In December I visited Madeira, a Portuguese island not far from Africa. It’s beautiful, with palm trees, banana plantations, warm blue skies, dramatic mountains and flowering plants growing over the houses…
…but one thing I love about visiting any strange, new place is digging out the local stories.
This looks a bit like the cover for a fantasy novel, doesn’t it?
Imagine how the first Portuguese explorers felt when they came across this beautiful, peaceful-looking valley. Two of their soldiers boldly ventured ahead, and tried to swim across the charming, twisting river… only to discover that it was treacherously deep, with a ferocious current. Only the quick action of their friends saved them from drowning. Ever since, the valley has been known as ‘Socorridos’, meaning ‘rescued men’.
There’s another Madeira legend with a less happy ending, a tragic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story. Back in the 14th century, some say that a young Englishwoman named Anne of Hereford defied her parents and ran away with her true love, a man named Robert Machin. Sadly, the ship taking them to Portugal was blown off course by storms, and wrecked on the coast of Madeira. They both died shortly afterwards, and were buried side by side, never to be parted.
A couple of centuries later, a new danger threatened Madeira. Pirates!
Madeira was rich now, its sugar plantation owners living in fine mansions, the churches filled with silver. It was too much for any pirate to resist.
During a terrible raid by French pirates, the nuns of the Convent of Santa Clara fled the harbour town of Funchal with everything they could carry. Using the tall sugar cane of the plantations as cover, they escaped up a steep river gorge and into the mountainous passes beyond. In a secret valley, hidden and protected by a ring of towering mountains, they set up their new base. The village there today is still known as “Curral das Freiras”, or “The Refuge of the Nuns”.
There’s another local pirate story, involving buried treasure…
Captain Kidd was virtually the only pirate who did actually bury some of his loot. Some treasure-hunters believed that Kidd’s gold was hidden on one of the Selvagen Grande islands near Madeira… but nobody has ever found anything.
Now that I’m back in Britain, everything seems a bit grey. I have to remind myself that stories hang everywhere like smoke, and not just in exotic, postcard places. Every ordinary-looking street and boarded window may hold its own stories, waiting to be discovered…