Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Pearl of the Atlantic

There's more to Madeira than fine wine -- it's also Portugal's garden playground

Sledding isn't a recreational activity that you'd normally associate with subtropical islands, but it was one of the first things I did on my visit to Madeira. The sled, called carro de cesto, is unique to Madeira: an upholstered wicker seat mounted on wooden runners. The two drivers, who wear white outfits, leather boots and straw boaters with black bands, looked like extras from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. They tested the steering ropes with sharp tugs and then invited me aboard. "Afasta!" -- out of the way! -- they shouted, and we were off, rapidly gaining momentum as we careened over the cobbles of the steep 600-metre descent from Monte to Funchal, the capital of Madeira.

It was like doing a snowless bobsled run in a laundry basket. The drivers alternately rode the rear extensions of the runners, or sprinted alongside. Doorways and garden walls flaming with flowers melted into a stream of colour as we shot past. Expert pulls on the ropes steered the hurtling carro round the twists and turns of the descent. When we slid to a halt at the foot of the hill, I hoped the drivers wouldn't notice that my hand was unsteady as I paid them.

The sled run from Monte to Funchal is a sort of initiation rite for visitors, but it's a misleading introduction to the island the Portuguese call "Pearl of the Atlantic." Speed and bustle are alien to the Madeirans. Their way of life is governed by the unhurried rhythms of tides and seasons. Madeira's two most famous exports, wine and embroidery, are the products of a people schooled in patience.

The Madeira Islands are situated in the Atlantic, some 900 kilometres southwest of Lisbon. The archipelago consists of Madeira, Porto Santo and two groups of uninhabited islets -- the Desertas (Empty Isles) and the Selvagens (Wild Isles). Madeira is the largest: 57 kilometres long and 22 kilometres wide. It's a volcanic island, forged in a crucible of fire and molten lava 20 million years ago. Subsequent erosion carved out the dramatic peaks and valleys of the interior, the perpendicular sea cliffs, and an east-west spine of high mountains. The beaches are sandless stone and shingle, but the waters are fine for swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing and fishing. It's paradise for pleasure-seekers looking for any type of leisure activity or recreation associated with the ocean.

On the 20-kilometre drive from the airport, I quickly realized why Madeira is called a floating garden. Orchids swayed on metre-high stalks, and bougainvillea bled over walls and hedges in great pools of mauve and crimson. At every turn of the winding road, the verges and hillsides were covered with hydrangeas, geraniums, hibiscus, agapanthus, fuchsias, anthuriums, bird-of-paradise flowers and indigenous blooms such as the blue Madeiran pride. Pink belladonna lilies were everywhere, growing singly or in clusters. They are referred to locally as meninas para escola (girls going to school) because they bloom in late September, the beginning of the school year, when girls in pink uniforms start attending classes. They are very much part of the visual cornucopia of the island.

The taxi driver stopped at a miradouro (belvedere) and we got out of the car. "Olha, senhor: Funchal!" he said proudly, indicating the city spread below us. Framed by white, flower-covered trellises, it looked like a living painting. The city of Funchal has a superb setting -- curved like an amphitheatre at the foot of green mountains whose peaks are covered with mist. Red-roofed houses, lime-washed in pastel colours, cling to the slopes like barnacles on a whale's back. Cruise ships and pleasure boats lie moored in the diamond-blue bay.

Madeira was discovered in 1419 by João Gonçalves Zarco, one of Prince Henry the Navigator's explorers, after he had sheltered from a storm on the neighbouring island of Porto Santo. Zarco found the island uninhabited and covered by a forest of giant laurel trees. A man of straightforward logic, he decided to name it ilha da medeira: the wooded island.

Zarco explored Madeira's southern coast and founded the city of Funchal, whose name is derived from funcho, the Portuguese word for fennel, which grows wild in this area. Funchal today is home to 100,000 people, one third of Madeira's entire population. It's a garden city brightened with many flowering trees: jacarandas, mimosas, magnolias, African flame trees and silk trees that turn into pink clouds when they bloom. The streets are cobbled with mosaics of black basalt and white limestone, contributing to the visually stunning array of colours. Many buildings have their architectural details enhanced with panels of blue decorative tiles known as azulejos.

Opposite the cathedral, women sell enormous bunches of flowers, adding to the vivid palette of colour. The women also add chromatic touches of their own, for flower-sellers are required by law to wear the national costume: a scarlet-striped skirt, a red bolero or skirt over a white blouse, leather boots and a pig-tailed skull cap called a carapuça.

There are even more flower-sellers in the lively Mercado dos Lavradores (Workers' Market). The central patio is ringed with stalls selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and boiled lupine seeds, a favourite Madeiran snack. At the fish market on the lower level, red mullet and tuna are laid out on marble slabs. The most popular fish is the eel-like espada, or black scabbard-fish, a creature of unsurpassed ugliness. This wall-eyed, saw-toothed horror, caught in very deep water, is a local delicacy. Despite its hideous appearance, the slippery serpent-like espada undergoes a miraculous transformation when filleted and fried in light batter. Beneath the slimy black skin, the flesh is snow-white, sweet and surprisingly delicately flavoured. Visitors adventurous enough to try it a first time inevitably come back for seconds and thirds!



Since Madeira is so mountainous, it has very little arable land, and farmers grow their crops on terraces labouriously cut out of the hillsides by hand. Viewed from a distance, the terraces with their walled plots make a striking mosaic of emerald, malachite and jade. Despite the limited space, Madeira's rich volcanic soil makes it unusually fertile. The principal crops are grapes, bananas and sugar cane, but cherries, peaches and strawberries are also grown, as are tropical fruits such as custard apples, mangoes and passion-fruit. From the latter, Madeirans make a refreshing soft drink called sumo de maracujá, to which you can easily become addicted -- I certainly did.

But the most celebrated drink produced on Madeira is the wine named after it. Remarkably, the famous "burnt" taste of Madeira wine is the result of a discovery made accidently centuries ago. Trading ships from Madeira carried wine to the East round the Cape of Good Hope, but some of it returned unsold after stewing in a ship's hold for more than a year. Much to their amazement, Madeirans found the wine had improved after "cooking" in the tropics on the long sea journey. To recreate this desired effect, they've used a process called estufagem (an estufa is a hothouse). Following the procedure, fermented wine is fortified with brandy, put into a special tank and heated to 35 degrees Celsius -- roughly the same temperature as a ship's hold in the tropics. It's kept at that temperature for about six months and then allowed to cool slowly. After that, it's aged in vats for periods ranging from four to 20 years. Madeiran wine is one of the longest-lived wines: An opened bottle will remain drinkable for months; wine in an unopened bottle will keep for a century or more. This feature makes for some interesting scenarios. When Winston Churchill tasted a bottle of 1792 Sercial, he found it sobering to think that Marie Antoinette was still alive when it was made.

Like the local wine, Madeiran embroidery is world-famous. The industry was founded in 1856 by an Englishwoman, Miss Elizabeth Phelps, the daughter of a wine importer, who encouraged local women to embroider designs after the manner of broderie anglaise. The work was originally sold for charity, but when early specimens of the exquisite embroidery reached London, they were so admired that Miss Phelps decided to export the work. Her enterprise succeeded beyond her wildest dreams: In less than a century, embroidery became one of the mainstays of the Madeiran economy, and today some 30,000 women are employed in the industry.

Women weave their magic in the open air, and can be seen sitting outside their homes, embroidering on linen, cotton or organdie. A single tablecloth can take six months to a year to complete. Such masterpieces of needlework don't come cheap, and can cost the equivalent of $US2000. More modest items for everyday use are within the reach of all budgets, and represent good value for money, considering the hours of work required to produce even a small piece of embroidery.

My guide, Luis, took me to visit the embroidery co-operative at Câmara de Lobos, where 3000 young girls attend free classes. They ranged in age from eight to early teens, and worked with rapt attention, sending needles flickering through cloth with remarkable assurance and skill.

Câmara de Lobos (Den of Wolves) was so named by Zarco because of the seals (he called them sea wolves) that once abounded on these shores. This small, picturesque fishing village was one of Churchill's favourite subjects when he came to Madeira on painting holidays in the 1950s. Brightly painted fishing boats lie on the shingle beach, and black fishing nets, looking like giant cobwebs, are hung to dry on curved willow frames. The boats go to sea in the late afternoon, and after dark their lights encircle the island, glimmering on the water like fireflies. In the distance, past the two cliffs of volcanic rock, is the brooding headland of Cabo Girïo.

We drove up the steep ascent to Cabo Girïo in low gear, wheezing up narrow cobbled roads that wound through vineyards and groves of eucalyptus and pine. At the summit of the Cape, we were surrounded by children selling rooted ferns: "For good luck, and to make your garden beautiful." At this altitude, the voices seemed to be coming from heaven. The view from the cliff, which drops sharply to the Atlantic 600 metres below, is extraordinary. Off in the distance, we saw little parcels of land that are cultivated to the very edge of the sea cliffs. Beyond the cliffs, Funchal lies shimmering in a distant, iridescent haze.

The flower-banked paths beside the levadas -- the ingenious irrigation canals that provide water to the whole island -- make Madeira a hiker's paradise. These stone-and-concrete aqueducts lead like arteries to the island's hidden heart, but on some mountain routes it's essential to have a guide, for sudden mists can descend with unnerving speed and the paths can become dangerous. I've heard stories of some visitors who found themselves alone, in the haze, high on a mountain path with no handrail. It's difficult to get lost, however, for the levadas always lead to a village or cottage. And the hike itself is always at least as good as arriving at your destination.

I was keen to see the village of Santana, my namesake, and to get there Luis drove me along a narrow road cut boldly into the side of vertical sea cliffs. We had superb views of Madeira's northern coast; the white church of Ponta Delgada, perched on the edge of the Atlantic, looked as if it would be washed away by the next hightide. At one point the road tunnelled under the tall plume of a waterfall, and we had a free car wash.

Santana, on a high coastal plateau, is the prettiest town in Madeira. Its people still live in traditional cottages with vividly painted doors and window shutters, and steeply sloped thatched roofs that reach almost to the ground. The effect is rather theatrical, like a set for Hansel and Gretel. Luis assured me that nothing was faked: It was a glimpse into "a different Madeira," far from the international sophistication of Funchal. Countless visitors comment on the surreal beauty of the village high on a plateau.

In the end, I couldn't leave Funchal without taking part in a venerable tradition -- afternoon tea at Reid's Hotel. Reid's, overlooking the beautiful Bay of Funchal, is one of the world's legendary hotels. Its guest register reads like a Who's Who of the rich and famous: Sir Winston and Lady Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Gregory Peck and other movie stars, European royalty and a sprinkling of British aristocrats. Afternoon tea is served on a terrace which sports a marble chessboard floor, and where geriatric Englishmen with yellow moustaches gather to eat Madeira cake and discuss the latest cricket scores.

It was my last day on Madeira when Luis and I drank a toast to the island. As we lifted our glasses of Madeira wine, Luis said quietly, "Saudades de Madeira." The word saudade has no exact equivalent in English. It means memory imbued with longing, and I knew that Luis was right: I would miss the green island of which I had grown so fond. It may be some time before I return, but that doesn't worry me, for Madeira, like its wine, improves with age.


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