The Lovely, Unique ‘Water Trails’ of Madeira


Above the clouds #4

photo | stevekeiretsu

As this blog has mentioned before, Portugal‘s lovely, balmy Atlantic island of Madeira and its capital Funchal, but this time I’d like to go into a little more detail about one of its historic and natural treasures, its sendeiros das levadas (paved pathways paralleling old irrigation canals) which riddle parts of the island.

These trails have quite a long history and lore behind them. When the first Portuguese arrived on this semitropical island in 1419, it not only gave them the impression of being an island adrift in the middle of nowhere, but also of an odd kind of garden of Eden. So dense was the dense forest that the only way it occurred to the colonists to clear it was to burn it – and it’s said they took seven years to complete the job. In addition, the trees struck the colonists as formidable giants – in many cases, it took up to 14 men to encircle one trunk.  

These early pioneers also had to face the challenge of supplying water across the island, thanks to the fat that the northeast is wet and the southeast is arid and left to its own devices relatively infertile. The solution for getting precious H2O from one to the other was the levadas, a more than 2,000-kilometre (1,243-mile) network of narrow channels hewn into the rock of the ground. It was built over many generations, beginning in the 16th century ,and in fact today serves the same purpose it has for all the centuries since. The only thing that’s changed is that in addition to keeping dry parts of Madeira supplied with water, the levadas have also become tourist attractions, as well as sustenance for the many hikers who come here every year at all times of year.

And right alongside them run paved pathways such as the Levada do Caldeirão, which crosses mountains up to a thousand metres (3,280 feet) high and runs through a veritable potpourri of plant species, both native and introduced from abroad. Patches of eucalyptus and cedars give way to forests of laurel, mahogany, and heather. The hiking level is easy.

As in centuries past, today whatever has to do with these water channels and accompanying pathways seems magnified, like everything on this island compared with much of the rest of Europe. Come and have another unique Madeira experience.

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