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davidx Monte - A travel report by David
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Monte,  Portugal - flag Portugal -  Madeira
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davidx's travel reports

Madeira; Paradise or Tourist Trap? part 2

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As the title indicates, this report should be read in conjunction with my Funchal report. I shall try an answer to the question in the final section but there’s no simple one.

In the Japanese garden
In the Japanese garden
I shall return to Funchal in the restaurant section but, generally, this will cover the rest of the island. We were using buses to/from Funchal, except for the trip to Monte, when we went up on the teleférico. As well as Monte, I shall deal with trips to Porto Moniz, Santana, Curral das Freiras, Palheiro Ferreiro and Santo da Serra. The cable-car to Monte can take up to 6 people in one car but we were on our own. Before you leave Funchal, a photo is taken and it’s ready for you at the top on a card with a DVD of Madeira attached. We did buy it –for reasons connected with the number of the year ad its relationship with 1937 – when I was born.

In Monte the church is said to be good but we hadn’t time as we spent it all on the tropical gardens of Monte Palace, their museum and a stunning walk to Curral dos Romeiros. The gardens are a terrific delight, even if you are daft enough to fall on the stone path as I did. There are [fairly modern] tile pictures all the way down, depicting the history of Portugal and you pass through a Japanese garden to the house [private] and the very large flower garden, Orders of preference generally bore me but, if I could choose just one garden I have visited anywhere for a free return, this is where it would be.

The top part is like a Japanese garden, while the lower part is more European. Near the house is an olive tree that was providing oil for the Romans as early as 300 AD. In the museum in the upper part of the gardens there are three floors reached by separate garden paths. The lowest floor contains a permanent exhibition of gemstones and rocks; the upper two in April 2007 were exhibiting fine sculptures from southern Africa, mainly Zimbabwe. At the very bottom is a tea house where the entrance ticket entitles you to a free taste of Madeira wine. On leaving the gardens you turn right for the walk mentioned above, which passes through natural vegetation, including masses of flowering mimosa.

Favourite spots:
Natural rock pools - Porto Moniz
Natural rock pools - Porto Moniz
One day we did a round trip to Porto Moniz. This didn’t entail a tour bus but two Rodoeste service buses over different routes, the 80 out and the 139 back. People we met at P.M. told us that the 80’s time had been cut from 4 hours to its present 3 by the construction of tunnels since they last went ten years ago. The engineering involved has to be admired and clearly I don’t begrudge the residents a faster journey time but it has to come at a cost. Tunnels aren’t noted for their views. Even so the scenery is still pretty fabulous, even up to and down from the tunnel that has replaced a high pass route on the return 139 journey. Porto Moniz is a delightful seaside town, of which I have done numerous photos. The coast from it to São Vicente is spectacular and here it is somewhat difficult not to curse the numerous tunnels that conceal it. The bus stops each way for 10 minutes at Ribeira Brava on the south coast, a place with an impressive church but possibly somewhat over-rated.

What's really great:
The house, Blandy's Gardens
The house, Blandy's Gardens
Blandy’s gardens at Palheiro Ferreiro, only about 35 minutes ride from Funchal are preferred by come guidebooks even to my own favourites at Monte but it’s got to be a close run thing either way. The 36 bus runs frequently but leaves a STEEP though short walk to the entrance and then it’s another long walk down from there. The 36A goes right to the entrance but is very infrequent, whilst the walk down can be avoided, if necessary by hiring an electric vehicle. Again the photographs I’ve uploaded say more about the gardens that any superlatives I might use.

A great ride is to Curral das Freitas, where the tunnel, [their positive side,] has only relatively recently allowed vehicular access. Sadly we either had too little time or too much and this time we chose the former – at the cost of some brilliant photos. It seems to be portrayed more often than anywhere else on large cards. There was mist but it was fast moving and we saw all the peaks of the island top at different times.

In the tourist trap
In the tourist trap
One levada walk I definitely had in mind was the short one from Ribeiro Frio to Balcoes, from where the view to the top of the island is said to be magnificent. The day we had in mind was a holiday - 25 April. We had been assured that bus services would be unaffected. Blessed are the incredulous –for they shall not be disappointed – it was true only for urban buses; others ran Sunday service. Careful scrutiny of the timetable made me believe we would have to wait a ridiculous time to get back and I checked -6 hours so we didn’t get out there. I was pleased. 1 This was our one really wet afternoon and it would have been miserable waiting, 2 The number of tourist buses parked by the side of the road had to be seen to be believed. That was sufficient to deter us from making a further effort.
We went on to Santana near the north coast, noted for its triangular houses. It’s a real tourist trap! The trip was saved from disaster before the rain came back by some fine north coast scenery.

Looking inland, Porto do Moniz
Looking inland, Porto do Moniz
I have described where we stayed in my Funchal report. Here I am talking about my advice for the island generally. A first visit with no car requires staying at Funchal exclusively, or at least mainly for the buses. Note that the timetables are geared mainly to Madeiran rather than tourist needs and you will not find it easy to take levada walks independently.
Either with a car or for a second visit I should want to stay somewhere else but there is a catch 22 element to this, namely that if you want to stay somewhere, there may well be little or no accommodation! Buy yourself a 1: 50,000 map, choose and book early.
I use the space this leaves to comment that there was no population on Madeira when it was first discovered by the Portuguese during the age of discovery and thus no conquest or slaughter was necessary to its history.

From the mirador, Santo da Serrs
From the mirador, Santo da Serrs
Not being great on nightlife - I’m usually in bed early – I’ll do one more place. When we were at Porto Moniz, we were told about a Sunday market and a park with fine views at Santo da Serra and so on the Sunday we took the one hour bus ride there. We were a bit disappointed with the market. There were masses of stalls and the local produce was fine but there was an awful lot of real tat on other stalls. I don’t know whether the huge volume of cars was a reflection of local interest or whether the reputation of the market had spread among visitors.

However there was not a single tunnel outside of Funchal on the way and the country was marvellous. The park was free and the view of the eastern end of Madeira was truly marvellous.

In the museum, Monte
In the museum, Monte
Believe it or not, I’m talking about the airport. It’s quite pleasant generally but the information that matters is that on the third floor there is a huge restaurant but also an outside balcony, where you can get some air while watching the planes – and a delicious stall selling first class ice cream. All the crowd stays on the uninteresting first floor. Now a warning. If you buy Madeira wine outside the airport and you try to take it with your hand luggage [whatever Thomas Cook’s website chooses to say] you will be supplying something towards a police party!! If you are afraid of it breaking in a soft bag in the hold, buy a flower box and get a label from the reception desk. We did and it didn’t break!
The café beside the theatre in Avenida Arriaga is excellent and the thing in the packet with your coffee is NOT a biscuit – it’s a cinnamon stick!

In lauraceous forest
In lauraceous forest
Funchal again. The Restorante Embaixador Madeirense was on the corner of Rua Santa Maria and a side street – inside mainly and no touting but very friendly once you were in. We went twice and our three fish meals were first class. It’s probably unfair to judge the meat on the basis of one dish – but even so if I go again, it will be fish.
The Adega Cuba was a real find, perhaps more of a bar than a restaurant but with excellent food VERY cheap. The Rough Guide recommends O Lampiaio in Rua do Bispo for cheap lunches but shows it as open all day. They don’t serve food in the evening but the Cuba is next door and ‘it is the same boss.’ We both had delicious soup, Pam had squid and I had octopus. She had one taste of mine and, to her own surprise, decided to have octopus at the Portão [see Funchal report] next day. The other place we went was on the road parallel with Santa Maria and nearer the sea. I don’t remember its name, perhaps luckily, as we can’t give travel tips with -5!

Other recommendations:
Curral das Freiras
Curral das Freiras
OK I promised. I very much fear that from the point of view of the visitor Madeira is changing fairly rapidly from Paradise to Tourist Trap. Santana has just about completed the journey, Ribeiro Frio is well on the way and much of Funchal has passed the mid-way point. However there is enough of Paradise left yet to ensure that it will be a top destination for a long time. If you are hiring a car, try to stay on or at least see as much as you can of the north coast and the high mountains. If you want to walk on levadas through the native lauraceous forests, either use a car or go with a good group. As a last resort you can get levada trips there that include transport – but it will cost you. The reputation for cheap taxis seems a bit over the top to me but if there are several of you, perhaps it’s OK. Anyway go!! It’s still very special but spend a lot of time planning.

Published on Monday May 7th, 2007

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Thu, May 10 2007 - 07:55 PM rating by jorgesanchez

I know that you love Portugal. Muito obrigado!

Wed, May 09 2007 - 01:58 AM rating by marianne

Very candid description. I have moved Madeira down on my wish list

Mon, May 07 2007 - 03:16 PM rating by rangutan

[4.5] Great pictures supporting a comprehensive travel-log in report style.

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