The Madeira Islands

The Madeira Islands

Thank god we left the Porto hotel before it got light and the roads got crowded! The airport was not well marked. We missed a turn and couldn’t find a place to turn back for a while. And then, there was no one at the car rental place–just a locked drop box for keys. Ugh.

At the airport, I watched a woman pray–with a gold book held up to her nose with both hands and an orange scarf over her head. When she finished, she wrapped the book in the scarf and tucked it into the small suitcase with her.

We arrived in Funchal, capital city of The Madeira Islands, landing on the stilted runway just after 9 a.m.  We rented a car and headed out to the verdant terraces of Madeira.

Our route around one of four Madeira Islands
Our route around one of four Madeira Islands

Stunning scenery and twisting roads up to Pico do Arieiro. At 6,000+ feet this is the place to see ALL of the island from the highest vantage point. We checked in to our great room with a balcony, had some of the fresh fruit they welcomed us with and went for a walk on the mountain-top miradouro.

I planted myself at the look-out point above the cloudline. I sat there alone for about 30 minutes–listening to the wind, to the misty clouds, and to the birds’ aerodynamic swoosh as they passed close by. It was incredibly peaceful up there…the rocks warm on my butt, the air cooling me, and the sun toasting me. I looked for an answer on that mountain. An answer to my life’s questions. Nothing came but peace.

Carol alone on the Pico do Arieiro
Carol alone on the Pico do Arieiro

We had a nice dinner there and were up and out for sunrise over the island at 5:20 a.m. Sounds of wind, full sky with all the stars. The sun finally greeted us at 6:15 a.m.

We spent the next few days driving around Madeira…the roads were frightening. Cliffsides, narrow, rocky, speedy drivers, huge buses, and tunnels.

Santana had the parrot saying “Hola!”, laughing like a crazy person, and crying like a baby.

Seixal was a lot of vibrant green terraces carved into a hill above the Atlantic and we caught some rain there. It smelled of dampness on that Saturday night. Families gathered in the tiny little streets to drink, eat and talk. We heard footsteps and kids behind the shutters way into the night. Bryan saw a line for bread the next morning–a long, patient line of people waiting in the rain for loaves of bread.

Seixal
Seixal
Seixal Terraces
Seixal Terraces
Riberia Brava
Riberia Brava

We drove out and into the middle of the island for walk in their rain forest of Rabacal. We hiked for a bit in the mist. Later we stopped at an unexpected, out of the mist, Jungle Rain Cafe (think Portuguese Rain Forest Cafe, with Italian food). I picked out a Sao Roque patron saint medal (patron saint of dogs) and one clerk asked another how to say “thank you” in English. :)  I used my very best “Obrigada!”

Our best days and nights in Madeira were the last few. We got to Riberia Brava and checked into a great little hotel with a balcony over a parking lot and the ocean. There was a nice bottle of wine from the shop and a take out pizza and we hung out on the balcony for a while. We spent a lot of time at the rocky beach too. The sea glass and sea pottery opportunity was lovely–and I collected and walked and photographed for hours.

The view from our room in Riberia Brava
The view from our room in Riberia Brava
Carol collecting sea glass at Funchal beach
Carol collecting sea glass at Funchal beach

In Funchal, we enjoyed the old mansion B&B with it’s port selection. A proper Madeiran lady with far-away eyes and a neat grey dress ran that big old mansion with the resident tea-cup chihuahua. The first time I saw that little dog, he was sitting in his owner’s lap picking meat off a chicken bone that she held for him. The terrace was nice overlooking Funchal–we spent time out there for meals, dainty servings of stiff port in tiny, delicate stemmed glasses, and games of cribbage

We walked up the steep hill to the top (Monte) for the basket toboggan ride down. Near the beginning of the walk up, we passed an elderly lady walking very, very slowly up the hill. We respectfully nodded as we hurried past. About 10 minutes later, we were huffing and puffing and could barely walk, when we noticed the lady passing us–still at her slow steady pace. She smiled and nodded as she passed. Hmmm. There’s a life lesson in that.

The toboggan ride was fun. It’s a flexible basket resembling a sled, but on greased metal bars. Two men dressed immaculately in white pants and shirts with little boy hats pull it along with ropes, then jump on and ride while they guide the buggy down into town–over the streets and down the winding hill. Such a strange experience on a little island out at sea…600 miles from Lisbon, and 544 miles from Casablanca.

Funchal toboggans
Funchal toboggans

We spent a long time on the beach–listening to the waves roll in and scramble the rocks back down for another go, sipping sangria and hunting sea glass.

And the last night, we watched the lights come on down in Funchal from the balcony. And like that, the trip was over. We flew home through Lisbon to Heathrow and on to Chicago on Wednesday 6/13/01.

Madiera Flag
Madiera Flag
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Vila Real and Porto

Vila Real and Porto

After Buçaco, we lost interest in Portugal. I hate to say it. The north was beautiful with its terraced vineyards, with homes clinging to the steep hills. Rivers run below the high roads. But Brownie and Buçaco were heavy on my mind.

We stayed one night in Vila Real–at an odd little hotel called Hotel Mira Corgo. The highlight there was the young waiter who proudly told us about the delicious “veggie-tables”. It was one of those priceless sayings that we use to this day. And by the way, the white asparagus and mushrooms were excellent!

Casa de Mateus
Casa de Mateus

In this area, we stopped at Casa de Mateus–to see the cedar tunnel. This was an old house, with fantastic gardens to tour. The cedar tunnel was planted in 1941, and now the aromatic tunnel is 115 feet long, 25 feet high and they’ve built curved ladders to groom the outside of the tunnel. It is so dense that I cannot imagine it rains on the inside. We got to enjoy the swimming pool at Vila Real for a little bit and then headed up to Porto.

Porto was disappointing to me. The Hotel S. Jose front desk lady was rude; she pointed at my Life is Good t-shirt (which had a dog on it), and said “we don’t allow dogs”. Me: “I don’t have a dog with me.” She: “Fine. Ok.” Me: ??? And then there was an odd moment about the parking (She: “we don’t have parking.” Me: “you said you did when we called to make the reservation. Look, here. It’s on the confirmation.” She: “Fine, ok.”) She and the stiff air-conditioned room were shocks to our systems.

In Porto
In Porto
Porto's Train Station
Porto’s Train Station

We spent a few hours seeing the sites and then back to the hotel to repack. Tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. we were off to the Madeira Islands.

Porto's tile
Porto’s tile
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Buçaco (Bussaco) and Brownie the tour guide

Buçaco and Brownie the tour guide

The route North in Portugal
The route North in Portugal

What an amazing place! The Buçaco Palace Hotel Luso–how do I begin to describe the 260 acres of ancient trees and immaculate gardens, lots of trails to walk through the forest, and an ornate, luscious old hotel with gargoyles and icing-carved details all around?

We walked and hiked this place for days. It used to be a monastery, where silent monks planted and tended the gardens. Stations of the cross little houses are hidden on the trails–coated in vines, filled with life-size clay figures (some broken), and among 300-year-old trees. There are quiet places to sit and meditate in the cool shade among sunbeams sneaking in the canopy of trees. This would turn out to be a highlight of our trip…primarily because of a little brown dog with extra toes. We called her Brownie.

Buçaco Palace Hotel
Buçaco Palace Hotel
Buçaco Palace Hotel
Buçaco Palace Hotel
Lovely little Brownie
Lovely little Brownie
Brownie with Bryan
Brownie with Bryan

On our very first hike, we were greeted steps out the front door by this scrappy little caramel-colored girl dog with floppy ears, extra toes, brown nose and beguiling amber brown eyes. She let us pet her, and then turned briskly away, walking ahead and looking back at us to follow her. We did. We kept up with her, up the steep rocky paths into the woods and up to a stunning view down to the hotel. Each time we followed her into the woods, we traced our journey on the trail map the hotel had given us–but never once needed the map to find our way. We just followed Brownie as she walked the paths to some of the most stunning and isolated viewspoints. She came back for us if she got too far ahead and waited for us while we stopped to admire a tree or a view. This went on for 2 days. We took her, and “Joe” the German Shepherd, breakfast, lunch, and dinner scraps as payment. We walked in the mornings, afternoons and evenings too, playing with Brownie in the hotel courtyard and letting her guide us to see all the trails at Buçaco. This dog was happy, sweet, independent and playful. I wanted to rescue her–take her home and began to work it out in my mind. I knew though that she would not be happy on a 6 ft. leash in a 1,000 square foot apartment in Chicago with 3 other dogs. We ate a lot of meals outside in order to share them with Brownie and Joe. They gave us great happiness, and I think they enjoyed our company too.

Buçaco Windows
Buçaco Stairwell Window
Buçaco's dining hall
Buçaco’s dining hall

The hotel was so beautiful, empty foyers, empty stairwells–massive and marble. It was filled with chandeliers, stained glass, and wood work. And our bathroom! Spacious! The toilet, tub and sink seemed lost in the big echoey room.

We spent most every waking moment out with the dogs. There was a cascading walk of 10 terraces (steps numbered: 8-16-16-16-15-15-15-14-14-13) with a fountain running between the dual walkways. There was a 357-year-old cedar (planted in 1644 and now supported by an iron gate and cords tying it to earth) and a massive Tasmanian eucalyptus planted in 1876–and I do mean massive, straight-as-an-arrow and at a horseshoe bend in the road. The trunk couldn’t have been circled by 7 people holding hands…maybe 8 or 10.

One afternoon, we went out to walk and Brownie was nowhere in sight. We called, whistled…nothing. We began our walk–distracted and dampened by not having Brownie with us. As we neared the mid-point of the walk, Brownie raced past us on the path. Instantly brightening our day with her spunky look back at us. One day we went to nearby Coimbra for groceries to picnic with and picked the dogs up McDonald’s cheeseburgers…THAT was a hit!

On the final morning, we found them curled together beside a hedge. Stretching and smiling as we brought them breakfast scraps. We took a long slow walk to the Coimbra Gate enjoying both Joe and Brownie’s company that morning. I cannot describe the sadness I felt driving away that afternoon, looking back in the rear view mirror as the two of them sat by the steps of the hotel wagging their tails at other guests. Right before leaving, I met another lady who had saved her bacon for them too. :)

Brownie with Bryan
Brownie with Bryan

I wonder where they are today. And if they are safe, happy and healthy. They were angels.
As all dogs are.

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Through Obidos to Tomar

Through Obidos to Tomar

We were driving north to Tomar where the Knights of Templar lived in austerity. As it turned out, I much preferred the tiny white town we passed through called Obidos.

The sunny day made the Obidos white lane homes sparkle. Flowers cascaded from flower boxes. Narrow alleys hid little shops with unique pottery. And a sharp S-curve gate house made cars slow to a crawl entering the small town. Really wished we could have spent more time there.

Obidos Miradoura
Obidos Miradoura
Obidos Lane
Obidos Lane

We drove a long while to reach Tomar and our hotel (Pousada de Sao Pedro) overlooking the dam. It’s a rather posh little hotel and restaurant. We ate a good meal there with the local Tomar Convento de Cristo vinho tinto (red wine), and then wandered half way across the dam before I got a little nervous about the whole theory of a dam holding all that water back. I practically scurried back to the side.

Tomar Plaza
Tomar Plaza
Around Tomar
Around Tomar

The next day was a beautiful sunny day. We walked a bit around the square, visited a pet store, watched people feed the pigeons and then headed out for our drive to Buçaco–which would turn out to be a highlight of our trip.

Tomar tiles
Tomar tiles
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Sintra

Sintra

Unlike our start to Evora, we drove straight to our Pensao (Hotel Jardim) in Sintra. This was some hilly terrain, trees shading the curving streets. We stayed at a charming old house–a villa really–with 12 foot ceilings, 10 foot doors, old pine floors, french doors opening onto a small veranda of green wrought iron, and a bathroom with a western window opening out to the castle–which allowed you to bathe privately in the sun. The grounds had a romantic old pool, long and thin, surrounded by cedars, mountains, and a garden. It was peaceful and quiet. Obrigada!

We unloaded the car, packed our backpacks and hiked up, up, up to Castelo de Mouras. After we passed the house lanes by Santa Maria–tiny lanes and short houses tucked into the alleys, we got into dappled shade, passing moss-covered rocks and big trees. Up, up, up. Sweating, aching calves. Up, up, up! Finally arriving at the Palacio de Pena grounds to look up and see this eye candy of a castle.

Along the walk up, up, up to Pena Palace
Along the walk up, up, up to Pena Palace
Bryan & Carol at Pena Palace
Bryan & Carol at Pena Palace

Pena Palace is–to this day–my favorite of all castles! It was described in tour books as a “crazy casserole”. It is all different styles–Gothic, Moorish, Victorian, Bavarian, lots of Neptune and sea themes too. Colors of bright yellow, deep reds, vivid blues–tiles, stucco, bricks. Red steeples, golden domes, yellow turrets. Windows of all shapes and sizes–each with elaborate carvings. A little of everything.

Pena Palace Window Moorish
Pena Palace Window Moorish
Pena Palace window Gothic
Pena Palace window Gothic
Pena Palace Window Neptune
Pena Palace Window Neptune

Inside we saw it’s “charming intimacy” in each of the rooms. One room–a teak room with white gothic reliefs had a chandelier resembling a morning glory vine in full, dripping bloom. Other rooms were filled to the brim with tapestries in rich colors. Rooms were painted deep teals, or terra cottas, or covered in blood-red damask. Some walls were covered in mosaics or in frescoes of art nouveau ladies. The queen’s room was a dizzying relief pattern, repeated on the walls and ceiling in carved and colored detail…and mimicked by the lace, feathers and ornate chairs filling the room. There was an inner courtyard, with verandas all around and cool tiles, shaded ferns and bubbling fountains. The dinner table was gushingly set for 12 with 7 glasses at each place setting. There was too much to see. I bought the book to absorb it all. This was originally a monastery, about 500 years ago. Later (in the mid-1800s) Dom Fernando decided to turn it into the fantasy that it is today. Rumour is that his mistress (later his wife) buried all the jewels in the Pena Palace garden. Buried treasure or not, the place is a treasure.

Pena Palace medley
Pena Palace medley
Pena Palace Moorish
Pena Palace Moorish
Pena Palace view from the guard house
Pena Palace view from the guard house
In Sintra
In Sintra

The first morning in Sintra, I sat out on the veranda gazing at the misty valley and the narrow blue-tiled pool below the villa. The place seemed quite mysterious and serene. We picknicked in our room one afternoon. Wine, cheese, and the good old stand-by: frango pastries.

Pena Palace tiles
Pena Palace tiles

We would end our two days in Sintra by driving the “ring”. Driving was interesting….One lane, two-ways, narrow and curving. Leaving busy Sintra on a quiet Sunday morning was a good idea. We went past the Arab Fountain where locals filled their gallon jugs (despite signs warning them of “inconsistent water”), by the ornate Palace Hotel, and stopped to visit the “recuperating” Monserrate villa before going out to the Cabo da Roca (western most point of mainland Europe).

The Arab Fountain
The so-called Arab Fountain

We had Monserrate to ourselves that morning. It was lonely with its intricate ric-rac decorations around the exterior, peeling paint and overtaking vines. The grounds were lush with old, giant trees–one 10 foot diameter trunk had bundles of broom-like branches hanging down to the ground like a giant umbrella. We explored a crumbled chapel with tree roots taking over. The place made me feel inconsequential. I wondered if I sat really still on a stone, how long before a tree root enveloped me?

Monserrate
Monserrate: Lovely and Lonely

Our next stop would be Obidos on our way to Tomar and Buçaco.

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