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A Flower Festival, Jacaranda trees, a birthday treat, a beautiful island, plus honey cake, the temptation was too much for Anna Hyman and friends.

The Jacaranda trees were reaching perfection – that stage when the flowers are opening and before they begin to fade and fall covering cars and pavements in a blue petal carpet. It is a strange shade of blue, more of a hazy, shimmering purpley-blue than the blue of the sky or the blue of a sapphire. A friend likens it to the colour of bluebells – but overhead. He has a point.

The residents of Funchal hurried about their everyday life ignoring the bare branches bursting into bloom. They had seen it all before. But we, along with other tourists, stood beneath the trees cameras pointing upwards trying to capture the moment. We never did, well not entirely successfully!

It was the middle of April and we were on Madeira, staying at Funchal for a week, enjoying ourselves whilst waiting for the island's annual Flower Festival to start.

History of Madeira

On a previous visit I had thoroughly enjoyed taking time to go back in time at the Madeira Story Centre to learn about the origins of the island and its history. It's a good presentation with lots of fun interactive exhibits.

The Portuguese island of Madeira is fairly small about 14 miles wide by 35 long. It lies in the Atlantic Ocean the visible top two-fifth of a 5000m mountain rising from the sea bed created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

It is thought that it, along with the smaller island of Porto Santo, had been known about for centuries, but it was not until 1418/19 that Portuguese explorers anchored in the waters of the Archipelago. Christopher Columbus arrived in 1478 and married the daughter of the first governor of Porto Santo.

Grain, sugar and wine

Madeira became Portugal's grain basket with some 150 farms producing vast quantities of wheat. But gradually interest turned to sugar and sugar cane. Slaves were brought from Africa to work the canes and mills producing the much sought after white gold which for a while brought wealth to the island. The decline of the sugar industry led to the planting of vines and wine, and a return to prosperity. The British, who occupied Madeira during the Napoleonic Wars, were much in favour of Madeira wine. But sadly in the early 19th century wine production began to falter going into a serious decline when the vines were struck by disease – Oïdium tuckeri and later Phylloxera vastatrix.

Many of the buildings in Funchal today bear witness to this wealth through their stonework, wrought iron balconies, towers and belvederes with often a wine press on the ground floor. The island's famous wine is still very much in evidence. And thanks to the irrigation system (levadas) combined with the island's temperate climate, cereal production along with other food produce such as bananas has flourished. Madeira is also noted for its fine embroideries and wickerwork – and for some of us its honey cake!

Seeing the lush island with its cultivated terraces today it is hard to believe that once it was covered with an ancient laurel forest dating back to the Tertiary Age. It was this forest which gave the island its name, Madeira – wood. 15,000 hectares of it still exists today. This only survivor in the world of the forest that once covered huge tracts of Europe is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dramatic coastline

Fishing villages and cliffs

To see as much of the island as possible we decided that a guide and a car for two days would make good sense. And so it was that Roberto came into our lives. He not only drove us to hidden corners of the island he quickly became our friend and mentor with his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of Madeira.

Our first port of call was the picturesque little fishing village of Câmara de Lobos (lobos – monk seals, which once inhabited the bay). It was here that the explorer Zarco, one of the early explorers, founded a settlement. Winston Churchill visited Madeira and Câmara de Lobos was one of his favourite spots to set up his easel. With its tiny bay, ringed by cliffs, its beach a kaleidoscope of fishermen, nets and boats, complete with 'washing lines' of Gata (kitefin shark) hanging out to dry who could blame him.

We moved onto Cape Girão. This is definitely not for anybody suffering with vertigo. It is the highest cliff in Europe and almost vertical. The view, however, from its 580m top across the ocean and over to Funchal is stunning.

Poncha and lava swimming pools

We stopped for a coffee at Ribeira Brava; it translates as 'wild river'. It looked peaceful enough that April morning, but it lived up to its name in February 2010 when swollen by heavy rainfall it destroyed many houses, bridges and parts of the coast road.

We left the lovely coastline and headed inland as Roberto wanted to take us to one of his favourite small bars close to one of the levadas set in the laurel forest. En route he told us about the different type of avocados growing on the island - five of them - thereby ensuring a year-round supply of fruit; how more and more of the land is being replanted with vines; how there are four different uses for the levadas – hydro-electric power, water, irrigation and for recreational walking; how bananas are cultivated; and about poncha. Poncha – a local traditional speciality that involves lemon juice, honey and local white rum, all riddled with the help of a wooden carralhinho. We found the bar and sampled the poncha – some of us had two glasses! Well it was my birthday!

By now we had travelled across the island to the rugged north coast where the surf crashed against cliffs. The coast road took us through tunnels bored through rock from which we would emerge only to have a free car wash from energetic waterfalls. In places, such as Porto Moniz, pools carved from volcanic larva by the sea have been turned into natural swimming pools. We stopped at the resort's Salgueiro restaurant/snack bar for lunch. Search out the Snack Menu; a steak sandwich cost us less than €3 each.

Had the weather not taken a sudden turn for the worse the drive back to Funchal over the central massif would have been stunning but as we climbed higher a light drizzle turned to heavy rain and the cloud cover so low we missed what Roberto kept assuring us was a stunning view.

Nevertheless that day turned into one of my more memorable birthdays which ended in a wonderful evening at Reid's Palace Hotel (see More Information - below) and the Ristorante Villa Cipriani.

Beautiful sunsets

Honey Cake and Sugar Cane

My weakness for Madeira Honey Cake (Bolo de Mel) is widely known. It started on a visit about 20 years ago and has turned into something of an obsession that requires two or three being brought home with me each visit and stowed in the freezer for later use.

But it was not until our second outing with Roberto that I realised that it doesn't actually contain honey – as in bees' honey. This honey is from sugar cane – molasses, hence the dark, delicious, treacle-like flavour.

Knowing of my obsession for honey cake Roberto took us to Calheta and the Sociedade dos Engenhos da Calheta. The current production of the sugar cane was over but we were able to see the ancient equipment used for the distillation of the aguardente (local fire water) and to produce the sugar cane honey. On site is a small tasting room and we solemnly handed over our €1 each for a taste of the fire water, and I bought honey cakes.

Much more exciting and interesting however, was the small factory at Porto da Cruz. Porto da Cruz, with its black lava sand, is one of the island's oldest settlements. We found the factory (actually a small barn) not far from the sea and still working. Sugar cane production takes place only to the end of April. We marvelled at the ability of the lorries laden with the canes to negotiate the narrow streets. We marvelled even more at the production line. Off the lorry and onto a ramp powered by steam with blue pistons throbbing and turning, the canes went through a crusher and were then crushed again to extract the last drop of juice, before being filtered and pumped into the stills. (On the side of the machine the name Jones Burton & Co Ltd. Engineers. Liverpool.) There is a shop here too and to sample the Aguardente de Cana costs €1.

Tradition and Technology

In spite of several visits to Madeira, apart from the airport, I had never been to the east of the island. Roberto set out to rectify this serious gap in my knowledge.

The east of the island is where the first of the explorers would have landed. Today it is a mix of history, tradition and modern technology. Apart from the visitors who arrive on cruise liners the majority of today's explorers arrive at Santa Caterina airport. The runway and buildings have all been extended in recent years turning it into a flourishing international airport. And with the fast new road the transit time between airport and Funchal has been shortened dramatically.

We called in at Machico, the island's first settlement and now its third largest town. It has an historic fishermen's quarter. In the small shady square of Largo dos Milagres we found a small church built on the site of the island's first church which had been destroyed by catastrophic floods in the 19th century. The main parish church dates back to the 15th century.

Canical, once a thriving fishing and whaling port is now the cargo port for the island. A museum has been established telling of the island's whaling history which continued up to 1982. The town is also home to a flourishing International Business Centre which includes Eutelsat Centre of Telemetry, Command and Ranging of Satellites, one of the three biggest satellite operators in the world.

Lava cliffs and Funchal

But probably what bowled us all over was the view from the oldest part of the island on Madeira's eastern points at Ponta de São Lourenço, Pico do Facho, and Beacon Hill. The latter so named because of the fires that were lit in days of old to give warning of pirates. Ponta de São Lourenço is bare and windy but the view of the spectacular rock and lava cliff formation ofrust, ochre, grey and black coloured strata plus the jagged pinnacles or rock sticking out of the sea like the spine of some giant sleeping oceanic dragon is stunning.

In between our trips with Roberto we explored Funchal. Funchal actually means fennel – which once grew prolifically. It is still grown and a popular sweet is made from it. We called in at the cathedral; wandered the old back streets; took the cable car up to the heights and watched the Carreaerris do Monte skilfully guiding their wooden toboggans weighed down with tourists down the hill; we took a bus up to the Botanical Garden and another to the magnificent Jardim da Palheiro; spent an age and money in Funchal's covered market amongst the flowers, fruit and veg and fish and took a tour round Blandy's to learn about production of Madeira wine.

The Flower Festival. Photo: Rob Philpott

Flower Power

Apart from my celebrating birthday – the real reason for our holiday was to see the annual Flower Festival and parade. Madeira, with its mild climate and fertile soil, throughout the year is the island of flowers. Belladonna lilies, agapanthus, birds of paradise grow wild on the side of the roads. Echiums (Pride of Madeira) grow tall and the hydrangea flowers are the size of dinner plates. Flowers are everywhere, so why not celebrate them with an annual festival?

Every time we had walked into the centre of Funchal from our hotel the Quinta da Penha de França we had been aware that plans were taking shape – stalls were being set up, flower carpets created and stands erected on the promenade. By the morning of the Parade the excitement in Funchal was infectious. We spent so much time inspecting the carpets and stalls we missed the children's wall of flowers. Later we were swept along with the crowds as we made our way to the stands for the main Parade. The procession takes over two hours, so it is worth spending money on a seat if possible.

The Parade is truly spectacular. In the distance we could hear the sound of music and slowly, so slowly, the procession came into view working its way along 2.5km route: dancers in colourful costumes in front and behind each of the eight floats their drivers trying to see the road through the flowers and foliage piled round them.

I loved the flower costumes– pink and purple fuchsias, white and yellow daisies, purple and gold iris bobbed along as the children, men and women twirled and danced to the music. We each had our favourite floats – but they were all stunning and all bedecked with flowers –a ship, a traditional house and island crafts, a disco! Every now and again the parade would halt, but even then the dancers kept up their routines, it was an incredibly hot afternoon and we could only admire their stamina and determination to keep going and entertain.

Two days later when we left Madeira, the first of the Jacaranda petals were beginning to fall.


More Information

Hotel Quinta da Penha França and Classic Collection Holidays

During our week's visit to Madeira we stayed at the very comfortable family run Hotel Quinta da Penha França.

The hotel is approximately 300m from Funchal harbour and comprises two separate sections - the Penha França and the Penha França Mar. The original building the Penha França is set on a cliff in pretty grounds with its own swimming pool and is linked to the new section the Penha França Mar by a footbridge. The Penha França Mar is at harbour level with direct access to the sea and its own swimming pool.

Each section of the hotel is self-contained with a bar and restaurant and guests have access to both buildings and facilities. Rooms in the Penha França are decorated in a country-house style, whilst those in the França Mar have been given a nautical theme. www.penhafranca.com

The holiday was booked through Classic Collection Holidays. Tel: 0800 294 9312. www.classic-collection.co.uk Please mention Foody Traveller when booking.

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