SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
October 31, 2014
A Mountain of an Island
32° 44.2’N x 16° 43.9’W
If you drew a circle around Madeira, it wouldn’t need to be large. A ten mile radius would do, roughly enough to enclose metropolitan Bangor. On the other hand, if one took a rolling pin to the island’s tortured relief, the result would be much different: A vast flattened surface area, the size of Texas. Or Manitoba.
It’s a mile-high landscape of green ziggurats and perched white houses with cheerful red roofs. Towns are poured into valleys and end abruptly at the sea. There are no natural harbors. At the main airport in Machico, the runway is perched on towering concrete stilts, a long vaulted colonnade that’s tall enough to fit a marine park underneath. No cathedral in Europe could come close in scale. Our tour guide points down into the apse, as our bus whirls past along a great curved ramp. Under the airstrip is a great place for outdoor concerts, she says. Nobody ever complains about the noise.
A quarter of a million people live here now. What permits this is an incredible built landscape that allows travel up, around, and frequently through the great verdant fins of old volcanic geology. Roads bend around in dizzy helixes, cut through gulleys, and dart in and out of concrete tunnels. Houses on hillsides sit below road level. Some have cars parked on their roofs. Stuff grows everywhere. Banana. Hibiscus. Mango. Tree fern. Dense laurel forests that are the last remnant of Europe’s pre-pleistocene vegetation. Bouldery river courses sit at the bottom of each valley.
This is an island, but the terrain is so steep that you quickly lose any sense of the coast, or even water. Sky and sea blur together. Clouds appear in your peripheral vision, as they do from airplane windows, and there’s an overall feeling almost of flight, as if we are borne aloft in a huge terrarium.