Spent the christmas in Funchal, Madeira. It would have been more fun to be home for christmas (apparently -11 degrees celsius and snow) and be at Madeira some other time (a week of listening to christmas carols gets pretty taxing, and half the time everything was closed.)
The island was in some places breathtakingly beautiful, with lovely flora and absolutely stunning views (or scary views, depending on what you think about a bouncy, narrow road with a low fence and a 200 metre drop right next to it.) Walking along the levadas was quite an experience, too: we only traced one suburban levada and a part of another easy one a bit west of Funchal, but it was a lot of fun and we got to see the nature — and the sheer bluffs — a lot better than through a car window. And the weather was a lot nicer than what weather.com would have had us believe: instead of constant rain and thunderstorms, it was mostly sunny. Some very nice colonial architecture, too. And when the shops were open, there was a surprisingly large number of them, for such a small town.
But then there was the food. And the restaurant scene in general. I wasn't expecting a culinary dream world, having visited Lisbon earlier in the fall, but still it was a disappointment. Probably 95% of the restaurants served similar cuisine, I guess it's what would be called Madeiran. And in all those restaurants, the menu was nearly identical. There were the four salads, the four soups, the six omelettes, a bunch of fish and red meat courses. As a vegetarian I didn't sample most of that — the tomato and onion soup with a boiled egg wasn't nothing to write home about, though — but a reliable source informed me that at least the fish was mostly mediocre (no espada with banana next time, I guess.)
And the wine... I know there are good portuguese wines, but when you can't remember the brands you are left wandering in a wilderness of barely drinkable dishwater. Occasionally, with luck, it was OK, but sometimes you just had to concentrate on water. And of course trying to find anything from, say, France, Italy or Spain was pretty much a lost cause. Mostly it was all Portugal all the time. Mind you, the local beer was very nice light lager, just the sort of stuff you want in hot weather.
To top off the wonderful dining experience, add totally ham-handed service. Hot tips for waiters everywhere: don't remember who ordered what. Don't remember who drinks what. Serve the dishes one at a time, not bothering to serve everyone in a table at the same time. Ignore the empty wine glasses of customers; when they start pouring wine themselves, come over, remove the bottle from the hand of the customer without a comment, and see if there are any empty glasses left, for example, in front of people who don't drink the wine in question. Or half-empty, so you can make them too full. You wouldn't want to be forced into a pouring intervention too soon again, would you? Oh yeah, and a really nice touch is to forcefully make the customer read the awful Finnish translation of the menu when she is reading the English version. I know tourists are probably tedious, but it would be nicer if they didn't treat us as children and try to speak the three words they know of our native language, especially as we have little trouble speaking English which will probably make communication a lot easier.
Mind you, there were exceptions. And I'm sure you could find more if you looked well enough. There was a decent indian restaurant there, and Villa Cipriani, the Italian restaurant of Reid's Palace, was fabulous, with flawless service, a good wine list and superb food. The quality was mirrored in the price, too, though.
I don't know, of course you can't avoid all the effects of an economy ran by tourism, but having people in front of the restaurants trying to get you in very aggressively is unpleasant when you are just trying to have a walk. Not to mention the taxi drivers who think they know better than you do where you want to go. No thanks, we've already seen the botanical gardens, we just want to get to the centre of the city. No, we're not going to Monte at this time, our plane is leaving in four hours. And no, no levadas either, just get us to the centre of the city, will you?
It was twenty years since the last time I was in Madeira, and I have to admit I don't remember too much. Maybe we'll go and see it again in another twenty years.