So let me get this straight: two skinny guys are going to steer us safely down that steep hill on this makeshift toboggan?
They look a lot like gondoliers in Venice with their jaunty straw hats trimmed in ribbons and their slim muscular builds, but we’re on the top of a mountain on the island of Madeira.
The vehicle of choice isn’t a sleek black boat but a glorified straw basket on wooden runners. And the route is a twisting road that seems to run as a 45 degree angle downhill.
It’s got to make for really strong calf muscles and bad knees. But it’s a tradition on the island of Madeira and we had to experience it on Crystal Serenity’s stop at Funcahl, the port for Madeira.
Other than a tight flat area close to Funchal’s port, most buildings have to cling to an incredibly steep hillsides.
It must have been a challenge when the only way up to the top of these steep peaks was on foot or dokkey. But today, there’s a system of modern cable cars. At the Telefericos station, the gondolas of the cable lift seem to disappear into the sky, so it’s clear this is a long ride. But there’s no need for white knuckles because this is a modern system the cars are large and the ride is velvet smooth.
It might make for a great ride for voyeurs in mid-summer sunbathing season, because we pass right over the back yards and swimming pools of homes on the hillside. But would anyone really want to be too revealing with a car load of camera toting tourists passing overhead every minute?
Then we’re flying over grape vines and plantations where they’re growing bananas and pastures full of goats and sheep. There’s a winding foot path that was the only way up up this steep mountain before a cog railway and the modern cable system. I could imagine why people who lived uphill in earlier centuries seldom made their way into town.
But there were reasons to make the pilgrimage to the gorgeous baroque Our Lady of the Mountain church at the summit.
It was built in the 18th century but has a more recent claim to fame as the grave of Charles I, the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, who spent his last days in exile on Madeira and died there after catching pneumonia in 1922. His kindness to his people was honored by the Catholic church who has beautified him as Blessed Charles of Austria.
After visiting the church it was time for the main event, the slide down a steep and winding route that is now an asphalt road. My wife, Lisa and I hopped into one of the woven straw sleds and two strong drivers started things up by pulling us with ropes and then rushed to the rear of the sled to grab on and rush us downhill at such a speed that we sometimes seemed to be at risk of tipping over on the sharp turns.
Makeshift wicker sleighs have been doing this snowless ride since the 1800s and generations of these guys have taken their turns trying to keep tourists on the straight and narrow. It was fun, but at the same time I was glad when it ended with a skid at the bottom. Getting out of the sleds, you have to be nimble to avoid being bowled over by the next toboggan arriving with only two huffing and puffing guys for brakes.
Afterwards, we headed to the Monte Municipal Garden, one of the most diverse collection of tropical plants I’ve ever seen. It`s a relative new attraction on the island, only donated to the island by its owner to become a public park in 1991.
Considering that it was December, it was absolutely amazing how lush the flowers and foliage were. A lot of inner walkways in the shade of big trees are designed to provide a cool oasis in the heat of the summer.
After all that, it was time to one of the island’s most famous Madeira wine maker, Blandy’s Wine Lodge, for a tasting. You can go time travelling here, knocking back a sample of wine from the 1970s, the swinging 60s or even a rare 1920. You can actually buy vintages from the 1800s at nearby wine sellers.
While I could taste the differences between the dry Sercial, medium Bual and the rich sweet Malmsey of 1978, I frankly I didn`t find much difference between the flavors of the wines from older decades. But I guess it`s remarkable you can sample wines from that far back at all.
Then it was back to Crystal Serenity in time for lunch. I felt like I`d covered a lot of territory and had experiences from a couple of centuries in my morning in Funchal.