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Fortified spirit

india Updated: Jun 02, 2010 01:25 IST

Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The Portuguese archipelago is back on doing what it does best — raising a toast to tourists. Stuart Forster Madeira was in the news for all the wrong reasons in February, when severe flooding caused significant damage in and around Funchal, the capital city. For an island where tourism plays such an important role, the effects could have brought long-term devastation. Fortunately, the recovery is well underway.

On the morning of February 20, within five hours, a torrent of 108 mm of rain fell on Funchal. To put that in context, the whole of February normally sees an average of just 88 mm. Flooding damaged roads and forced the closure of the airport, road tunnels and several hotels. According to official figures, 42 people died.

The islanders have worked hard to put things right. Workmen had worked 24/7 in their endeavour to restore the island and its infrastructure to normal.

Gerry Sluiter runs a travel company called Nature Meetings, which employs 23 guides across the 57 km long and 22 km wide island. His guides, who lead walks along coastal tracks, deep within the thick woodland of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Laurisilva forest and up mountains such as Pico Areeiro and Pico Ruivo, played an important role in informing the authorities as to where repairs were needed. The co-operation has been highly effective. “Ninety nine per cent of Madeira’s tourism facilities are back to normal,” said Sluiter.

That’s good news considering the Madeirans earn their living from tourism. And, traditionally, at this time of year, visitor numbers climb as the Funchal Flower Festival is held on the capital’s streets. The spring flowers bring splashes of vivid colour to a lush and undulating island landscape dominated by ancient terraces, on which vines and vegetables grow.

During the festival, thousands of children lay flowers into a “Wall of Hope” symbolic of humanity’s desire to build a better world. This year, locals may well equate the occasion with thanksgiving for the rapid reconstruction of the island’s south.

The flower market

Even if you don’t make it to Madeira in time for the festival, it’s worth winding your way through the streets of Funchal to the two storey market, the Mercado dos Lavradores, to see the flowers. Women work in the busy market foyer wearing traditional costumes almost as colourful as the bouquets they sell. Within the courtyard and up on the first floor, the perfume of flowers is replaced with the scent of fresh fruit.

Most of those tourists also make the 15-minute trip by cable-car up to Monte, rising over the city and the interactive Madeira Story Centre.