The sub-tropical island of Madeira is a frequent port of call for the large numbers of luxury cruise liners that criss-cross the Atlantic. It is also a favourite resting-place for young, honeymooning couples. However, for many people, it is a section of the holiday brochures that often goes neglected.
Regretfully, Madeira is often considered to be an insignificant island with not much to captivate the pleasure visitor.
This is definitely a misunderstanding that should be addressed.
The toboggans of the mountainous village of Monte are just one example of the unmatched attractions that this delightful, mid-Atlantic island has to offer.
Traditionally, transport in Funchal, Madeira’s capital, did not include wheeled carriages. The unsophisticated cobblestone roads, steep hills and sharp bends, meant that horse drawn carriages and, later, motorised vehicles were regarded as unsuitable. Rather, the locals opted for various other, more original, forms of conveyance.
Unsophisticated wooden carriages, mounted on wooden runners, lubricated with grease and pulled at a calm pace by oxen were a favourite. These “carros de bois” were, legend has it, said to have been introduced to the island by a British Army Officer who required a means of conveying his invalid wife about town.
Whilst travelling by the carros de bois was acceptable on the level, it was, of course, a painfully slow way to climb the steep inclines that predominate the countryside as soon as you abandon the narrow coastal plain.
Another, solely Madeiran, means of transport was the transporting hammock. Here, a length of cloth was slung between a couple of long wooden poles. Two men, one at the front and one to the back, would lift the contrivance in a manner rather akin to that of a sedan chair. The occupant of the hammock, usually a female, was thus transported in what must have been a rather cramped fashion.
The travelling hammock was peculiarly popular with British society women who were resident on the island in the 1700s. Often, to the relish of their fare, the hammock bearers would sing in the local Portuguese language as they made their way to the final destination. A tip for this additional service was invariably given. What the passenger did not realise was that intermittently the songs were moderately disparaging of their customer. It is said that on one occurrence the bearers of a rather plump passenger were singing to the effect: “The fare we are allowed to charge is fixed, but just look at the stature of this load!”
These popular forms of conveyance were used everywhere on the island, including the mountain village of Monte. Inconvenient oxen drawn carts and hammocks were the normal way to transfer both people and goods.
Progress, in every sense of the word, was slow. The three mile excursion down from Monte into Funchal would take anything up to three hours.
However, the road from Monte into the heart of the capital was one long, breakneck, downward slope. Accordingly, it was to be expected that one day, some 160 years ago, one of the locals decided to explore a more radical form of conveyance. By mounting a fragile wicker basket on two ski-like wooden runners it was perceived that you could glide headlong down the hill and reach the city centre in a mere 10 minutes.
The logistics were simple. All that was needed was one substantial push to get going and someone to stand on the hind part to steer. In no distance at all, you would soon reach speeds of up to 48 kilometres per hour.
Suddenly, there was a fast, and cheap, means of transport from the outlying mountain village into the fiscal centre of the island – the snow less, Monte wicker basket sleigh was hence unveiled.
In addition, the local inhabitants soon realized that prosperous Europeans and Americans would take the journey just for fun – hence, the original Madeira tourist attraction was created. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway famously described his Monte toboggan wicker basket sled ride as the “most exhilarating experience” of his life.
Today, the toboggans persist, but they are for the holiday-makers only. Two carreiros guides, dressed in traditional white with straw hats, will shoot you down a shortened route from Monte.
There are no seat belts and the only retarding device you can rely on is the rubber sole of your driver’s shoe. The views can be spectacular, if short-lived and the usual souvenir photo awaits you at your journey’s end.
The joyride is priced rather expensively by Madeiran standards. But, if you want to treat yourself to an experience that you are unlikely to find anywhere else, then give the Monte toboggans a go.
Robert James B.Sc (Hons) is the owner of the independent Madeira Holiday Guide. He has been a freelance writer and traveller for over 30 years and has had many articles published in a variety of publications.
For further information, read the Monte Toboggans Guide
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