Living Funchal

Words, Pictures, & Video by Shaun Troke

New Years Eve Eve

Friday 30th December, 2016

Precisely three months ago on this day – on Friday 30th September – my travel companion & I were made to wait in Manchester Airport for over 4hrs, because our Easyjet flight to Corfu (in Greece) was delayed due to a ‘technical fault’…when we finally reached our hotel in Corfu (at nearly 4am in the morning!), the hotel concierge staff confirmed that these Easyjey ‘technical faults’ occur on a weekly basis…

So, you can imagine the worry we were having when heading back to Manchester Airport to catch another Easyjet flight…the worry we’d been having for the three months leading up to this date!

This time, though, we were heading to Funchal in Madeira.

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Photograph from findingportugal.com

Why I wanted to visit Funchal was pretty simple: after London, Madeira is said to be one of the best destinations in Europe to celebrate seeing in the New Year. And, having done London and Sydney a few years back – and with Portugal being a country I’d never been to before – this gave the perfect reason to visit Madeira at this time.

But, with only three nights booked to stay on this island, this is why we were concerned about our next Easyjet flight being delayed…

Because, with the 4-hour delay to Corfu back in September, this meant that we’d lost an entire day of that holiday, which is something we didn’t want to happen again: I know that inside, we were both just hoping that the getting to Madeira was going to be without its problems…

And it was.

Easyjet came through!

I’m not saying that Easyjet flights are prone to delays, but after what happened in September left us very concerned about whether we’d make it to Madeira on time…anyway, that’s enough of that rant (if that was even a rant!).

Easyjet Flight EZY1971 was actually quite a pleasurable flight!

We arrived at the departure gate, which led us down some stairs towards the passport checking area…and, the wait in the queue wasn’t too long, which meant that we were able to board the plane immediately after presenting boarding passes.

Pleasurable.

During the 4-hour flight, Easyjet constantly kept passengers hydrated with refreshments, with my travel companion & I became slightly impressed by the delicious cookies on board.

Pleasurable!

It was after dark when we landed at Aeroporto da Madeira.

With the airport runway so close to the Atlantic ocean, it was fascinating to observe the sea rise closer to the window as the plane was lowering altitude…it was one of those, “I hope there’s some land coming up soon” moments.

On the plane, we’d spoken about how much we were looking forward to relaxing for the next few days, and so far, everything was running ever so smoothly…

With customs being easy to get through, we were greeted at the airport by Driving Madeira – a car hire company, who we’d be loaning us a car for our trip.

They’d provided us with a lovely huge 5-seater Renault Mégane Sport Tourer, with automatic gears & GPS, to make driving easier for UK (and Australian) drivers like myself. I’d only been expecting a small car, so being presented with this family-size motor was an unexpected surprise.

After a quick tutorial on how to operate the car & its GPS system, we were out of the airport car-park, and, it wasn’t long before I was getting used to driving on the other side of the road.

The VR1 highway is a great road for driving on, providing fantastic night time views of Funchal in the distance, and it will take you straight to Funchal city centre from the airport…

However, we weren’t heading for Funchal city centre…

And, this is where our first night became a little bit of an uphill struggle. Literally.

Our accommodation was located in the hills 3 miles away from Funchal city centre, so the GPS system directed the Renault Mégane off the VR1 highway, and onto a slip-road that started leading us up steep inclines. Street lighting was less apparent, and we were soon turning corners with sheer drops on the side of the road, which meant that our speed had to drop, too.

As we ascended higher & higher, the GPS system was soon to inform us that we needed to turn left onto a narrow road, which I can honestly say was a 45-50 degree angled slope. However, we had no reason to doubt the GPS system, that is until we reached the top of this crazy slope, when the GPS system told us that we had to take another sharp turn to the left..onto another 45-degree slope!

This is where the Renault Mégane decided enough was enough.

The car couldn’t move forward any more, because it was too steep to gain decent acceleration; the car couldn’t roll back too far otherwise we’d hit a wall; and the dimly lit narrow road meant there was no way to reverse back down again in case we hit the walls either side of us.

So, with limited amount of space on this sharp elevated turning, pulling-off a U-Turn was going to be extremely tricky…

Within an hour, things had fast changed from a relaxing holiday into an unexpected adventure!

While we seemed calm on the outside, tensions were running high as we worked together on figuring out how to get out of this dilemma without damaging the car in any way…at the end of the day, these are roads that we were not experienced to drive on, and, if any wrong move was made, it was a LONG way down!

Or, a hefty car repair bill!

Eventually, after shunting back & forth a Hell of a lot, we managed to get ourselves out of this pickle, and, get back onto the wider road, where we headed upward some more…

And, some more…

And soon, we’d managed to find ourselves into yet another similar scenario, where there was just no room to manoeuvre – or gain enough momentum to move forward – on another steep incline.

This is where WE decided enough was enough.

This time, though, we were close to the accommodation, so we ditched the car for 20mins to take a breather, and went to find the accommodation…and, to work out how to 1) turn the car around and get the car to the accommodation, and 2) how we’d U-Turn the car AT the accommodation, as the parking area was tucked away down another steep slope that was also lacking U-Turn space.

 

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Like before, we found a solution, and we managed to get the car – and us – to the accommodation without a scratch. Although the adrenalin was powering us, tiredness followed this, and, our feelings of stress became relief.

The irony of all of this is that, the reason for choosing to use a hire car was to eliminate any stress from this trip, as I knew that getting to & from our hillside accommodation would be problematic without a car…

Everything that happened on this first evening was all so unexpected, yet it felt like it had prepared us for the rest of the trip ahead…

Or had it?

I will say at this point is that this is in no way negative review of Madeira. Why I’ve felt the need to mention these road troubles is because they can be quite daunting to drivers & passengers who are  only used to driving on UK-type roads. We just weren’t prepared for this. So, this is, I suppose, advice to anyone making plans to visit Madeira, and my advice would be this:

Sure, hire a car, but if you’re to hire a car, it might be best that you find accommodation within the city centre, and, leave all heavy terrain driving to the experts who live here.

However, if you’re an extreme adventurer, and you thrive on living life on the edge, then ignore the advice above – you’d have loved this!

What we’d also learned on the trip to the accommodation is that the GPS system seemed to think it was OK for us to drive up steep roads, and, to drive up steps, and, to drive through people’s gardens…so, we found that sometimes ignoring the GPS kept us on the main roads, which seemed to work for us (common sense overriding technology).

With stressful times came comfort eating…and by now, we were hungry, too (it was getting close to 10pm by this point). Just 5km’s from where we were staying, was an extremely useful Continente supermarket, which kept us stock-up with food supplies during this self-catering mini-break.

And, as bedtime came, there was time for one last look at the view overlooking the city lights of Funchal…

This was, after all, why we were here.

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New Years Eve

Saturday 31st December, 2016

The descent back down the hill – in daylight – really showed us how steep these hills are…

By night, it felt steep…but, when you can actually see where you’re going, you get to see – and experience – just how extreme the gradients are, AND, how amazing the views can be from these angles.

When it came to driving to & from the accommodation, it took team-work, as my travel companion would navigate, making sure that we took the correct turns, whereas I would be making sure that I kept the vehicle on the road at a suitable speed at all times…

I really wish that I’d taken a photograph of some of the roads we had to drive along…but hey, my concentration was focused on keeping us alive!

Although driving in daylight felt much easier & nicer, there was always a feeling of relief when reaching the VR1 highway again.

The car was still running smoothly, and, it was brilliant to drive. The power steering and the sensitive brakes had been tested properly last night, but the comfort of the car really shone through when you’re able to relax in the car, which was on the highways & city centre roads, both of which were very easy to drive along.

And, parking in Funchal is cheap, too!

Having gotten used to paying around £4.00 for only 2 hours parking in Liverpool city centre, €4.50 can get you a whole day of parking at the São João car park in Funchal city centre, which is within walking distance to everything in the city centre…

Even Diesel costs seemed good value for money compared to the UK!

We were now in Funchal city centre, and, this is probably where we should have been staying, too. It was very pretty – and still very Christmassy – as we walked along the main strip of Funchal (Avenida Arriga), with trees running along its roadside, yellow taxi cabs lining up for business, and busy terraces of cafés & bars overlooking the pedestrianised precincts…

We liked this. Very much.

The Teleféricos da Madeira was our first attraction, which can be found along the marina promenade.

This Cable Car experience is now almost 17 years old, and in 15-minutes, you travel up almost 4,000 metres to Monte, which is 560 metres above the sea-level starting-point.

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The views were incredible! What was also impressive was seeing the amount of cable car cabs that pass in the opposite direction, proving that this attraction definitely caters for large numbers of people visiting it per day.

What goes up, must come down…and that includes us.

And,the best way to head back down the hill – especially after driving down the hill earlier – is tobogganing!

The Monte Toboggans have been around a little longer than the cable car…in fact, 110 years longer! These wicker sledges are pushed up to speeds of 48kph, piloted by two men who stand behind the two seated passengers.

You travel 2-kilometres in 10mins, and this is an excellent way to get down towards Funchal after using the cable car. It’s absolutely safe, and the ‘pilots’ take it slowly around corners, and you can tell that they always put your safety first. Halfway down, there’s even a guy whose job it is to hold up traffic as your wicker sledge speeds by!

The toboggan run stops a little walk from the city centre, but fortunately, it’s all downhill from there, and can easily be covered on foot. It was nice walking down the narrow roads, exploring new areas of Madeira which are off the tourist route.

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As we reached smoother contours, the smell of food hit us quickly. And, the smell was coming from a food establishment called Petisqueira Chique da Cidade

My travel companion & I were hugely impressed by the variety on their menu, as it catered for almost anything to do with sandwiches & burgers, and most dishes were made & served with Madeira’s traditional bread ‘bolo do caco‘. The food was of great quality, the price was competitive, and, the staff were ever so nice, too. We vowed to return here the following day, as we’d discovered our eating place of choice…sadly, it was closed on New Years Day so we were never again able to sample more items from the menu during our stay, but this is one place I would highly recommend if you’re ever in Funchal.

As the sun set & the evening drew in, it wasn’t long before we knew we had to drive back up to the accommodation in the hills, and ready ourselves for the countdown to the New Year…

THIS is why we were here in Madeira.

THIS is what I’d been looking forward to since booking the trip 6 months ago.

THIS was going to be a spectacular sight, watching the display from above the fireworks, or at least on the same level as them!

Midnight came.

And, then so did the fog.

THIS was how we saw the firework display.

And, THIS is what we were hoping to see:

Video by Wind Birds

Video by Hey Productions

Yeah, a couple of days after returning home, I frustratingly found out that – through those last two videos – that only a hundred metres or so below our viewpoint, would’ve been the perfect view of the fireworks…

Though, I do recall that it was at this point, as we looked into the fog, that I did say, “we have to come back again next year, and do this better”.

New Years Day

Sunday 1st January, 2017

By now, we’d kinda gotten used to the driving up & down the hills, as we’d done this a few times, and had gotten to know the route…

We didn’t think that there’d be any more challenges when it came to driving…this was until it came to driving up to…

The Skywalk.

Just the name itself sheds some light on how high this attraction might be.

Located at the peak of Cabo Girão, the Skywalk is the highest glass-floored viewing platform in Europe, perched 580 metres above sea level…and it’s free of charge!

We followed buses up the hill towards the Skywalk, and my thoughts were always, “if this huge bus can get up there, then we can get up there!”. To sum-up how intense the  drive up was, my travel was a little shaken by the time we’d reached the top, as the roads (and sheer drops) were a lot more severe than they had been before…

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But once you’re up here, the views – and the Skywalk – are worth it.

 

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There is also a café and toilets up here as well, but do be warned that you do need to pay to use the toilets at this viewpoint (which costs around .30¢)…

If you can hold-on to bathroom duties for another half hour, then the next free viewpoint is only a little further down the road: Pico dos Barcelos.

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…and, this viewpoint offers free toilet facilities.

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With both recommended viewpoints visited – and, with one shaken-up travel companion – it was time to ground ourselves at sea-level again, and, to spend the rest of the day relaxing & walking around Funchal city centre.

Although most outlets were closing early (or closed) on this Holiday Day, we were still able to find a food venue down by the harbour, which was followed by a walk along the marina promenade, a caffeine pit-stop on the balcony of Theo´s Bazar Café, and we ended the day with a stroll through Santa Catarina Park.

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That evening, as we drove up to the hills again towards the accommodation, I’m pretty sure that we both felt reassured that this would be the last time we’d have to do this upward climb…

Monday

The 2nd Day of 2017

We awoke on this morning to a rainbow outside of our window.

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And, today was the first day that we saw blue skies during our visit to this island.

It was a sad feeling, driving back to the airport, knowing that it looked as though it was going to be a sunny day on Madeira, and, we wouldn’t be around to enjoy this beautiful island in all of its full beauty…

Because, when those grey clouds have lifted, the sunshine truly does make Madeira more colourful & beautiful than what we’d been able to see during our visit.

From inside the airport, we could only look out from the outside smoking area which overlooks the runway, at the sunshine & blue skies.

We didn’t want to leave.

We felt cheated that we’d not had the chance to experience Madeira in the way that we were hoping to.

One bonus was that there was no worrying about Easyjet delays this time, as we were booked to fly with Monarch Airlines, a first for us to travel with…

In fact, Monarch were AHEAD of schedule, because everyone had boarded the plane so promptly!

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Final Thoughts

Here’s the best – and quickest way – to sum-up our trip:

Take the first three letters of both Funchal & Madeira: these two new words can describe our time on this beautiful Portuguese island.

The ‘Mad’ part (from Maderia) was the driving part of our trip.

The ‘Fun’ part (from Funchal) is how our trip should have been.

As said earlier in the blog, this is in no way a negative review – what’s written has been done so to make sure that other travellers don’t experience what we did. It was me who chose to stay in a location that I thought would be ideal: what I was expecting was peacefulness, serenity, and, a decent aerial view of the fireworks; what I wasn’t expecting was the stress each time I drove to & from the accommodation.

When we were down in Funchal city centre, everything felt right for us. This is the place where you really need to be. I’d still highly recommend hiring a car , too, as the entire island can be covered by car, which gives you enormous flexibility, as well as an easy drive from the airport.

I do feel that we’ll be heading back to Madeira, hopefully at the end of the year again. And, when we do, then I hope that we can stay for longer, and, see more of the island that we were unable to see this time. There’s so much more that I’d still like to see/do in the Funchal area: the Leveda Walks, Madeira Botanical Gardens, the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens…I’d even like to try more of Madeira’s air activities on a return visit!

We only explored a small fraction of Madeira, but there’s an entire island to see! Had we more time – and more budget – I wouldn’t hesitate spending more than a week on this island…

Madeira, you beat us this time…but next time,  let’s join forces & work together to make it the best trip ever!

Read more from Shaun Troke, available on our Merchandise page.

 


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