In search of childhood memories

We flew to Madeira for the first time, hoping to retrace family footsteps.


By Gloria Tessler, March 15, 2012
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As a child, I remember my Aunt Rozita and Uncle Salo spending three months every winter in Madeira. Off they would go into that scented, temperate isle, bringing back embroidered linen, Madeira wine, and a sense of exotic well-being.

I imagined them sitting in elegant verandas, drinking tea in the celebrated Reid's Palace hotel, listening to fado singers and watching the Atlantic gently ebb and flow.

What was the Madeira magic that lived in my memory long after they had both gone? For me it conjured up imperial timelessness: a sojourn into remote luxury. It was also the place where the 17th Century Sephardi Rabbi, Menasseh Ben Israel lived.

I finally visited the island, searching for a Rozita and Salo experience. I found a beautiful time-warp; offering a sense of sanctuary with a gentle, indulgent atmosphere and mountain plantations. Madeira is a more pragmatic destination, peaceful in November and populated by middle-aged and older tourists exploiting the luxury of the island's best hotels and spas.

However, things are changing. Madeira's promotion bureau is also targeting the younger UK market by talking up its sports and leisure facilities. The World Surfing Championships were held here in 2001. There is sailing and kayaking, paragliding, canyoning, trekking, diving and abseiling. It even has a legendary local hero; football star, Cristiano Ronaldo. There are boho side-streets with shop doors decorated with artistic images, welcoming hordes of young people into the small hours: as noisy as East London's Hoxton Square, but prettier. There's plenty of life after dark in the meaner streets of Madeira - something Rozita and Salo may not have seen.

But they would have seen the red aloe-vera flowers, the mimosa, pine and laurissilva, the black volcanic rock beside a white church, its spire glinting in the sun; exotic birds like the Madeira firecrest. They would have seen the ancient golden baroque church of Sao Jorje: pink and yellow houses built high into the mountains. And they would have tried the local honey cake dish maltier than our New Year delicacy; made of sugar cane molasses.

Getting there

Fly: TAP Portugal fly daily, Heathrow to Funchal, from £137 return incl taxes. 0845 601 0932
Stay: Double Superior at The Vine from €160.00 per night B&B, 00 351 291 009 000
Stay: Reid's Palace starts from £225 per room per night B&B and taxes, 0845 077 2222.

Promoters describe the island's atmosphere as "wellness". It is somehow redolent of 19th Century Europeans taking the waters in ancient spa towns. However, there is a singularly British element here. John Blandy arrived from Britain in 1807 and established the Blandy dynasty, producers of the famous Madeira wine in 1811. They developed the town and its economy and own hotels, factories, banks and vineyards. They produce one million bottles a year. The other economic booster was the island's famous embroidered linen, introduced by the English in the 19th Century.

The island, settled in 1419 during the Portuguese Age of Discovery, is an archipelago 400 km north of Tenerife in the North Atlantic Ocean. Created from a volcano which erupted six million years ago, it spewed the area with red lava and black volcanic ash. Tourists needn't worry, its last eruption was two million years ago.

Today, the island has a population of 250,000 and one million tourists arrive every year. It is a main source of income for an island affected by the depth of Portugal's debt and feeling the pinch of the Eurozone struggle.

Our first beauty and massage treatment followed a frantic journey in which we nearly missed our connecting flight from Lisbon. Our party of five women on a press tour were rescued by an officer in gold epaulettes - minus our luggage. All stress dissipated in the sauna and steam room in the Vine Hotel spa. The hotel's elegance was imaginative. Madeira's volcanic nature was reflected in massive dark plush cushions suggesting the island's rocky geology.

Our luggage arrived early next morning - in time for our jeep trip north-east to the Laurissilva Forest for which Madeira is named - island of wood. We did yoga beneath the beneficent gaze of a Christ carved from the rock - a near replica of the Buenos Aires version - and the less spiritual stares of Cristiano and colleague from the Mountain Expeditions Company.

A two-hour walk along the Levada do Castelejo followed. There are 600 miles of levadas, or aqueducts, constructed by the 15th Century settlers who rough-hewed part of the dense Laurissilva forest to divert water from the falls to the southern part of the island. As we walked we saw the terraces where farmers plant their crops to sell all year round. The area is lush with bananas, avocadoes, sugarcane and sugar beet, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple, loquat and mango. Everything grows longer and bigger in Madeira. Pumpkins ripen on red corrugated roofs; we watched black lambs, curious cats and a magnificent crowing cockerel caught in a thicket.

There is plenty of fish. The most famous is espada (scabbardfish) served with fried bananas, but there are several varieties of tuna often eaten with fried maize, and bolo do caco, a type of unleavened bread with garlic butter, tomato and onion soup. Our trip to the market, Mercado dos Lavradores, revealed huge elongated sea creatures draped like cloth; fish with the vicious teeth of dinosaurs, garoupa (grouper), salmonete (red mullet) and espada.

From Solar da Santola Marina, we took a catamaran and spotted bottle-nosed dolphins, though the pilot whale was more elusive, while sunbathing in temperatures of up to 20°C. A Columbus-style galleon idled in the ocean; a vivid reminder of the age of exploration. Funchal's promenade is lined with small modern sculptures between the low palm trees.

At Café Mozarte I can perfectly picture my Hungarian aunt Rozita. Green walls, paintings in gilded frames, violins on the wall, gilt mirrors and a Mozart piano sonata playing softly.

We gulped down the passion fruit soufflé with ice cream followed by a liqueur to catch the cable car down the mountain. Some prefer to roll down in a two-seater wickerwork sledge or basket two at a time, "driven" by carreirros in straw hats, who control the sledge with their boots. This eccentric transport system dates back to 1850, devised by merchants in a hurry to reach Funchal from Monte.

Before dinner in the hotel's Ristorante Villa Cipriani, two of us opted to view the sunset at Pico do Areeiro 1,880 meters high. Our driver, Ruben, took the hairpin bends at breakneck speed as the mountain landscape changed - no more aloe-vera but Scottish style gorse and heather.

The temperatures dropped below T-shirt comfort-zone, and here, the red line of the setting sun divided the hazy clouds beneath; a sight of ineffable splendour.

Perhaps Rozita and Salo experienced this vision silently together: perhaps holding hands.

    Last updated: 11:55am, March 15 2012