Sunday, 16 February 2014

Land Rovers And Levadas

Levada walks in Madeira

This is a post I wrote recently for a Travel Company...

With the reputation as one of the prettiest islands as well as the most sedate, Madeira has a few surprises up its sleeve when it comes to exploring the its countryside and history. The Portuguese, very rightly, love this little paradise and treasure its calmness, stillness and solitude. Night clubs are few and far between and the tourists most definitely fit into the older age bracket, but on a recent trip, I was able to explore two aspects of the island that may be less well known, getting well off the beaten track and into the beautiful countryside, making some wonderful discoveries and digging up some gold mines along the way.

Naturally, the very nature of the island lends itself to a diversity of flora, terrain and altitude and the million or so tourists that visit over the course of the year come for a variety of reasons, but as soon as I saw the Levada Walks and the Land Rover Safaris, I knew I would have to get out of the town of Funchal and into the hills.

The views from beyond the towns are quite stunning

Levada Walks

As a way to explore the island in a sedate manner and without too many extreme gradients, this is the best!

Levadas are the concrete waterways or aqueducts constructed over the years to supply the southern half of the island with water. There are over 40 kilometres of tunnels, many of which are still accessible today and over 2000 kilometres of walkable levadas around the island, and much of this is easy to walk, eminently accessible by local transport and many can be booked as an accompanied tour by English speaking guides who will share a wealth of information regarding the history, fauna and flora of the island. 

If you prefer, you can explore them alone and many maps of the walks, in easy sections of from 6 to 26 kilometres are available in the tourists centres. As always, it's a good idea to let someone from your hotel know where you'll be and try to choose walks initially, closer to civilisation in case of mishap. Take appropriate clothing too as the mountain mists can close in quickly, but if you stick to the walkways along the concrete levadas it's difficult to get lost. 

Wild Wood Sorrel - in January

Also take care of recent incidents that may have occurred along the way. Out of necessity these water ways are incredibly well maintained, but overnight tree falls and land slips do occur, so just watch your footing around these areas.

As you walk you will see the mountainous regions in all their glory; the bougainvillea and wild thyme, the cacti, mimosa and banana and the eucalyptus as well as all the other wonderful semi-tropical plants that abound on this wonderful island. The name Madeira means "Wood" in Portuguese. 

Other than birds and the odd feral cat, you won't see much fauna on your walks but you will see the farming layers built, in some cases, on shear cliff edges, the care and attention given to preparing the land for crops all year round is still very evident.

Take care as you go but do give them a try.

Stunning views along the Levadas

Land Rover Safaris

As the proud owner of a Defender myself, I just had to give these trips -  bookable almost anywhere - a go.

We booked two excursions; one was an out and out safari on all the back roads around the island, starting at the top of the highest mountain and hitting every puddle, every pothole and every sharp, wicked bend on the way down with stops for lunch (included) and coffee whenever our bones were too shaken to carry on.

The second was a 6 car trip up through the mountains to a linen factory and a local market, two surprisingly cheap and incongruously non-touristy stops as it was possible to experience. Lunch at the market - almost as much barbecued food as you could eat, washed down with the local beer and wine - cost only a couple of euros a head - wonderful value, and a lively local market to look at into the bargain.

Stuck in a ditch - but still immense fun!

 On this trip we also hit pot holes and ditches and yours truly had to get out with the chain saw to help clear the way when we hit a ditch the hard way and during the afternoon our vehicle suffered not one, but two punctures - great fun!

The tiered fields for crops....

The guides and drivers were friendly, helpful and full of mischief. They were accommodating, high spirited - but safe! They knew the limits of the vehicles and the terrain and we felt comfortable in their hands - as comfortable as you can in a Defender.

So if you want to get out and about, explore the island, meet the locals and see the real Madeiran wildlife - just ask your tour guide, your hotel receptionist or your local Tourist Information Office  - and go explore!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


Still the King - in 74

Until 4th March Ted Heath will be Prime Minister and after that Harold Wilson will lead a coalition government and us through the final few hours of the three day weeks  that have been with us since January.

Manchester United will be relegated from what was then the first division to the second and Alf Ramsey will be dismissed as England Manager after 11 years in charge. Don Revie will take over. And Tom Baker will take over from Jon Pertwee as The Doctor. You can decide which was the most important event of those last two. 

In December Monty  Python will screen its last episode. For a 16 year old boy, the demise of the Python was devastating news, whereas the news that Wilson would win a majority in the second election of the year was less so.

Yes, I was sixteen in 1974 and pretty much all I was interested in was music - and girls - of course.

But, for me, the love of music had just begun in earnest. Last year's release of Dark Side of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Close To The Edge and albums by Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield - these were pretty much all I played - prog rock and rock, but I was still weening myself off  Sweet and other glam rock stars like Bolan and (I'm embarrassed to mention him, seriously embarrassed..) Alvin Stardust.

'Fragile' by Yes had opened my eyes to 'real' music and 'Dark Side of The Moon' - one of the greatest selling albums of all time - became the most played record in my house....until 1975 saw the release of 'Wish You Were Here' which remains my favourite album of all time.

My Mam loved Elvis - who was still King in 1974 - and the Who were a secondary, less favoured favourite band who could not be ignored. Queen were working on their second album, Kiss on their first and Bruce Springsteen was a virtual unknown in the UK. Rush had just released the eponymous first album as had The Ramones and Bad Company, but on the down side 1974 saw the Arrival of Abba.

I find it so hard to believe that this important aspect of my life - all these musical events - happened 40 years ago. I still listen to all these albums virtually everyday, including Daltry's intonation of "Hope I die before I get old" - he didn't - others did! I hear Pink Floyd constantly, in my car my bedroom on my laptop but I daren't turn on the radio for fear of auricular invasion of a more insidious sort - bands who can't play an instrument; stars made for television, but even then every so often a Gary Barlow comes along, from a Boy Band to a songwriter and talent - much to my surprise - who knew he had talent? So not all is lost. 

Will we ever find another Bob Dylan? Probably not - the Times They Have a Changed - for better or worse, but that's ok. I was there at the birth of Rock, Prog Rock and the Talent Explosion of the 70's, and I can still listen to it whenever I like and where ever I like. Too old to die young as the tee shirt says but never too old to listen to, discover or be shown great music. May it always be that way.

So many of my heroes have died, many whom I thought would live for ever - Elvis especially, but with fame comes added pressure in a precious life already full of pitfalls and obstacles. Then, as I grew older and grow older, natural death also takes away my precious stars, superstars and childhood memories. I shall enjoy it all while I can, I will still cry when another hero leaves us and I hope still to be shocked when new talent rises, phoenix like from the ashes of dead TV-made stars and boy/girl bands or completely from the Blue (no pun intended) - another Jake Bugg perhaps or a Laura Marling, maybe an Adele.

But no more Justin Bieber eh?