A week on the island of Madeira doesn’t make you an expert, but it does give you enough time to fall madly in love. With its people. Its arts. Its food. Its spirits (both the intoxicating and the friendly kinds). And especially its heroic highway engineers and the cold-blooded bus drivers who drive on the hairiest hairpin turns in the world.
So I’ve fallen in love with all these Madeiran things, but not necessarily in that order. I’m still in a state of lovely shock at my encounter with this island of 250,000 a thousand kilometers southwest of Lisbon off the coast of Africa.
Half of these sweet Madeiran souls live in Funchal. (It’s entirely characteristic of this horticultural paradise that the capital is named after the funnel plant which grew in abundance when the Portuguese “discovered” it in 1419: It’s a standing joke that it was already well known since the Eighth Century by the Moors, but Imperial regimes must necessarily begin with their own special “discoveries.”)
The cultural vitality and indigenous style of this island staggers the imagination when you realize that they’ve achieved all their elegant simplicity with a population roughly half of Staten Island’s and perhaps 400 square miles of mostly steep volcanic cliffs.
The informative and visually delicious bus sorties I took as part of my Grand Circle Tours (a well-organized, cheap travel service for pre-senile citizens run out of Boston—800-221-2610) were full of the scariest twists and turns in the history of road building—as they get you up and over the main mountains in the center of the island, not to mention the fjord-like indentations along the northern coast.
Mind you, they have had to make an attractive silk purse of tourism out of the sow’s ear of their “cliffy” (Madeiran English!) domain, since it’s their main industry, followed by wine (which I despise, the only flaw in their Eden), wicker work and embroidery.
When the Portuguese first came, it was to cash in on the sugar boom, for which plantations they imported black Moors from Africa as slaves. Those blackamoors gave the physiognomy of the indigenes a handsome idiosyncratic mien, that mixing of bloods.
I stayed at the Hotel Girassol. The hotel’s only flaw was that you couldn’t get a cup of coffee before 7:30 a.m. But I found a better way—walk down to the center of the city.
Downtown in the early morning all the workers are priming themselves with a shot of the hot (sometimes liquor!) at the little bars; I found an especially nice one called “Eden” right next to the main garden where the black swans preen at night under the spotlights—do these guys know how to make things interesting for us gawkers or not?
And, to work on my Portuguese, I’d buy the Diario de Noticias and the Jornal de Madeira from a street hawker. But the very best place to stroll and look is at the Mercado, the big Art Deco market where they sell fish and vegetables and everything else under the sun.
I bought a loaf of sweet bread shaped like an alligator (with red cherries for eyes!). It has happily joined the Hazoo, my collection of animal sculpture. I also bought a machete that’s so sharp I’m still afraid to use it. The old lady who sold it to me nicked the top of my hand when she handed it to me, causing a flurry of bandaidery among the Florence Nightingales on the same bus tour.
There are three don’t-miss museums in Funchal: the Museum of Sacred Art right near City Hall, where the sugar trade spun off great collections of Flemish religious painting and sculpture (and where a glorious poster sells for a ridiculously cheap 80 escudos—about 60 cents); the Museu de Quintas (the name of a big estate where, the director told me, Zarco first lived after “discovering” Madeira), where the Madeiran penchant for wood (the island’s name means “timber”) is evident in a fine historical array of furniture and other applied arts set in a jewel of a horticultural garden—every sea captain or merchant from the farthest corners of the earth apparently brought home seeds of exotic plants and trees; and, finally, the Christopher Columbus museum, which includes glorious maps, early views of the place and ephemera of all sorts to beguile an antiquarian like me.
This museum and its sibling on the offshore island of Porto Santo (where Columbus tried to get rich quick at a sugar factor by marrying the governor’s daughter!) are naturals for Columbus Quincentenary buffs.
One reason the art scene (several galleries, many concerts and other cultural attractions) is so hip is the tourist agency called DRAC (Direccao Regional dos Assuntos Culturals). They’re all practicing artists—mostly grads of the elite art school which admits only ten students a year into the five-year course. No Bohemian barbarians in Madeira, please.
Manuela Aranha is the 50ish matronly lady who runs the show—a delightfully enigmatic, untitled canvas of her own hangs over her desk, where she rarely sits—rushing about egging on her staff. Teresa Brazao is her chief aide and a fine muralist—her five paintings are among the first things you see at Santa Catarina International Airport.
They showed me the growing collection of contemporary art by Madeirans they’re amassing. They’re also looking for some Maecenas to give them the $750,000 they figure it will take to recycle an old building for a Museau Arte Contemporanea. Their offices are a splendidly recycled embroidery factory.
The escrow stuff was delicious, especially an elongated wooden sculpture by Guilhermina da Luz, an émigré art teacher from Angola—if Giacometti had worked in wood, you’d get the idea. Boy, is here ever a place for some philanthropic Getty to plunk down a few megabucks.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 20, 1991