Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Funchal is the capital city of Madeira, an island off the coast of North Africa so isolated that it was uninhabited until the Portuguese stumbled across it in the 15th century. Its primary industries are bananas, fortified wine, spectacular natural beauty and the world’s most hideous embroidery.

There’s nothing like living on land that’s more vertical than horizontal to make people grateful for every bit of land they can build on, and as such Funchal is a sprawling, low rise city of tunnels, terraces and bridges, where you park your car on the roof of your house and if you accidentally put it into reverse rather than drive, you plummet to your death.

I elected to pay for a guided excursion, which took in four different places in and around Funchal. First was a visit to an embroidery store, where one could, if one had a mind to, buy an embroidery copy of a famous oil painting like Jean-Francois Millet's ‘The Gleaners’ for around a thousand dollars. Less insane people could simply buy oven mitts, coasters, table runners and placemats with all of the glamorous style of the back of your grandma’s linen closet.

Next was a cablecar ride to the top of the mountain on whose slopes the city is built. From this vantage point, one could look straight down into people’s gardens and backyards, and see just how ingeniously they’d managed to squeeze usable space out of steep hillsides.

Following a tour of a rather boring chapel, we finally reached the reason why I’d chosen this tour: the Valley of the Nuns. It’s part of a massive rift valley that runs the length of the island, and from our vantage point at the peak of one of the mountains we could see sheer cliffs that plunge straight down hundreds of metres.

Once the vertigo had passed, it was back to the tour bus via the gift shop, which demonstrated why “tat” means both “to make lace” and “awful tourist crap”, then back down the mountain to the cruise ship. Unfortunately all of the returning tour buses arrived at roughly the same time, creating a huge queue of passengers wanting to get back onto the ship. And as the last week has proven, elderly Europeans don’t queue well. They’d paid for an endless buffet and dammit, they were going to get it, even if that meant incurring the ire of the Madeiran port security personnel who, unlike the ship’s crew, aren’t obliged to put up with their entitled bullshit. Seeing some of the imperious old Mediterranean ladies with Chanel bags and spun sugar hair being told to shut the hell up and get to the back of the queue was quite delightful.

I suspect that the reason why the queue was moving so slowly was because someone up the front was chucking a fit because the ship’s security were confiscating her madeira wine (bringing alcohol on board is forbidden – it cuts into their ability to sell you overpriced cocktails). Or because a handful of other passengers were leaving the ship, and you ain’t seen slow until you’ve seen two morbidly obese Italian matriarchs trying to squeeze past each other on a steep gangplank. Or just because, as per normal on this cruise, someone had simply stopped at a bottleneck point to ponder his various life choices, without any heed of the thousand or so people standing behind him.


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