At last it appeared ! Around the corner, charging towards us. I held a tentative hand out, unsure of the response. Suspension creaking, the big yellow bus screeched to a reluctant halt at our bus stop. We had decided to use local route buses rather than tour coaches during this, our second, visit to Madeira. A polite, but determined, multi-national jostle to board ensued. Initially taken aback, and following rigidly stiff upper lip British queuing protocol, we soon appreciated that this relegated us to the heaving queue’s rear. Adopting a rather embarrassed “ If we cannot beat them, we’d better join them. ” attitude, we pressed elbows into unaccustomed action to shuffle a more determined way towards the bus’s newly opened door. Clamber up an impossibly high step from the pavement onto a dauntingly steep flight of metal steps. Swipe recently purchased Giro card ( € 17.75 for seven days travel within Funchal ) across the door-side terminal, relieved – at least in my, non-technical, case – to hear its resultant approving ping. Before we could find a seat, the bus lurched forward, almost throwing us off unsteady feet. We scuffled along a narrow aisle past smugly seated locals, looking for vacant seats. Gratitude at discovering two was soon replaced by an uncomfortable wriggling : town bus seats were apparently built for passengers shorter than 5´, rather than my 6´3˝ frame. Over the next week, I reconciled myself to having to sit sideways on an aisle seat, back rudely turned to my fellow passenger, feet protruding clumsily in other passengers’ way.
Madeira is served by three bus companies. All parts of the capital and the immediately surrounding area are well covered by Horarios do Funchal. Rodoeste serves Western Madeira in its green and red buses, while Sociadade Automóveis da Madeira [SAM]
( green and cream livery, often faded ) has services to the Eastern part. During this visit, we used all three. The island is beautiful and volcanic, which results in dramatic lush landscapes. It is also mountainous. In consequence, apart from journeys along the narrow coastal strip, bus travel involves steep climbs along roads strewn with hairpin bends and views down over worryingly steep precipices. None of which inhibit Madeiran bus drivers from perceiving themselves as budding Alonsos and their timetables as lap timings to be improved upon on each journey. Fortunately, all are amazingly skilful. Corners seemingly incapable of accommodating a Mini are treated with contemptuous ease, loudly sounded horns warning of our unstoppable advance. Only the frantic hiss of air brakes and protesting suspensions provide a hint that rather more effort is being used.
One advantage of choosing local buses – apart from the substantial pricing difference ! -became apparent as we set out to explore places previously avoided by organised tour trips. To speed from tourist site to site ( and their shopping opportunities ! ), these luxurious, air-conditioned coaches generally try to use the growing network of splendid, if rather soulless, motorways which are being constructed high up above Madeira’s most heavily populated Southern coastal region. The country buses, which, to my knees’ relief, have slightly more leg room than their urban cousins, remain loyal to the old roads. These, often in need of some TLC, twist and turn their amiable, if bone-shaking, way through small villages and hamlets, climbing up and down deep valleys bridged, high above, by elegant concrete structures, and affording a much better appreciation of what life “ on the ground “ is like for Madeirans living and working in country regions. At each stop, locals climb on and off, greeting each other and the driver, while giving us quizzical, but friendly, looks. I came to feel that, on these buses, I was somehow participating in the local community in a way impossible from the remote grandeur of a tourist coach.
Our first venture outside Funchal without the protective reassurance of a knowledgeable tour guide was to the small fishing village, Câmara de Lobos. This, disdained by tourist coaches, proclaims a 1950 visit by Winston Churchill, who spent time there painting, as its tenuous claim to fame. Fishermen bring to its harbour the espada ( scabbard fish ) many of which end up on Funchal restaurant menus – and very nice they are too ! While we were there, the only sign of life in its narrow cobbled streets and around the peaceful harbour was groups of men either gossiping, painting their brightly coloured boats, or playing cards.
Confidence bolstered by this short trip’s lack of incident, we next headed deep into the interior mountains, to Curral das Freiras. This, more familiarly known as the Nun’s Refuge, is a deep, secluded valley to which medieval Funchal nuns climbed to escape, on hearing that pirates were approaching. They must have been tough old birds : it is a strenuous three and a half hour climb ! Sadly the valley’s isolation was destroyed when a tunnel was bored through its steep side : no doubt, its present inhabitants and bus drivers are glad that access is now much simpler. And pirates have not been a recent problem !
On both our weeks in Madeira, we were caught out by Portugese public holidays. In April it was 25th. ( Liberation [ Freedom ] Day ), this time : 5th. October ( Republic Day[ Founding of the Republic ] ). On these days, fiesta lasts all day : only tourist-oriented businesses, and a Saturday bus service, remain in operation. Unwilling to depart from our pre-arranged programme, and more in hope than expectation, we made our way to the SAM bus stop. No-one there. Consult the Saturday timetable : a bus was definitely scheduled – for five minutes ago. Be patient : remember the relaxed Madeiran attitude to time. At last, a faded SAM bus appears. I had planned a short trip to Santa Cruz : in the excitement of its arrival, I failed to register that this bus was headed to Porto Da Cruz. Settling down, it dawned on me that this was where we were being taken – a much longer run, on one of our few hot, sunny, days. Ah well, we thought, we’re on holiday : let’s go with the flow ! Up through some of Funchal’s steeply narrow streets, passing parked cars even when there seemed insufficient space. Throughout our stays on Madeira, we never saw so much as a scratch on any of the buses we used. Two hours later, having driven along the South East coast and zig-zagged over shrub- and tree-clad mountains, we reached our unexpected destination : Porto Da Cruz. It was hard to envisage this quiet backwater ( whose main feature seemed to be an elaborate swimming pool ) as the former centre of the sugar trade upon which Madeira’s early wealth was founded. Only a small statue and a semi-derelict warehouse provided evidence of its more prosperous past. After a reviving coffee in an outdoor café overlooking the sea surging against black volcanic beaches, we quickly exhausted the town’s limited charms, and went for a walk along a sea-side promenade. It had become even warmer, and we were sorry that we had not brought swimming gear. Our bus back to Funchal, due at one forty-three, fortunately arrived on time.
Going on the buses opened a new dimension to us : I felt that it helped to cut through some of the upbeat tourist spin, and gave us a hint that Madeiran life is often back-breakingly tough for many people living outside the places visited by tourists. Now, we’re looking forward to our next visit !