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Madeira The Hawaii of Europe

My main reason for coming to Madeira was to photograph ancient trees in fog. I accomplished my mission, but let’s back up a bit first.

When the Portuguese arrived at this island, they named it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood. The island was filled with trees ideal for ship building. Madeira is located approx. 500 miles due west of Morocco, in the Atlantic Ocean. Geologically speaking, Madeira is the top of a giant shield volcano that rises six kilometers from the ocean floor. The island is known for its lush green hills, deep ravines and gorges, inaccessible high cliffs, and abundant caves. Add to this its year-round moderate temperatures and you have the “Hawaii of Europe”.

The center of all activities on the island is its capital, Funchal, and this is where about half of Madeira's 254,000 inhabitants live. In addition, Madeira receives approx. 1.5 million tourists each year, mainly to the cruise ship port Funchal and the southern part of the island where it is warmer and less windy than on the north and west side.

Funchal

Funchal has a few charming public gardens, various small museums (one of them dedicated to their most famous native son, football (soccer) deity Cristiano Ronaldo), and, of course, lots of hotels and restaurants.

Ponta de São Lourenço

For the first few days, I explored the eastern coast around Funchal and the city itself. Ponta de São Lourenço, at the eastern tip of the island, is a famous landmark. You wouldn't know from the images but the winds were so strong that I could barely hold up a camera.

Praia dos Reis Magos
Courage

Madeira has no sand beaches, just beaches with smaller rocks or larger rocks, but always rocks. People adjust and build rock pools.

Rock Pools
Hiking in the Mountains

The main attraction of Madeira is the year around spring-like climate and the abundance of flowers everywhere. The mild climate also makes for great hiking weather. Madeira’s network of trails and “levada” walks – footpaths along irrigation canals – offers something for everyone, from a family walk to multi-day through-hikes. In addition, there is rock climbing, surfing, whale watching, etc.

After two days in the Funchal area, I headed out for the opposite side of the island, the remote and wild northwest. En-route was the tallest peak of the island, Pico Ruivo. It was there and I had to hike it. At 1,862m (6,100 feet), it is not considered a difficult hike, but it was a challenge for a flatlander like me. Naturally, I really enjoyed the way down much more than the uphill.

Madeira Vistas

To get around efficiently on Madeira, you need a car. And here come the challenges - stick shift, mountain roads, no parking spaces. I had to gear-shift my way up extremely steep hills, the narrowest of roads possible, drive through dense fog, rain, and herds of cows. Every day I was thankful when my little car and I came home without dents. I even learned how to park my car in places you wouldn’t fit a baby carriage in the US.

Natural Rock Pools

On with the journey. Taking small regional roads, I meandered and serpentined my way to Porto Moniz. A whaling town until the 1980s, its main draw now are the unique lava pools. The basalt pools are filled by the rising tide and provide warm and safe waters for bathing, including marine life to swim along.

The beginning of a new day

Climbing up the many switchbacks day after day, I glimpsed several gorgeous views of the coast. The image above was taken just at daybreak, with water-heavy clouds. The image below gives a splendid afternoon view.

Ocean Blue
On the Northern Coast

Finally, I made it to "Lagoa do Fanal" or "Fanal Pond", my main reason for coming to Madeira. Fanal is the location of ancient laurel and til trees. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Madeira Nature Reserve, which was established in 1982 and covers about 60 percent of the island.

"Mr. and Mrs. Laurisilva"

All I had hoped for materialized - the old trees and the foggy conditions. And, thanks to Covid and foul weather, I was the only person there.

In collaboration with centuries old beings

Millions of years ago, large parts of Southern Europe and North Africa were covered in laurel forests, also referred to as the “Laurisilva”. The forests are very similar to a high-altitude tropical rain forest (cloud forest). Very little of these ancient forests remain, they are virtually extinct. Today, this type of vegetation can only be found on the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Madeira. Madeira has the largest surviving area, 15,000 hectares altogether, and it is believed to be almost 90% primary forest, dating back 20 million years.

Dead, but not out.

Entering the area reminded me of a battle zone. Dead limbs and (tree) bodies everywhere. Severely mutilated by wind, rain, lightning and fire, some of the trees have survived for 800 years. Just imagine what they have seen! But even the ones that appear dead, still team with life. Logs (dead trees on the ground) and snags (dead trees still standing) play a vital role in the lifecycles of hundreds of species of wildlife, providing a place to nest, rest, eat and grow. It is wrong to remove them. Two thirds of all wildlife species use dead trees or down wood during some portion of their life cycle. Even when a tree is down, it is not out.

I took a lot of pictures at Fanal and if you'd like to see more, you can visit here. It is my virtual exhibition "Realm of Magic", letting you experience this eerie world of ancient giants.

An unexpected rainbow in the highlands.

I spent four days in the northwestern part of the island, mostly in dense fog and heavy rains. It was too cold and too wet to hike. Occasionally, the sun would break through for a moment and offer hope, and I would jump out of the car and take a picture.

View at Paul da Serra
Views of the coast and Ribeira da Janela.
Even the cows live the good life as they roam freely and do as they please.

After one week on the island, I continued on to Porto on mainland Portugal for a few days. The hospitality I experienced on Madeira (and Portugal overall) was outstanding. Everyone was extremely friendly, helpful, and patient. I would love to return. The several encounters with vagabonding cows also went peacefully. As a side note: as cute as these cows are, they present a real threat to the Nature Reserve. Next to the constant resource grab by the tourism industry, overgrazing is the other principal threat.

View from the top of Madeira

Recommended reading for this blogpost: "Walking on Madeira" by Paddy Dillon. There are plenty hiking guide books available for Madeira. This is the one I used and can recommend. "The Hidden Lifes of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. Make sure to get the unabridged version. If you are up for a long read about trees, "The Overstory" by Richard Powers.

Don't forget to visit "Realm of Magic", my virtual exhibition about the old trees of Fanal. Click here.

If you want to see more of my work, check out my website or follow me on Instagram. Previous issues of my blog can be found here.