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New Year on the Garden Isle

8 Jan

In that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year the best thing to do is go on holiday. The weather in the UK is invariably rubbish, everyone is comatose and intending to stay that way until forced back to work the following week.

To avoid a coma this year, my two travel companions and I chose to visit the small Atlantic island of Madeira, owned by Portugal and part of the archipelago that includes the Canaries, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and several other small islands I never knew existed, off the west coast of Africa. Without any preconceptions I went with an open mind and was really pleasantly surprised.

It is larger than I expected (about the size of east and west Sussex together) and green. Mostly hilly, a touch mountainous, the inhabitants cling to the edges wherever there is a bit of flat land, or indeed just build a house precariously into the rock face.  It is pleasantly warm even in winter, although there is a persistent strong wind. Huge surging waves crash dramatically against craggy cliffs. I suppose it is quite exposed sitting there off the African coast. Because of this location it is classed as sub-tropical.

Bananas and sugar cane grow in abundance; the sugar once providing the island’s main source of income, and was considered the finest and sweetest in the world back in the 18th and  19th centuries, its real hey day.

Booze

Also back then the island’s Madeira wine was considered a prize product, shipped all over the world it was used to toast the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence. What an impressive provenance. The wine is still revered.  Sipped at any given opportunity during the day, we found it goes well with their honey cake and avocado, but then again what doesn’t these days! Then there’s the 50% proof rum – or rather, their traditional rum-based drink – Poncha. It is a lethal mix of rum, sugar, honey and orange and/or lemon. Made to order by the specialist little roadside bar (?!) in Sao Vicente it is delicious, sweet and punchy.

Funchal

This is the capital which means “fennel” in Portuguese, a throw back to its past. It’s a pretty city to spend a day.  Starting at the harbour side, check out Madeira’s most famous son, Christiano Ronaldo’s museum, nightclub and hotel. And pose next to his statue with all the enthralled kids, big and small. The cruise ships flock to this island and there is always a behemoth moored in port. The cable car starts here and will whisk you sedately to Monte, where you can spend a very pleasurable hour or so wandering through the Tropical Gardens where there are thousand year old olive trees planted by the Romans and examples of garden design and plants from all over the world. Then check out the impressive church up here before jumping into a wicker basket and careering down the super-steep hills, guided by two old drunk men who ply you for an extra tip after you have parted with 45 euros for the 5 minute pleasure. It’s a thrilling experience that, like the gondolas in Venice, just has to be given a go. Then if you don’t want to get a taxi from the touts at the toboggan stop be intrepid (or foolish) and give your quads a workout back down to the city centre.  Time for more Poncha to aid recovery.

Try to visit the Madeira Story Centre, one of the best museums I have visited, it gives an interesting and well presented insight into the history of the island from its violent volcanic start millions of years ago, up to the present day tourist industry. Winston Churchill and other world leaders and celebrities of their time stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel and you can see their signatures in the guest book.  It’s all very ‘Raffles’.

If you get seriously peckish, head away from the main harbour area into the winding narrow alleyways  behind it, paved with marble and basalt, and try a local taverna. And try out their famed fish dishes. Black Scabbard and Amberjack, preferably on a barbecue, they are delicious, as are tuna and lobster. Seafood pasta or seafood rice are served in huge casseroles and resemble a tasty stew stuffed with fresh tender sea life of all kinds. Mop it up with Bolo da caco, the local garlic bread and some crisp white wine. Food in Madeira is always delicious and well made. There seem to be a great many talented chefs on the island. They must be being held hostage or something. They could easily win prizes in London or New York if they ventured outside their island but thankfully for us tourists they don’t and so we eat extremely well!

Dizzy

Another detour can be made to Cabo Girao, a 580m high skywalk over the edge of a sheer cliff it is the second highest in the world and my sweaty palms and increased heart rate attested to that. Fantastic views.

But do make sure to get away from the coast and head inland. It is truly spectacular in there, with the mountains rising jagged and imposing all around you as your vehicle roars up those steep hills, over rocky, bumpy off-road tracks higher and higher, 1,500m into the clouds. The views are amazing. The villagers appear unfazed by the steepness and narrowness of every road. The island is volcanic in origin and so is very fertile, and they grow every vegetable and fruit you can imagine, here and there having built terraces to create every opportunity to make some flat land on which to grow stuff.

Natural

Funchal is on the south side of the island, which is hot and dry. The north is completely different, cold and wet. Very dense and green with indigenous laurel trees, and with an enviable bio-diversity, it is truly beautiful, a bit reminiscent of England in fact. The Romans wanted to harness the natural rainfall and cloud cover in the north and direct it to the habitations in the south and so they built the “lavada” system. It is really just a network of irrigation channels that one can now use to walk along beside in order to enjoy the countryside of the island, they provide a natural pathway to follow that can last a few minutes to over 19km if you’re fit and adventurous. They are still maintained by an army of workers and are a real benefit to the island. They still work perfectly well and are constantly full of clean, fresh water, a testament to their ancient inventors’ harnessing of the island’s natural resources.

2017

Back to Funchal for the new year’s celebrations. The town puts on a huge firework display in the harbour and from the hills surrounding it, that it is a true 360 degree spectacular. The nine cruise ships that stopped to enjoy the show all blasted their horns on the stroke of midnight and we happily toasted in 2017 with a convivial and the good natured crowd including families all around us. It was gentle and colourful and for that, one of the most pleasant ways to say good bye to the old and to welcome the new.

HAPPY NEW YEAR – and obrigado Madeira!

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Bugsy – an odyssey

1 Sep

The start of a beautiful friendship

On 5 November 1989, before I had even passed my driving test, I bought myself a pristine white 1971 VW Beetle.  After resolutely deciding that would be my ideal dream car and hankering after one for years, I searched the local papers (because there were no online auction sites or even internet back then) desperately searching for my Beetle.

Dad found the listing in the Friday Ad and on his way back from work one cold wet day all those years ago, he phoned the owner and went to view the car.  In his words, when the garage door was opened, he gasped in amazement at this thing of beauty and he knew right away his daughter had to have it.  He immediately paid the £100 deposit and promised I would be back that weekend to pick her up.  Deal done. ’80s style!

So with my best friend in tow, and mum the designated driver, I went to Crawley to collect my Beetle.  It was dark, raining again and I was beside myself with excitement.  I handed over my hard-earned pounds from the summer job I had relentlessly undertaken a few months before, and mum drove us all home.

My life in Bugsy

Since that day Bugsy and I have been inseparable.

During my college years before I got my full driving licence, as long as someone was in the car who had passed their test I could drive her.  My friend Jenny was a year older and had passed so four of us usually crammed in and bombed up and down the A23.  I also held down two part-time jobs and Bugsy was my lifeline. Then at University Bugsy became my symbol.  My friends knew I was around when they saw Bugsy parked up.  I adored her and my friends have happy memories of her too. Nev, you know who you are.

Naturally, we joined a posse of various like-minded young things in their VDubs and vans to enjoy Bug Jam and Run to the Sun from 1991 to 1995.  Those were my formative years and Bugsy was my entry ticket to the cool crowd.  She was always reliable; she never ever broke down.  Sometimes I had to park her on top of a hill in order to bump start her on cold mornings when the battery was getting old but that was part of being a penniless, but fearless student.  She was a magnet for interested, cool young dudes who wanted to impress me with their knowledge of Beetle working parts, and I let them! Why not enjoy the attention?  Bugsy certainly did.

My poor, tireless dad also spent many hours tinkering with her in the garage, when I wasn’t meticulously washing, T-Cutting and polishing her.  I spent many hours at various VW shows and drooling over Volks World magazine at what Bugsy could become if or when I had a bit of money to spend.  Mum pleaded with me not to lower her or mess with her as she was perfectly unique in every way.  I secretly agreed, whilst protesting that she could look “so cool” with EMPIs and a massive sound system.  Thankfully lack of funds put paid to my project dreams and she remains just the same as she did when she rolled off the production line all those years ago. Although all her wings, the bumpers and doors have been changed over the years due to various scrapes we have been involved in.

The worst was in 1996 whilst I was at law school.  Some dickhead, distracted whilst putting out his cigarette, rammed into the back of her at a roundabout.  I got severe whiplash whilst Bugsy was almost written off by the insurers.  I pleaded with them to repair her and they eventually agreed.  It’s amazing what a mother will do to protect her child!   Before that, in Coventry, a bus clipped her wing at a junction, but that was easily repaired in no time.  Bugsy is indestructible.

The saga continues

Whilst I lived in London I didn’t often take Bugsy up there. There was no point since I travelled everywhere by bus and tube.  Plus she got broken into in the ghetto of Balham, so I garaged her at mum and dad’s and kept her cosy whilst I lived out my dreams in the capital.  On occasion I would take a road trip with the BF and we enjoyed a lot of happy times together, struggling up steep hills, having picnics in fields, changing flat tyres and holding up traffic on busy motorways.

Inevitably I moved back to Sussex and Bugsy was waiting for me, good to go.  I bought a house with a garage specifically for her.  I continued to use her as my daily runaround for a couple of years, until my age and sensitivities persuaded me to get a more modern car.  Yes, I discovered power steering and air conditioning!  But my love for Bugsy never died.  I carefully wrapped her up in a specialized blanket and stowed her away in the garage.  Always with a thought at the back of my mind that her time would come again. Someday.

That day came in late Summer 2016.  Don’t ask me why but I decided to contact someone a friend recommended to me years before who knew how to repair old VWs.  Fully expecting such expertise to come at a price I just held my breath and hoped for the best.  To my utter amazement she didn’t need a lot of work to get her fully street legal.  A couple of hundred quid and she had a new battery, something with her clutch, probably some other mechanical jiggery-pokery, an MOT and she was back on the road again!  With hardly any rust and tyres still in working order, I was back to bombling around my neighbourhood. Hearing that familiar engine ring, and the oh so familiar smell of the interior, a heady mixture of petrol,greaseand well worn metal, immediately brought the years of happy memories flooding back.  I am so profoundly happy when I drive her again now.  Other people turn at the roar of that engine and smile.  She is a happy car. She brings joy to everyone.  Well, maybe not the boy racers, who just want to zoom past in a hail of dust and pumping music, but everyone else.

Long live Bugsy

You can follow her now on Twitter @BugsyAdventures. She has entered the 21st century!

Bugsy