It is the last day of February. A day of thick snow. And sun.
It has been the sunniest February of my life.
And the harshest winter of my life. Perhaps every winter is.
This year, I spent a good third of my February in Portugal.
This means that now I can definitely say that you should walk to the ocean when in Porto and visit the Convento dos Capuchos when in or near Lisbon. This convent of the austere medieval brotherhood makes all that Scandi minimalism look like the lush landscape of a lucid dreamer.
But from the convent, you can walk through the forest of the Sintra-Cascais natural park. There is a man there, driving a small blue car, giving out homemade IPAs to travelers. The water comes from the local spring. The beer comes for free.
And after your walk you will reach a village. A village that is perhaps a 10-minute drive from the most westernmost point in the mainland Europe. But you don’t turn south but head north instead. Because there is a signpost to Praia da Ursa.
And to Praia da Ursa you should go. Not only to feel like a model in a Caspar David Friedrich painting and not only to witness a gang greedy seagulls keeping vigil over an odd dead fish on the sands. But to see weather beaten ladders attached to massive cliffs, to run from the ocean foam that asks you to dance whether you like it or not, or to just have a proper look at the wilderness next to which we are living.
To Praia da Ursa you should go. Everything else is optional.
It was June. I travelled to Madeira with KJ, another dramaturge from Estonia who has an eye and a tooth for faraway places.
I’ll be honest – I only spent a week in Madeira. I have not hiked all of her levada trails, climbed all of her highest peaks or swam in all of her waves. But I have done portions of all of that.
Madeira makes you feel welcome. The atmosphere in here is so relaxed that every thing that your brain decides to distinguish gets interpreted as a greeting just for you. Maybe it’s that cute mongrel that is wagging its tail? Or maybe it’s that passionfruit mousse that has your first and (secret) middle name whipped into its fluffiness?
So, what are the ways Madeira greets you with even when you just have a week to explore?
1.The lounging rooftop dogs.
You know how cats usually rule lots of Mediterranean (or generally warm) towns? And how they can be seen curled up in flower pots and sunbathing on window sills? Madeira has dogs sleeping on shed and house roofs with their snouts hanging over the edge in the warm wind.
2. Never-silent lizard steps.
There’s an endemic lizard species on Madeira that can be seen everywhere. No, really, everywhere! Which means that the bushes and shrubberies are never silent. Whether walking in the interior of the island or passing flower beds in town parks, the constant littil rustling never stops.
3. Peaceful-looking ocean waves that still throw you onto the smooth but painful rocks.
In here, is better to jump in from a deeper place than try to approach the ocean on foot as you’d do on the shores of the Baltic Sea, for example. (You can trust my words or trust my bruises.)
A positive side to this is the sound of the receding waves over large pebbles and rocks. They sound like a rave where DJs play sped-up ice cracking recordings.
4. Blossoms. Everywhere.
Everything that can blossom, blossoms. The nickname ‘The Island of Eternal Spring’ really holds true. And if you haven’t breathed in the white Angel’s trumpets’ blossoms yet, you’re lacking a drug-like experience which will change your life forever. (Only a slight exaggeration.)
One man’s front yard really can be the other man’s botanical garden.
5. The demon ducks (?).
I mean, there are birds in the wide levadas that reach the ocean in different towns across the island that sound like demonic dog toys.
You can’t see the birds for the lush vegetation, but the sounds bear a resemblance to the common duck. Just be warned.
6. The post-rain eucalypt trees.
Yes, they smell nothing like pines. And they also look slightly magical. And being amongst those trees does feel like your lungs are getting clinically cleansed by a forest dentist.
7. Scarecrows of all sorts.
You will see the human lookalikes and the classic tin can men, but you’ll aslo see figures designed out of wood blocks shaped like bones. (Check point 5 again?)
8. Views from higher than cloud nine.
The highest part of the island lies away from its shores. For a superb view of mountain tops covered in clouds, head to Achada fo Teixeira in Santana. Only this is enough to give your horizons a stretch, but from here you can go for a pleasant hike to the top of Madeira’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo (1862 m). (It’s the descent at the other end of the trail that takes a bit more time.)
9. The rise of the vertical forest.
They say that Estonia is 50% covered in forest. The percentage must reach 85% in Madeira. (Actually, 85% of the island is a national park.) The shape of the landscape (let’s just say it: the mountains!) also offers you either Alpine or near-Hawaiian views. Many mountains in one, as they say.
10. Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins!
It will not be a beer commercial or an overpaid nature cruise. You just take literally any of the boat trips from Funchal’s harbour area and spend the next hours floating away on the Atlantic ocean, jump in if you want to, and of course, – seeing those littil friends come and accompany your boat for awhile. The spotted kind followed us, but there are others. (Ok, I’ve never seen dolphins in an ocean before, I’m still so so happy about this!)
11. Eye-catching sculptural works.
You know how in Europe you often come across the following sculptures: men on horses, a couple with one of the people lying in the other’s arms, little children wrestling fish and/or peeing, or men wearing funny hats while looking serious?
Not in Maderia. Here you see (a lot!) larger-than-life-size cogs and conveyor belt pieces, angels with fallen heads stranded in mid-air between apartment blocks or 2D farmers hugging 2D cows.
A very welcome addition to the first list, as I see it.
12. The Airport.
If you’re afraid of flying (I used to be), don’t look it up. Even if you already know that it has a motorway and a little boat harbour under its runway and that the latter * used * to be the shortest in Europe, just don’t look it up.
However, if you do like side-wind landings, this is your party time. (Only if you land on a blustery day, of course.)
13. Parasols made of palm tree branches on urban beaches.
Some of the parasols are older, so their branches are withered.(The branches are probably taken from the banana plantations, but I could be wrong.) And when the wind blows, they rustle in that classic tropical manner. And this is amazing, although it can probably feel like a catalogue-ordered amazement. I have never heard a withered palm tree branch rustling over me on a beach, though.