The Nicodems do Madeira

Part 3 of our European Adventure (click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2):

If Granada was our place to rest and recuperate from the winter chill and the hustle of an urban setting, then the next place we visited was the answer to any sluggishness that comes with having wine at 2pm everyday and basking in the Spanish sun with a good book: the Portuguese island of Madeira. It also happened to be a ten-year old "bucket list" wish for Marianne, having spent a year in Brazil when she was 18 and dreaming of visiting one of the Portuguese islands ever since. So in early February we left the peace of our rooftop in Granada and took a tiny plane out into the middle of the Atlantic to see what adventures there were to be had on Madeira.

It's safe to say that there is nowhere on this earth quite like Madeira. It is equal parts Ireland (vibrant green and constant drizzle), Portugal (ever heard of Madeira wine or Carnaval?), and that island from the TV show "Lost" (sans polar bears). Volcanic cliffs rise almost 1,800 feet into the air (the highest cliffs in all of Europe), natural salt water swimming pools line the north coast, and centuries old stone irrigation channels have been transformed into breathtaking hiking paths through the islands interior. We set out to do a little bit of everything.

To begin, let me say that if ever you visit Madeira, it pays to speak Portuguese. And thanks to Marianne and her linguistic abilities, we were able to navigate the island via public transportation, a feat that consists of asking over and over "where exactly does this bus leave from" and getting 10 different replies. On our first day we decided to leave our AirBnB in Funchal, the main city, and take a bus as far east as it would take us, and then hike out the rest of the way as far as we could before the island tapered off into a series of progressively smaller rock formations jutting out of the ocean. It was a six hour hike in total (as seen in the first 8 images below), with rain coming in and out. Few things have ever taken my breath away so much as standing as close to the edge of these cliffs as my adrenaline would let me, and staring eastward over the Atlantic, watching the island narrow down as if pointing like an arrow towards the coast of Morocco some 360 miles away.

Our third day we traversed the entire island by bus to Porto Moniz, a small town on the northernmost point of Madeira and home to dozens of naturally filled saltwater pools, scattered amongst the volcanic outcroppings along the coast. Naturally, I brought my bathing suit and jumped in, despite the stares of locals and other tourists bundled in their rain jackets (apparently they've never been to Chicago during our winter...we know what cold is). I wasn't about to miss out on climbing around and jumping off of every little cliff I could surrounding the crystal clear pools. 

All of this adventure led up to Day 5: a full day hike in the interior of Madeira, from the island's second tallest peak up to the summit of its tallest. We woke up early on the morning of the hike (you have to start early enough because by mid-day the peaks are completely covered in clouds, that's how tall they are) and joined a handful of others and our guide, ready to conquer. Now, imagine with me that you are walking down a cobblestoned sidewalk, with two thin wires on either side as handrails. But then imagine that instead of grass on either side, this sidewalk simply drops off down sheer cliffs. Now you understand what our hike was like. To go up we first had to go down, through tunnels and valleys and all the while saying to each other "this is unbelievable...this is unbelievable" and trying not to look down either side. And true to what we were told, by the time we reached the very highest peak on the island (after what felt like days of climbing staircase after staircase carved into the side of the mountain) the clouds began to roll in around and below us. It's a strange experience, looking down at the clouds as if from an airplane, as we sat eating our well-earned sack lunches. 

We finally decided to take it easy on our last day on the island, with a catamaran trip to see dolphins and an early dinner and good seats for that evening's Carnaval parade down the main street of Funchal. The following day we flew back to the mainland, exhausted in the best way possible and in awe of what we'd just experienced. If you ever get the chance to visit the Portuguese islands, Madeira is a must. And if not, crack open a bottle of Madeira wine and we hope these images can at least momentarily transport you there. Enjoy! We'll share about the rest of our time in Lisbon, Portugal in the coming weeks.


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