Having a debut flight, on Christmas Day, with a landing at Funchal airport is worthy of note.
What to say then, when, after that landing, there is a journey by car between Funchal and Seixal, along the old road.
Two decades passed. The memory lingers. Hostess and expert on the way, Sofia Lima takes the wheel.
She takes us up and down the lethal ravines between São Vicente and Seixal, with the confidence of a rally driver that leaves us somewhere between enthusiasm and fear.
We enter and exit tunnels with poorly polished surfaces that demonstrate the hard work of pickaxes and the like, begun in 1950 and popularized as “pierced”.
Leaving them, we are left with the Atlantic either in front or on the side, often far below, where the waves punish the cliffs.
In the middle of winter, waterfalls bathe the narrow road and wash the car by force.
Large basaltic pebbles that accumulate next to the wall that protects vehicles from diving into the ocean, remind us that it is not just water that falls there.
They underlined the obvious fact that every trip to Seixal was an adventure. And Seixal hadn't even started.
We arrived about night. We settled in the inn that Sofia had reserved for us.
Shortly afterwards, we are having drinks at the “Arco-Íris” the unavoidable bar of the village, Manelito and Carlucho. And getting to know the hostess's cronies.
Seixal, the Oitavas, the Lapinhas and an Unbridled Party
It lasts as long as it lasts. In Madeira, traditions such as the Catholic faith are taken seriously.
In the calendar, December 26 dictates the Octaves of Christmas, so venerated that the authorities declared the day a regional holiday.
It is customary to go from house to house, in the religious version, appreciating the lapinhas (read nativity scene) of the neighbors.
In profaned practice, the custom serves as a pretext for a revelry that is as itinerant as it is rooted.
More than showing off the house's lapinha, each family welcomes visitors with food and drinks left over from Christmas (but not only) and neat. In the drinks, in particular, there are whiskeys and old brandies, homemade wine produced with local jaqué grapes and many others.
They offer themselves to the stranger with a kindness and firmness that do not seem to admit refusal. As time passes, accepting them produces unexpected effects.
When the visits begin, Lisbon friends stick together. Halfway through, without even knowing how, the group breaks up into different homes in Seixal.
I remember visiting some alone. One of them belonged to a couple of emigrants who had just returned from South Africa, proud to be able to taste the jaqué wine that linked them to the land. To Seixal and Madeira.
Later, we got back together in the “Arco-Íris”. At the counter, around the foosball table and more Coral Tónica. Each one, with their amazing stories to tell.
As we would come to understand, in Seixal, the Oitavos lasted, like, the whole week. Discovering the stunning scenery of the village and its surroundings compensated for waking up late and somewhat hungover at the “Brisa Mar” hotel.
A few days later, we returned to Lisbon. With lives still teeming with everything we had experienced in Seixal. With new friendships, some of stonecutters, then, living on the mainland.
The Summer Return to Seixal
We arrived at summer vacation. Marques, one of those bricklayers with whom I kept in touch, invites me to return. He offers to stay with his family. I gladly accept the invitation.
Filipe, one of Marques' brothers, at the time and like so many Madeirans, still an emigrant in Caracas, Venezuela, spearfished in the offshore sea, as a rule, in front of the pier and the natural pools.
Day after day, this is how he assures us of fresh fish that his mother cooks for meals, accompanied by sweet potatoes and boiled semilhas, harvested from the house's garden.
Instead of the Christmas Oitavos and Lapinhas, it is the summer festivities in Seixal and neighboring towns that justify the festivities and the inevitable madness.
In the middle of the summer, this fun has a delightful bathing area. In the natural pools of Seixal. Off the Pier. In Poça do Mata Sete, baptized with the truth of the tragedy, however poignant it may have been.
And, a short distance away, but on the opposite side of seriousness, in Praia da Laje, which locals have come to call Jamaica due to the tropical look of the palm trees planted there a few years ago.
Despite the good-natured Caribbean imagination, its seafront has no traces of white sand or coral.
It is covered by large basaltic pebbles that the waves continue to polish and that inspire the coat of arms of the village, at the base of a complementary pebble (tree).
At the time of this bathing evasion, there was not even the black sand beach adjacent to the port, which today attracts thousands of visitors to the village every year.
When I bathe in it overlooking the grandiose landscape of the east of the North, I confirm that it is the best beach on the island of Madeira.
So I would classify it even if I considered myself exempt.
The Incredible Golden Road Monument
We go back along the old road and its tunnels between São Vicente and Seixal. We examine them with the attention they deserve.
We understand the work, the prodigious engineering and the costs that it required, to such an extent that it became known as the Golden Road of Portugal.
To arrive at the true value of the work, perhaps it is better to pay attention to the delays in life that it solved. For a long time, Porto Moniz was only reachable from the south of the island.
And, in periods of bad weather, a journey between the Funchal and Seixal (today 40km, 50 minutes), was done in the form of a roller coaster, up and down the crest of Encumeada. It could take four hours.
Or five. Or whatever they were, according to what fate had in store.
More than two decades later, on our way back to Madeira and Seixal, we travel through several of the modern and spacious tunnels that connect the towns in the interior of the island.
Today, between old and new, more than 150 tunnels make Madeira a Swiss cheese island.
Those from João Delgado and Seixal, replaced the daring ER-101, which has become a historic and tourist attraction, still with its adventurous touch.
Misadventures in Old ER101
We leave the modern road. We get into the old one, committed to recovering the feeling of what it was like to walk through it. Moments later, we regretted it.
The remains of the road seem even tighter than we remember.
It is soaked by different waterfalls whose origin we fail to understand.
Parts of the worn asphalt are speckled with splinters of basalt also fallen from the top, imperceptibly from there, of the cliffs.
Rather than playful, the experience turns out to be reckless. We reverse gear as quickly and as well as we can, in the tightness and imminence of the precipice, with the Atlantic, down there, insinuating itself.
We didn't know it yet, but daring came with a price. During the afternoon, we realized that one of the basalt chips had caused a slow puncture in a tire. When we passed through São Vicente, we wasted time fixing it.
The maneuver completed, we returned to the safety of the new road.
We take refuge at the Véu da Noiva viewpoint, the emblematic waterfall that plunges 110 meters into the sea, in front of the old route of the ER-101.
A Village as Sloping as it is Fertile
If Madeira is steep and vertiginous, Seixal abuses it.
The settlement of the north coast of the island and the village required strong determination and consistent ingenuity. Most of its houses are located between cliffs and chasms.
The gardens and crops are always inclined, like the local vineyards, arranged in terraces conquered from less steep areas of the cliffs, protected from the wind and the weather by barriers of heather and leafy ferns.
Even produced in redoubts that any outsider would classify as unusable and in small quantities, Seixal sercial grapes are resistant to gravity, mildew and powdery mildew. They have long enriched good Madeira wines, the drier ones.
The irrigation of these vines and other crops depends on the use of water from the stream that descends from the top of Fanal and which divides the village almost in half, through the levadas and canals in which Madeirans and seixaleiros have become experts.
The last time we visited Seixal, we did it as part of a much broader project on the island of Madeira, outside of Christmas – New Year's Eve, the festival period or any other festivities.
We didn't stay there to sleep and we only managed to see two or three of the people we knew there.
Seixaleiros that Depart, Seixaleiros that Return
Since 1950, remote Seixal has lost population, mainly due to the diaspora to Venezuela, South Africa, Australia and many other destinations. In this time, the village went from 1360 inhabitants to just 656, in 2011.
We realize, however, that the tourist prestige of Madeira, which for several years has been elected “Best Island Destination in the World”, the attraction of the black sand beach and the access facilitated by the tunnels now take many more visitors there and from the four corners of the world.
Simultaneously, the atrocious reality in which Venezuela has been living and the violence in South Africa, have made many Madeiran emigrants return.
Even though they no longer speak Portuguese, some open small businesses with which they seek to remake their lives. Even if they lack the big profits from other stops.
Even if they only have a view to the North and the immense Atlantic.
It receives them, as it welcomed us, the subtropical and Edenic embrace of Seixal.