The Vagabond Bear is back! Escaping Covid on Madeira

Before starting my blog, a few words are in order to illustrate the difficulty of travelling during the global Covid epidemic and explain how I chose to visit Madeira, a little-known tourist destination. I had to go to Paris in October and was determined to avoid a repeat of two weeks’ quarantine  on my return to the UK that I had had to do in the summer. I decided to spend time in a second, “approved” country instead of returning straight to the UK. Most of the countries on the approved list were in northern Europe and not somewhere worth going in October, but Italy was still on the list so I booked to spend two weeks on the Amalfi Coast. But then the president of the Campania Region said that all arriving travellers at Naples airport would have to do a Covid test and be quarantined until they got the result. My flight was scheduled to arrive very late, and who knows how long I would have to wait for a test at the airport or how long they might take to give me results. My Italian friends advised me to change my plans, so  I cancelled everything and booked to go to Madeira instead. 

Madeira!

Madeira is a group of volcanic islands located off the coast of Africa. Even the largest island is not very big – only 50km long by 20km wide.  The islands were discovered and colonised by Portugal in 1420, but before that had been uninhabited. Today Madeira is known as a tourist destination, which has avoided the massive development of say Tenerife or Majorca, and as the source of Madeira wine. In the Covid era, the islands are now marketing themselves as “Madeira – clean and safe”. There is a complicated system where you do a Covid test before departure and fill in a long health form online. Someone checks everything and you get a QR code on your phone which lets you on to the island without having to do a test at the airport or quarantining.  Having a holiday has never been so much work.

I spent a great few days in Paris in a flat with a view of the Eiffel Tower, enjoying the unique experience of visiting the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay without the crowds.  

View from my flat in Paris

I left Paris the day that a new 9pm curfew started and that the UK announced that Italy was no longer on its “exempt from quarantine list” (fist pump!!).  With all the uncertainty and changing rules, I was greatly relieved that my flight left on time and I got thru the Madeira Covid controls with my QR code.  I emerged from the airport into bright sunshine and a temperature of 20C, a welcome improvement on Paris and London.

I picked up my hire car and drove up to the small town of Santana in the east of Madeira. My accommodation was a small bungalow, which had a terrace with sun lounger, hammock…and lot lots of cats.

The terrace of my room

I bought some wine and pasta in a small local shop and enjoyed the cool evening air sipping my wine and playing with my new feline friends.  They were used to visitors and had worked out a number of cute tricks to wheedle food out of them.  These ranged from the traditional – being cute and asking to be stroked – to the adventurous – run inside as soon as a door is opened, take refuge in a kitchen cupboard and meow pitifully until fed.

“Feed me or I will stay here and cry all night!”

During the night I heard the sound of heavy rain and sure enough the next morning there were thick clouds in the sky. Over breakfast the hotel owner told me that the tropical storm Barbara was passing and we would have bad weather for four days.  She recommended me a website which allows you to check the weather with webcams of towns all around Madeira. I thought it was strange to have such a website, but I soon found out why it was set up. Although the island is small, the weather in places only a few km apart can be completely different, and it changes constantly.   However this morning all of the webcams showed the same fuzzy grey picture of thick cloud, so  I  decided to visit the vulcanology centre on the north coast,  where you can visit lave tubes – caves formed when the outside of a flow of lava solidifies whilst the inside continues to flow.  The guidebook described it as a good wet weather option.  The road to get there was tricky – lots of steep climbs and sharp turns, with heavy rain most of the way.  I arrived after about an hour, to find that the centre was shut due to bad weather – the caves flood during heavy rain.  Disappointed I turned back and was rewarded with a small consolation – the sun appeared and revealed the spectacular mountain scenery of the island.  

The sun begins to appear

Back at Santana, I bought some fish for dinner in the local supermarket and visited some of the traditional houses for which the town is known. I am not sure how anyone – even a teddy bear – could ever live in something so small, but they are very pretty. 

Traditional House in Santana

I noticed that the weather seemed to be improving.  I checked out the website with the webcams, which showed bright sunshine at the Ponta de Sao Lorenco,  a thin strip of land projecting into the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the island, and one of Madeira’s national parks.   The road leading there was good, with many tunnels instead of the twisting turns I had negotiated in the morning. Every time I went through a tunnel, the weather at the other end was different, and usually better.  When I arrived at my destination there was bright sunshine, a clear blue sky and a very strong wind, which drove big waves against the colourful red and brown cliffs.   The site was busy and I joined a stream of other walkers on the path to the far eastern point of the island.  The scenery was spectacular, the red and brown cliffs contrasting with a bright blue sky and dark blue sea.

Ponta de Sao Lorenco in the sun….
Still sunny……
The weather begins to change……

After 3km and lots of stops for photographs, I reached the information centre for the park, which, like everything else I had visited today, was closed.  As might have been expected, the weather then suddenly changed.  First grey clouds covered the sun.  Then came heavy rain, driven in horizontally from the sea by the wind.  Just by opening your mouth and facing the wind you could have a drink of fresh rain water. What had been a muddy path turned into a river, fed by small waterfalls falling from the hills. It might have been pretty if it hadn’t been so………..wet.  It is at times like these that you discover how waterproof your walking gear is – my top was good, but my legs were soon soaked through.  Back at the car I peeled off the wet layers of clothing, removed my shoes and scraped the mud off them.

I drove back to my hotel barefoot and in my underpants, hoping that I wouldn’t be stopped by the police (even though my furry bear body is rather cute…). Back in my room, I hung up my wet clothes in a futile attempt to dry them.  I reflected that the reason that there are very few Covid cases on Madeira is that if anyone coughs of sneezes, any infected droplets are immediately blown to Africa by the ferocious winds. At least dinner was delicious – fresh swordfish with tomatoes and pasta.

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