1. Transport
  2. Rail
October 20, 2015

Transport for Madeira: How to get around when you live on a volcanic island

By Barbara Speed

Advances in transport are all well and good, but they’re not much use if you live in some of the world’s most extreme landscapes. The Atlantic archipelago (that’s a fancy word for an island chain) of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, was formed by volcanic activity around 5m years ago, and is formed of a series of mountains, valleys, ridges and dramatic sea cliffs.

The island’s volcanoes are no longer active, but residents are still faced with a distinct lack of flat surfaces on which to build roads, rails or other means of transport. As a result, a range of eclectic transport have sprung up so they’re not stuck exclusively with a load of of roads that look like this: 

Image: cudi via Wikimedia Commons.

For example:

Cable cars

Image: Leo-setä via Wikimedia Commons.

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As in other hilly cities like Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro or Bolivia’s La Paz, Madeira operates a cable car up one of the island’s slopes. However, at ‎€15 for a round-trip, locals are unlikely to use it with any frequency, and it’d be a very expensive commute – it’s really just a tourist attraction. 


Image: Koshelyev via Wikimedia Commons.

Now these, allegedly, are used for commuting : earlier this year, CNN listed these wicker sledges as one of the seven coolest commutes in the world. The sledges are set on runners which slide down steep mountain roads with the help of straw-hatted attendants who steer them using guideropes and thick rubber-soled shoes.

The vehicles were invented in the 19th century as a quick way to descend into the centre of Funchal, Madeira’s capital, from the hilltop district of Monte; one of the mile-long routes is still used regularly. 

Giant cliff lifts

Faja dos Padres, a cove on the island’s coast and home to an organic farm and hotel, is inaccessible by land apart from at the lowest tides. So, naturally, the decision was made to build a glass elevator by which tourists and farm workers could descend and ascend the 350m-high cliff. Here it is: 

Image: Fajã dos Padres.

And here’s the midly terrifying view from the top:

Image: CharlieTPhotographic via Wikimedia commons. 

Roads and tunnels

Spanning the island now are a series of wide, flat roads built with the help of billions of Euros’ worth of EU investment over the past quarter century. Road tunnels cleave through mountains for kilometres (the longest runs for over 3km), and sections of road are supported by spindles of concrete:

These new, flat roads are known as the Vias rápidas – which means, unsurprisingly, “quick roads”. 




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