Madeira is a popular port of call for the many luxury cruise liners that steam the Atlantic. It is also a choice destination for young, honeymooning couples. However, for most people, it is a holiday destination that often goes overlooked. Regretfully, Madeira is often considered to be a dull island with nothing much happening to attract the foreign visitor. Nothing could be more untrue.
The fragile wicker sleds of the mountainous village of Monte are just one example of the unmatched attractions that the Madeiran Archipelago has to offer. Traditionally, the method of conveying people and goods 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 unconventional, forms of conveyance.
Basic carriages of wood, mounted on wooden runners, lubricated with grease and pulled at a sedate pace by oxen were a favourite. These « carros de bois » were reported to have been introduced to Madeira by a British Army Officer who required a means of conveying his invalid wife about town. Whilst riding in the carros de bois was acceptable on the flat, it proved to be an painfully slow way to climb the steep inclines that dominate the landscape as soon as you leave the narrow coastal plain.
Another, solely Madeiran, means of transport was the travelling hammock. Here, a length of cloth resembling a hammock was slung between two, long wooden poles. Two men, one at the fore and one to the rear, would lift the contrivance in a mode rather akin to that of a sedan chair. The occupant of the hammock, usually a woman, was thus transported in what must have been a rather uncomfortable fashion.
The travelling hammock was particularly popular with British society women who were resident on the island in the 1600s. Often, to the delight of their fare, the hammock bearers would sing in their native Portuguese 10oxen language as they made their progress. A gratuity for this extra service was invariably given. What the passenger did not realise was that sometimes the songs were extremely disparaging of their customer. It is said that on one occasion the bearers of a rather overweight passenger were singing to the effect: « The fare we are allowed to charge is fixed, but just look at the size of this load! «
The mountainous village of Monte was no exception when it came to the modes of transport employed. Cumbersome oxen drawn carts and hammocks were the normal way to convey both people and goods. Progress, in every sense of the word, was slow. The four kilometre journey down from Monte into Funchal could take anything up to three hours. However, the road from Monte into Funchal was one long, steep, downward slope. Accordingly, it was perhaps inevitable that one day, some 160 years ago, one of the locals decided to explore a more radical means of conveyance. By mounting a fragile wicker basket on two ski-like wooden runners it was discovered that you could glide headlong down the hill and reach the city centre in a matter of just 10 minutes.
The logistics were simple. All that was needed was one hefty push to get going and someone to stand on the rear to steer. In no distance at all, you would soon reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Suddenly, there was a fast, and cheap, means of transport from the outlying mountain village into the commercial centre of the island – the snow less, Monte wicker basket sleigh was hence invented. In addition, the local inhabitants soon discovered that rich Europeans and Americans would take the journey just for fun – thus, the original Madeira tourist attraction was created. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway famously described his Monte toboggan wicker basket sleigh ride as the « most exhilarating experience » of his life.
Today, the traditional sound of wooden ski runners gliding over cobblestones persists, but they are for the holiday-makers only. Two carreiros guides, dressed in traditional white with straw hats, will propel you down a shortened route from Monte. There are no seat belts and the only brake you can rely on is the rubber sole of your driver’s shoe. The views can be stunning, if short-lived and the usual souvenir photo awaits you at your journey’s end. The ride 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.