Thursday, January 14, 2016
Madeira Hiking Day 2: Funchal Tour and Walking Into the Valley of the Nuns
Today was something a little different for an HF trip. We spent a large part of the day doing a walking tour in Funchal and then a modest walk in the afternoon. We met our local guide, Elda, at 09:00and quickly learned that she knows her stuff. While Mom, Dad and I had already spent a few days in Funchal doing this tour was worthwhile especially since we'd learn about Madeira wine. We certainly saw several things that we had already seen but seeing them on a different day and getting a bit more information from Elda added extra zest to the day. For example, we returned to the main market and got a better sense of the variety of fruits and vegetables as well as fish that people could buy here. It was far less crowded today and that gave us the chance to see more. I still wish the sellers were a bit less aggressive but I suppose when you are one of many fruit sellers hawking banana passion fruits, mangos, swiss-cheese fruit, or something you need to be a little pushy.
We then spent a good hour at Blandys Madeira Winery (not quite the right name but close enough). Blandy is an English family that settled here in the early 1800s and began making Madeira and have done so now for just about 200 years. Madeira wines are different in how they are made and aged. I will not pretend to know really how even though the guide, a lady called Karina (sp), had plenty to say. I could talk about how the younger wines start their aging in warmer temperatures around 40-45C and then are moved to cooler places as they age (the reverse of the normal process). I could talk about how Blandy use American oak barrels over and over again to impart some distinctive flavor notes to the wine or how when wine is waiting to be aged it is held in 9,000 liter vats of Brazil satin wood which is so solid that aging does not take place and nothing is lost to the "Angel share." I could note that the "Angel share" , the wine lost to evaporation, could be easily 10-12% which seems like a lot to me and that as part of that process some of the aging rooms have a lovely aroma to them. But in some ways this is all just words. None of us is enough of a wine-person to really understand what we are hearing. It was still an interesting tour and walking into a 9,000 liter vat and enjoying its smell was great fun. I tried the medium-dry and sweet Madeira at the tasting and preferred the former but neither is something I am likely to ever really enjoy. Blandys has some Madeira that has been aging since 1920. Apparently Madeira ages well and does not turn to vinegar. Madeira wines, and only Madeira can be called "Madeira" and must be made here, is the single largest export item of the island.
A leisurely, read long, lunch at a local restaurant was next. The meal was adequate but fortunately the conversation was quite good. I must say I found myself pondering diners back home and how quickly they would make an omelet. Of course, the American diner omelet probably, no definitely, not come with a nice helping of fresh veggies and my omelet here did (though the omelet itself was so-so). This is just a difference in style of eating.
By now it was edging well past 14:00 and we had to take the bus up to a place whose name I am not sure of (the viewpoint picture you see says "Camara de Lobos"). Suffice to say we drove for half an hour up into the mountains above Funchal along about 9.5 miles of twisting road rising to an elevation of about 1,100 meters. Along the way we passed through cloud and mist layers until we reached a large parking lot clearly meant to support tourist traffic. Below us were clouds, above us were clouds, and sometimes we were in clouds too. Eventually, the clouds completely shrouded the mountains and the valley below. Our 2-mile walk down into the Valley of the Nuns would not be filled with expansive views. Even when, as we neared the end of the walk and dropped below a cloud layer some 400 meters below our starting poinviews would be limited. Maybe, for some, the clouds were a blessing as you could not see the mountain falling away to one side. The path we followed was pretty wide but steep and while not the cobblestone nightmare of the road walk between the two levada a of the day before it was hardly a cakewalk. It took us just over an hour to work our way down the switchbacks, and to be fair the trail is a good one, down to a road that took us into a small village where we had a later afternoon snack. Along the way we passed a few drips of water seeping on by, past occasional trees perhaps including even more eucalyptus, and when we could see a bit farther we would notice small homes with seemingly ever-present dogs and roosters to be heard. This is a completely exposed walk so if the weather was inclement I would not want to do it (you'd get soaked) but even though our views were all but missing as we walked within mist it was an interesting walk. I am not sure what nuns have to do with this valley. Perhaps Elda said but I missed it. I must admit I zoned out a bit on the bus ride up.
It has been a long day. The Funchal tour did seem to spend a bit more time in some places than I might have wished but then I had seen some of it already. Remember, we are on "island time" and I suppose that affects things a bit. We certainly did learn a lot about Madeira from Elda and while I may not long-remember that tourism accounts for 30% of the economy, Madeira is the largest export, or that their is a thriving cottage-industry in high embroidery for sale, it was good to hear it at least today.