The island of Madeira is the tip of a massive volcano that rises from the ocean floor, 12,000 feet below. Its highest central summits soar to more than 6,000 feet in a vertiginous landscape of steep mountainsides cut by deep ravines. On the south coast, the mountains form an amphitheater around the capital of Funchal, the Island’s only significant city.
Alone in the Atlantic with its smaller sister island of Porto Santo, Madeira is closer to Morocco — fewer than 400 miles away — than to its parent country of Portugal. Year-round spring-like temperatures and humid atmosphere combine to make Madeira an ideal environment for tropical and semi tropical plants.
Nowhere in Funchal can you better appreciate both the dramatic terrain and the horticultural potential of this favored climate than in precipitous landscapes of Monte Palace Tropical Gardens. From more than 1000 feet above the harbor, the gardens cascade down through a deep ravine of soaring trees and lush exotic plants and flowers. Pathways are lined by stone walls covered with Portugal’s signature ceramic tiles and throughout the gardens, architectural and natural features mix to create vignettes framing bridges, fountains, cascades and works of art.
The land was part of an estate with a late-19th-century palatial hotel that had been closed for nearly half a century when it was acquired in 1987 by Portuguese entrepreneur José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo. A passionate collector of historic Portuguese tiles (azulejos) and other architectural features that were being lost as churches closed and old buildings were modernized or torn down, Berardo wanted a place to display and share his collections in a more hospitable setting than a museum building.
The terrain, and the existing gardens were the ideal setting for these and other treasures in his collections to be viewed and appreciated. The gardens were reestablished, with exotic flowers, such as azaleas, orchids, and a collection of Protea and rare Cycads from South Africa. A man of wide-ranging interests, Berardo was also concerned that many of Madeira’s native plants were in increasing danger of extinction. So indigenous plants from the Madeira forest were incorporated into the botanical garden — species of fern and trees including cedars, laurels, and Canary Laurels.
A trip to Japan had introduced Berardo to Asian art and culture, to the deep historic ties between Japan and Portugal, and the Portuguese influences on Japan over the 450 years since Portuguese ships first visited. To commemorate that anniversary, Berardo commissioned Argentinean artist Alberto Cedrón to create a panel of colorful tiles and paintings entitled “A Aventura dos Portugueses no Japão” (The Adventure of the Portuguese in Japan).
Azulejos are a legacy of the Islamic conquest of Iberia, and these tiles became a feature of churches, private estates and public buildings. The Berardo collections here represent their evolution from geometric patterns to large-scale depictions of religious subjects, famous battle scenes, landscapes and later in Art Nouveau floral designs and Art Deco styles.
Telling the story in visual form, Berardo hoped to educate visitors, especially children, about this aspect of Portuguese and Japanese history. And in doing so, he was able to bring the work of contemporary artists into the gardens. This is not the only contemporary art here that carries on Berardo’s mission of continuing the Portuguese tile tradition, using tiles to illustrate historic events. Another set of 40 terracotta tile panels by Alberto Cedrón follows the history of Portugal, with significant events from the 12th-century reign of D. Afonso Henriques to the 1974 revolution and Portugal’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1986.
Pathways that wind down the ravine are lined by panels of azulejos dating back to the 15th century; stone arches, coats of arms, doorways and windows are set among the tropical trees and greenery. Of special interest are a window and a niche in the characteristic Manueline style dating from the 15th century. Sculptures and other art works from various cultures date back as far as a marble bust of the Roman Emperor Adrian from the 2nd century A.D.
The Japanese influence is apparent throughout the gardens, in the red bridge that arches over a stream, in ancient stone lanterns, Buddhist statues and a Japanese tori gate. Each of the winding paths leads to new discoveries among the greenery — a bronze statue by 20th-century artist James Butler, window in the foliage framing a view of black swans in a lake below. The lake is fed by a waterfall, in turn fed by a stone aqueduct, keeping the water fresh for the Koi fish that add bright notes to the lake views.
What ties all these disparate themes and collections together is the Madeira landscape and flora, its dramatic terrain and tropical environment. The steeply descending ravine allows each item or group its own space and viewpoint, while the lush tropical foliage frames each to the best effect. And a brightly colored Japanese tori gate looks just as at home amid the greenery as the blue panels of historic Portuguese tiles and the colorful modern ones.
Throughout the gardens, the intention is not only to share these priceless collections – including the native flora — in an appealing setting where the public can enjoy them, but to teach about Portuguese history in a visual way and introduce visitors of all ages to Asian cultures. School groups are admitted free, as are visitors under age 15.
However much there is to learn at Monte Palace Topical Gardens, its essence is simply a romantic and luxuriant place to stroll leisurely, breathe in the fragrances, listen to the birds and indulge your soul in the intoxicating surroundings.
Monte Palace Topical Gardens is one of a dozen public gardens in Funchal, but any garden lover will want to visit at least two of the others. Palheiro Gardens crown a hilltop above the city with an avenue of camellias, a sunken garden, roses and acres of floral beds and borders. The Madeira Botanical Garden sits in terraces along a steep hillside, providing Funchal’s most iconic view, down onto a wide terrace planted in a mosaic of colored blossoms and foliage, with the city and harbor below.
Funchal has a wide variety of places to eat, nearly all of them serving cuisine based of local ingredients. Why would they do otherwise, when the sea around them is filled with some of the Atlantic’s best fish and shellfish, and tropical fruits are everywhere. Madeira’s chefs never seem to run out of delicious ways to combine the fruits of the sea with fruits of the tree.
For the most romantic setting, high on a cliff (you reach the restaurant by an elevator and skywalk) overlooking a charming village square, dine at Estalagem Quinta da Ponta do Sol. For cutting edge cuisine in a minimalist setting, the Nini Design Center Restaurant overlooks the harbor from the atelier of designer Nini Andrade Silva.
Within an easy walk of the center of Funchal, the Royal Savoy Hotel has spacious, luxurious rooms with views over the hotel’s broad sea-front terrace of swimming pools and palms, to a tiny lighthouse and the open Atlantic. Adjacent, The Savoy Palace opened two years ago, with a roof-top infinity pool overlooking the city, and contemporary guest rooms and suites.
By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Europe Correspondent, Planetware
Luxury Travel Editor, BellaOnline
Features, Global Traveler Magazine