loggerhead turtle enjoying a swim in the sun. It is such a joy to see dolphins in the wild!
This travel article covers our visit to Funchal, the capital city of Madeira.
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