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Madeira, M’dear halwell, devon, 27 October 2008

One day, while waiting to board a steam train in Sheringham, Norfolk, Chris spotted a man wearing a shirt embroidered discretely with the words “Norfolk Mountain Rescue”. By then we had spent six weeks in the flatlands and appreciated the joke. We had walked across marshes and beaches, watched boats glide through the broads, and hung out the windows of that steam train along the Poppy Line. But we had climbed very few hills. The most vertical exertion we made was up the narrow staircases of church towers and windmills and down from the sea cliffs of Cromer to the promenade.

The flat lands of Norfolk at Horsey Windpump
The mountains of Madeira. This cliff road was cut by the landslide you can see near the waterfall the week before

The flatness of Norfolk was countered with a vengeance by Madeira, a little Portuguese island in the Atlantic. You know all those graphs you have seen in the newspapers recently of the state of the world's stock markets? That's what Madeira's topography looks like. Being an old volcano thrown up from the sea bed, it is spectacularly beautiful and steep. Funchal, the capital, has veins of narrow, winding and almost vertical roads coursing through it. The local bus and car drivers throw their vehicles up these hills and cruise down them with aplomb and manual gears, blithely allowing an inch or two as they pass or, if absolutely necessary, employing handbrake starts to reverse patiently back up a steep slope and around a corner to allow the other to get by.

Buses preparing to pass on a typical Funchal street

So, why were we in Madeira, you may ask? There are two answers to that question. First, it is a popular holiday destination for Europeans to catch the sun (and we had glorious weather the whole week we were there). The second reason is that Robert Alves (Geoff's brother) noticed a few years back that great-great-grandfather John Alves's death certificate stated that he was was born in Funchal. After doing the maths, he worked out that this would have been in about 1828. Clue number one in the Alves family history expedition. It was time for some of the Alves family to return and walk those streets and climb those hills again.

We did not go alone. Robert, and sister-in-law, Lesley, joined us while we were still in Cromer. After a week together exploring the flatlands, we all set off for Madeira. Robert had already done some preliminary research at home, Lesley has professional historical skills and we two provided some raw enthusiasm. Armed with these and a pencil we set off for the archives and were met at the desk by a Luciana Alves, who taught us how to pronounce the name Alves properly. A good place to start. The results of our research, in a nutshell, were the marriage record of a couple who might have been John Alves's parents (the names were a good fit but the date might be a bit early (1815) and the birth certificate of a João (i.e. John) Martinez Alves (who was born in 1828 but the parents' names don't fit well). There was much discussion around our dinner table as we learnt more about Maderia's history and speculated about the Alves place in it all. Were they among the Protestants who fled following persecution? That's just one of the theories tossed around. Spotting family characteristics in passers-by was another favourite occupation. If you are an Alves and want to know more, ask!

Putting on our tourists' hats, we set off to explore the island. Lesley had the brilliant idea of following a levada, one of the many aquaducts which bring water to the crops and towns. These slope gently around the mountains and so were easy on the leg muscles. We set off on what we thought was a 4 km walk. Some hours and 8 km later, we decided the guide book had a misprint but didn't begrudge the editor's mistake as the walk took us through magnificent country with, of all things, Australian vegetation. How wonderful it was to smell eucalyptus again! We did have to watch our step, though, as we walked along narrow ledges, forded streams and finally left the levada for a last plunge down a steep ravine and up the other side again. The finale of the day was a cable car or steep bus ride (depending on personal preference) back to the tame footpaths in the centre of the town. This is where Chris chose to trip over a small step and dive full length onto the beautifully cobbled path. No damage done and a passing man hauled her to her feet before she had a chance to realise what had happened.

Geoff, Lesley and Robert walking alongside a levada through wattles and gums

Each night, we returned to our apartment overlooking the harbour and checked which cruise boats were in town. Then we would know if the streets would be full of Italians, Brits or Germans the next day. We didn't meet any other Australians all the time we were there. "What is the capital of Madeira?" would be a good trivia night question back home. Our apartment was in itself a highlight. Geoff's love of internet searching certainly delivered the goods this time. Our base was literally a home away from home, as its owner had left it fully equipped, view included, when he returned to Lisbon to work.

Watching cruise ships from our balcony

Earlier, in Cromer, we had enjoyed the fruits of an English harvest. We collected blackberries, cooked rabbit, ripened tomatoes, relished crab and enjoyed raspberries. In Madeira, Chris thought she was back in Queensland. The rich, red, volcanic and subtropical soil produced passionfruit (including banana passionfruit), avocadoes, chokoes, small sweet bananas, mangoes and papaya. The fish market was a tourist attraction and of course Madeira is famous for its sherry. The flowers—bougainvillea, frangipani, bird of paradise and morning glory—were spectacular too.

We've probably told you enough. But we've left out many of the delights, especially of those long ago flatlands. So, if you want to learn more about Norwich Cathedral, English stately homes, woodland walks and fickle English weather, go to Geoff's blog@@@. And what the about birds? Yes, Chris spotted wild canaries in Madeira as she had hoped and we walked miles through soggy ground to see grey seals on the beach near Horsey Windpump in Norfolk. The now very long list is on the website. Another new feature are photos of the places we have stayed in and modes of transport.

Our thanks to Canberra friends, Kevin and Gwenyth, for visiting us in Cromer bearing news of home and especially to Bob and Lesley for sharing some of our adventures.

Afternoon tea at Norwich Cathedral

We are now in a farm cottage in Devon, in gentle undulating country, quietly recovering. We hope the world's turbulent economy does too, especially for those shouldering the greatest burdens.

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