Saturday, 17 May 2014

Postcard from Madeira

After visiting the island of Madeira on average three times a year for the past decade (staying at Casa Rosada – that’s the blatant plug for our holiday home out of the way), we are still finding new places to visit and new walks to try out. One of the latter that we recently discovered is a rarity on the island, a circular walk. With most of the island’s accessible footpaths following levadas along the contours (for those unfamiliar with Madeira, this is a network of irrigation channels that takes one into otherwise inaccessible and even implausible nooks and crannies of the landscape) there’s little scope for making round trips, and there-and-back walks are the norm. However, a combination of two levadas, a river valley and some moorland on the Paúl da Serra, the high land of the western part of Madeira, offers a highly satisfying loop that takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to circumnavigate, excluding time for taking photos and dabbling in the waters.

This is a walk labelled in the local tourist literature, rather improbably, as the ‘Lakes of Madeira’. There are no lakes as such on the island – there’s a small reservoir in the eastern mountains, but otherwise nothing larger than a big pond. These ‘lakes’ are pools of different sizes along the headwaters of one the most scenic river valleys in these parts, the Ribeira da Janela. Here the water tumbles down a series of natural waterfalls before being carried away in the artificial channels of the levada network to more distant parts. The starting-point is a local tourism hot-spot – the area of Rabaçal, popular with walkers, who come by car and minibus to the crowded car park just off the main road that follows the island ridge at this point. There are at least five levadas here, all at different heights up the mountainside, and most people descend on foot or courtesy of the bus shuttle down the winding road to the lower levels – the 25 Fontes (25 springs) and Risco. This walk, though, begins level with the road and remains above the worst of the crowds.

A shady stretch of the Levada da Alecrim

The first 30-40 minutes are along the well-used and -maintained path of the Levada da Alecrim as it twists and turns around the contour, at one point climbing 15 metres beside a foaming weir (not unlike a salmon run, though the only fish noticeable here are trout). Eventually the source of the levada is reached at a beautifully sited waterfall:

Most walkers turn around here and return the same way, but climb over a rather recumbent stile to the left of the river and a well-worn path leads gradually up the valley, passing more pools and waterfalls on the way: 

At length one emerges from the tree heather on to the flatter land of the moorland top, though the path soon drops again to cross the river at a rather ugly concrete bridge.

A steeper path then leads down to another levada, very different from the first one – where that was in concrete throughout, this one is far more natural, bubbling more irregularly along the valley side between mostly earth banks. Gradually, the hill slopes recede and, although one is slowly descending, the levada is now on more-or-less flat land atop the landscape, providing drinking water for the many cattle that spend the summer months grazing the moor:

One last challenge faces the walker on this circuit – a rather precarious, unprotected wooden bridge that crosses one of the Janela river’s upper tributaries. The stream is fordable when the water level is low, but this time it was a bit deep for risking on foot and so the bridge was the only option – one just has to remember to walk quickly, surely and don’t even think about stopping – it’s over in a flash.

A bridge too far?

The last leg of the walk is perhaps the least inspiring, following an obvious track through the gorse back to the road and the car park, but views down the Janela valley compensate.

We now recommend this walk to our visitors at Casa Rosada as an alternative to the busier Rabaçal paths and have had a good response, going by comments in the visitors’ book. It’s worth saving for a clear day, or the mists that often descend at that level hide the best of the views, and in hot weather, as it has been this week, there’s little better than the sight and sound of cool, running water to refresh the spirits.

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