Isles of the Blessed
The ticket price for a flight to Madeira, Portugal, may be nearly a thousand dollars, but it will be worth every cent if you’re a wine lover. Or if you like seafood. Or if you enjoy good music. Or get excited over beautiful scenery. And, even if you enjoy breathing clean, fresh, Atlantic Ocean breezes.
Madeira is a region of Portugal found, as the Azores Islands are, in the North Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles west of Morocco. The area is an archipelago consisting of the islands of Madeira, Porto Santo, Deserta Grande and three smaller specks of land (officially uninhabited) that hardly appear on maps. The islands are geographically part of Africa, but the political, economic, cultural, and social roots are all European.
Your visit to Madeira may be arranged through several small-ship cruise lines sailing from European ports, or if you prefer a longer stay you may book flights from New York, Washington, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco by flying to Funchal (Madeira’s capital city) with a stop in Lisbon.
Upon arrival in Funchal the first thing you will notice is the clear, crisp air, unless you arrive during the calima. A calima is an atmospheric condition caused by the sirocco, a wind that blows sand off the Sahara Desert out into the North Atlantic. A calima usually lasts but a day or two, otherwise there is a constant and mostly refreshing breeze.
Green is dominate. The ocean wraps these islands with moisture and thus the beauty of the flora is simply astonishing. The artist signed (Max Romer) images below will convince you to book a flight.
Then you will see Madeira sleds. One quite interesting character of these “vehicles” is that they have no name. The early postcard manufacturers were wont to put captions on their cards but since no name existed, each card got a made-up caption – just a few are: Bull Car or Ox Car, Ox Sled, Madeira Cabs, Madeira Taxis, or Sled Cars.
Nowhere else in the world will you find such an experience.
Climate had much to do with the invention of the Madeira sled. The earliest recorded history starts several decades BC. Plutarch mentions in his Parallel Lives that sailors spoke to him of idyllic islands in the sea which they named the Isles of the Blessed. Modern settlers arrived in 1339. Permanent settlements, fishing slips and gardens were planted on the south shore of the larger island.
Idyllic, yes; practical no. The shoreline was stony, the tide was rough, and flatland was (and still is) laced with jagged and uneven basalt deposits that hamper farming and crop production. It was a classic case that demonstrated how necessity became the mother of invention.
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There is no need to suggest that the sled was invented in Madeira, but the Madeira sled was. When the fact that farms needed to be moved to high ground where the soil was richer and softer, the task of moving was eased by oxen pulling sleds. And naturally when crops were harvested those same sleds were used to take produce to the markets.
For three centuries the people of this paradise used their sleds for very practical purposes. Then came the industrial age when so many practicalities became tourist inventions. (The industrial canals and longboats in England, Wales, and Scotland is another example of this phenomenon. Perhaps when the now hypothetical transfer of matter – teleportation – is perfected, people will drive cars on our Interstate Highways as an amusement.)
Like the fruit and vegetables before them, tourists would flock to the hillsides and jostle their way into a wicker sled with wooden runners to have an ox pull them down the dusty paths to the Funchal marketplaces. It didn’t take long for the agricultor (farmers) to realize that more money could be made amusing tourists a few hours per day than the sunrise to sunset strains of mountain farming. Today a ticket for such a ride ranges from 25 to 40 Euros. A sled ride is no longer pulled by an animal; the job has devolved to humans. Young men in white uniforms that include straw boater’s hats and heavy canvas shoes with a thick rubber sole. The rubber sole is meant to be the brakes for the sled.
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Parenthetical to all this is any comments of Madeira would be incomplete without a mention of Madeiran leather goods. Visitors to Madeira have gone home for centuries with new leather business portfolios, report covers, saddles, rein and bridle components, tool handle covers, purses and wallets, belts, and shoes and boots. And lately, leather balls and baseball gloves, pistol holsters, arrow quivers, and satchels and backpacks.
A Madeira adventure may not be in everyone’s future, but thanks to online sites such as YouTube you can spend a few hours on Madeira without spending a single Euro. Madeira is a destination where you may visit the ancient yet never leave the ultramodern – for example when you drive away from the airport, the exit ramp to the road to Funchal travels under the runway on which your flight just landed. YouTube also provides guided tours, video adventures along the shorelines, the botanical gardens, and into the mountains. Best of all there is a video of a sled ride.