At the end of February, just when the weather turned horribly cold and the UK was hit by snow, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira.
I’ll be honest, before attending Caco & Co’s launch party late last year I knew more about madeira sponge cakes than I did the island itself, but after trying (and absolutely loving!) all of the food and drink we tried at the event, we spontaneously decided to plan a trip to Madeira, the island from which the chefs and founders of the wonderful restaurant were born and brought up.
Funchal’s greatest claim to fame is possibly Cristiano Ronaldo (and they do actually have a hotel and museum named after him on the seafront!) but of course we were going there to discover all of the wonderful food and some of the stunning sights that the beautiful city had to offer. Funchal is the sixth largest city in Portugal and has been the capital of Madeira for five centuries – its name dates back to over fifty years ago where early Portuguese settlers colonised the coast where fennel (funcho) grew in abundance. A local told us that one third of Madeira’s entire population lives in Funchal!
There’s no denying that Funchal is an absolutely stunning city. The winding streets are beautiful – every alley unique yet so similar, much like the houses which are dotted prettily over the stunning hills and mountains surrounding the coastal city, each looking as if they’ve been perfectly designed to match one other. You could get lost for hours wandering around (and we did a great job of it one night trying to find our hotel after both of our phones had died!) but stunning as the little paths and alleyways all are, don’t miss the bustling hubs where the restaurants are clustered.
We stayed at the Se Boutique Hotel (see below for discount code!) which is tucked away on one of the many beautiful cobbled streets. Perfectly located, it’s just minutes’ walk from the seafront, the old town and so close to the cathedral that you can see it from some of the rooms! Each room has twin or double beds, a large TV and a small dining area, complete with a microwave (great for warming up bolo do cacos as a midnight snack!), fridge and even a mini coffee machine!
Their breakfast buffet is incredible, with a huge selection of cereals, bread, hot food, pastries, juices and even little jars of biscuits!
On the roof is a beautiful terrace where you can have a drink and snacks overlooking the cathedral, and in the open square surrounding the cathedral you can find Se Boutique’s very own Café Funchal – the perfect spot to people watch over an extensive menu ranging from meats and seafood to omelettes and crepes. Round the corner, right next to Se Boutique Hotel itself, you’ll find their main restaurant O Calhau, which doubles up as a relaxed coffee shop (where you can get cakes, macaroons and most importantly heavenly Portuguese pastries) and a more formal restaurant. Much like Café Funchal, the menu is extensive, with some delicious bruschettas and pregos, alongside burgers and a range of pasta dishes. We went for the grilled tuna on ‘Calhau’ (pebble stone) and a grilled entrecote, both of which came with an array of colourful vegetables and some crispy potato wedges which were absolutely divine.
Up and down the cobbled streets you’ll find tons of other independent cafes, shops and bars. Our favourite street was Rue de Santa Maria in the heart of the Old Town, full of restaurants and cute art shops but more famously home to the most stunningly painted doorways off the back of the “Art of Open Doors” initiative, featuring the most intricate and artistic designs. Back in 2014 when the project was started, local artists were invited to get creative on over two hundred of the street’s doors. Now you can find everything from portraits riddled with emotion to stunning scenery, fictional creatures and juvenile sketches.
Being a coastal city, there is of course a stunning view of the sea too, with a beautiful marina full of yachts, boats and ferries to nearby Porto Santo and the winding coastline providing breathtaking views in both directions. If you fancy appreciating the stunning sunset over dinner, there are a number of restaurants along the seafront, or simply grab a pastel de nata from the cutest little van which we found on the seafront and sit on one of the many benches dotted along the path.
Strangely the food scene in Madeira wasn’t as distinguishable as we’d expected. Maybe it’s different on the mainland but besides the undoubtedly famous pastel de nata alongside another famous (and surprisingly delicious) cottage cheese pastry, the only other typical dishes appeared to be grilled fish with banana and limpets. Obviously being an island in the Mediterranean seafood features heavily on many menus, but no more so than any other dishes, with pizzas, meats, Western-style dishes such as chicken and mash, and even sushi featuring on many menus – in fact one of the most highly recommended restaurants in Funchal was a hamburger place!
That said, little cake and pastry shops are everywhere and you can also find popular street food in the form of bolo de cacos on every corner – we became absolutely obsessed with them, grabbing them at every available opportunity. Eat them typical Portuguese style with steak, egg and cheese, but find them in many other flavours, including stuffed with chorizo, ham and cheese and one of the simplest (but our favourite!) way – slathered in dreamy garlic butter.
We took every opportunity to go into local bakeries and cafes to try their take on pastel de natas and quejadas (some do a passion fruit flavour as well as the traditional one!), but we also picked up “bolo de arroz” (a super soft sponge cake) and various other cakes and pastries, most of which were delicious. Many bakeries also do different flavours of pastel de natas – we had chocolate chip, coconut and almond. Admittedly the different flavours were less pastel de nata and more just tarts with the signature flaky pastry base but they were delicious none the less!).
Sadly the seafood we tried was a little hit and miss. We weren’t there long enough to try many of the restaurants we wanted to but we were definitely in agreement that the quality varies wildly – despite there being an incredible Farmer’s Market (Mercado dos Lavradores) selling a huge variety of the freshest fish, some local restaurants served up some decidedly powdery prawns and some sub-par octopus, whose lack of freshness was hidden by extensive braising (which did make it very soft and pretty tasty, but not quite the fresh and simple grilled seafood we were after!).
The market itself is definitely worth a visit though. They’re open from 7am-7pm Monday-Friday and a half day on Saturday, where you can find the most stunning array of fruit and vegetables. We discovered an incomprehensible number of new fruits – they sold fifteen flavours of passion fruit!! We both thought there was just one type of passion fruit – the standard purple one found in most supermarkets – but here they came in all different shapes, flavours and sizes, ranging from lime to coconut to tomato!! Samples are a-plenty, and we were also fortunate enough to try a pineapple banana – a weird hybrid that was banana-shaped (albeit much larger!), with a strange bumpy skin, the texture of a banana and the flavour of a very sweet pineapple! Also on offer were coconut mangos, some (deceivingly unpleasant) tomato berries, a ridiculous array of herbs and spices and our favourite – the pick-and-mix style dried fruit and nut counters, where you can get dried fruits in all colours and flavours, from strawberries so sweet they taste like candy, to the unsurprisingly bland aloe vera and surprisingly edible hibiscus flowers.
There’s also a beautiful chocolate shop that does everything from colourful truffles to football boots made out of chocolate! They have slabs with all kind of fillings too – and they’re a fraction of the price of the exact same bars at the airport!
Unsurprisingly though, my favourite part of the market was the incredible cake shop – Confeitaria no Mercado which you’ll find in a corner on the ground floor. They have every kind of cake you can imagine – Kinder, Oreo, Nutella to name just a few – as well as brownies, truffles, waffles, crepes and milkshakes.. an absolute dream! This Kinder Bueno brownie was possibly the best brownie I’ve ever had..
Wherever you drive you’ll see mountains – the island is so mountainous that large towns and cities all seem to be on the coast, and getting between them is a constant maze of steep inclines and descents which makes for the most breathtaking views. Due to the altitude the winds can be strong, with (albeit uncharacteristically) thunderstorms and heavy rain too at times. This led to a number of the roads into the mountains being closed, and when we saw how narrow they were (and how sheer the drop into the ocean was!) we weren’t surprised! Despite the poor weather the mist cleared enough for us to be able to visit Cabo Girão and stand on the glass floor there. At 580m above sea level it’s Europe’s highest sea cliff and provides unparalleled views towards Funchal and along much of Madeira’s South Westerly coast.
Another great way to get a beautiful view of Funchal is to take the cable cars up to Monte. The ride is a surprisingly long one, the view at the top is stunning and there’s the famous Botanical Gardens at the top too. The weather was pretty bad though so we decided against the thirty Euro entry fee in favour of coffee, bolo do cacos and slabs of Oreo cake in one of the cafes at the top instead! Our trip was definitely longer than usual, as the cars kept stopping and swaying in the wind.. when it came to coming back down the cable cars had actually been stopped due to bad weather so we shared a taxi with some other lovely stranded tourists! There’s also the option to take toboggans for part of the journey back down if you fancy it – for a 2km stretch you get pushed in something that doesn’t look dissimilar to an oversized wicker basket!!
Something you’ll (unsurprisingly!) find everywhere is Madeiran wine, and on visiting a tiny wine shop in Funchal I was shocked at how much I liked it! Usually one to find all wines bitter to the point of them being undrinkable I found even the driest wines we tasted more than palatable, and even came away with a few mini bottles (tiny in fact, as I only had hand luggage!). That said, I excitedly jumped in for a wine tasting session and it’s safe to say the cheap 3-year wines are a very different story! Another thing you’ll find everywhere is bolo de miel, a beautifully sticky honey cake, not dissimilar in density and texture to Christmas cake. They’re sold in every size from tiny €1 bite sized cakes to huge 10’ rounds. Strangely enough, the well known madeira sponge cake that we know and love does actually not originate from Madeira, but it was named after Madeiran wine, which was often served alongside the popular sponge cake when it was invented here in England in the 1800s.
Their national drink is poncha, which you’ll find served in cafes and restaurants all around Madeira. We stopped at Taberna da Poncha – a whole bar dedicated to the stuff – serving up a variety of flavours from original (lemon, honey and sugar cane rum) to passion fruit, which is a very prominent flavour on the island. We were lucky enough to be taken by our guide, as with it being in the hills it may be hard to find alone. It’s in a valley surrounded by picturesque waterfalls though and I imagine in summer when the sky is blue and the grass is green it must be unreal. It’s wonderfully old fashioned – there are packets of crisps on sale, each drink is served with plastic cups of peanuts and the walls are absolutely plastered with business cards and foreign currency – a sure sign of its popularity!
Another must-visit is the Sao Vicente caves – volcanic caves located on the northern bank of the river that divides Sao Vicente in two. A 700m long lava tunnel was blasted out by volcanic gases, leaving a stunning maze of underground paths and openings which you can explore with the help of a guide for eight Euros. Included in the price is a visit to their volcanism centre – along with exhibits, a 3D film and plenty of facts and figures it shows Madeira’s oldest formation which emerged about 5 million years ago. As a giant nerd, I love learning about the Earth and space, so I was in my element!
You’ll be spoilt for stunning views wherever you end up but the natural pools at Porto Moniz are absolutely beautiful.
Unfortunately it was (far!) too cold to swim in them, but in the Summer they’re open to the public and judging by how beautiful they were in the cold, windy Wintery weather I can only imagine how incredible they must look in the sun. There are a ton of restaurants close by, and whilst I imagine a great deal of them are tourist traps, our guide recommended a tiny café round the corner from the pools where you can find giant slabs of cake and pastries which were both delicious and very reasonably priced! Sadly the hot food left a lot to be desired though, where even free flowing bolo do cacos couldn’t rescue overdone octopus and soggy fried fish. Sadly we didn’t have time to try fried fish with grilled banana at any other restaurant before we left, but even with the poor execution at this restaurant we could tell it would be a surprisingly delicious flavour combination if done well!
Three days wasn’t nearly long enough to cover such a beautiful island – despite us cramming a hell of a lot of eating and sightseeing in, we barely made a dent in our list of places to eat and things to do, with a whole host of other coastal towns and cities left unvisited. We had an absolutely incredible time – even the excessive rain and freak thunderstorms couldn’t ruin what is a stunning city and a gorgeous island – there’s so much to do, see and (most importantly!) eat, and we’d love to go back in future to discover more of what Madeira has to offer. Best of all, if you fancy visiting for yourself, the lovely Se Boutique Hotel have offered 15% off any orders placed on their website with my discount code “Nicki”, valid until 30 June for stays until 31.10.18. 🙂