Thursday, 19 March 2015

Levada Dos Tournos

Heading up from Funchal
Having been away for some winter sun last year I am definitely a convert!  This year we decided to go somewhere rather different and I had heard that Madeira was a walker’s paradise and that was enough for me.  We stayed the week in Funchal, the capital of this small island out in the Atlantic Ocean.  One of the things that attracted me to the island was how green it always looked in pictures and this walk really showed off this aspect of the countryside.

Botanic Gardens Cable Car
One of the joys of walking in Madeira is the huge network of Levadas, or drainage channels, that carry the plentiful water of the high ground to where it is needed to supply irrigation channels and drinking water reservoirs.  Alongside the levadas are footpaths that have become justifiably popular and mean that it is rather easier to walk around the mountainous island than you might otherwise think.  I wanted to introduce my girls to a relatively easy levada walk to begin with and so we picked one on the edge of Funchal leading from the top of the cable car in Monte.

Ribeira De Joao Gomes
It wasn’t strictly necessary but I thought it would add a little extra spice if we parked in the middle of Funchal and got the cable car to the top.  The 15 minute ride was breathtaking – the view across the harbour and city was magnificent.  Sedately climbing the mountain also gave us some interesting glimpses into Madeiran life.  Far below us we could see out of use swimming pools, orange groves, allotment sites, random dogs wandering about and holiday villas obviously shut for the winter.  The latter seemed rather odd for it was as warm as any summer day in the UK.
Makeshift Bridge

All too soon we were dropped at the top of the hill in Monte.  Most tourists headed left and into this most famous of the hill villages surrounding Funchal.  Most tourists come up here to see the Palace Gardens, the white church (which prominently stands out on the hill looking up from the harbour) and for the more adventurous tobogganing back down the hill into Funchal.  We took a right turn and headed down the hill towards another cable car that takes tourists on to the fabulous Botanical Gardens (and where we had visited the day before).  All the remaining tourists that followed us took this cable car leaving us completely to ourselves to carry on.

The path took us underneath the cable car station and down a very steep hill.  Almost immediately we were faced with the choice of continuing down the steep hill across the valley ahead of us or taking a gentler route around the valley head where we would meet with the levada.  We chose the latter, even though it came with the health warning that the levada was quite vertiginous in places.  All seemed well to being with although we were surprised by how wild the valley and terrain were considering how close to civilisation we were.  The path clung to the side of the valley and we slowly headed up hill for about half a mile before reaching the levada as it emerged from a tunnel in the mountainside.
Vertiginous Section
 We discovered our first little problem here as we had to cross and then recross the levada in the space of a few moments – not easy for little legs!  While I leapt over gazelle-like the girls had to make do with little log bridges and some outstretched hands to provide a degree of security.  Fortunately this was a minor problem and the path soon settled down to the one side of the levada.  It was reasonably full and kept a good flow of water.  Further on we went through a little tunnel under a waterfall – rudimentary engineering it might have been but very effective.  We passed a couple here having their picnic – the first people we had seen so far.

Mountain Waters
Beyond the tunnel the walking conditions became a lot more hairy.  The steep slope that we had had on one side soon developed into a sheer cliff and the path was barely a metre wide in places.  None of my girls much liked this stretch and we considered going back.  The promised barriers that were supposed to protect us on this section had either never quite materialised or had been broken off/ bent.  Whichever it was we clearly couldn’t rely on any protection and for a 300-400 metres the going was extremely vertiginous.  In fact, if the water in the levada hadn’t been so cold I think that at least some of our party would have been tempted to walk along the channel for extra protection.  Soon we were passed by the picnickers who told us that the path only gets better by walking it several times.  The first time they were probably as terrified as my lot!

Curral Dos Romeiros
Eventually though we got past the worst of it and when we weren’t watching out for a cliff we could admire the view back across Funchal.  It was surprising how wild it was given how close to the city we were.  Soon though we reached a small village and the levada disappeared under the streets for a short section requiring us to negotiate the streets ourselves.  As we passed through the village we were greeted by seemingly dozens of barking dogs, a common theme in these parts!
Levada This Way

Just the other side of the village the walking became a lot tamer and everyone could relax a little more now.  We passed by a makeshift hut selling produce for walkers.  There wasn’t much left on offer though – mostly a few small Madeiran bananas that I wasn’t too keen on the look of.  It was starting to become really hot on this section of the walk and we were pleased when after a short while we were able to enter the shade of the mimosa forest that clings to the hillside.  The levada kept resolutely to the contours all the way despite the incredibly steep terrain  and that made walking pretty easy.  It also meant though that we got nowhere pretty fast as we had to head all the way into the deep valleys until we reached a stream bridging point.  A mile of walking often mean that we only covered a quarter of the distance that a crow would fly.

Levada Plants
Mostly the path was in a good state of repair although there were a couple of short stretches where we had to walk along the concrete channel top where the slope had slid away.  Strangely this did not seem to be any problem around the streams coming down off the mountains – all of those were nicely bound by mini-aqueducts or tunnels taking the levada across safely while walkers had to ford.  We had a couple of miles of delightful walking through the forest and it was hard to imagine that we were still in one of the most populated parts of the island. 

Water House
The character of the path changed for a short distance as we headed through the grounds of the Choupana Hills Resort.  There were some very posh looking chalets here and the forest had been cleared to make room for them.  Most were unoccupied but there was one chap enjoying his veranda and reading his book.  It must have been blissful without anyone else around to disturb his peace.
Early Blossom

Just past the resort we crossed a road and felt like we had to breathe in on the other side as the path squeezed through a narrow gap between fence line and hillside.  It soon opened out to reveal one of the main uses of the levada – water source for irrigation.  A large water tank and pretty little water house made for a perfect scene on the next corner.  A little way past here and we bumped into an English couple heading the other way.  They told us good things about the tea houses further on and we were feeling very hungry from what they said!
Quinto Do Pomar

Eventually we found our way to our ultimate destination; the Hortensia Tea House.  It wasn’t the one recommended by the couple we had just met but importantly it was the first one we reached and we had heard good things about it.  In particular the soup was recommended to us so that is what we had.  The tea house is located in the centre of a beautiful garden full of the most colourful flowers you can imagine.  Definitely Madeira at its very best!  We had clealy arrived just after a coach party had left for all the tables were covered with empty soup bowls.  We were glad that there was some left for us!

Hortensia Tea House
Following our delicious lunch our route back was mostly a retracing of steps at least as far as Curral Dos Romeiros where we decided not to reprise the vertiginous section but go via the valley route.  Wouldn’t you know though that that was the one place where I slipped – putting my foot into a rather unexpectedly large hole!  Our way back was a lot less quiet too – we managed to come across a couple of large walking groups that held us up.  Thankfully we managed to get past them quite qquickly.  Judging by their attire they were probably on a shore excursion from the cruise ship in port.  They were certainly ambling a lot slower than us and the numbers of them could easily have caused a problem on such narrow paths.

On our return to Monte we did have a look in the village briefly – we wanted to have a quick look at the famous church that dominates the hillside here. There was a big line up of toboggan riders too – they clearly weren’t doing a huge amount of business that day.  It is a famous and traditional way of getting from the hills above Funchal into the centre of the city.  Nowadays though it stops short of that destination and finishes in one of the suburbs.  One set off as we arrived – it looked fun but rather impractical for us so we headed back to the top of the cable car and headed back down to the starting point of our day.

Monte Church
This was a wonderful introduction to levada walking abut the first part is definitely not for the faint hearted!  My girls were all quite frightened by the sheer drop down the side of the path and there was no way I could persuade them to return via that route.  This section can be left out though courtesy of the path crossing the valley that the levada skirts around.  Be warned though – there are some steep climbs either side!  The tea house is highly recommended and makes for a good destination – if you want to add some extra distance there is another a little further on.

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