“. . .as this place differs so vastly from anything thou hast ever seen, I make no doubt thou will be agreeably entertained with the many romantic prospects, whimsical houses, pleasant cool gardens, and amazing precipices. . .” (Deborah Hill to her son Richard, Funchal, Madeira, May 1st, 1743)

My only previous experience of Madeira was through the letters of Deborah Hill and her relatives — eighteenth-century Quakers who, like many other merchant families of their class, made their fortunes in the transatlantic wine trade. Though they are more than 250 years old, Deborah Hill’s letters still convey an accurate impression of Madeira — both in terms of the insistent presence of the British on the island, as well as it’s “romantic prospects and amazing precipices.”

Our idea was to enjoy these prospects through some serious mountain and levada walking (the levadas are an incredible architectural system of canals criss-crossing the island and carrying water from the cloud-capped mountaintops down to the vineyards and plantations) but Tom’s accident rather scuppered these plans. So instead we engaged in some less precipitous but no less restorative activities — involving lots of sunshine, tasty food, low-level walking, and (for me) lots of swimming too.

We really enjoyed Madeira’s colourful fauna . . .

. . . and flora

. . .and I have a fondness, bordering on an obsession, with Portuguese cuisine. There are many, many things I like about it (tisanes, for example — the Portuguese make a fine cup of tea) but my two favourite things are grilled sardines and custard tarts (pasteis de nata). I tend not to consume these items simultaneously, (though who knows what I might do in a moment of gastronomic over-excitement) but I did manage to eat both on a number of separate occasions while we were away.

(tasty grilled sardines at O Barqueiro. So very good — I bored Tom with sardine raptures for days)

(you see here several varieties of pasteis — coconut, walnut, apple, almond– but the custards, pictured to the top right in the first photo, are my confirmed favourite)

The range and quality of fresh Madeiran produce is really amazing. I shan’t go on about the four different varieties of passion fruit we tried or the wonderful straight bananas, but certainly our Scottish neeps and tatties were made to seem rather dull and prosaic in the face of such abundance.

(farmer’s market in Funchal)

Being sedentary sunshine tourists was a new experience for Tom and I — our holidays are usually a bit more, um, strenuous, and are spent in Britain or Ireland. I am not really very fond of being a Brit abroad, and I find it particularly weird and difficult somewhere like Madeira or the Caribbean, where there is evidence of the British exploitation of local resources and labour everywhere you look (I’m thinking of eighteenth/nineteenth-century commerce as well as contemporary tourism). It is perhaps possible to assuage such cultural-imperialist guilt through an appreciation of – and engagement with – a foreign landscape, such as that which one gets from walking. But it is hard to throw off one’s tourist-ness when one cannot get up into the mountains. And it is well-nigh impossible to stop feeling like a guilty British tourist when one is surrounded by large numbers of other tourists — dare I say it — of a certain age.

I do not often spend much time with large groups of British octogenarians, and I don’t wish to sound churlish or mean, but there are a few observations about their group behaviour that unavoidably and repeatedly strike one in such situations. The first is just how berloody grumpy they can be. This constitutional grumpiness seems to lead them to assume that, even in the peaceful, beautiful and near-idyllic settings Madeira affords, that everyone else is having a slightly better time than they are. In a restaurant full of elderly British tourists you can literally feel the pairs of beady eyes darting about suspiciously: did those people get served before me? Are they perhaps sat at a better table? Another impulse, closely associated with the assumption that everyone else is having a Slightly Better Time Than You is to ensure that you are Having the Best Time You Possibly Can Under the Circumstances. This impulse leads individuals whose usual pace is probably under half a mile an hour to move at incredible speed when it comes to being the first on a bus. Normally, this would have amused me, but it was actually rather stressful when accompanied by someone with a still painful, serious and rather fragile injury. I was strongly put in mind of comments toward the end of this post in which a heavily pregnant person is repeatedly bombarded by a marauding elderly mob eager to get to the quilting fabric.

Still, being a tourist has its benefits — one of which is being able to acquire a couple of metres of some superbly cheesy, but also pleasing, fabric that only a tourist would buy.

Do you think I can get away with wearing a skirt made from this stuff? I do hope so.

More about Madeiran embroidery tomorrow.