Written for ‘Scch …the magazine’ in 1988
“Ever been to Portugal?” we asked the Madeiran taxi driver, disregarding the fact that Madeira, though 600 miles of blue water south of Europe, is actually part of Portugal.
“Yeah,’ he said. ‘I didn’t like it much. Lisbon was dirty. Up north it was not too bad.”
Madeira isn’t close to anywhere. It’s nearer to Africa, but the Africans never discovered it – at least it was empty when the Portugese found it.
“Have you been to Africa?’ we tried.
“Yeah. I spent two years there, in Angola. Killing people,” he said laconically.
If he hadn’t been in the army, hunting terrorists before Portugal’s eventual withdrawal, it was quite clear he wouldn’t have wanted to be in Africa at all.
It may seem strange that anyone could prefer a dot 35 miles by 13 to the continent next door, but I can quite understand it after spending half last November there, on a very late summer holiday.
There was still a lot of warmth in the sun and a lot of sun, but the Madeirans refuse to be deprived of winter and so, although it hardly gets any colder, they put on woolly jerseys and coats that time of the year and stamp around looking chilly while we swam in the pool and basked under the bougainvilleas.
The oddness of the seasons (you get four crops of potatoes a year, someone told us) was at its oddest in the 800 acres of a lovely, melancholy old garden estate called the Quinta do Palheiro. A little way out of town, and not much visited, it had almost too much atmosphere to handle and quite a schizophrenic attitude to life, with dwarf irises and narcissi just coming out (spring?), roses and rhododendrons in full bloom (summer?) and the huge plane trees just dropping the last of their leaves (autumn!).
In Funchal itself, the charming, mostly unspoilt capital, there is something else odd about the trees. They are all electrified. Miles and miles of flex run everywhere, over castles and public buildings as well, because at Christmas time the bulb-holders are filled with bulbs and the island is switched on like a Mediterranean Blackpool, but this being November all we saw were gangs of men with wheelbarrows full of light bulbs. Funchal also has an odd penchant for artistic cobbles – most of the pavements are intricate black and white patterns – and our two-month-old son had a bone-shaking introduction to life in a push chair, which had a strangely soothing effect on him.
Madeirans, by the way, love children. Not just women, but men stopped to bill and coo over Adam. Progress was quite slow sometimes. And not a single restaurant ever demurred when we took him in, even for a posh dinner. At our hotel, the lovely small Quinta da Penha de Franca, the waitress took him to show to the kitchens one lunch-time and we could hear him gurgling happily away in there for half an hour. I think that was the day quail suddenly appeared on the menu because the proprietor’s sons had been out shooting.
I didn’t realize that there was something quirky about Madeira until I sat down to write this, but there is. Something oddly independent, perhaps. Madeira is the only small island I can think of which is famous for its wine, which does not seem to be drunk by anyone on the island. There is a photographic museum there which started life as a studio in about 1840, when the proprietor was forced to build his own vast cameras, so remote was he from Europe, to take his society portraits in front of the home-made theatrical scenery. Not only is all that equipment and scenery still there, but the family still owns and runs the studio – and sometimes uses those cameras. It’s odd too that Madeira welcomes tourists, but can get on quite well without them. It’s odd that it can be cold and snowing in the interior (higher than Ben Nevis) while people are sunbathing five miles away on the coast, which oddly does not boast a single beach but at one point has the second highest cliff in the world – they won’t admit where the highest is.
On our last day we strolled down to the park to see a concert by a Portuguese army band, which was full of lashing, thrashing conga and bongo players. Before the first number starts a plane flew high overhead and released six parachutists who all, very slowly, drifted down and landed one by one just behind the conductor. Everyone clapped politely.
By then I didn’t think it was particularly odd. After only two weeks I was beginning to see that life on Madeira was just – well, different. I can’t wait to go back.