Friday, 4 April 2014

No lusher Place

After a cozy sea day with some lectures, a little bit of dolphin sighting and the fruit-and-ice carving demonstration in the evening, the morning sees us arriving right on time in Funchal, Madeira.
Since we started our journey we have been basically on the same type of islands; all volcanic, all made by hot spots from deep within. You would expect the scenery to be about the same everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth...
It's all about latitude: Even in the Canary Islands there was a clear distinction between the barren areas of El Hierro and the homogeneous green cover of Gomera. Now, however, we have traveled up to 32 degrees North, where the winds carry a lot of moisture and the temperatures are mild all year round.
The island of Madeira has thus developed into probably one of the greenest, lushest and richest places in terms of flowers, trees, fruit, herbs, vegetables and everything that grows in the whole wide world. (It's tempting to say: On Gods Green Earth - but I don't...)
This is especially true for the higher regions, where the daily mists provide a constant level of water. Together with the extra fertile soil of volcanic origin, plants have everything they need. All of them. You see this best by joining an excursion up and along the unique "levadas", a network of man-made ditches that serve as a very efficient irrigation system and drainage at the same time.
And the best part: you can hike along these ditches, there is always a footpath laid out, wide enough for a person, often for two shoulder to shoulder. And here comes the incredible figure: 3000 km of these levadas criss-cross Madeira! It's the biggest botanical garden in the world, because the variety is unlimited. About a dozen types of palm trees, 800 (!) types of eucalyptus, all kinds of orchids, camellias, hortensias, magnolias, bougainvillea, cactae, philo-, cleo-, rhododendron, and, and, and...
Even of you are not really a plant person - here you become it. The smells and colors give you an idea of paradise, and the islanders use their plants well, too: their pastries are all made with local fruit, chestnut, blossoms; they even have a tea called carioca limón, which is steamed lemon rind - of course straight from the tree...
Whereas one of the main incomes in the 70-80s was the plantation of opuntiae figs, the cultivation of eucalyptus for its cellulose is now in the foreground.
Still in some regions exists the high art of wicker-weaving as a very traditional craft. Nothing they cannot do with it, they bring it in all imaginable shapes.
Many of the plants have been brought here from all over the world, as Madeira - discovered already in 1419 - experienced immediate fame for the sake of its rich resources in wood (Portuguese: Wood=Madeira), which was used for ships, altars and Chippendale furniture alike.

The place has never ceased to attract people, from the times of Portuguese exploration to the years of Darwin, the period of German emigration, the presence of Royalty like Empress Sissi, who stayed here regularly, as well the the Habsburgs, to the famous French marine biologist Jean-Jacques Costeau, who fell in love with the waters around the "Desertas", the dry islands a few miles out of Funchal.
It is no wonder this paradise was made a UNESCO world nature protectorate.
However, it is a paradise where you need your umbrella occasionally: The mists can roll in very fast and turn into low-hanging rain clouds, drenching the unprepared.
We seem to be lucky, as we remain dry and happy, during the day as well as in the evening, where many venture to town a second time to have some of the local cuisine.
Again we wait until after nightfall before we head on.