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Fortified spirit

Following a recent devastation wrought by heavy floods, the Portuguese archipelago is back on its feet, doing what it does best raising a toast to tourists

travel Updated: May 29, 2010 12:10 IST

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 in the economy, the
effects could have brought longterm
devastation. Fortunately, the
recovery is well underway.

Much of Europe was affected by extreme weather over the past winter, and even the normally mild Madeira an autonomous zone of Portugal located 520 km off the coast of Morocco did not escape. 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. Even the director of the annual Madeira Islands Walking Festival was amazed. "The speed of recovery following such extensive devastation is nothing short of breathtaking. Workmen genuinely worked 24/7 in their endeavour to restore the island and its infrastructure to normal, and in this regard they have, by-and-large, succeeded," said Terry Marsh.

The walking festival was held in Madeira and neighbouring Porto Santo in January, just before the floods. 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. All the hotels and excursion trips 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.

A two storey 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. And the Madeirans are good business people. Aware that most visitors are sceptical of how the strange-looking exotic fruits such as banana-pineapples and mango-strawberries will taste, the stall holders give away free samples. They recoup their investment by charging almost double the rates than those charged at less touristorientated markets. Nonetheless, for many visitors pressed for time, the experience is worth it.

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. The entertaining, modern museum makes use of multimedia to condense the history of the island into a tour of just 90 minutes.

Toboggan pushers dressed like Venetian gondoliers transport them back into the city. Pairs of the straw boater-wearing men steer wicker carts that slide down the steep streets; the friction of the descent causes the wooden runners to give off a burning smell. It's an exhilarating form of transport, and was once used to transport goods into Funchal.

Which other place in the world can claim such a synonymous association with wine? Sailors worked out that exposure to heat and oxidisation transformed and improved the fortified wine, which was even used to toast the Declaration of Independence in the USA. And as a souvenir of a trip to this Atlantic island, or even to toast its recovery, what could be better than a bottle of Madeira?

Forster is a travel writer based in London

First Published: May 29, 2010 12:10 IST