Stories from the “Isle of Flowers”

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?

Socorridos Valley

It’s real, I promise. I took the photo myself.

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.

View down to Machico

Some say the town of Machico marks the place where the lovers are buried

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”.

Curral das Freiras

Mind you, the nuns had a long walk to get their shopping…

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.

Buried treasure

I didn’t find it either…

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…

4 thoughts on “Stories from the “Isle of Flowers”

    • Yes, the bus ride to Curral is terrifying, isn’t it? Careering at high speed round the hairpin bends, often on the wrong side of the road, and with a sheer drop on one side…

      I did hear that before the road was built, the only way for post to travel in and out of the village was by walking a steep, zigzag path out of the valley, to a high point nicknamed Eira do Serrado (The Eagle’s Eyrie). It’s a climb of about 1,500 feet. We walked down that path, and that was quite hard enough – I wouldn’t have wanted to try it in the upward direction!

  1. I went to Madeira as a 6-year-old, and have memories (plus a photo) of me and my mum and dad being run downhill through the streets on a bench/trolley affair, pulled/held by two big blokes. It was the local visitor attraction. Is that still there? Or did I dream it… I’d love to go back, though I now feel sick at the thought of hairpin bends and sheer drops (my ultimate nightmare). Is it possible to pootle around the island, sniffing flowers dreamily, without having to do the heart-attack inducing drives?

    • Ah, the Monte toboggan ride! Yes, it’s still there. My boyfriend and I had a go, and both giggled like loons as the toboggan swerved down 2km of steep streets, looking as if it might collide with the houses at any moment. So no, you didn’t dream it. 🙂

      If you’re not fond of heights, there are some beautiful gardens that aren’t too cliff-ridden. The Jardims do Palheiro were thick with flowers even in December. It also has topiary peacocks, twisting Oriental trees, ‘dragon trees’ and birds-of-paradise flowers.

      Also, Madeira now has some big roads with tunnels that let you drive under some of the mountains, instead of having to take the little roads that weave crazily over the tops of them…

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