Madeira. The name to me always conjured up somewhere slightly exotic, the iconic Reid’s Hotel, somewhere I’d probably never visit, the plain (often overly yellow) cake. I had only the vaguest of ideas what the island might be like, and a similarly hazy knowledge of exactly where it was.
Yet in December, in search of sun and warmth, we found ourselves flying out there from Glasgow.
In days gone by the island was connected only by ship, and its volcanic formation of jagged peaks and sheer cliffs meant, until fairly recently, that travel once there was difficult or extremely hair-raising.
Roads built in the fifties, clinging precariously to the edges of steep volcanic hills, became unsafe, necessitating a significant programme of road building, overcoming the terrain problem by new tunnels bored through hills and mountains. Madeira now has around 135km of tunnels in what is quite a small island. The challenges of the island’s terrain also called for a significant engineering structure when, more recently, the runway of Funchal’s airport had to be extended.
When Winston Churchill visited in January 1950 he arrived on the liner Durban Castle, departing ten days later by flying boat from Funchal to Southampton. This service, which seems to have been both spacious and luxurious, was operated from 1949 by Aquila Airways, but after a crash off the Isle of Wight in 1957 the service was run down until it ceased the following year.
On his visit Churchill stayed at Reid’s Hotel. Sadly I didn’t get a photo of it, the salmon pink building with green shutters perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the bay. But on a visit to the Story Centre where the history of the island is told, I was more than a little chuffed to discover that the hotel was built by William Reid, a Scot born in 1822 in Kilmarnock, and son of a local farmer.
Like Robert Louis Stevenson, Reid was advised to seek a warmer climate for his health so his father scraped together £5 pounds and William was despatched as a cabin boy on a ship. He worked on boats bound for Lisbon, arriving one day in Funchal, Madeira, where he stayed. Initially he worked with a German baker then found himself in the wine trade. His belief that the island’s natural beauty offered business potential, promoting its benefits for medical as well as leisure and enjoyment, led him to diversify into accommodation, then the hotel trade.
The large terrace of the Story Centre is surrounded with assorted plants that grow in Madeira, including sugar cane which was at one time widely grown. This is a main ingredient in the Madeira Sugar Cane Syrup Cake with which we brought in our New Year back home. A far cry from the dry yellow Madeira cake we know here, this was dark and rich with spices, giving it a gingerbread taste, and containing sultanas and almonds. Don’t cut it, we were advised. Cutting spoils the flavour. Instead just tear a chunk off and enjoy. We followed the expert advice.
An unmissable transport option in Funchal is the cable car that runs from the sea front of the old town up to Monte with its botanical gardens. Skimming over rooftops, motorways, trees, gardens, banana plantations and gorges, we delighted in the amazing views. Luckily we had a beautiful warm sunny day for our trip. Others we spoke to had, earlier in the week, been buffeted uncomfortably by strong winds.
The rattan toboggans (like rectangular baskets for large dogs) looked fun, but we decided against launching ourselves down a steep hill sans brakes or steering (apart from a couple of tobogganers pulling and pushing).
Instead we had our stomachs meet our throats as the cable car launched itself off the cliff, the ground dropping stomach-churningly away beneath us, on the return journey to Funchal. But then we lifted our eyes to the view. Brilliant!