Walks in Portugal - Madeira: land of wine, cliffs, sun and... walks!

Small beach in Funchal, Madeira, just next to the Castle
Landing in Madeira is an experience in itself.

The plane seems to crash in the sea, when, at the last moment, turns in the direction of Madeira and land on the airport runaway that has been built on the cliffs, like a large balcony on the sea.

Cabo Girao, one of the most spectacular cliffs in Madeira
Because of the strong winds from the Ocean, these are the standards procedures to land on Madeira, the Portuguese island a thousand kilometres away from Portugal and Europe.

Madeira is a volcanic island a thousand kilometres away from Portugal and Europe. It is covered by thick sub tropical vegetation.

Madeira in Portuguese means appropriately “wood”, because of the large quantity and variety of trees on the island.

The island is not just a holiday sea resort; it is a wonderful and relatively undiscovered place for exhilarating mountain trekking and viewpoints.

Here some great ideas for your holidays in Madeira!

The best walk starts at Ribeiro Frio just above Funchal, the main city on the island, also called “Little Lisbon” because of the elegance and the grandeur of its buildings and its steep cobbled streets.

Ribero Frio is half way to the Pico das Torres, the volcanic mountain 1851 m high.

It is just a pretty village on the side of the mountain, named after the cold stream passing near the few houses and restaurants.

A fantastic path signposted to Portela starts from Ribeiro Frio with breathtaking views and steep drops. The walk follows one of the many unique Madeira’s features: the llevadas.

Walking in Madeira, along the circular path along the volcanos ridges.

Llevadas are a complex net of canals running along the side of the mountains and the old craters of the now inactive volcanoes of Madeira. The canals were built by the first settlers on the island as an ingenious irrigation system to carry the water to the vineyards and the bananas plantations in the valleys below and they are now become panoramic paths.

Walking along the llevadas is like walking along a very narrow balcony suspended at the side of the mountain.

Below the llevadas the old volcanic craters open up with steep drops.

The views are breathtaking.

This 12 km walk signposted to Portela is in my opinion the best of the many llevadas walks on the island.

The walk offers fantastic views on the balcoes, the terraced hillsides near to the many little villages of the island where the grape is cultivated.

A village in particular is set in a wonderfully beautiful spot, surrounded by the jagged mountains and a chestnut wood.

The village is Curral das Freiras, literally translated “The Nuns’ Refuge”, because here the nuns of Santa Clara took refuge when pirates attacked Funchal. The nuns have left but it remains a pretty village of less than 3000 souls, with a little church and the graveyard overlooking the large volcanic crater below.

Market in Funchal
A panoramic point named Eira do Serrado, perched 800 meters above Curral das Freiras, offers the best views.  

But walking along the llevadas is not easy.

The canals are not always well kept and sometimes you have to walk in the water where the side of the canal has crumbled.

The llevadas pass also through long dark tunnels where, even with a good torch, it is not so easy to walk at times.

It is a very adventurous trek.

Because the soil is always wet it can be sleepy and, because the volcanic craters are quite bare, there are not trees and you are always exposed to the sun.

If you are brave enough and you cope with highs, you will certainly be rewarded. You will have a completely different feeling of the island after having seen it from so high.
The llevadas are not the only wonderful feature of Madeira. Go up to the cliffs above the pretty fishermen village of Camara de Lobos to experience the thrill of the, so locally advertised, second highest sea cliff in Europe.

In true Cabo Girao is the fifth highest cliff in Europe, but for a difference of only few meters with the other four. Looking down from Cabo Girao is an hair raising experience! There is a wonderful view half a kilometre below you! Yes, the vertical cliffs are running down for 580 m (1,900 ft) to hit perpendicularly the flat terraced fields below. It is a terrific view point!
Famous houses of Santana - Madeira

If you then go back to Funchal and you want to relax for a while, you can discover another unexpected feature of Madeira. The wonderful Mercado do Lavradores. I have never seen in my life a market so rich of exotic flowers, fruits and fishes. It is a carnival of colours! Inside the covered market, fruit sellers will offer you tropical fruits from the island and from South America. Because of Madeira’s strategic position halfway between Europe and the Americas the island is in fact an important centre for the international fruit’s import/export. This is the reason why sellers will offer you to taste for free slices of mangos, passion fruits, bananas, cupacus, papayas, soursups, guavas and custard fruits.
But the stalls I love best are the ones of the fishmongers in the basement. The variety of fishes is amazing. One in particularly you should see: the preta nera, a particular type of scabbard fish. Black, long with a hundred of sharp teeth and huge eyes, sometimes you can still see it alive at the market, it is a wonderful fish. Taste it in one of the many little restaurants in Funchal’s old quarter. The traditional recipe is Preita nera with banana. It is a wonderful bitter-sweet dish, mostly served as a snack at lunchtime.
I can’t avoid mentioning the Madeira’s typical triangular houses of Santana to finish the visit. If you go to the village of Santana you can see the little wood houses with thatched roofs, shaped like a capital A. They are pretty, with their bright colours and the nice gardens around, but they become too touristy to be appreciated.

Fisherman Village in Madeira
In my opinion if you have time left you should instead take the ferry from Funchal harbour and visit Porto Santo. Porto Santo is a flat island for the moment unspoiled, apart for few hotels. It is locally advertised as the island visited by Christopher Columbus, but it should be advertised because the island possess something that Madeira lacks: a marvellous sandy beach running uncontaminated for more than six miles. The sand is of a wonderful golden colour and the blue of the sea is amazing.
You can get to Porto Santo in an hour and a half. The boat trip will allow enjoying great views of Madeira and of Funchal. Seen from a distance you will be able to better appreciate the island’s
mountains literally emerging from the ocean.

Back in Funchal a taste of the famous Madeira Wine is something that can’t be missed. But remember: don’t stop at the first glass and try all the four types of Madeira. The Sercial and the Verdelho can be drunk as an aperitif. The Bual and the Malmsey are best served with dessert or as an after dinner digestive. This will be a fantastic way to end an adventurous day at the llevadas!