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Marco Polo 2013-14
A Christmas Cruise from Tilbury to the Canary Islands & Madeira - part 5

Map Tilbury - Journey, Evening Entertainment and Departure Interesting Times, Gales in The Channel and bay of Biscay Safe Haven for Christmas Day, La Coruna, Spain Santa Cruz de Tenerife Santa Cruz de La Palma Funchal, Madeira Le Havre, France
Hover over a Port or Area for more information then click or use the links above
Brochure route is in red, actual outward journey in green and return in blue


Funchal, Madeira

We arrived in Funchal and anchored at about 0800. The original schedule when we booked was for the Marco Polo to be alongside in the harbour for the day and to then go out and anchor to give a good view of the fireworks so we were very disappointed to find we were at anchor all day and worse still we would have to move out further in the evening to allow other ships to moor close in. This also meant that tender operations would cease at 1900 so we would be unable to eat ashore. The visit to Madeira and the fireworks was the only reason for the cruise. The fireworks are famed and one of the largest displays in the world - the ship claimed they were the second largest. We had looked at hotels but they were expensive and did not have the views so we had studied the port information and the Marco Polo was one of three ships which had a berth when we booked otherwise we would not have even thought of coming on her so disappointment is an understatement to say the least especially having to move out in the evening and to be trapped on board from 1900. We will certainly contemplate complain when we get back to the UK about the 'unforced' changes to the schedule - nobody can control the weather but this was different and struck at the heart of our reasons for booking. The ships that actually ended up alongside were the Saga Sapphire, the Fred Olsen Balmoral and the P & O Aurora as well as an Aida on what we thought were ferry moorings.

The centre was alive for the Christmas/New Year Festivities and we walked slowly through, admiring the marvelous nativity displays and listening to the singing, brass bands and mandolin players. Madeira and Funchal take the Christmas and New year period very seriously and not just as a tourist activity. The theme this year seemed to be brightly coloured red mushrooms which had sprouted everywhere and formed the basis of the girls uniforms.

We walked up the hill and found the St John Evangalist Church, once the Jesuits College of Funchal, which we had not been into which had a tower giving views over the town and harbour. It was undergoing a very major restoration and we spent some time reading about how it was being done. It dated back to the 15th century and in some places there were 7 different layers of paint to understand from sample areas before work could be planned. The results were spectacular. The organ is also very old and will be restored at the same time as a modern replacement is installed for concerts.

We returned to the little area full of locals where they were making 'soup' and local bread over wood fires and decided it would be something to try. The breads were about 10 or 11 inches across and nearly an inch thick and rather like an overgrown crumpet in internal texture. We got two huge bowls of thick meat and vegetable soup, a whole bread cut in half and covered in lashings of butter for 10 euros - almost too much to eat; we were thankful we had not ordered two of the breads.

It was then on to the Indoor Market, a favourite place of ours with its bright displays of flowers and vegetables, the smell of herbs and spices and stands of local embroidery and basketwork. It is the one place which one must visit in Funchal. It covers two floors round a courtyard plus a large lower level fish market. The exotic fruit and vegetables are heaped high on the first floor whilst the ground level has the flowers and other stalls. It was comparatively quiet on New Years Eve with less stalls than usual in the centre so we have re-used some of our earlier pictures which give a more typical view of the market. It is the fish market we find most fascinating with everything from whole Tuna to the extremely unusual Espada fish which is only found in a very small local area and in another area near Japan.

The name translates as scabbard and one can see why with the long jaw and slim black scale covered body nearly two meters from head to tail. They seem to have areas covered in black and white veining which are sought after and are left when the rough black scales are removed prior to sale. The picture shows the huge eyes - they live at 600 feet - and the veining. They are caught by lowering lights and then reeling them up - the fish follow and die as they reach the surface. They taste very good and the Cunard ships often had them on the menu in the evening so we hoped the Marco Polo would have made the same arrangement - there were certainly not many left when we got there.

It was then time to return to the market where we bought a bunch of 10 Strelitzia flowers for ourselves on the ship and to pass on when we get home - they last for weeks as successive flowers come out of the 'beak'. Likewise we bought one of the local honey Madeira cakes - these are very different to the "English" Madeira cakes being dark brown, very solid and rich. We will use it for our 'coffee morning' when we get back.

We walked along to the base of the Cable Car to Monte. The views back over Funchal from the top of the cable car are spectacular but we were short of time for much more than a return trip which is a bit expensive and there isn't very much to see at Monte itself although the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is special; it contains the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor and there is his statue outside. At the bottom of the church steps is the start of the famous sled run. We often go into the nearby Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which is an enormous park (70,000m2) in the grounds of the Monte Palace, an old hotel, which you pass on the way from the cable car to the church. The grounds are crisscrossed with paths full of exotic flora and have stunning views over Funchal’s bay and were apparently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 although they do not yet have the mandatory McDonalds at the entry. Monte was an 18th century Palace turned into a luxury hotel and now transformed into a charming garden and museum belonging to the Berardo Foundation. THere are a great variety of exotic flowers and plants from all many different continents and also a variety of wildlife such as ducks, swans, peacocks, chickens and Koi carp. It features one of the most important tile collections in Portugal. The tiles exhibited amidst the tropical vegetation represent several periods and came from palaces, churches, chapels and private houses throughout the former Portuguese empire. Most of them describe social, cultural and religious events.

There is now a second and brand new cable car which leads from Monte on to the Botanical Gardens which we took on our last visit and can thoroughly recommend. Get a ticket which covers both cable cars and entry at the bottom. It is also possible to walk to the Botanical gardens from Monte along the levadas which are the original network of irrigation channels which cover the hillsides round Funchal. A favourite one of our walks on the levadas is to Camara de Lobos 6 km away. That does not start from Monte but up by the famous Reid's Palace Hotel - many cruise ships run trips which include tea at Reid's, a luxury we have yet to experience. Yet another way to return to sea level is on the Sledges which are run down the narrow and steep roads with a surface so polished one can almost see reflections - a popular tourist attraction which it is usually difficult to photograph so again we use some of our 'stock' pictures.

After sitting watching the cable car for a few minutes we noticed an interesting Christmas tree inside the lower station which was constructed from madeira bottles so we walked in to take a picture. On the way back into town we bought a bottle of water to cut down to make a vase when we get back to the ship and then ambled back along the front before cutting back into the narrow streets and hence back to the main street when music was still being played. We did not go into any of the Madeira Wine Lodges this time, often we make one our final stop. We had tried a couple of the very old Madeiras from Blandys Wine Lodge Vintage Room namely an 'anniversary' 1974 Sercial which was very good. We understand that was put into the bottles from the barrel in 2004. Unfortunately this is rarely available for tasting, although one can still purchase a bottle but they are over £150. Some time back we also tried a 1948 for Pete's birthday which is the oldest wine we have ever tried. Blandys Wine Lodge also offer a guided tour which often forms the end of tours. We did not buy any Madeira this year as we still have several still unopened, mostly ten year olds, from earlier visits and we have found we can purchase many of the ones we have tried in the UK. A couple of years ago several of the producers started using a new method for their younger wines using the Tinta Negra grape and a "Estufagem" process involving heating and holding wine at 45 degrees using pipes through the containers. The older wines are, we understand, being made by the conventional process in oak and 85% of named grapes (100% for reserve wines) where the wines are stored in the hot eves of the building and periodically turned. The new process gives a very different taste and we were not impressed.

We stopped to have a large ice cream from the Ritz and sat in front of the bandstand to eat them. It was then on to the gardens at the end of the street which climb up the hillside where one can look across the harbour to the ship. Unfortunately there was so much construction work in front of us to do with the new waterfront area which includes a new cruise ship mooring that we could not get a good picture. We walked back through the marina waterfront area which is alive with little cafes in the evenings, stopping to admire the lovely tenders from the 'Funchal' which is the small local cruise ship - beautiful classic lines - we must find out more when we have internet access. We were expecting a long queue for a tender but quickly realised most of the queue was for other ships tenders and managed to force our way through just in time to get onto one of the Marco Polo's larger (150 people) tenders as it was leaving. It was a shame we could not spend the evening ashore as the town comes even more to life and the night time pictures are better - we have reused some from 2011 just to try to confuse our readers with the switches from day to night time!

New Year's Eve Dinner anchored at Funchal

The New Year's Eve dinner was a vast improvement on the Christmas dinner and there were some decorations up in the dinning room and fancy hats on the table. As the meal proceeded we were presented with a glass of sparkling wine to toast with and the Captain gave a quick word. As you can see below the presentation of the food was much better, especially the sweet and the menu included a sorbet - something we always enjoy and something now rae on a Cunard menu. We were hover astonished to be told there was no choice in how our steaks were cooked when we specified rare and after the chef was contacted by our waiter we were told that could have a choice of medium or well done!

New Year Fireworks at Funchal Madeira

The highlight of the cruise was the new year fireworks in Madeira. It is certainly one of the biggest displays in the world - the ship believed it was number 2 and that close to 40,000 fireworks are let off during the 10 minute display. Funchal is in a broad valley, more like a bowl, with the harbour at the centre and must stretch for 4 or 5 kilometres across and at the peak the whole is involved with set positions right across. It is best seen from the sea and many cruise ships gather during the evening. There were 4 alongside and another 4 or five big ships anchored or just cruising. We had been moored close inshore for the tendering but we were told we had to move out to allow other ships which were arriving to move in closer and we end ed up quite well out to the side. We sat for a couple of hours to secure a view but were concerned that the ship was gradually swinging with the wind so the back was facing away from the shore. At the last minute the captain upped anchor and did some elegant manoeuvring which completely outflanking the late arrivals. We drove in towards the harbour, swung through 180 degrees and reversed into the prime position coming to a halt as the chimes started the countdown to the New Year. We wonder if he will ever be welcome back!

At the first chime of midnight the sky erupted across the whole sweep of Madeira town and from barges anchored offshore. We were almost underneath some of the bigger bursts. It was an experience of a life time and even the pictures can not convey more than a hint as to the magnitude. We hope the video will give more of an impression. It alone has made all the grief during he journey worthwhile and we recommend anyone to take any opportunity to see them. We are sure they would be good from ashore but offshore is The place to be and our captain put us in the optimal place with everyone at the back of the ship having grandstand seats. Almost before the light of the last firework was fading we were on our way and the race to beat the weather coming in had started.

Back across the Bay of Biscay

We had been downloading GRIB data from the global models and could see what was in front of us and were not at all surprised to see him settling onto 027 degrees at a speed well above economic cruising. He officially announced the following noon that we would not be going into Lisbon and were making a run for the channel with a potential stop in le Havre. Our fear was that he would be trapped and he would have to do a coach transfer from Lisbon, on route for his next cruise to the Amazon. We were in 6 metre swells and force 5 but we expect that to rise to 10 metres and force 8 as we passed Lisbon and had kept up a good speed. We expected the winds to rise to force 9 in the next 24 hours with swells at 90 degrees and the wind on the aft quarter.

It was not too bad when we went to bed but were awoken by the flowers falling over at 0400 - the bad weather was starting, perhaps a few hours latter than we expected. By breakfast it was getting more dificult and we were glad we went up early. Pete gathered up the video to take some pictures of the swells. Conditions then changed much faster than would be expected and we fell off the side of the first big swell with a roll through a large enough angle to have furniture moving and people on the floors about 1000.

The seas rapidly built to circa 12m swells but still only only gale force winds as we entered the Bay which we did flat out as it was only getting worse. Furniture was going from side to side and the lounges looked completely trashed with all the shop contents spread over the floors. Lifts were inoperable, and everybody was told to stay put and sandwiches were brought round at lunch time.

We had a grandstand view from seats in the small and relatively safe library and the seas were monstrous. We were 4 decks above sea level - say 50 feet - and were were looking up to many of the to of the towering seas. It looked as if humps the size of houses were just rising up and collapsing beside us. We were still maintaining 16 -17 knots and as we passed another ship it was rising and then disappearing from sight. Many were floored but nobody seemed to have suffered more than minor injuries. We had about 6 hours before it was safe for most people to move although I did a few video camera runs. The crew were magnificent helping people. By the evening it had calmed enough for them to open up the dinning room but it was not very full.

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Content revised: 24th July, 2020