Notes from Madeira

Well, I’ve been back from Madeira for a while, but it took me a moment to organize the notes and pictures. The journey has been challenging, for a whole set of reasons including a big question mark around my health, but overall I’m satisfied, and I was able to check a couple of things I […]

Well, I’ve been back from Madeira for a while, but it took me a moment to organize the notes and pictures.

The journey has been challenging, for a whole set of reasons including a big question mark around my health, but overall I’m satisfied, and I was able to check a couple of things I needed. As some of you know, I’m writing a novel and a bunch of chapters are set around Madeira.
Before leaving, I was able to obtain the help of a professional and I’d like to thank her for the preliminary research: she’s a Portuguese folklorist who is very active on Twitter and host of the Superstition Saturday blog and hashtag.
So, here’s what I picked up.

The Fort (and the other one)

A considerably important scene takes place around the São Tiago Fort in Funchal, which is the preliminary hub through which a group of my characters are able to get ashore.
Madeira is the top of a mountain standing 5000 mt from the bottom of the ocean and, back in the early XVIII Century when my story takes place, you couldn’t dock with a ship because there was no harbour: you had to lay anchor in front of the Funchal bay and send a smaller boat in.

There’s another fort, in the bay, and I got a heart attack because the two got mixed up in a conversation I got with a local historian, so he kept insisting the fort used to be on an Island and I, with all my years of construction under the belt, I just couldn’t see how.

The fort on the separate island is what’s now called Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Conceição do Ilhéu, unfortunately ravaged by renovations and now incorporated in the front of the new harbour. I was able to capture a couple of very badly lit pictures from some paintings exhibited in two house-museums. Remember it like this, because the new one calls for vengeance upon the architect.

The other forts are inconsequential for my tale: the Reis Magos Fort is too far away from the docking point, the now Palácio de São Lourenço is too recent and we don’t get to see the stuff on the other side. I didn’t get to see much of that either, we were a couple of days short, so I’ll give you another painting.


Villas are not really a part of the story as it’s written now: my characters meet a smuggler up in the hills. I visited a couple, though, to pick up some information regarding the perception of the island and the general lifestyle: Quinta das Cruzes, particularly for its archaeological gardens, and the Casa-Museu Frederico de Freitas which is too recent for my interests but was along the road. We also had dinner in the old building of Quinta da Casa Branca, which is a beauty.

Aside from the archaeological gardens (see below), Quinta das Cruzes is a well-kept but shabbily explained museum, with pieces mostly coming from British heritage. Be sure to visit downstairs, in the old cellars, where they keep an impressive collection of silver artefacts.
For reasons that are better explained within the novel (of if you have a pathologically detailed knowledge of Tudor history), I had to smile seeing a silver reproduction of a ship with a lady at the helm.

The Casa-Museu Frederico de Freitas is definitely more impressive and, unfortunately, more recent. Some of the pieces are absolutely stunning and the library is nothing short of a life goal.

Quinta das Cruzes’ archaeological gardens

For some reason, Maiderans have a knack for ripping storefronts of windows and placing them on display in their gardens. A famous window from Praça de Colombo and João Esmeraldo House, where Cristoforo Colombo lived while in Madeira, is now on display at Quinta da Palmeira.

My interest in these particular windows was sparked by my cultural consultant and has to do with wolves.

Apparently, back when the island was discovered, it was a dwelling for sea lions and otters. In Portuguese, apparently, it’s far more common to use the expression Lobo Marino for an otter (there’s an equivalent sea wolf in English, but in Italian we just have the sea lion). The animals are gone, now, but they were a big part in explaining to others what you could find on an otherwise deserted and verdant island.

Apparently, something got lost in translation or communication with the sculpture of these windows. They, in fact, depict actual wolves paired with members of indigenous populations that were never here.

This is significant because, in my madness, my novel has a half-otter mermaid with werewolf features.

The Lizards

Another thing I’m glad I got right before visiting the island has to do with local fauna, because apparently there is none and I was cornered in picking a lizard as the additional character we pick up on the island.
Well, the whole island is teeming with lizards. Huge, plumpy, half-chameleonic wall lizards that are very friendly and not in the least scared, but always seem to be a bit perplexed by the tourists ways. Which is just perfect.


A thing I didn’t get right, and I have to fix once I get around to the final revision, is the sheer amount of flowers, herbs and plants that are everywhere on the island.
There are different botanical gardens you can visit: I went to see the main one, but another one that should be even more beautiful is close by and they’re the ones near Monte, with waterfalls and a Japanese garden.
Whichever plants you have in mind, Madeira has them, including desert blooms and orchids. I need to fit in their mixed scent somewhere in the novel. Probably everywhere.

. .

The Coast

Another thing I screwed up is the distance between Funchal and Ponta de São Lourenço, which just can’t be covered by boat in a few hours.
The view from a boat is absolutely stunning, and it gives you the same kind of feeling I only got in New Zealand: the feeling of a land that was literally just born yesterday.
There is a group of very interesting caves, on the coast close to Funchal and accessible by boat: all I need is a portal, so I think I’ve got the problem fixed.


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