Earlier this year, I turned on my laptop and was blown away by a new desktop background: one of those wallpaper photos that Microsoft magically puts on your screen.
It was a picture of a narrow mountain ridge, high in the clouds, with a set of stone steps that disappeared into the mist.
A quick search showed this was on the Portuguese island of Madeira, and that the trail was called “Stairway to Heaven.”
Cue Led Zeppelin, I decided to see the stairway for myself. Call it a wallpaper trip.
I knew little about Madeira, other than that it was known for its sweet wine. But I soon learned the islands have a remarkable past and present.
Madeira is made up of three volcanic islands about 500 miles west of Morocco. They were uninhabited until 1419, when a storm blew Portuguese explorers ashore. The lucky explorers landed on an island with 6,000-foot peaks and lush green forests. (“Madeira” is the Portuguese word for wood.) Settlers arrived the next year.
Over time, the Portuguese cleared many of the forests and planted sugar cane. To irrigate their plantations, they built long aqueducts called levadas, mostly at elevations above 3,000 feet. By the late 1400s, Madeira was one of the largest exporters of sugar in Europe.
They also built trails next to these aqueducts, and because of this, Madeira today is a hiking wonderland, with hundreds of miles of levada trails. Some are cut into the sides of steep mountains and lead to spectacular waterfalls.
Funchal is the island’s largest city, set on the island’s southern side. With more than 120,000 people and plenty of tourists, Funchal has its share of nondescript high-rise hotels, which are popular with sun-seeking Northern Europeans, especially in spring, its busiest season. More than 1 million tourists visit the island every year.
Many visitors seek out rides on wicker-and-wood sleds called “Carreiros do Monte.” The sledding tradition dates back to the 1800s, when wealthy residents in the hills above Funchal wanted faster ways to get to the city below. Enterprising drivers built sleds with wicker baskets and wooden runners. They pulled sleds with ropes, slinging them forward until they had enough momentum to hop on the back. Sliding down the hilly streets, they used their feet and weight to steer.
Today’s drivers still dress in white and wear straw hats, and it’s as touristy as a Venetian gondola, but still a rush. Speeds can reach 15 mph. It costs about $30 for a quick mile-long ride.
While poking around Funchal makes for an interesting day, we had a stairway to climb. And given that it was somewhere in Madeira’s mountains, we hired a licensed guide, Dinarte "Dino" Jesus, to find it.
Dino grew up in Madeira and had always enjoyed exploring the island’s trails. In recent years, he’s competed in many ultra-distance events, including 60-plus mile races that cross Madeira’s sheer volcanic peaks. About three years ago, he quit his administrative job at a cleaning company to form Madeira Trail Tours, which offers trail-running and hiking trips. I showed him a photo of what I was trying to find, and he knew instantly where it was.
“It’s between the highest mountains of Madeira.”
He picked us up in Machico, a small seaside town near Funchal. We drove for about 40 minutes, up serpentine roads lined with blue-and-white hydrangeas. Groves of eucalyptus gave way to thick stands of heather and soon we were at a parking lot atop Pico do Areiro, Madeira’s third-highest peak. The peak has a cafe and souvenir stand, as well as space for tour buses, which made me think that they’d paved over paradise. Cue Joni Mitchell.
But a few minutes of hiking separated us from most of the visitors, and we were in a landscape of flowers and cliffs.
“This is a geologist’s dream,” Dino said, pointing to volcanic formations and layers of sediment. The nooks and caves in these formations shelter one of the world’s rarest birds, the Zino's petrel.
“There are maybe 30 pairs left, and they lay just one egg. They feed the bird until he's as large as they are. And then they leave. The bird is on its own then. But it all works out and they find their way eventually.”
The trail followed a ridge that dropped for hundreds of feet on either side. Dino pointed to a valley below, the "Valley of the Nuns." In the 1600s, pirates stormed the island. Nuns feared they would be raped, he said, and they escaped to a remote haven in the hills and were spared.
The trail led to a series of long tunnels dug by hand in the 1800s. When we emerged from the darkness, clouds rolled up the ridges in sheets of mist, then curled to form clouds.
“It’s like 'The Lord of the Rings,' ” he said with a smile. “I don’t know why they don’t make more movies here.”
As we moved along the cliffs, he pointed up toward circular cactus-like plants clinging to crevices in the chocolate-colored rock. Lower, conical purple flowers called the Pride of Madeira lined the trail. At one point, he broke off a stem of wild oregano and suggested we take a whiff. Its power was many times stronger than store-bought seasoning.
“Much more intense than you would find in a supermarket!”
Then he pointed to a beautiful pink flower.
I took a sniff and nearly fell over. It smelled something like the floor after a keg party.
“Really stale beer, or barf, or both mixed together,” I said, groping for words. "After a few hours in the sun."
“Its common name is Rabbit Herb,” Dino said.
And, yes, it did smell a little bit like an uncleaned rabbit cage.
“It’s a reminder that even something beautiful is not perfect.”
After three hours, we reached Madeira’s highest mountain, Pico Ruivo. By then, the summit was in the clouds. It began to rain. The Stairway to Heaven was more than two hours away. Would I be able to get a shot like that one on the computer? Would clouds cover it?
The rain grew worse as we neared, then, after another tunnel, it cleared.
“Here’s where that picture was taken,” Dino said.
The rain had stopped. Mist flowed over the ridge like a fog machine at a Led Zeppelin concert. Still, from a photographic standpoint, it lacked the colors and drama of what I'd seen on my laptop. I mentioned that to Dino. Yes, he said, that wallpaper picture was beautiful, but it had probably been taken in the morning when there are fewer clouds and the sun often casts the light in a dramatic way.
But a photo can't capture the smell of wild oregano; the tiny feeling of relief you have when you pass through a long tunnel; the feel of dew on the heather as you brushed past it; the foul, beery smell of Rabbit Herb.
“Being here now, you can’t put that in a picture.”
Right, I said, it's the journey, not the picture, and we climbed the Stairway to Heaven.
Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.