Long before there were roads, people walked through Madeira by means of the Regal Walks.
In Fajã da Ovelha, sunlight showers on the Zimbreiros path, in the municipality of Calheta, painting a uniquely coloured sunset. Looking down, one realises how many hundreds of metres one stands above the level of the sea. This is one of the Regal Walks. They are not levadas, though they pass through some of them. They were not pedestrian paths, but were still crossed mostly on foot. These are the Regal Walks.
This footpath of about 92 kilometres is covered in vegetation which coupled with view only serves to bring out its beauty. Down below are Jardim do Mar and Paúl do Mar and this part of the Regal Walk used to be a place of commerce where products originating from overseas were traded for the bounty of the harvests.
The ‘regal paths or roads’ illustrate Madeira’s difficult orography, the factor which over the centuries made it so difficult to conquer the islands within the island.
This network crosses the island in several directions. Regal Walk 23 which used to walk around the island connecting seaside locations used to be the main one. But there are others. They were built by order of the governors and admirals of Madeira throughout the centuries. The word ‘regal’ comes from them being built before the establishment of the Republic in 1910. They were an alternative to travelling by sea, the main means of connecting the different parts of the island before the 20th century.
The exact figure for how many used to exist is unknown but it is estimated that Madeira’s oldest footpath network was 400 kilometres long. Many of the original paths were either lost or faded into vegetation and the island’s difficult layout.
With the arrival of the automobile and a network of modern roads in the 20th century, the ‘Regal Walks’ progressively lost importance. Nowadays, of the 28 footpaths recommended by the authorities, 25 in Madeira and 3 in Porto Santo, only 12 are located in the old ‘regal roads’.
Most of the pathways in Regal Walk 23 still conform to their original format preserving the huge historic heritage and insular cultural identity of the Madeiran people. Hence, regional authorities have come to invest in their economic potential as well as in exploring the heritage of these Walks.
The Town Hall of Calheta, for instance, invested about 200 thousand euros together with the Regional Government with the purpose of realising the potential of the Calheta Regal Walk, through the already recuperated portion between Lombo do Autoguia, in the parish of Calheta, and Sítio do Somagre, in the Arco da Calheta Parish, which is 500 metres long.
Projects for the recuperation of two other portions are currently underway: the portion connecting Lombo do Salão to Lombo Doutor, in the parish of Calheta, which is approximately 1,500 metres long, and the one between Lombo do Coelho, in the Prazeres parish, and Sítio de São Lourenço, in Fajã da Ovelha, which is approximately 2,550 metres long.
In total, and through a contract with the Regional Government, both projects are estimated to represent an investment of 1 million 750 thousand and 250 euros.
Promotion of the Regal Walks is a project to which Miguel Silva Gouveia has dedicated part of his life. What started as a discovery culminated in the creation of the Regal Walk Association in 2017, with the purpose of promoting and protecting this heritage.
Regal Walk 23, the largest one, comprises ten of the eleven municipalities of Madeira, a total 37 parishes, explains Miguel Silva Gouveia. ‘It ends up showing whoever walks it a bit of the entire experience of Madeira and its identity’, over a total 181 kilometres.
Be it in the south or north coasts, regal walks have started to fade into the landscape of the settlements it walks through. In Ribeira Funda, in the parish of Seixal, for instance, vegetation extends along the coast with a few houses, religious motifs and fountains.
This tiny settlement, is located between the parishes of Seixal and Porto Moniz. Limited access is possible through two roads, the old Regional Road 101 and one of the exits of the Fajã das Contreiras tunnel.
Before 2006, when the road was inaugurated, the eight people who lived there had to go home through a path comprising 787 steps. It is a quaint place, unreachable by bus, where agriculture is one of the main activities.
The walk made by Essential continues along Ribeira da Janela. On arrival, we find the church of Nossa Senhora da Encarnação. One can hardly be indifferent to the statue of Mother Cristininha waving from her porch. This lady used to spend her days knitting, reading and greeting those who walked by and was paid tribute by one of the land’s prodigal sons, Antonino de Ponte, and his siblings.
This is where we once again find Regal Walk 23. Walking up a flight of stairs there is time to try a macia in a store that has belonged to Maria Jardim for 35 years. This establishment is frequented by ‘a few tourists who come and buy ice cream’. It sells a bit of everything, from rice and pasta to sugar, coffee, wine and fruit.
Arriving at the next section, Vereda da Tranquada, which is still a part of Ribeira da Janela, one is taken aback by the signs of human presence, notable in the houses and the public fountain where clothes were washed back in the day.
The scent of eucalyptus and the presence of stinkwood and canary laurel fill the air as well as the eye. The quiet environment and pure air can be felt all along the way which invites one to pay attention to the fauna and flora. This is exemplified by the existence of the nursery of mother bay, a fungus that inhabits the Laurel and is utilised in popular Madeiran medicine.
With one’s spirit fed by the crossing of this magical forest, one continues to walk down to arrive at Ribeira da Janela, which takes its name from the islet in front of it, the water course of which is the longest and most abundant in Madeira. The houses surrounded by agricultural fields, the stone walls and the passage for animals take one back to the past.
One of the projects of the Regal Walk Association was the creation of stamps that can be added to a booklet, which costs two euros and whose revenues support the Association, as one walks through the different footpaths. In Achadas da Cruz, the parish connecting the north and south sides of Madeira, Mr. António is the holder of the stamp in Mercearia Bar Central.
This is how it is throughout the island: parts of the Regal Walks are mistaken for actual footpaths, places inhabited by people and parts of an almost untouched forest and unforgettable sights. Steep stairs, winding curves and almost absolute silence: this is what it means to walk through a Regal Walk and experience the genuine soul of Madeira.