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If not for a church assignment, I would never have known where Madeira Island was. So when I sat eating peanuts and drinking a small cup of apple juice during my flight to the Portuguese island, I did not know what to expect. I pondered how I would change the lives of some of the Portuguese people. However, this unique island and its friendly people ended up changing my life. While living there for eight months I went on breathtaking hikes, ate mouthwatering local dishes, and saw the world’s largest firework show. I found this island to truly be as the local people call it, “The Pearl of the Atlantic.”
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The first thing I saw out of the small fogged-up airplane window was that the airport is located literally on top of the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. After landing I saw three small deserted islands which are rumored to harbor buried pirate treasure. We then traveled by bus to the biggest city on Madeira, Funchal. The ride to Funchal was exciting because the winding roads run through banana fields, around cliffs, and hug the shoreline of the Atlantic.

If you gaze to the ocean from any point on the island, the Atlantic looks like a blue canvas, stretching out forever in every direction. In downtown Funchal, I strolled through the five-hundred year old city. The narrow European cobblestone streets blend with palm trees and sunshine. There are numerous enchanting small shops with unique souvenirs like: honey cake, Madeira wine, hand-woven colorful caps, embroidery, and many other items. The local fruit market is filled with fresh pineapple, bananas, sugar cane, figs, papaya, and over 10 different kinds of passion fruit. I was greeted by friendly locals handing out freshly cut samples. It only took this first day to know I would have a once in a lifetime experience on this tropical island.

Madeira is part of Portugal, but the island is closer to the African Coast than mainland Portugal. The location creates an ideal climate, it is rarely too hot or too cold, I call it t-shirt weather. As part of Portugal, the official language is Portuguese, but English is used in all tourist areas. The currency is the Euro. The oceanfront airport has flights from most major European cities including London and Lisbon. Madeira is thirty miles long and ten miles wide. Besides the main city Funchal, there are many enchanting towns to visit. The island has volcanic origins, so visitors notice the towering cliffs near the ocean and the mountains that rise towards the interior. Due to its volcanic formation, the island has few sandy beaches, however there are many pools and ways to enjoy the water. Additionally, a short boat ride away is Porto Santo, a sister island featuring a long golden beach.

The perfect year round weather makes Madeira an ideal destination to visit during any season. Having lived there almost a year, I recommend visiting during the holiday season. During the month of December, every place hangs
Christmas lights all over the streets. The hillside towns are like glowing spider webs of Christmas lights. My favorite light display was an enormous Madeira flag which hung from a bridge outside the city. The mixture of the sparkling lights, palm trees, and the friendly atmosphere creates a magical location to spend the holidays. All of these things set the stage for the grand finale of the Madeira holiday season.
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Every New Years Eve, Madeira hosts the largest firework show in the world. It starts with the harbor filling up with multiple cruise ships. When the clock strikes midnight, every cruise ship blows their deafening horns to trigger the show. Not only do the fireworks launch from the dock, but in every direction up the amphitheater like slopes of Funchal there are synchronized fireworks exploding in the sky. The show lasted about fifteen enjoyable minutes, culminating in the incredible grand finale. Like bombs in a battle sky, the strobing flashes and bangs of the finale light up the entire night sky and almost shake the ground. The firework show is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

If the holidays do not work for your schedule there are exciting things to do any time of the year. Everyone enjoys sampling local cuisine, so I will start there. An advantage of visiting an island is the fresh seafood. The surrounding water is deep off the coast which provides great deep sea fishing. The most popular of the deep sea fish is the espada (or black sword fish). Another popular fish is the bacalhau (or cod fish). Cod fish, which is prepared in countless tasty ways, is the unofficial national dish of Portugal. If you are not a seafood fan, there are many other authentic restaurants, thanks to the immigrants from all over the world who make Madeira their home. The variety of eateries includes many authentic Portuguese, German, Chinese, Italian, and British restaurants.

No matter which restaurant you choose, make sure to order some “Brisa” to wash down your meal. “Brisa” is a soft drink which is made right in Funchal and is unique to Madeira. This soda is made with real fruit juice, but is mildly carbonated compared to Sprite, for example. The flavors include: apple, passion fruit, orange, mango, limeade, and cola.

After a great meal, there are plenty of thrilling things to do on the island. I highly recommend taking advantage of the island’s natural beauty and enjoying one of its many hikes. The people on the island use a complex system, called levadas, to water their mountainsides . These levadas also happen to create ideal hiking trails which attract thousands of visitors from all over Europe every year. Hiking on Madeira is cheap, especially if you use one of the buses to get to your destination. Any of the major hikes have easy and affordable bus service to and from the hike.

The hike Pico Ruivo is literally at the top of the island. Once you reach the top there is a beautiful lookout point, which is the highest point in the whole country of Portugal. This hike is fairly demanding and adventurous, but if that sounds like your style just make sure to bring a sweatshirt because it gets cold and windy at that elevation. (I know because I watched my hat fly away down the mountain.)

Another adventurous, yet rewarding, hike is Calderao Verde (Green Waterfall). For much of this hike you climb along the side of a towering green canyon, with only a guide rope keeping you from a steep cliff. I felt like I was Indiana Jones climbing through the tropical wilderness. The trail takes you through two dark tunnels where you have to grasp the guide rope to get through. I had to bend over while walking through these tunnels so as not to hit my head. I recommend bringing a flashlight, as we were unprepared and had to use our cell phones for light. The end of the hike features a towering waterfall. I also recommend bringing a lunch to eat by the clear pool of water at the
base of the waterfall.
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If you want an easier hike which doesn’t involve dark tunnels I recommend Ponte de Sao Lorenzo. This hike is on the western edge of the island and is unlike any other hike on Madeira. Most of Madeira is lush green vegetation, but this hike is more like a desert poking out into the Atlantic. From this point you can see three deserted islands. On a clear day you can see Madeira’s sister island Porto Santo. Ponte de Sao Lorenzo is a MUST hike for anyone.
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After an exhausting day of hiking, you may want to spend a day lounging on the sandy beaches of Porto Santo. To get to Porto Santo you take the Porto Santo Line Cruise from Funchal’s harbor. The boat has a movie theater, lounges, an arcade, and a variety of restaurants. Porto Santo is a much smaller island, with one entire side of the island forming a long stretch of golden sand. The local people even say that the Porto Santo sand has many natural medical benefits. Porto Santo is a nice day excursion for anyone who loves to spend time relaxing on a golden sandy beach.
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If cruise ships are too modern, you can sail the seas like the explorers of old on the Santa Maria experience. Located at the cruise ship dock in Funchal, the Santa Maria is an exact replica of the ship Columbus sailed on to reach the new world. It offers you the chance to feel the rocking of the waves, and hear the creaking of the wooden floors. The ship ride becomes more authentic when you realize Columbus spent considerable time on Madeira and Porto Santo. For about 30 dollars you can sail on the Santa Maria for two hours. I advise, if you have a weak stomach, make sure to be careful about your choice to sail the seas. One seasick member of our party spent some time with his head over the side of the boat. So make sure you can handle the thrashing waves of the mighty Atlantic; if you can it is well worth it.

After living on Madeira for eight months I found these experiences to be the most memorable. It took me eight months to find all these treasures, but you can do it all in about a week. I feel you can judge a destination by your
desire to share it with others. Madeira is now my dream destination to take my wife and children in the future. I want my family to see the firework show, to experience one of the breathtaking hikes, to sample all the exotic fruit from the fresh outdoor markets. That is why it is worth it to visit this relatively unknown destination. I am grateful I got to know the Pearl of the Atlantic.

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Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack.

The wheels of my rolling luggage bounced off the cobblestones and made a plastic racket that reverberated through the narrow alleyways. Folks relaxing quietly at a street side cafe looked up from their beers and gawked at my husband and me as we sweated and yanked our suitcases up the steep street. “This can’t be right,” my husband rasped between breaths.
I peered through damp hair that flicked in my eyes. Way up the hill above me loomed the walled city of Obidos. I wasn’t sure how to get there, but I knew that was where we needed to be.

“Just a little further,” I said. I had no reason to sound so cheerful. This city, featured in every tourist brochure printed about the wonders of Portugal, had an entrance as difficult to find as the Lost City of Atlantis. We had just flown into Lisbon from New York that morning. The plan was to meet our friends who had arrived a few days earlier. We were to take the train from Lisbon to Obidos, an hour north, and join them, where they had a car, a hotel room, and hopefully, a large pitcher of beer waiting for us.
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When we got off the train, the dusty little station was deserted – no telephone, no taxi, nobody but my husband and me and two other tourists who had disembarked. An empty road led around the bend. The ancient city with its crenellated walls soared above us. A rough path snaked up the hill from the station, the sort of shortcut that intrepid backpackers or lightly laden day-trippers might take. It was certainly not suitable for jetlagged and exhausted tourists with luggage. Off we set down the empty road, a small parade of four confused travelers. Gerard and I were in the lead, suitcases bumping our ankles, the other two tourists blindly followed.

The road did wind around the base of the hill, as hoped, and then it joined a more modern and heavily traveled road. This was encouraging. At least until it headed straight uphill, narrowing down to a road so constricted that only the tiniest European car could possibly navigate it and worst of all, the pavement ended. We started to stumble on those unevenly laid quaint cobblestones, and that’s when the noise began. Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack. Suitcases with plastic wheels are not designed to quietly navigate the irregular surface of centuries’ old cobblestones. My husband quickly passed beyond the acutely embarrassed stage into barely concealed rage as we advanced towards the cafe with its customers contemplating our clattery approach.

We smiled a silent greeting, and then sank down, exhausted and sweaty, at an empty table, our suitcases clustered around us. Gerard headed into the cafe. He returned with two cold beers and a vague idea that we were supposed to continue up the hill, go through the gate and bear to the left, but then again, he admitted, none of that might be true. He spoke no Portuguese, the barmaid little English. We sipped our beers, looking mournfully at our fellow cafe mates. Perhaps one of them would wander over to their car and beckon us to join him as he headed straight to our hotel. But none of this happened, of course. It never does. We stood, gathered our spirits and our suitcases, and began to trudge uphill. Clack, clack, clack, clack, clack.

We came to a series of steep stone steps. Up, clack, clack, up clack, clack, up clack, clack. It was very hot. Our shirts stuck to our backs and sweat trickled down our necks. We stumbled on, so out of breath we couldn’t even exchange the usual accusation: whose dereliction of directional duty had put us into this mess? We clattered along, the stone walls drawing closer, their cool shadows inspiring us to soldier on. Staggering at last under a grand archway, we lurched to a stop. This must be it, we grinned at each other. Obidos.

I felt like Dorothy entering the Emerald City. Elated, I didn’t even care that I had no idea where our hotel was. Our friends were waiting somewhere in this medieval city, and with them, a cold pitcher of beer. I leaned against the cool roughness of the ancient walls. I felt more confident, more energized. I was ready to carry on with our adventure. I hoped Gerard was feeling the same way.

“I’m done,” he wheezed. He stared disconsolately at the labyrinth of alleyways in front of us. “This is ridiculous. We don’t know where we are. We don’t know where we’re going. We barely know where we’ve been. We can’t just keep going like this. There has to be a better way.” He sank down onto the curb and looked glassily at the next obstacle, yet another series of stone steps. What should have been a quaint and scenic spot had transformed into an insurmountable relic of medieval torture.

“Okay,” I said in a moment of sweat-induced insanity, “you stay here with our stuff. I’ll go on up, find the hotel and then come get you.” Too tired to argue, Gerard waved me away.
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Past the second set of stone steps, without my suitcase, I felt free and intrepid and full of exploratory vigor. I caromed up the maze of alleyways, past cute shops selling pottery and postcards and cafes with their intriguing smells. I found no street signs, no information booth, and certainly no guidepost directing me to my hotel. After a few dozen twists and turns, hiking ever higher and farther away from that main gate where my beloved sat, I gave up and searched for someone who spoke English.

I popped my head into a restaurant, and greeted the young woman tending the cash register. I waved my hotel confirmation letter at her. “This hotel, donde esta hotel, por favor?” My Spanish was pathetic, but my Portuguese virtually non-existent. She gestured to the right and then to the left, her hands fluttering as fast as spoke. The hotel was not far away, around and down and to the left, but most importantly (“importante!”) along the wall, not through it. I thanked her (“Obrigado!”) and headed back down to get Gerard.
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I navigated the tangle of alleyways, and found Gerard still sitting on the curb, surrounded by the luggage, but now with four or five dogs all sitting around him, looking hopeful. Glad that he had made new friends already, I cheerfully lied to him and told him to follow me, we’re nearly there. “Do you know where the hotel is?”

“Pretty much. It’s around and up and to the left, and along the wall but not through it. It’s not far.”

Up past the cute shops and the cafes we clattered, by now so tired and hot that we didn’t even care about the noise any more. The handles twisted in our hands, the wheels jumped around on the uneven surfaces. It was a constant struggle to keep the suitcases, and, increasingly, ourselves, upright. Just when Gerard was about to ask yet again if I knew where I was going, we rounded a corner and there it was, the hotel. I was so relieved, and feeling a bit euphoric at my discovery, marched into the lobby and announced our arrival to the desk clerk.

“Welcome,” he said. “But, unfortunately, Mrs. Fogarty, your room is not ready.” I leaned over his counter, my shirt stuck to my back, my hair dripping sweat down onto his immaculate blotter and I repeated back to him, a little breathless and with a rising note of hysteria, “My room is not ready?”
“Si, I am so sorry, it will be a little while before it is ready for you.”

I stared at him in disbelief. My hands trembled as I held my slumping body up from his polished mahogany counter. Fatigue and heat made conversation difficult. All I could focus on was how I really wanted to get out of my wet sweaty shirt.

“Well, then,” I said, and without thinking, I began to unbutton my top. “I need a place to change my clothes, and I really need to use a toilet.” My shirt was halfway undone when the desk clerk tore his eyes away from my chest and began tapping furiously at his computer. “Oh, no, Madam, wait just one moment, I think, yes, I see, we have a room for you, a very nice room, a room that is ready for you.” And he looked up, smiling, a key in his hand.

“Oh thank you, very much,” I said, as my fingers left my buttons alone and grabbed the key instead.
Just then, like a miracle, in walked our friends Girvan and Kathy. In mere moments, it seemed, we were lounging around a cafe table, sharing a pitcher of beer and laughing about our afternoon navigating the alleyways. We vowed on the spot, to trade in our suitcases for backpacks. No wheels required.

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Webster’s Dictionary defines Discovery as-“Disclosing or bringing to light; revealing or making known; a finding out or bringing to sight or knowledge”. Since I had not been to Lisbon for 10 years, I needed a little “knowledge” and found it at the Portuguese National Tourist Office- 590 Fifth Ave- 4 Floor- NYC 10036- 1-800-Portugal- The “ bringing to light “ was supplied by my TAP-Air Portugal flight from JFK. Just as the sunlight engulfed the plane’s cabin, we landed, a mere 6-½ hour flight. A short 20-minute taxi ride and I was at the centrally located Hotel Lisboa Plaza, just off Avenida da Liberdade, the major shopping and promenading street in town, and only a few blocks from the metro and railroad station. The sights of Lisbon waited.

The first stop in the search for discovery should be the Lisboa Welcome Center at Praca do Comercio, near the port and Tagus River. This very large space contains tourism information for the city, accommodations, show tickets, guide books to museums, shopping and restaurants. You can purchase the three special Lisboa cards there. 1- Lisboa Card for free access to public transportation and free or discounted admission to over 50 museums and sites. The cost is about $11.25 per adult for 24 hours and $4.50 per child. 2- Lisboa restaurant Card gives you discounts at more than 40 restaurants for a 72-hour period. The cost is $6 per person, or $10.50 for a family with 2 children. 3- Lisboa Shopping Card gives you up to a 20% discount at over 200 shops. The cost is $3 for 24 hours. The Welcome Center also has an exhibition of traditional Portuguese handicraft and art, plus an auditorium, café, grocery store and a fashion and design shop with clothes and decorative objects for sale. One of Lisbon’s top restaurants Terreiro do Paco is located here.
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The Lisboa Card allowed me to see the entire city in less than a day. Lisbon is built on 7 hills, so up I rode to St. George’s Church for a panoramic view of the city. Alfama is the oldest part of the city with small houses, tiled panels and fountains and is perfect for walking. The center of the city is Rossio Square where the train station is located. Marques de Pombal Square is another large meeting place with cafes and small shops.
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It was back into the Metro system to the Belem area and the Belem Cultural Center whose conference center is also used for exhibits and performing arts. Everything in this area is reachable by walking starting with the Tower of Belem, a 16th Century guardian of the river and a UNESCO World Heritage Building. The Belem Palace is the official residence of the President of the Republic. The nearby Jeronimos Monastery was built in the beginning of the 16th century and is the burial site for Vasco da Gama; the monastery is another UNESCO World Heritage Building. Across the road and right beside the Tagus River is the Monument to the Discoveries built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of Henry The Navigator’s explorations. During the 15th & 16th Centuries Portugal had a huge overseas empire. Next to the monument is a map of the world with all their former colonies noted. In the same Belem area is the Coach Museum with uniforms and coaches of the royal family in an 18th Century riding ring.
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Having spent much of the early afternoon in the Belem area, I did not get to the following three museums, but my guide highly recommended them. The National Art Museum has the finest collection of Portuguese art from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. The National Tile Museum shows the art of the tile over the past five centuries and is housed in the cloisters of a 16th Century convent. The Fado House & Portuguese Guitar Museum is self- explanatory and during my last night in Lisbon, I had an opportunity to listen to Fado at a local club.
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It was late in the day when I arrived at the other side of town at National Park, the site of the 1998 Expo and World’s Fair. The area is being converted to housing, but most of the buildings have been retained and upgraded. Vasco da Gama Tower is the observation platform overlooking the whole park. There is a chair lift that transcends the entire park. The Oceanarium is Europe’s largest aquarium. The Atlantic Pavilion can hold up to 16,000 people for sporting events or concerts. There is a live interactive Science Center and the country’s biggest bowling center. I decided to take the Lisbon by Water route on the River Tagus that runs between the National Park and the Belem area. Again, my Lisboa Card was used, as well as the Metro return to my hotel. I had spent 12 hours touring and rested for my trip the next day.
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As I mentioned, my hotel was within walking distance of the railroad station. In less than an hour I was in Sintra, again using my Lisboa Card. The whole area is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My first stop was the Pena National Palace on top of a mountain. The brave ones walked up; I choose the bus. This 19th Century romantic palace was built in the revivalist style with artwork and souvenirs of royalty abounding. The Sintra National Palace is the former royal palace with Moorish, Gothic and Manueline architecture style. The conical chimneys visible on the outside of the building are the most photographed sights of Sintra. They are still part of the kitchen, which is used, even today, for banquets. The Queluz National Palace is an 18th Century palace with spacious gardens filled with Baroque statues and is very much like a small version of Versailles. Quinta da Regaleira was built in the early 20th Century and houses the works of sculptress Dorita Castelo Branco. There is a luxuriant park with lakes, a palace, chapels and caves. While I visited they were setting up for an outdoor opera performance that evening. The Capuchos Convent was built in 1560 and is famous for its austerity and reflects the actual living conditions of the Capuchos order. I had lunch at Tacho Real, probably the best restaurant in town. Many of the visitors do what I did, return to Lisbon at nightfall.
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I accomplished all the above in 2 ½ days. I do not recommend my frenetic pace. You need at least an extra day to see all that Lisbon & Sintra have to offer. And remember, I did not get to Estoril. But that is for my next trip.