Reid’s Palace, a pink hotel founded in 1891 on Madeira, is exactly the kind of luxurious place that Agatha Christie might have stayed, as did George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill. Road Works readers can imagine Miss Marple finding a body along the cliffside among the lush garden foliage or Poirot discovering, during the first running of the famous uphill car race in 1935, that a driver’s crash was engineered. (The 80th anniversary of the race was celebrated during our stay in 2015.)
Unfortunately, Christie did not visit Madeira. The closest she came was en route from England to South Africa on the Kildonan Castle when she was so seasick that she apparently said after four days of distress, “Just let me off in Madeira; I’d rather be a parlour maid there for the rest of my life than to sail another day.” She used that bit in her 1925 novel, The Man in the Brown Suit. The ship never did put in at Madeira.
Instead of the cozy whodunits that Christie supplies, readers have two mysteries that are mediocre at best, although they do supply local color. Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams (2013) is set post-World War I and actually includes both Christie and Shaw in the narrative. In this fictional account, the Kildonan Castle does moor in Madeira, and Christie does get off—although not to be a maid. When Christie and Shaw populate the cast of characters, then a Christie-style mystery might be expected. The author, though, says that his inspiration was Graham Greene, and that sardonic tone prevails. The mystery, such as it is, focuses on the murder of an enigmatic man. Michael Pinfold, the unsympathetic protagonist (in fact, no sympathetic characters exist) is having an affair with a married woman, having met her at dance lessons—hence, the tango in the title. He admits that he loves her but doesn’t like her. By the way, Shaw is also learning to dance. Interspersed with the narrative are Shavian drama and correspondence. The centerpiece of the mystery is the deposed Hapsburg ruler, and Williams offers a version of how he truly may have died at a rather young age. Think sardonic rather than cosy when picking up this novel.
The second mystery, The Malady in Madeira by Ann Bridges (1969), takes place during the Cold War. Russians are conducting nasty nerve gas experiments on high-plateau sheep—the “malady.” Julia, who has come to Madeira to visit British friends and to recover from the death of her husband (a British Intelligence agent), discovers the drugged animals when they go for a levada walk. Truly, levada—irrigation canal—walks are remarkable on this mountainous island, and the descriptions in the novel are helpful with advice such as to carry a “torch” (flashlight) as some levadas go through tunnels. As it turns out, Julia may be a better agent than her husband ever was as she solves knotty puzzles and willingly puts herself in harm’s way.
The best book I read while on the island was Walk and Eat Madeira, a well written guide to paths and excursions, coupled with terrific descriptions of food and lodging, authored by a British couple, the Underwoods (2012). Their description of roasted chestnuts as a reward for walking from the Eira do Serrado to the village Curral das Freiras (Nuns Valley) was mouthwatering and accurate. This particular trail traces the route of the mail carrier down to the village, who counted dozens of hairpin turns in her 1500 feet descent among chestnut trees and wildflowers. Updates to trails can be found online. A bonus is the use of recipes in the book. While it’s doubtful I’ll be able to try grilled limpets when back home, Reid’s Cake is definitely a possibility.
We took a pleasant stroll along the Levada de Tournos, departing Monte (above Funchal) and an intense urban setting, and were soon pleasantly in the forest, passing the odd village at intervals as well as an interesting Water House, where the water is channeled to reservoirs and lower fields. Picnicking along the flower-rampant trail—nasturtiums grow in profusion—is pleasant. Trails are easy as pie to get to, as the public bus system is amazingly well organized and regular. Walkers can gain access to many of the routes on a day out from the capital of Funchal.
Tour buses can take travelers on an excursion of the deceptively small island—14 miles wide and 35 miles long—but difficult to travel due to mountainous terrain. Renting a car is not advised. Instead, make use of the public bus system, doing the research on the Horarios de Funchal, Roedoeste, or SAM sites. The latter “owns” the eastern part of the island routes primarily, the middle one the western region, and Horarios de Funchal the center and main city. We did a clockwise tour of the central island by hopping on Bus #6 at 7:35 am, which went from Funchal to Ribiera Brava (with a 10-minute “rest” stop), and then headed north through the valley that separates the east and west sections of the island. The Encumeada Pass (3000’) is spectacular and offers lodging for walkers. The descent to Sao Vicente is as breath-taking and (gulp) gut wrenching. Yes, some drop-offs exist, and roads are narrow. Bus drivers honk around curves to warn oncoming traffic, and sometimes, a vehicle must back up to give way to the larger bus.
Our first leg stopped at Arco Sao Jorge, just in time for a picnic at a lovely flower-filled city park. An hour later, we were on bus #103 headed down a Highway 1 type coastal road to the quaint village of Santana with its triangular-shaped, thatched houses. Depending on the time of day, onward bus 103 may go via Ribeiro Frio (cold stream—noted for its trout) or through a series of tunnels that lead travelers quite quickly to the south coast at Machico. There, it is back along the southeastern coast on an expressway that goes under the airport runway to end back in Funchal.
This “Garden of the Atlantic” seems well suited to fictional treatment, but for the time being, a well-written travel guide with recipes to try at home trumps all.