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World Cruise 2013 - part 7
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We arrived in Funchal as scheduled, reversing into the usual end mooring on the breakwater at 0830, next to the Aida. We waited at the exit to be first to disembark, and at exactly 0900 the ship was cleared and we were allowed to leave. We have been to Madeira many times before so we saw no point in taking an organised excursion - the town is within walking distance and usually there are shuttle buses although we did not want to wait. There are also local buses which we have used on previous visits - they provide an interesting ride on the narrow roads and steep hillsides for the courageous. We swear 'never again' but still use them. There is a new Cruise Terminal which had been opened in May last year, built largely with EU money. You could see your face in the polished black granite floors but it did not appear to offer any services yet other than a snack bar. The only 'shops' were a couple of basic 'stalls'. The port area also includes tourist trip boats, and we were approached to try a morning sail on one of the large catamarans. More appealing would be the trip on the Santa Maria de Colombo which was a round friendly wooden boat, resembling the old ships of Christopher Columbus, but built in 1998 in nearby Camera de Lobos. It was moored just inside the port area and we saw it go out later in the day rolling like a pig in the swell, just like the original.
We walked quickly into town along the waterfront stopping to look across at the Queen Mary 2 and past the yacht which the Beatles used to own, now a stranded restaurant. There is a lot of construction work around the boat for a new marina and flood defences, and there is work on improving the river culverts. While the work takes place roads are narrow, roundabouts are impossible and the normal route for shuttle buses had to change. They now terminate at the Marina Shopping Centre near the Jardim Municipal in the main street. We walked quickly to the Mercado dos Lavradores, then to the lower Cable Car station. The first Cunard tour for the cable car was scheduled to depart the ship at 0925 and we wanted to be moving before they all arrived. In addition it was windy and there is always a chance that the cable car will be closed if the winds are too strong.
Our first target was to catch the Cable Car to Monte, then transfer to the second Cable Car at the Lago das Babosas to cross the valley to the Botanical Gardens which we visited many years ago by local bus - a memorable ride only for the courageous at high speed on narrow windy roads with steep drops. The combination ticket on the Cable Cars was euro 30.25 each, much more expensive but much safer and worth the rides in their own right. The views back over Funchal from the top of the cable car are spectacular. Although it was windy in town it was pleasant and warm and there was no wind at the cable car station, although we had a slight problem when the cable car stopped, then went backwards until the car behind was back at the station, before continuing onwards - one had visions of being trapped for hours when everything just stops. Maybe one of the people behind had changed their minds.
This visit we did not have time to go around the Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which is an enormous park in the grounds of an old hotel next to the upper Cable Car station and which you pass on the way to the church. The grounds are crisscrossed with paths and the Japanese gardens are pretty and include Koi fish ponds. And there are lots of large old ceramic tiled pictures, mostly dating from the 1840s. Instead we walked straight to the new cable car station. The cable car area is also the start of a walk along the Levada dos Tornos Carnacha, and there is another walk, the Levada do Bom Successo, from the Botanical Gardens through the Joao Gomes valley to a waterfall. We saw part of this levada walk later, from the cable car from Monte to Funchal.
There had been no queues at the first cable car so it was a surprise to join a long line for the next part of the journey. We could only presume they had all arrived by bus, and it soon became clear that it was a german-speaking tour group, all visiting the Botanical Garden. The cars were identical size, six people each car, so the queue reduced quickly. We soon swung out down over the Joao Gomes valley far below, passing over the tall motorway bridge, before climbing up to the Botanical Garden.
Tour groups have one advantage - they enter the Botanical Gardens from the cable car station, at the top of the hill, and are then walked down to the exit at the bottom where their bus waits. For us, every step downhill would be replaced by a step uphill later because we had return tickets on the cable cars. The garden is crisscrossed with paths, some very steep and with steps. Most of the steeper paths are made of split flint - almost non-slip but hard on the shoes. They are cunningly undulating so they form a sort of step. We meandered downhill to the Main Building, which housed a natural history museum of local birds and animals, and was at the alternative entrance gate. This part of the garden had a large cactus garden, and the famous lawn of multicoloured plants which is the classic postcard view. From the covered walkway the plants proclaimed Jardim Botanico da Madera and the dates 1860 - 2013, and the QM2 was a small speck in the distance.
A display of topiary sculpture distracted us on our way downhill to a semicircular open air theatre, then to rows of birdcages with colourful peacocks and a large collection of parrots. This was the furthest point of our walk. Looking uphill there were umbrella shades and the cafe, alongside ponds with waterlilies and frogs. We were soon back at the top of the garden, there were no other people around and we walked on to our own cable car.
It was lunchtime when we reached Monte so we stopped for a glass of the local beer then bought specialty bread snacks and a large sugar donut, cooked at the roadside. There is not very much to see at Monte itself although the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is special; it contains the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor Charles and there is his statue outside. At the bottom of the church steps is the start of the famous sled run. Queues were lengthening for the cable car down to Funchal and we had some shopping to do before getting back onboard. It is a fast frequent service and we were soon on our way down.
On the way back we stopped at the Porto Santa Maria Hotel. It is the only 4* hotel on the ocean front in Funchal; all the others are set in the hillside or perched on top of cliffs. Many years ago it was a small hotel with a small private beach of black sand. Now it is part of the Porto Bay Group and they have done a lot of refurbishment work. The site was the old Arsenal, next to the old Fort of Sao Tiago, and on the edge of the old quarter with all its cafes and restaurants and picturesque narrow streets. Each time we visit Funchal we think of visiting for a longer holiday.
The row of cafes and restaurants ended at the Mercado dos Lavradores, a favourite place of ours with its bright displays of flowers and vegetables, the smell of herbs and spices and stands of local embroidery and basketwork. It is the one place which one must visit in Funchal. It covers two floors round a courtyard plus a large lower level fish market. The exotic fruit and vegetables are heaped high on the first floor whilst the ground level has the flowers and other stalls but it is the fish market we find most fascinating with everything from whole Tuna to the extremely unusual Espada fish which is only found in a very small local area and in another area near Japan.
The name translates as scabbard and one can see why with the long jaw and slim black scale covered body nearly two meters from head to tail. They seem to have areas covered in black and white veining which are sought after and are left when the rough black scales are removed prior to sale. The picture shows the huge eyes - they live at 600 feet - and the veining. They are caught by lowering lights and then reeling them up - the fish follow and die as they reach the surface. They taste very good and the QE2 often had them on the menu in the evening.
We bought some Strelitzia flowers for the cabin; we have too much luggage to buy a box, and anyway they do not keep well in our central heating at home. In the winter we buy the local honey Madeira cakes - these are very different to the "English" Madeira cakes being dark brown, very solid and rich. We continued through the town to Blandys Wine Lodge. They have a guided tour that we took a few years ago. We did not buy any bottles as we still have several others, mostly ten year olds, from earlier visits and we have found we can purchase many of the ones we tried in the UK. We also noted a couple of years ago that they were using a new method for their 3 year wines using the Tinta Negra grape and a "Estufagem" process involving heating and holding wine at 45 degrees using pipes through the containers. All older wines are made by the conventional process in oak and 85% of named grape (100% for reserve wines) where the wines are stored in the hot eves of the building and periodically turned. The new process gave a very different taste and we were not impressed. This time we saw that their Winemaker has won some of the most prestigious awards over the last few years including Fortified Winemaker of the Year from the IWC as well as awards for individual wines, presumably for the old style of manufacture.
In 2010 we had tried one of the very old Madeiras from the Vintage Room namely an 'anniversary' 1974 Sercial which was very good. We understand it was put into the bottles from the barrel in 2004. Unfortunately this year it was not available for tasting, although we could still purchase a bottle for around £150. The previous visit we had a 1948 for Pete's birthday which was the oldest wine we have ever tried; until then the oldest was a 1953 Moet and Chandon for Pauline's 21st birthday - that had been laid down for her by her aunt.
It was now time to walk back to the ship - we passed a long queue for the shuttle bus and walked up into the park where we sat down with a view over the harbour to the QM2. We consumed the local donut Pauline had bought from the stand at Monti surrounded by the small local lizards hopeful we would drop some crumbs before completing the half hour walk from town to the ship. We sailed on time with a beautiful view of Funchal glowing in the evening sun and vowed we must come back for a longer holiday. The end of a glorious day.
Vigo is a major Spanish seaport and shipbuilding centre with a strong fishing fleet and mussel farms. It is possible to take a tour to the famous pilgrimage town of Santiago di Compostela from Vigo but we had already been there and had no wish to repeat the trip - it is a very long day and even when the ship is berthed for a full day the bus tours leave early. In fact we had already been to Vigo twice in the last year - our previous two cruises on the Queen Victoria in 2012 had both called there - so we have covered the town fairly comprehensively. We therefore wanted to go to Pontevedra which is the second largest "old town" in Galicia, only after . Pontevedra is on the southern or "Portuguese" branch of the route of the Way of Saint James followed by pilgrims for many centuries to Santiago de Compostela where his relics are venerated. Pontevedra was once a major shipbuilding port and Columbus's Santa Maria was built there.
Fortunately the QM2 also berthed at the cruise terminal which could not be closer to the town and there was certainly no need for a shuttle bus. Our plan was to catch the train to Pontevedra, and with an arrival time of 0900 (we were actually 0910 down the gangway) then a brisk 20 minutes walk past the marina to the station Vigo Guixar we had 5 minutes spare for the 0940 train after buying our tickets. The next train was at 1033. A day return was only 5 euros each but we had to fix our return train time and decided it would be 1425 which arrives at Vigo at 1502. The train to Pontevedro continued to Santiago de Compostela, but it is 95kms from Vigo which is really too far for a day trip. All aboard was 1630, then next stop Southampton.
The train hugs the coast, passing the bridge over the Vigo River which we had seen from the ship. Fish and shellfish is an important industry and at low tide there were people with buckets scuffling in the sand. The commuter trains are modern and comfortable with engines at each end. It was 40 minutes to Pontevedro from Vigo. We expected to find information at the station, but there was not even a map, so we followed the road signs to the City Centre. Eventually there was a kiosk at a small bus station at Praza Galicia which sold us a map and two ice-creams. Cunard has a walking tour of Pontevedra which claimed to start from the Alameda Square, so that seemed a good point to aim for. It looked as if it was an area with parks which then lead down to the old town. As we got closer we could see a large round building like a stadium in the distance and as we got closer we realised it was the bull ring. We continued through the Praza Liberdade and past the Audiencia Nacional and the end of the Xardins de Vinceti to the start of the Alameda Arquitecto Sesmeros - our intial target. The bull ring was by now so close that we thought we would overshoot and have a look - we could not get in but, even from the outside, it was an impressive size and surrounded by orange trees.
We then went back to the Alameda Arquitecto Sesmeros which was a long and broad avenue of trees with many of the regional and civic buildings at the side including the Pazo de la Diputacion. At the end were the ruins of 13th century Santo Domingo church which we found was the first of 6 buildings comprising the Museum of Pontevedra and there was a map showing a walking trail taking them in. We were now on the edge of the Praza Espana which had an interesting mirrored finish I-centre which was unfortunately not open. It was bordered by a number of impressive buildings and the Concello and we could see the Campelo de Santa Maria in the distance, also mentioned as part of the Cunard tour.
Our map showed us we were now on the edge of old town with its narrow cobbled streets but surprisingly not all were pedestrian. We wandered round the old town for quite a while rarely knowing exactly where we were. We passed the Teatro Principal and then ended up in the Praza Cinco Ruas where not surprisingly, five roads met. We took the Rua Baron to the 16 century Casa do Baron de Casa Goda which is now a Parador. The old town is full of little squares and we went through the Praza Peirao on our way to have a look at the river, the Rio Lerez, which we reached at the Ponte do Burgo which is a very old and historic bridge. We walked part way across for the view and looked at the excavations of the old roman and medieval roads and the even earlier bridge.
Still ambling aimlessly we passed through the Praza Mendez Nunez and the Praza Ferreria with the church of San Fransisco alongside which we looked into before going across to the interesting looking Capela da Virxe Peregrina (Church of the Pilgrims), with its distinctive scallop-shaped floor plan which is a popular destination for pilgrims. We were offered a new prayer to read. There was a repeated scallop theme throughout, on the walls, the seats, in the stained glass, the stations of the cross and on the confessional as well as the floor plan itself.
By now we had come close to the centre of the Museums which comprise the Museo de Pontevedra, the Edificio Fernandez Lopez was not obviously open but we spent a long time visiting the free (as Europeans) Edificio Castro Monteagudo and the linked Edificio Garcia Florez. They were on several floors as well as cellars. They held a wide range of different and comprehensive collections which we will not go into in detail - it took us an hour or more to carry out a quick exploration. This meant we had now seen 4 of the 6 museums on the Ruta do Museo. We left the museum just in time to look in Church of San Bartolome (17-18 century), just as it closed at 1300. We continued the Ruta de Museum to the the last two, the Edificio Sarmiento and Sexto edificio, the first was closed and the new Sixth Museum, very original naming, seemed to be complete but as yet unoccupied.
According to the map we were however close to the large market, the Mercado de Abastos. It was still a lot more active than we had expected by that time of day with fish, meat, flowers and vegetables. We found just the shop we wanted upstairs to buy some of the local cheeses as we were not going to have time to do our usual stocking up for the UK when we got back to Vigo. The negotiations were interesting as we spoke no Spanish and the lady shopkeeper no English but a gathering crowd interpreted and fed us information so we got the cheeses we wanted and also a bottle of unmarked but recommended local red wine to go with it.
By now we were getting concerned about time as we had a specified time train ticket and also could not afford to miss the train if we were to be aboard on time. We went as straight as we could to the Xardins de Vicenti to complete our previously meandering tour of old town which is actually less than 750 x 600 metres in size plus another 400 x 300 of Almada and Civic buildings. The 1.5 km walk back to the to Station only required us to follow the Avenida Eduardo Pondal the whole way so we were at the railway station at 1400 with plenty of time for a small local beer which unexpectedly arrived with tapas (1.80 Euro for a small glass). The train arrived slightly late, but was back on time at Vigo and we were back to the ship before 1530 at a more leisurely pace than in the morning and via the park which took us 25 minutes from the station to cruise terminal.
It was a lovely evening as we left the port to head back to Southampton and we stood on deck to watch before sampling the red wine with the last of the cheese from New Zealand which we cannot take into the UK.
The end of a great cruise and time to plan the next!