Interview with photographer Virgilio Silva

This week we are featuring an interview with Virgilio Silva. Virgilio, born in mainland Portugal, in Cascais, and lives for almost 15 years on Madeira Island, since August 1998.

Virgilio, thank you for the opportunity that you allow us a ‘peek’ into your relationship with the Green Pearl of the Atlantic also known as Madeira. Please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Associação dos Amigos do Parque Ecológico do Funchal

Here I work at one of the island’s main hotel groups. And I love to spend Saturdays up there on Pico do Areeiro and neighbourhood on what I call the most beautiful office I ever had. I belong to an environmental association, and since 2001 we have been working to restore the mountains native green cover. During the Winter we plant endemic species on the two plantation areas under our supervision. These plants are grown at the nursery we set up in 2010 after the wildfires that destroyed most of the vegetation of Madeira’s central mountain range. For us is quite rewarding to recover these devastated areas to their original beauty.

Have you always considered Madeira as your home?
Well, I have since I moved in here. I came to Madeira for the first time in May 1998 on a work assignment. I was dazzled by some of the scenery and the pace of living. On the flight home I found myself thinking I would love to live in such a place. Meanwhile I decided to start my life from scratch and a couple of months later I had moved to Funchal.

Can you compare Madeira with for example the mainland Portugal?
The main difference is obvious: Madeira is an island, with the ocean keeping it away from the rest of the world. Which is great, since I was born by the sea and always miss it when I go inland. Then you probably can’t find many other islands as steep and where you can go from sea level to 1800 metres high in about 30 minutes.

“You probably can’t find many other islands as steep and where you can go from sea level to 1800 metres high in about 30 minutes.”

But when I lived in mainland, I also felt like in a sort of island, living most of the time on an axis from Cascais to Lisbon, where I worked, with the sea and river to the south and the Sintra hills to the north. One could say that living there, anytime one wanted one could just get a car and drive all the way through Europe. But at the end of the day most of time you won’t, and from here it is only a 90 minute flight to Lisbon. There, on some days it took me more than that to drive back home at the end of a working day (only 40 km). So the pace of living is more relaxed. And then there’s the island’s key feature: its Nature. Much of the island is still undeveloped and one can still find places where one feels not many have been there before.

What do you think of the locals/people from Madeira? Where do they differ from the rest of the world?
I may not be the best person to talk about it. We are all Portuguese, we share the same language and culture. So I adjusted easily and the people made me feel welcome from the very beginning. So I really never gave it a serious thought. Also, being on the hotel business from an early age, I always was and still am in touch with people from everywhere. Therefore, the difference I notice most is probably their feeling that the island sometimes is too small and so they feel the need to travel elsewhere more frequently than I do.

Madeira is slowly becoming a popular holiday destination. What are the three best reasons for someone to include Madeira on their travel list?
Well, one is quite obvious: the mild weather one can experience most of the year. As one of my guests once pointed to me “this is January and here we are enjoying a nice cold beer outside wearing just light clothing. Back home I would be freezing.”

Then, the one that for me comes on top of the list because it differentiates it from other destinations: its landscape. After all, other places with nice weather can be found elsewhere if all you need for your holidays is to warm your body under the Sun.

Eastern side of the Bay of Funchal

The one feature that for me makes Madeira’s landscape so compelling by comparison is the way the scenery changes completely every few kilometres. Sometimes even less than that.

Different kinds of forest, the backdrop that can change very quickly from mountains to ocean or even both at the same time, waterfalls, cloud cover constantly changing and adding drama specially when you are on the highest peaks and you look down and feel surrounded by a white sea of clouds.

When I leave the island on holidays I seek similar places, where I can find mountains and if possible still be near the sea, to feel nature. Yet, there one may have to drive or walk quite a bit to feel real changes in the scenery.

Finally, for the same reasons and because Madeirans had to find ways to bring water from the lush north side to the dryer south, through the centuries a network of water channels – known as “levadas” – was built around the island, bringing water from the forests to where people live and farm the land. Along these channels one can find paths that are easy to walk, usually at a steady altitude, through which one can explore Madeira’s primitive forest — the Laurisilva.

Madeira’s native forest — Laurisilva

On top of that there are countless trails around the island, on the mountains, by the sea, that follow the old routes people used when there were no roads, no cars. People would have to walk to cross the island, and cargo was transported by boat around it, since it would be too hard to carry it going up and down the rugged and steep slopes.

So I think Madeira Island can be right there on top of any hiker’s wish list, from the more casual who only seek pleasing walks in beautiful natural settings to those who look for more challenging hikes.

If you let me, I would break your three-list rule by adding another key feature of the island: flowers. Due to its climate and subtropical location one can find plenty of botanical species blooming any time of the year. Besides the beautiful public gardens one can find mostly in Funchal, there is a tradition for residents around the island to tend to their own little garden corners everywhere they can. And then the island itself shelters a large selection of both native and exotic plants which one can find as one drives and walks around it.

One thing you have to keep in mind. Through the years I met many people who came to the island, even several times, and they never got out of Funchal. All they had seen was the landscape around the motorway from the airport to the city centre. And that was outside the tunnels, of course. Still, these people believed they knew the island. To quite a few I managed to show around the island. All of them, without exception were astonished by what they missed all those times. So please take my advice: if you can afford the time please don’t leave the island without at least taking a small tour around it. Even if you can only see a little, I am sure it will make you want to see more.

“All of them, without exception were astonished by what they missed all those times.”

Tell us about your most favourite and also the least favourite thing about Madeira.
Most favourite … Sun rising from behind the Desertas Islands (November-December).
Least favourite … the politics :)

We see on your Flickr stream that you have a very big collection of Madeira images, captured by your photo camera. Can you describe what you see through your lens when you take a picture here on Madeira?
Outstanding beauty.

We say that Madeira Island is an excellent destination for photographers. Do you agree? If so, why?
I totally agree. I was a very casual photographer before I lived here, and only seldom I would carry the camera around with me, mostly when travelling. When I moved to Madeira suddenly I just kept seeing remarkable things and the camera was not there with me. Quite frustrating sometimes. Therefore, now it is a full time companion.

Do you think there is a difference between the natural environment on Madeira Island and in Europe? If so, what are the differences?
Europe is so large and it encloses so many different habitats that it is hard to compare. But obviously Madeira retains much of the wilderness that is much harder to find these days on mainland Europe, because being such a rugged island kept it from being populated as densely. Also this is not a mass tourism destination and the only way to travel here is by airplane. Add the fact that much of its territory presents some challenges to most visitors and you get the ideal conditions to find pure wilderness.

What is the most famous landmark? And which one is your favourite?
I guess the summit of Pico do Areeiro would be that. At a little over 1800 metres is Madeira’s 3rd highest peak (the top is at Pico Ruivo, at 1860 metres above sea level, but as you can only reach it by walking, only a minor percentage of the island’s visitors have ever been there). On a clear day the views are breathless.

My favourite? It is a long list. Honestly it would be very difficult to pick just one.

Madeira’s central mountain range towards West

What is the first thing you recommend travelers to do when they arrive on Madeira?
Take it easy. If you don’t see everything this time, you can always come back.

Where do you recommend to go for a day trip on Madeira Island?
It depends on who asks. I don’t have a set of places that any one has to visit as standard. Depending on each person’s own tastes and interests, time of the year, weather conditions, etc., I try to find the best options.

Levada - Ribeiro Frio. Photo by Virgilio Silva
Levada – Ribeiro Frio. Photo by Virgilio Silva

Do you know an ‘off-the-beaten path’ place in Madeira? Tell us which one.
There is one that I feel most people don’t get to know properly, although probably it gets thousands of visitors almost every day — Ribeiro Frio. I see most people stopping there and go straight to the most visible feature — the tanks with trouts. Some may even do the short walk along the “levada” to the Balcões lookout. Then there are the many that come just to do one of the island’s most sought hikes, along the “Levada da Serra do Faial” from here to Portela. And many will not walk back.

What all these people are missing are a few magic corners at the natural park one can find opposite the trout tanks and further up the road. There you can see a beautiful cascading “levada”, mossy walls, a waterfall, and an enchanting forest featuring many of the island’s endemic species.

And you don’t have to get far from the ‘beaten path’. It is right there under everyone’s nose.

Do you have a place on the island where you feel most comfortable, or had the most fun? Where’s your secret hangout place on Madeira?
That would be home I guess. I love listening to the waves crashing at a distance from my balcony. And enjoying the sea view and sunrises behind the Desertas Islands.

Secret hangout, I have none. I love to share these places with visitors and, given the opportunity, to take people there myself.

Any other thing(s) about Madeira that travelers should know?
Airline availability. Check it at once :)

Desertas islands at sunrise

Where can readers find you on the web?