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Hanging over the Cliff

Updated: Aug 31



Touchdown in Funchal began with a rousing applause for the pilot. I was unaware that the airport is considered one of the most peculiarly perilous airports in the world due to its location and its spectacular runway. I was too busy watching the beautiful landscapes as we were approaching.


But then I came to know that this airport received the Outstanding Structure Award in 2004 for its structural engineering. Now called Cristiano Ronaldo International, as the famous soccer star was born in Madeira, it is ranked it as the ninth most dangerous airport in the world and the third most dangerous in Europe. It is a visual approach only, for strong quickly changing winds, a short runway, it means it is not unusual for more than one approach. Pilots must undergo additional training to land at this airport. I was told even after 200 hours of flying into this airport as co-pilot, they then can apply to take the additional pilots training.


It is built out over the sea with 120 massive, reinforced pillars bridging two peninsulas to stretch that runway. This should give you a true glimpse of Madeira; there is no place on this mountainous island flat enough to build an airport.


Madeira is of course, the name of a place and the name of a wine. I came looking for the wine, but the place is incredible. The pure nature is spellbindingly spectacular just jutting up from the Atlantic seabed. Actually, it has the highest cliffs in Europe, make note Pico Ruivo is at 6100 feet but, it’s not really in Europe as it is over 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.


This volcanic upwelling was discovered centuries ago and was colonized in 1419 by merchant explorers. Within 25 years they were exporting wine. Why? Because it was settled by people from Northern Portugal who knew how to build those terraces on the steep cliffs using “poios” stone walls – remember these were people from the Douro Valley with its terraced vineyards flanking the Douro River. They also brought their wine varieties. One of the ships also brought the noble Malvasia grape from either Cyprus or Crete, which quickly acclimated. A note of history, the name Madeira in Portuguese means “wooded” as the island was covered in trees.


Madeira is a fortified wine from about 6 different grapes, but the real difference that sets it apart is the method in which it is created. It didn’t start off as a fortified wine, but during shipping, rocking and rolling, and the heat below deck….it took on a new character and people took note.


Probably the most consequential event was the Methuen Treaty signed in 1703 between Portugal and England for favorable trade. This really got wine barrels sailing the high seas. At the time, the island of Madeira was a vital provisioning point for journeys to the Americas and the East Indies and shippers would load up on Madeira wine on their way to England and the Americas. The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed through the tropics. Shippers noticed how the wine’s flavor deepened and became better and called this sea-aging “Vinho da Roda.” The heating creates a wine with fascinating flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee.


Madeira became very popular especially in the Americas. The thing about Madeira is that it can virtually last forever while maintaining freshness and delicious flavor profile. Actually, even after hundreds of years, I think more people recognize the name associated with the wine, then the island. For such a popular product you would be surprised that there are only about a thousand acres of vineyards and only eight producers/exporters registered on the island. They are Vinhos Barbeito, Henriques & Henriques, Justinho Henriques, Pereira D'Oliveira, H. M. Borges, J. Faria & Filhos, P. E. Gonçalves and the Madeira Wine Company, as the Madeira Wine Association has been known since 1981.


The famous Blandy family is unique in being the only family of all the original founders of the Madeira wine trade starting in 1811, that still owns and manages their own original wine company. Throughout its long history on the island, the family has played a leading role in the development of Madeira wine. When I met with them, I was told they work with over 500 small families who sell their grapes to Blandy’s. They offer a wonderful visit and tasting.


I was intrigued by the name “Rainwater Madeira”, an inexpensive 3-year-old style for cooking or cocktails. There are two main theories as to why it is called Rainwater Madeira. The first of these is that the wine was made from vineyards that were very steep and inaccessible and therefore very difficult to irrigate and thus the vineyards were dependent on rainwater for moisture. Or the second theory is that a Madeira shipment sent to the USA for merchant William Neyle Habersham, was left on the dockside in Savannah, Georgia for an extended period of time in the rain. The wooden barrels absorbed the rainwater and it is believed this diluted the Madeira. When Habersham initially complained about the Madeira but soon realized that he actually quite liked the wine and a new type of Madeira was born – Rainwater Madeira – which quickly became very popular in the USA. No one is really sure which was “true”.


Though the wine side was important, it was equally important to get out of Funchal and explore. My suggestion is to rent a car and traverse. There is an excellent road system with over 100 tunnels cutting through mountains and every time you come out—there are more breathtaking views. It is easy to circumnavigate the island with little fishermen’s villages, beaches and stunning curved coastlines. But the center of the island is another world.


In 1999 the UNESCO world heritage named Laurisilva of Madeira an outstanding relict of a previously widespread laurel forest type. It is the largest surviving area of laurel forest and is believed to be 90% primary forest. It contains unique plants and animals in the landscape. The Laurisilva of Madeira is within the Parque Natural da Madeira and conserves the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest or "laurisilva", a vegetation type that is now confined only to the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. These forests display a wealth of ecological riches, intact ecosystem processes, and play a predominant role in maintaining the hydrological balance on the Island of Madeira. Hiking in this park treats you to almost mysterious vibes with midst and clouds floating by.


Another place that is a must to visit in the exact heart of the island is Curral das Freiras, a small village nestled on the side of a perpendicular mountain overlooking a very deep valley. Obviously, a crater of one of the extinct volcanos. Though it is home today of about only two thousand it has a marvelous history. It is called the Valley of the Nuns. The Santa Clara Convent was built in the late 16th century in Funchal, by the second captain-major of Funchal, João Gonçalves da Câmara, in the vicinity of his father's residence, to gather the daughters of the local nobility. But the nuns had to escape and hide from pirates when they attacked the coast, thus they fled to this valley for safety. They definitely picked the place with the best views. There are no nuns there now I’m afraid, but they did leave Paróquia de Nossa Senhora do Livramento, a beautiful baroque chapel and the home where they stayed, is now a small museum.


And one last place to hike is Ponta de São Lourenço on the easternmost point of the island of Madeira and is one of the last nearly untouched places. Its terrain is made up of a fantastic combination of rocks, sea and herbaceous vegetation, with 31 being indigenous to Madeira Island. The limestone and basalt peninsula with two islets out at the tip jut way out to sea creating one of Mother Nature’s masterpieces. You can climb up the rocks and see very little evidence of man’s changes to the island. There are excellent views over both the northern and southern sides of the island and, when the weather conditions allow it, you can even see Porto Santo Island.


Time to head back to Funchal and enjoy a glass of Madeira sitting on the rocky promontory jutting into the sea of Reid’s Palace terrace. This five-star hotel has been serving visitors to Madeira for over 125 years in luxury and tinged with a bit of nostalgia. You can actually in vision Winston Churchill sitting in that wicker chair painting the craggy cliff vista…. He came to Madeira to write his memoirs. I have gotten just a taste of Madeira, literally and figuratively.


Interesting article about long lasting Madeira- https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/14/537276241/new-jersey-museum-holds-a-stash-221-year-old-madeira-wine



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