After the Christmas break, my sister and I took our holidays to somewhere warmer than the frosty shores of England. This time, to Funchal, the capital of the Madeira Islands. Technically owned by the Portugese, the Islands remain largely autonomous although they use the Euro and you can see some of the influences such as the native language. Fortunately they receive a lot of tourism so most people speak English exceptionally well (I think almost better than some Portugese I’ve met) and a lot of the menus and signs also come in a variety of languages. Funnily enough I was able to practice reading quite a lot of German at the same time.
Most of Funchal is nestled on a mountainous island. This means some beautiful hilly views, winding roads and a fascinating set of bridges that connect the island. They also have two of the longest tunnels (as of our visit) in all of Portugal, enabling faster access between different sides of the mountain.
Being an island, the citizens have large access to seafood and strangely steak (which I’m guessing is imported but probably an inherited trait from the Portugese). The local fish to eat is the ugly Scabbard Fish. Long and black like an eel, the white-fleshed fish is often served battered, fried and then accompanied with a banana fritter and passionfruit sauce. It surprisingly works as a good combination.
The other local delicacy is the Bolo do Caco, a heavy dense bread cooked on a flat griddle and often served smothered in garlic butter. Probably very bad for you if you have a lot, but I have to say that it tastes pretty good. They also often sell a smaller, rolled up flat version filled with chorizo or bacon.
In terms of sights to see in Funchal, there’s a district in the downtown area where they are encouraging more artists to demonstrate their skills. The result is an interesting roadside gallery of doors painted, decorated and covered in a multitude of manners, many of them surprisingly intricate and beautiful. Nestled in between the doors, you’ll find some decent restaurants, cafes and other art galleries where you can support the local community. Here’s some of my favourite ones.
The downtown area has a great local market where you can see the fresh seafood, and the multitude of tropical fruits made available. It’s the first time that I had seen so many varieties of passionfruit, and so many other strange looking fruit and vegetables. I liked the fact that you see the results in the juices they served on the street and also reflected the strong fruit-infused rum they sold in the shops and restaurants.
I highly recommend taking at least one bus tour of the island. We took two of these bus tours, one coasting along the east coast, and the other along the west coast. Both were reasonably great value considering it took all day and you got driven around in a small mini-bus with about 8 other people. You get some spectacular scenery, along the coastline and the sea. Lunch wasn’t included (most offer an optional cheap three course lunch with wine).
I wouldn’t say that there was a ton of things to do on the island. Being a mountainous island, there are actually no beaches on Funchal (an expensive ferry ride takes you to an island with a beach), but most of the hotels and resorts offer pools and lounge areas to soak up the sun. We visited the Botanical Gardens, and walked around a lot just to explore the different buildings and city, appreciating the warmth, sun and views in the fresh air.
Funchal is the sort of place you could spend a few days at. You want to spend more than a weekend because it’s quite a long flight away from England but unless you just want to lie around, four days is probably just enough to appreciate all the island has to offer.