A WHILE ago I waxed lyrical about the magnificent market hall in Budapest. A smaller rival to its charms is the Mercado dos Lavradores, a fruit, vegetable, flower and fish market in Funchal, the capital of Madeira.
Unfortunately when we visited ten years ago, an enterprising stallholder remembered the ancient Portuguese greengrocer saying which translates as: ‘An Englishman’s wallet is low-hanging fruit.’
Identifying us by our tell-tale Tesco and Asda carrier bags, the chap caught my eye and asked if we would like to try a free sample of passion fruit. We did, and it was delicious. He then produced several more, all of different flavours ranging from grapefruit, banana, pineapple, kiwi, even strawberry, which went down a treat.
We gave thanks and were about to move on when he said: ‘You will, of course, like to take some home?’ Having tasted so much of his produce, our classic British sense of fair play kicked in and I replied: ‘Of course.’
On his instructions, a sidekick filled a large brown paper bag with fruits and named a price in Portuguese, which meant nothing to us. I handed over a 50-euro note expecting to receive at least 45 in change and was devastated to receive only ten. I protested feebly but he pretended not to understand and meanwhile the boss spider had moved on to his next fly. Crafty devil.
Our subsequent stroll round the market saw us warily looking for price labels on all produce and shunning all offers of ‘try before you buy’.
One of the more intriguing features on the first floor of the building, which dates back to 1940, was a shop devoted entirely to Madeira, the fortified wine named after this Atlantic archipelago 250 miles north of the Canary Islands. Its main attraction was a long shelf around the perimeter promising bottles from the customer’s year of birth. I don’t recall the precise price of the 1955 vintage but it was prohibitive so I contented myself with a slightly more affordable 20-year-old Malmsey which we are still keeping for a special occasion, such as when the politicians and scientists finally own up to the great Covid and vaccine con. So it’ll probably never be swallowed.
Among the other businesses to draw our attention was a shop selling nothing but cork. With the increasing popularity of screw-top wine bottles, cork growers have been forced to diversify. Hence a vast range of cork products including kitchenware, bathroom attachments, all manner of tiles, drinking paraphernalia and even a cork tie, which we could not resist buying for our sartorially adventurous son.
The pavements of Funchal provide further examples of the wonderful Calçada mosaics which can be seen in all Portuguese territories and which we first enjoyed in the Azores. One thing which amused us during our perambulations was the gathering of bored old men whenever and wherever anything was happening, however mundane. Thus a tree being pruned would be surrounded by a crowd of ancient experts discussing the methods used and offering free advice. A car mechanic worked on an engine before an audience of a dozen. Works to improve the harbour attracted football-style attendances and as for a minor road accident, well, what excitement.
Sadly our visit came slightly before the unveiling of the ludicrous statue of Madeira’s most famous son, the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, which would have been a laugh since it was so shockingly bad that it had to be replaced. But we did hit the tourist trail to nearby Monte, with its famous toboggan ride which begins outside the church of Nossa Senhora do Monte.
The sledges are made of wicker connected to two wooden runners. They seat two adults, which since my cousin Trish was staying with us and was happy to take the plunge at my side, enabled my wife Margaret relievedly to give the experience a miss.
Steered by two men in white shirts, straw hats and thick rubber-soled boots which can act as brakes, the toboggans hurtle down just over a mile of road polished like glass. It is hair-raising, particularly when you career round a bend and find cars and pedestrians alike in your path. I consoled myself with the fact that our drivers were obviously experienced and crashes were unlikely. Unlikely but not impossible, as this video suggests.
We arrived unscathed at the end of the run, in Livramento, 30 euros lighter and having aged about ten years.
Also on the tourist track was afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace, an ‘iconic’ hotel opened in 1891 by the family of William Reid, a Scotsman who made his fortune in the Madeira wine trade. Winston Churchill visited to paint and to write his memoirs. Quite what it cost him is not on record but it won’t have been cheap. Nowadays a room for two starts at a minimum of over £300 a night in winter; much, much more in high season. Afternoon tea on a terrace overlooking the Atlantic costs about £30 per person. We thought it was OK, no more than that. After the first round of ‘limitless’ butties, we had no desire for more.
One day we were having lunch in a Funchal restaurant when we heard a folk group outside, singing in perfect American-accented English. As we left, we discovered that they comprised three or four kids aged no more than 15, watched by their proud mums and dads. When we tried to compliment them on their performance it became clear that they spoke only Portuguese and must have learned the songs parrot-fashion from records. They were thrilled to bits when we gave them a few euros for their trouble – one of the parents said it was their first paying gig. I hope there were many more.
Old jokes’ home
Northerners Reg and Bert live in adjoining council semis, each with identical dimensions. Reg decides to redecorate his front room in stylish orange wallpaper and shows the result to his neighbour. Deeply impressed, Bert says he would like to do the same and asks: ‘How many rolls did you get?’ ‘Eight,’ says Reg. The following week, Bert tells Reg: ‘I only used six rolls.’ ‘Yes,’ says Reg, ‘so did I.’
A PS from PG
You can readily understand, then, why there were dark circles beneath my eyes and why I had almost permanently now a fluttering sensation at the pit of the stomach, as if I had recently swallowed far more mice than I would have wished.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season