Madeira: levadas, levada walking

levadaLevadas are watercourses with adjacent footpaths, which penetrate virtually every part of the mountainous terrain of Madeira. These watercourses and their adjoining maintenance paths extend for an incredible 2150km/1350mi or more, but even more fascinating is their great variety. The older levadas, built centuries ago, are narrow and plummet steeply downhill from mountainside springs – really challenging walking. Their banks are covered with wild flowers, and the water rushes and foams with energy. The newer levadas are wide ‘mini-canals’ and run horizontally along the island’s contours – ideal for easy walks. Their flow is stately and serene, and their banks are lovingly planted with agapanthus lilies and hydrangeas. Although their construction began so long ago it was not until the 1980s that levada walking became the popular activity for visitors that it is today. More than anything else, it was one book, Landscapes of Madeira, published by Sunflower Books, that made levada walking so popular.

The authors of Landscapes of Madeira, John and Pat Underwood, first visited Madeira on their honeymoon in 1973 and fell in love with the island. They returned year after year, making notes about their favourite walks – many of which were along the levadas. Seven years later, they decided to let other walkers in on their ‘secret’ paradise. At that time, John was a toxicologist and Pat, who had previously worked for a leading US publisher, had her own typesetting business – enabling them to publish the little 64-page book themselves. It was a big success. In its 3rd edition it won the prestigious Thomas Cook Award for Best Travel Guide and since then has been the most widely-used guide on the island; the current edition contains 100 long and short walks and has grown to 144 pages. The Sunday Times said: ‘A remarkable paperback which may have done more than any other to change the way its readers spend their holidays – this book single-handedly turned levada-walking into something approaching a craze.’

Whether you use this book to tour, walk or picnic, you will be led along the levadas. Such watercourses are not unique to Madeira: what is unique is their accessibility and extent. You need only venture a little way off the main roads to begin to appreciate Madeira’s myriad aqueducts – for their beauty, ingenuity of design, and for the courage and determination needed to bring the concept to its present glory. The work started centuries ago. The earliest settlers on Madeira began cultivating the lower slopes in the south of the island, cutting out small terraces (poios). Working with contractors (who sometimes used slave or convict labour), they built the first small levadas, which carried water from springs higher up the mountainsides to irrigate their lands.

By the early 1900s, there were about 200 of these levadas, meandering over about 1000km (620 miles). Many were privately owned, and the undisciplined appropriation of water meant that the island’s most valuable asset was often unfairly distributed. In fact, by the mid 1930s, only two-thirds of the island’s arable land was under cultivation — and just half of that was irrigated. Only the State had the money to implement a major building programme and the authority to enforce a more equitable system of distribution. For there was plenty of water for irrigation, and torrents to spare for power. Clouds driven to the island by the prevailing northerly winds are caught by the central mountain chain, and as much as 2m (80 inches) of rain may fall in the north in a year, while the south coast may be relatively dry for up to six months. In effect the island is a huge self-regulating reservoir. Rain seeps down into the porous volcanic ash but, on meeting impervious layers of rock, it wells up again in springs. Unless this rainwater is channelled, it just runs down ravines and into the sea.

In 1939 the Portuguese government sent a mission to the island to study a combined irrigation/hydroelectric scheme. The ‘new’ levadas created from its plans – wide mini-canals – contour through the valleys; their flow is stately and serene, and their banks are lovingly planted with agapanthus lilies and hydrangeas. These wide waterways are first channelled out at an altitude of about 1000m/3300ft, where the concentration of rainfall, dew and springs is greatest. The water is then piped down to the power stations Iying just at the outer edge of the arable land (about 600m/2000ft), from where it flows on to the irrigated zones. Here, distribution is carried out by the levadeiro, who diverts the flow to each proprietor.

Although work is ongoing, most of the mission’s development plans were implemented by 1970. Among the most important projects were the Levada do Norte and the Levada dos Tornos, both of which you can discover as you tour, walk or picnic. Their incredible length, considering the terrain, is best gauged on the fold-out touring map which is provided with the book Landscapes of Madeira. The work took only 25 years to complete, although it was all done by hand. How were the tunnels cut through the solid basalt? How did the workers channel out the levadas beneath the icy waterfalls, halfway between earth and sky? Often, as during the construction of the corniche road between São Vicente and Porto Moniz, they were suspended from above in wicker baskets, while they fought the unyielding stone with picks – many lost their lives. Reflect on the tasks they undertook as you enjoy walking Madeira’s levadas.