Farewell to Madeira

Today was my last full day on Madeira and I decided to explore Funchal. Although I had been staying there a few days already, I had been busy with all-day trips outside of the city and had not ventured out of the old quarter, where my flat was located. I started with taking the cable car to Monte, a suburb high up in the mountains behind the city, to visit the Monte Palace Gardens, one of Madeira’s main tourist attractions. I bought a combination ticket for cable car and “gardens” at the ticket office and enjoyed interesting views over the city on the long ride up.

In the cable car to Monte

When I got to the top, I found that my combination ticket was not for the Monte Palace Gardens, whose entrance was right next to the cable car station, but for the official city Botanical Gardens.  To reach the latter required me to take another cable car going half-way back down the mountain.  My annoyance quickly passed as I explored a series of very interesting displays of Madeira’s plant life and enjoyed coffee and cake on a terrace looking out over Funchal to the sea. I particularly enjoyed the huge cacti and the dragon trees. An added bonus was that I had the place almost entirely to myself.

Topiary in the Botanical Gardens
Huge cacti…

From the Botanical Gardens, I returned to the centre of Funchal to explore the city.  It had a nice laid-back feeling, many old buildings and very few tourists.  There were no real “must visit” places that would feature in lists of “1000 things to see before you die”, but the city centre was pretty and a pleasant place just to stroll around for a few hours. There were lots of small shops, gardens, and public squares.  

A Square in Funchal
Pretty Old Buildings and the Cathedral

My route took in a museum set in the house of Zarco, the city founder, and the cathedral.  It ended with Madeira wine tasting at Blandy’s wine merchants, where I discovered that in addition to the sweet Madeira that is popular in the UK, there were also semi-dry and dry varieties.  Even the dry one tasted sweet to me, just less so than the others.  But I like Madeira wine, so it was a great way to end my stroll.

Madeira Wine Tasting (the end of…. hic!)

The evening I had dinner in the open air at the restaurant in the old fort directly in front of my house.  The food and service were excellent. I took the option of the wine set. In London this would involve precisely measured rations of each wine, but here the staff filled up my glasses whenever they were half full.  As the evening progressed, a bright full moon rose over the battlements of the fort and bathed the courtyard in soft light.  The evening was perfect and helped me forget for a moment that I had to return to London’s rain and Covid the next day.

Funchal in Ocober
…….London in October

I left Madeira after nearly two weeks with a desire to come back.  There were some things I hadn’t managed to do during my visit – like the walk on my first day that got rained off, or the Monte Palace Gardens.  But most of all it would be nice to stay in Funchal, chill out in the sun and  do some swimming or diving  whilst everyone back home is shivering with the onset of winter.

An epic mountain walk

Today my alarm woke me at 06.45. I planned to do the famous walk between Pico do Arierio and Pico Ruivo, high in the mountains, and the guidebook said you should start early to avoid clouds.   However, when I got up and went out on the terrace, the weather was cloudy even at sea-level in Funchal. I thought that the mountains would be even worse and sat down to think of a plan B for the day, annoyed at having woken up so early for nothing.  Dawn was breaking, and I remembered the website with webcams all around Madeira showing the weather that had been so useful on my first day on Madeira.  Maybe I could find a sunny place to visit for the morning. Out of 20 webcams, there was one showing a brilliant sunrise, above a layer of thick cloud………Pico do Ariero. My original plan was still good, since the top of the mountains rose well above the clouds.  I picked up all the stuff I had packed the night before and set off in my car up some very steep hills.  Soon I was engulfed in thick grey cloud, but as I went further and further up, I felt  the top of the cloud lightening, and then suddenly the sky was a brilliant clear blue with a bright white layer of cloud below me.  I had arrived at a radar station that marked the start of my walk. 

The road leaves the clouds

I stopped at the radar station to take my first photographs of the beautiful cloud- and mountain-scape. 

First of many amazing views

The path then set off downhill along the side of a mountain and the along a sharp crest, with steep drops on either side.

Not for the faint hearted….
Mountains and Clouds

Fortunately, the path was well maintained, with guide rails.  The path ran to a couple of “miradouros” before dropping steeply down the mountain, and then running level through several tunnels. 

The second tunnel

The first seemed natural, the others had been bored through the rock. They were long and dark, requiring me to use the light on my phone to see where I was going.  In the stretches between tunnels, I was treated to a series of amazing views.  Brilliant sunshine, tall mountains, and bright white cloud drifting in from the sea.

On a flat bit between tunnels

Next the path went steeply up a series of long metal ladders, then came a slightly flatter section running through a forest of dead grey trees.  With the wisps of clouds blowing in from the valley, and the trees twisted, agonized shapes, it felt like an enchanted forest from a fairy tale. 

The enchanted forest…
Fairy tale prince turned into a tree?
Up and up…

The path continued still further up, and with the strong sunshine I was soon sweating.  Finally, I reached the summit of Pico Ruivo and stopped to take photographs and admire the views.  I could see the starting point for my walk just over on the neighbouring mountain range. Given the effort of getting here, it looked disappointingly close as the crow flies, but the steep drop between the two points bore witness to the difficulty of the path. 

View from Pico Ruivo with Pico do Ariero, my starting point, in the distance

I stopped to have my packed sandwiches and drink some water, and then set off on the return trip.  The clouds were now thicker and reaching higher up the mountain.  At the point where the clear sky stopped and the clouds began, I saw a faint rainbow, before the sun disappeared entirely.  

Closest I have been to a rainbow

Doing the return trip in the mist was a completely different experience. Although less spectacular, I noticed things I had missed on the way out, and I was protected from the sun and the heat.  I met a family of partridges – friendly birds almost the same size as me – and shared some biscuits with them. 

When the path began to rise steeply again, I knew I was getting closer to my destination. Just when I was thinking the path up would never end, I made out the spherical white form of the radar station through the mist, looking like some alien space craft. 

The end in sight!

Made it!  A hard 5 hours walking, with a 30mins break for lunch.  My legs hurt, but it was one of the most spectacular walks I had ever done anywhere, and I was exceptionally lucky to catch the time when the clouds were drifting up from the valley and had not yet reached the summit.  A big thumbs up for the Madeira webcams!

Funchal Day One

Today I moved to Funchal, the capital of Madeira and by far its biggest city.  I went there via Cabo Girao, a tall cliff on the south coast where they have a built a glass platform over the cliff edge which allows you to look straight down 580m to the sea.  Although I am very small compared to the other big tourists stomping over the glass, I stepped very gingerly and tried to make sure that I kept each paw on a different pane.  

On the glass viewing platform of Cabo Girao
The view from Cabo Girao

It was a nice site, and looking straight down past my paws to the sea was a novelty, but the view wasn’t that different from all the other pretty seascapes I’d seen on Madeira, and I found the constant stream of tourists rather oppressive. I headed on to Funchal where my flat was in the old town and looked out over Madeira’s old fort.

The view from my flat

I will write more about Funchal in a later post.My first activity in the afternoon was a boat trip to look for dolphins and whales.  We headed out to sea in a small RIB (rigid inflatable boat) for about an hour. I scanned the horizon for fins sticking out from the water. Occasionally I got excited when I thought I’d seen one, only to realise that I’d seen the shady side of yet another wave.  The skipper of the boat was better at spotting marine life than I was.  “There they are!” he shouted.  At first, I couldn’t see anything but then I realised we were in the middle of a big group of dolphins swimming right around the boat.  The guide explained that they were Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, and this was a good thing because this species was very sociable and would come and do some “human watching” if they weren’t busy hunting fish.   I spent the next ten minutes with my camera primed, trying to snap the moment when a dolphin fin or tail would break the water.

A rare successful dolphin shot

It was hard to get the timing right, and I ended up with lots of photos of swirling water eddies marking where a dolphin had been.  I switched to filming video instead.  

The guide said that the authorities had strict rules about bothering dolphins, with a limit of ten minutes for observing each group. When our time was up, the skipper accelerated our boat and we headed off to look for more marine life. Our first group of dolphins tried to follow us, occasionally jumping from the water, but eventually got bored and swam off.

Dolphins chasing our boat

Very soon we came across another group of the same dolphin species, and the whole spectacle repeated itself.  Apparently, dolphins are easy to spot, since they are very common and they welcome human contact. Whale sightings are rarer – we didn’t see any.  On the way back, we went past the base of Cabo Girao, and admired the impressive cliff from the bottom.

Cabo Girao from the sea

With the excitement of filming the dolphins, I hadn’t felt sea-sick at all, but instead felt slightly queasy when I got my paws back on firm land at Funchal Marina. For dinner I had fresh dorado on the terrasse of my flat and tried a bottle of “dry” Madeira – which still tasted sweet to me but was very good all the same.

View from my dinner table

Last Day in the West

The next day was my last day in the villa on the west of Madeira, and I went for another walk up on the central plateau.  Again, the drive was spectacular.

Yet another amazing view

The walk was supposed to be one-way, requiring a taxi down the valley with the walk back up the mountain, but there were no taxis to be seen so I improvised.  First I wandered around a beautiful meadow dotted with laurel trees and with views stretching far over the north coast. The wind had blown the trees into strange, twisted shapes.

A laurel wood on the high plateau
There is something human about the shape of this tree

I found a mountain bike track  that led gently downhill, into a thick laurel forest. There were lots of different paths for walkers and bikers, and I made my way streadily downhill following the detailed map that was displayed at the car park, and which I had snapped on my phone.  The laurel forest transformed into a broom forest. Eventually I found the main path CR14 which led back gently uphill alongside another levada.  It was a pretty path, but after and hour following it, I got a little bored continually having to navigate around the muddy pools that dotted the side of the channel.

The levada runs thorugh a thick forest with ferns

There seem to be levadas all over Madeira and I wondered how long it took to build them all.   The engineering was impressive – the levadas run for kilometres with a continuous, gentle slope along routes that cling to hills and mountainsides. Occasionally a little side channel lets out some water to stop the main channel from overflowing.  On today’s walk, one of these side channels had become blocked and the path had become flooded, so I had to get my paws wet.

Time to get my paws wet!

 Finally, the path left the levada and headed straight up a very steep slope, emerging on the main road near the car park. I was tired and hungry but very happy with my improvised walk.

I continued the road down to Porto Moniz. At the coast I was rewarded with a view of a strange rock rising directly from the sea, which I had missed on my visit here a few days ago – I must have been inside a tunnel.

Back on the North Coast

I drank a badly needed coffee and replenished my energy with a thick fish soup at an open-air café in the town, enjoying the view of the bay.  I took the west coast road back home, and this time stopped at Ponta do Pargo to visit the lighthouse.  This is the most south westerly point of Europe and if you sail out to sea in a straight line from here, the first stop will be America.

The lighthouse at the furthest edge of Europe
Next stop……America!

More fish for dinner back at the villa, and the first clear sunset of my stay to round off my time here.

An end to apathy – my first walk

Today I shook off my apathy and went walking for the first time.  I drove up a steep minor road that led all the way up to the central plateau right on top of Madeira and was rewarded by a straight road with fantastic views over the coast – and not a tunnel in sight!

The view from the Madeiran plateau

I was headed towards 25 Fontes, one of the most popular walks on Madeira, and the parking area at the start of the walk was already busy. I headed down into the valley, admiring the views,

The view down the valled

Then the path dived into a dense broom forest that ran alongside a levada (man-made water channels that run all around Madeira).  I had always seen broom as little bushes and I didn’t know that it could grow into trees. It was a very pretty path and I enjoyed the alternating shade and sunshine, and the happy gurgle of the water.

Walking beside a “levada”

The path was narrow and I often had to stop to let other walkers pass.  It was interesting watching the expression on people’s faces when this happened. Some looked happy and gave me a cheery “Bom Dia” or “Hello”, but others looked scared to be so close to another walker – even a teddy bear – and hurried past whilst frowning. Soon I arrived at the Cascada do Risco,  a tall waterfall cascading down a sheer cliff, and hurried to take photos before more visitors arrived.

The Cascada do Risco

I then retraced my steps and took a new path along a different levada to the Cascada das 25 Fontes.   In a big clearing, a wide central waterfall spilled down from the mountain, flanked by many smaller falls on both sides.  To count 25 waterfalls required some imagination, but there were certainly a lot and it was a really pretty scene.

The Cascada de las 25 Fontes

From there I retraced my steps to the visitor centre and its cafe. I found a really good place to sit, with far reaching views of the valley.  I also met some new friends to share my garlic bread with.

The view from the cafe
New friends!

To get back to my villa I chose a  minor road leading very steeply down to Calheta on the coast – I was pleasantly surprised that I got there without getting lost, and that a little levada followed the road all the way down.  At Calheta I bought fresh fish and wine for dinner to celebrate one of my best days so far on Madeira.

Too many Tunnels

I was running out of things to do in the west of Madeira so the next day I decided to visit some attractions near the capital, Funchal, on the south coast.  I was going to stay there for five days at the end of my holiday but knew that I wouldn’t have time to see everything. First on my list the Curral das Freiras, a remote village located high in the mountains a few km inland. It didn’t seem far – only 20km – but although the road was good and fast, it almost entirely consisted of dark, smelly tunnels.  By the time I arrived at the turn-off for my destination, I was badly in need of fresh air, which the steep mountain road leading to Curral provided. The village was founded by a group of nuns escaping the pirates who used to attack the coast, and indeed you would have to be a very determined assailant to make it all the way there by foot or on horseback.  

I made a detour to the Eira do Serrado viewing point on top of a mountain for spectacular views of the mountains and of Curral das Freiras itself, surrounded by towering peaks.

On the way up to Curral das Freiras
At the viewing point
Curral das Freiras and the old mountain road

I noticed the abandoned old road, which was now slowly falling away down the mountain-side, and which used to be the main road to the village.  It had now been replaced – as almost everywhere on Madeira – by a direct tunnel, but I had already had an overdose of tunnels and I decided to give this one a miss.  I couldn’t see how the view could be any better down in the village than it was up on top of the mountain.

My next stop was the Jardim de Palheiro, on the east edge of Funchal.  This garden is part of a private estate of an old Madeiran family, that now includes a hotel and golf course.  It was surprisingly hard to find, and though pretty, was a little small.

The exotic plants of the Jardim do Palheiro
The gardeners have chosen some strange shapes for the topiary….

Considering the effort needed to get here, I was a bit disappointed – maybe October is not the best season for the gardens on Madeira.  I consoled myself with some tea, cake and my first glass of Madeira in the garden’s café.

Madeira, tea and cake – how civilised!

After enduring the endless tunnels of the southern highway on the way back, I sat on my sun-lounger in my villa’s garden and was lucky enough to see my first ever complete rainbow. Today I had done everything I had set out to do – but I preferred the unplanned freedom of my exploration of the north coast of the day before.

A lazy day in the north west

The next day I set off with the intention of doing a walk in the mountains in the north of Madeira, and then maybe visiting the lighthouse at Ponta del Pargo – the most south westerly point of Europe – on the way back.

I took the main road around the far west of the island, which unlike the south, had yet to be “improved” with tunnels.  Even though it was raining the road was pretty. It ran through woods of pine and eucalyptus and a pleasant smell of wet forest filled the air. The heavy rains and winds of the past few days had created a few hazards on the road, in the form of fallen rocks and one large fallen tree.

Unusual hazards on the roads of Madeira

It was slow driving along the winding mountain roads, but I finally made it to Porto Moniz, at the extreme north western tip of the island.  This town is famous for its natural pools of seal water, formed by volcanic rock formations stretching into the sea.  

The spectaculaar coast and natural rock pools of Porto Moniz

There was a solitary bather in the pools. I dipped my toe in; the water was not too cold, but it wasn’t sunny enough to consider swimming. Instead  I admired the beautiful seascape and the contrast of the blue sea, the white surf, the green mountains and the stark black volcanic rock.

I decided to change plans.  The walk through the forest was going to be steep, and would be very slippery after the rain, so it would be better to do this another day.  Today I was enjoying simply driving and exploring, making things up as I went along. It reminded me of my early carefree backpacking days where I would set off to a destination with no firm plan, no bookings, and sometimes not even a guidebook.   

Typical north coast scenery

I drove along the north coast, admiring the views, and then took an interesting looking side road that that led steeply up into the mountains. After a few km the road petered out at the start of a walking trail; I stopped to take photographs and breathed in the fresh mountain air.

The mountains inland

Next I headed back to the coast. I reached the town of Seixal, which also has volcanic rock pools, took more photos and stopped for a coffee. 

The natural rock pools at Seixal
More rock pools….

The weather continually changed –  sometimes cold and showery, sometimes hot and sunny.  The sea air made me feel relaxed and sleepy. I headed back home not having done any of the things that I had planned to do that day, but with a strange feeling of contentment.

Exploring the South West of Madeira

The next day I was due to move to my villa on the south west coast of Madeira. The weather in Santana was still very cloudy, but as soon as I had driven down to the south coast, the clouds were replaced by bright sunshine.  The road seemed to consist almost entirely of tunnels.  I couldn’t check in to my villa until 1 o’clock, so I made a short stop to visit Ribiera Brava, a pretty coastal town where I bought some food.

The Church at Riviera Brava

I then abandoned the highway and its endless tunnels for a slower winding mountain road, and I was rewarded by some spectacular views. My villa was in a small village called Faja da Ovelha, strung out over a steep hill which descended to the sea.

My villa

The village was tiny, with a church and a small bar but no shops.  After checking in I enjoyed the view of the ocean from my terrace and then decided to take the steep path down to the village of Paul do Mar on the coast.  The path gave a magnificent view of the mountains and the sea.

The start of the path down
The path continues

Paulo do Mar is a traditional fishing village but is also a surfing centre and had a few bars aimed at the surfer community. I stopped at the first bar I found and ordered a cold cocktail.  The heat and the sound of the waves breaking against the sea wall made me feel very lazy, so instead of continuing my walk into the centre of the village, I ordered another cocktail.

Non-Alcolohic……honest!

A van stopped to deliver bread to the bar; in this part of Madeira people get their daily bread from this van, so I followed the local tradition and bought a loaf for 50c.  The trip back to the villa was much slower than the trip down. The sun was now lower down on the horizon, and its warmth seemed to beam horizontally across the ocean directly onto the path.  When I got back to the villa I was sweating heavily.  I relaxed in a sunlounger for a bit and then cooked myself a huge tasty tuna steak for dinner – Madeira is a fish lover’s paradise.

The next day the weather forecast was not great, but all the same the sun was shining when I woke up. The webcam site showed the weather in the north and centre was indeed bad, so I decided to visit the small seaside villages near my villa. The area is far off the usual tourist circuit and a long way (by Madeira standards) from the island’s main attractions. First, I drove to Paul do Mar, this time visiting the old centre, away from the surfers’ places. A maze of narrow streets led parallel to the sea and below towering cliffs to a small harbour.

Towering cliffs behind Paul do Mar

There I was met by a simple statue of a man staring out to sea, which had been commissioned by the local fishing captains and somehow seemed to perfectly capture the relationship between man, the land and the sea.

Simple but evocative

The next village along the coast was called Jardim do Mar and had long sea front path as well as a similar maze of small streets and colourful buildings. I stopped in a bar for a snack, enjoying the pleasant warmth and the gurgle of water running down the “Levada” running through the town. These small channels carry water from the mountainous centre of Madeira to the drier coast; many of them have walking paths running along their banks, which form an extensive long-distance hiking network around the island.  

View of the sea at Jardim do Mar

My final stop was Calheita, the next town along the coast. It was completely different, smart and modern, with a couple of large hotels and harbour filled with yachts. I enjoyed watchimg the ocean waves beating against, and occasionally over, the harbour wall before visiting the supermarket to do my shopping for the week. Although 30 minutes’ drive away, this was the closest large shop to my villa. There isn’t much to do in this part of Madeira but I was really enjoying taking things slowly and listening to the wind and the sea. Back at the villa I enjoyed a glass of red wine whilst looking out over the ocean.  The welcome leaflet left by the owners said that sometimes you could see whales, and they had left some powerful binoculars for guests.

Tomorrow….

I couldn’t see any whales today, but it was fun looking. Maybe tomorrow. Here, it feels like “tomorrow” is the answer to everything.

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.

My last day in the North

Today was the last visiting day of my holiday. It started with a quick visit of a Roman Fort near Hexham.

Ruins of a Roman Fort near Hexham

Then I headed north to the Northumbrian coast, where I parked in the pretty seaside port of Craster, and walked along the coast to visit the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle.  In its time (it was built in the 14th century) it must have been huge, and rivalled neighbouring Bamburgh Castle. The castle suffered badly during repeated sieges in the War of the Roses when it changed hands several times between Lancastrian and Yorkist forces. There is not much left now, but it was still impressive, with great views over steep cliffs and the sea.

The entrance to Dunstanburgh Castle
Inside Dunstanburgh Castle – it must have been huge!

On one of the cliffs I noticed some cute, teddy-sized, penguin-like birds, which a quick search of the internet revealed were Auks.  I would have gone to say hello, but the cliff looked very steep, so I took photos from a safe distance. 

Cute Auks on a sea cliff

Back at the port, I enjoyed fresh crab sandwiches and a drink in the local pub, looking over the sea. From Craster I drove north along the coast road; it was a sunny Sunday afternoon and a lot of others had had the same idea.  I stopped briefly in Bamburgh for coffee and to admire the huge castle from the outside. Parts of the castle date from the 11th century and Norman times and it is amazingly well-preserved.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit, but given the Sunday crowds this might not have been such a good idea anyway.

Bamburgh Castle dominates the horizon for miles around

From Bamburgh I headed further up north to Holy Island, home of the famous ruined abbey of Lindisfarne.  This was established as a monastery in 634AD and was a leading centre of learning and religion for all northern England.  The monastery was probably the first ever place in Europe to be raided by the Vikings, in 793.  Holy Island can only be reached during low tide, and many road signs advise you of safe crossing times and the perils of getting your timing wrong.  There isn’t much left of the abbey any more – yet another ruined abbey to add to my list for this holiday – but the site still somehow has a special feeling to it, and is very photogenic, with a 15th century castle looming on a hill in the background.

What’s left of Liindisfarne Monastery, one of the holiest places for early English Christians
The graveyard near Lindisfarnce monastery with the castle in the distance

After Lindisfarne, it was time to head on to my next hotel. On the way I passed two other famous castles, Alnwick and Warkworth, but didn’t have time to visit.  The whole area is rich in history – the many castles are a legacy of England’s turbulent relations with the Scots and also the struggle for power between local northern barons and the king.  Appropriately, my last hotel was also a castle – Lumley Castle, built by Sir Ralph Lumsley in 1389.  Sadly Sir Ralph backed the wrong side during one of medieval England’s many power struggles and lost his head shortly after the castle was finished. I ended my holiday in style with a room in the very oldest part of the castle.

Lumley Castle – a hotel built in 1389!
My room !

The next day was the end of my holiday, and I completed the long drive back down to London. It was a very varied and interesting holiday, despite indifferent weather and Coronavirus restrictions. I will definitely return to Northumberland the Scottish borders – there are easily enough castles and walks to fill a good week of holiday and in two days I only scratched the surface of these little-known destinations. The Lake District was just as beautiful as I remembered it – despite my policy of not visiting the same place many times, I’ll keep my book of Lake District walks, just in case. After all I still haven’t climbed Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain.

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