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Tobogganing in Madeira

September 26, 2007

We hadn't previously visited Madeira, an island of volcanic origin thrusting out of the Atlantic 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. When it was accidentally discovered in the early 15th century, by ships that had been blown off course during a particularly savage storm, it was densely forested – in fact Madeira means "wood" in Portuguese. When it was colonized, the forest was felled and burned – the fires were said to have burned for seven years. Today, although few native plants remain, trees and flowers from around the world thrive in the fertile soil and subtropical climate. Bird-of-paradise flowers grow wild, pink and purple fuchsia adorn pastel walls, and jacaranda trees shade the streets. And of course, there are the grapes that contribute their unique characteristics to the world-famous wine.

We docked at Funchal, the port and main city of this small (35 by 14 miles) island. The steep mountains behind it form a picturesque backdrop and the winding cobblestone streets lead down to the glittering bay.

At the beginning of the 20th century a cog railway climbed its steep streets and ravines to the nearby suburb of Monte, some 1,800 feet higher. A quicker descent was provided by wicker "toboggans" with greased wooden runners controlled with ropes by drivers whose rubber soles served as brakes. An early mass transit vehicle, it could carry up to ten passengers, with six drivers controlling its travel over the slick cobblestones. At the end of the trip, the drivers trudged back up the hill carrying the sled over their heads.

Today, the cobblestones have been replaced by asphalt, no doubt providing a smoother ride, aided by cushions. The toboggans have been pared down to two-passenger models, requiring only two drivers, whose working conditions have improved, with trucks transporting the sleds and vans the drivers, back to the top.

The mode of ascent to Monte also has now changed, being provided by a funicular. It starts out nearly level, skimming residential roofs – you wonder what the residents think of the constant overheard traffic. Although now that I think of it, I might have an idea, living under the National Airport flight path.

but soon you see the climb ahead – towards the white terminal near the top of the mountain.

But even before you begin the climb, ravines suddenly dropping away below can raise some butterflies in the stomach.

After a fifteen minute ride, silent – except for the unsettling bumps when traversing a pylon – we reached the Monte terminus, and headed off for the "Carros de Cesto Tobogan."

Fortunately, the wait was not long. On a day when several cruise ships are in port, the delay can be unpredictable. Unlike the funicular, another sled and its drivers won't be by in another thirty seconds – once they've all left for one trip, it might be another half hour before they return.

The drivers give a strong pull,

then hop on the back and control the slide downhill, around blind curves

down precipitous drops

sometimes with picturesque views.

Several times we skidded sideways, relatively quickly corrected by the drivers. Twice, during the twenty-minute descent, we stopped to run over lard-soaked rags to decrease the friction.

Unlike during earlier times, we stopped short of downtown. Our bus later merged into the congestion and dropped us off long enough to peruse the local Farmers' Market and to refresh ourselves with, as you may have guessed, some Madeira, before returning to the ship.

© Copyright 2007 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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