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Madeira – Why the World is Round

God made the world round
so we would never be able to see
too far down the road.
– Isak Dinesen, 1885-1962

Madeira, Portugal

This image was taken during a pause in a hike along one of Madeira’s levadas. Madeira is a subtropical volcanic island that is closer to Morocco than its motherland of Portugal. Pico Ruivo at its center is more than a mile high, with radial ridges reaching down to the island’s 90 miles of Atlantic coastline, off northwestern Africa. This dramatic difference in altitude means a lot of biodiversity on a little island just 14 miles long and 34 miles wide. The isle’s north gets about five feet of rain annually; the south, two feet.

This disparity presented Madeira’s settlers with a dilemma when they first arrived on its shores in the 15th century. Their solution, begun as a practical pathway of fresh water for a small colony, now fuels hydro-electric plants and attracts hikers the world over who come to partake of the poetry in motion known as “levadas.”

“Levada” is of Portuguese origin, derived from the word “carry” and on Madeira today it means a network of narrow canals that transport rainwater and runoff from the springs of its misty 6,015-foot peaks down to its sunnier, more arid–and populated–shores. For half a millennium, the island’s agricultural industries have been nourished by the lifeblood coursing through these waterways.

Prince Henry the Navigator is credited with the introduction of the first of these cash crops–sugarcane. As its production boomed over the next two centuries, slaves from colonies in Africa and convicts were brought in to expand the aquaducts essential to nourishing its continued growth. Often, these early irrigation channels were feats of fearless engineering, forged by levandeiros who dangled along the mountainside in wicker baskets, carving the canals out of the sheer cliff face with pickaxes.

The author of today’s quote, while an aristocrat who in many ways personified the antithesis of the levandeiros, nonetheless mourned leaving Africa, and confronted challenges in her lifetime that may have seemed like hard labor.

Isak Dinesen was one of several pen names used by Karen Blixen, a Danish Baroness by marriage. She and her husband moved to Kenya in 1914, where they established a coffee plantation. Baron Blixen was unfaithful to Karen and she was diagnosed with syphilis within the first year of marriage. In a sad twist of irony, her father had hanged himself after being diagnosed with syphilis when Karen was nine.

The Blixens divorced, and Karen embarked on a long-term love affair with English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton. Six years later, he died in the crash of his biplane in 1931. At the same time, the failure of the coffee plantation forced Blixen to abandon her adopted country and return to Denmark.

There, Blixen began pursuing a writing career. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in 1934 to great fanfare. Her second book, and perhaps the best known, was Out of Africa, published three years later. Blixen considered herself a storyteller in the oral tradition and cited as inspiration works such as the Bible, Arabian Nights, and the Icelandic sagas. Her work embodied themes of destiny and courage, no doubt borne of personal experience.

Blixen was plagued by intense physical pain throughout most of her adult life, attributing her afflictions to syphilis. She died in 1962 at the age of 77, apparently of malnutrition, her illness making her unable to eat.

While on Madeira, my husband Tom and I sought to feed our spirits with a day’s trek along its levadas. The tributaries thread together banana groves, orchards, and vineyards, tunnel through solid basalt, spiral between a series of springs and waterfalls, and criss-cross a patchwork quilt of “quintas,” as the small terraced farms clinging to the steep slopes are called here.

We quickly found ourselves in deep, primeval forest, navigating a narrow and muddy footpath, mounds of man-size ferns hanging from the hillside and brushing our faces. I experienced a Hansel and Gretel moment of feeling lost in the Forbidden Forest, when Tom elbowed me, pointing into a sea of sprawling green growth at a mythical-looking white goat gazing back at us solemnly. We laughed, he snorted and I relaxed. We continued on, marveling at the breadth of botany surrounding us, enveloped in the scents of eucalyptus and pine, soothed by the lyrical score of the gurgling water running through the levada.

We emerged from the densely-wooded area, shielding our eyes at first at the sudden bright sunshine, then opening them wide at the spectacular expanse. The gradient of the canal had been so subtle, we had no idea how high into the mountains we had come and I felt a momentary sense of vertigo at the altitude. Looking ahead, the levada hugged the hill and stretched out into the wild blue yonder and the clouds. From where the canal curled around the edge of the earth, rows upon rows of planted terraces cascaded like velvety green stairs into a deep valley below, down to a sparkling teal sea.

Despite the warmth of the day, smoke rose from the chimneys of red-roofed farmhouses dotting the landscape. Like a slow-motion pinball, we meandered downward from one to the next, past small, cultivated plots of land, abundant with cabbage, beans, and corn. Apple and banana trees, bushes of raspberries and blueberries grew wild alongside modest vineyards. Like sprouts shooting from a stem, mini canals branched off the levada into each patch of property, from which the liquid nourishment would be released.

Later, emerging to the main road and civilization, we found ourselves in the midst of a Catholic feast celebration, the street strung with multi-colored lights and bobbing balloons, and lined with smoking grills, lively folk music filling the air, smiling faces.

There is indeed a wisdom in this round world of ours–whether sparing us some of life’s pain before we are capable of coping with it, or surprising us with unplanned joys felt more deeply when unexpected, or simply giving us some space between the two.

For more images of Madeira, see my Visions of Madeira Travel Photos.