Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Postcard from Madeira 2: The royal ways

The caminho real near Boaventura climbs up and crosses the cliff face to the left

Before motor vehicles came to Madeira, the main routes for people and goods were the so-called ‘caminho real’ (royal road) paths that virtually circumnavigated the island and connected coast with coast, harbour with cliff-top village. I can’t find much to explain what makes them ‘royal’, but they may have been built on the command of the Portuguese monarch in earlier eras – they were certainly regarded as municipal thoroughfares.

The arrival of the internal combustion engine made many stretches obsolete, as goods moved from mule to truck and new roads were built up and down the valleys to accommodate this newer but less nimble mode of transport. Yet plenty of stretches of the old caminhos still survive, recognisable by the typically Portuguese fetish for labour-intensive, mosaic-like paving. For, just as the footways of Lisbon and Funchal are paved with elaborate stone patterns, so these Madeiran paths have been painstakingly surfaced with thousands of flakes of volcanic stone. Moreover, when any kind of slope presents itself (hardly uncommon in this landscape), the gradients have been gently eased with beautiful curved-edged steps – hence their unsuitability for cars and lorries.

It can be quite sobering to see how the precipitous coastal terrain has been tamed by these paths, as they hug cut-out ledges along the cliff side, or zig-zag up from sea level across the cliff face itself. They are at their most dramatic on the north coast – itself the most spectacular part of the island – where sections can still be walked, though they survive in varying degrees of decrepitude. The easiest stretch to access is found at the half-forgotten hamlet of Calhau, down at the foot of a deep valley between São Jorge and Santana. Here, a modern restaurant and bathing complex mask the ancient set of the landscape as one passes the basalt cliffs at the river’s mouth. Ruins of old mill buildings shelter the remaining houses from the worst the sea can throw at them and between them a briefly driveable half-kilometre stretch of paved caminho leads up towards the cliff. Rounding the corner, we find the sea has already consumed half the original width of the path, but it’s still more than wide enough to be safe and there’s enough of the stonework left to admire the construction, complete with water channel at the edge.

A wooden bridge replaces the remnants of an old stone bridge that fell away only half a dozen years ago and the path rises to hug a natural ledge between two different strata of volcanic rock. The sea rages safely below and meanwhile the cliff walls offer a perch for an array of colourful plants, which seem to be at their floriferous peak in May and June. Most fascinating are the frankly tumescent house leeks, bulging out from their vertical fastness before flowering with a rather disappointing yellow spray:

This particular caminho links the bases of three zig-zag trails up from near sea level to the villages on the top, but it must also have been built to provide access to the ‘cais antigo’ (old quay) at the end of the knife-edge peninsular that provides the visual end of this particular walk. There’s now a permanent-looking ‘no pedestrians’ sign barring access to this last stretch, but it still looks technically walkable – down a steep flight of rough steps and across a wooden bridge attached to the cliff-side – and I’m sure it’s still used by local fishermen. In days gone by, goods would have been winched up from boats below – indeed, there’s still a working crane for launching the boats themselves.

Backtracking from the no entry sign one can either simply return the same way (it’s barely 20 minutes back to the car park), or more enterprisingly and energetically climb one of the zig-zag paths – unmissable with its curved steps to the right of the main path – which eventually meets a road. Follow this to the left and a cafe is reached in ten minutes, from where another zig-zag path leads back down to Calhau again.

Calhau, with one of the zig-zag paths heading up the
slope behind, and another descending from the right

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