The Madeiran Sleigh Ride Without Snow

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The toboggans of the mountainous village of Monte are just one example of the unmatched attractions that the Madeiran Archipelago can boast. But, exactly how did the Monte toboggan sleigh ride in Madeira evolve?

Traditionally, transport in Funchal, the capital city of Madeira, did not include wheeled carriages. The uneven cobbled roadways, steep hills and sharp bends, meant that horse drawn carriages and, later, automobiles were regarded as unsuitable. Rather, the locals opted for various other, more exotic, means of transport.

Basic carriages of wood, mounted on wooden runners, lubricated with grease and pulled at a sedate pace by oxen were a favourite. These "carros de bois" were, legend has it, said to have been introduced to the island by a British Army Officer who required a means of transport for his invalid wife.

Whilst riding in the carros de bois was adequate on the flat, it was, of course, a painfully slow way to climb the steep hills that dominate the landscape as soon as you leave the narrow coastal plain.

Another, solely Madeiran, means of transport was the travelling hammock. Here, a length of cloth was slung between two, long wooden poles. Two men, one at the front and one to the rear, would lift the contrivance in a mode rather akin to that of a sedan chair. The passenger reclining in the hammock, usually a woman, was thus transported in what must have been a rather uncomfortable fashion.

The transporting hammock was particularly popular with British society women who were resident on the island in the 1700s. Often, to the delight of their passenger, the hammock bearers would sing in the local Portuguese language as they made their progress. A tip for this additional service was invariably given. What the passenger did not realise was that sometimes the songs were extremely disparaging of their customer. It is reported that on one occasion the bearers of a rather overweight passenger were singing to the effect: "The fare we are allowed to charge is fixed, but just look at the size of this load!"

These popular forms of conveyance were used everywhere on the island, including the mountain village of Monte. Cumbersome oxen drawn carts and hammocks were the accepted way to convey both people and goods.

Progress, in more than one sense of the word, was slow. The four kilometre journey down from Monte into Funchal would take anything up to three hours.

However, the road from Monte into the heart of the capital was one long, steep, downward slope. Accordingly, it was perhaps inevitable that one day, some 160 years ago, one of the locals decided to explore a more radical form of transport. By mounting a flimsy wicker basket on two ski-like wooden runners it was discovered that you could glide headlong down the hill and reach the city centre in a matter of just 10 minutes.

The logistics were simple. All that was needed was one hefty push to get going and someone to stand on the rear to steer. In no time at all, you would soon reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Suddenly, there was a fast, and cheap, means of transport from the outlying mountain village into the commercial centre of the island - the snow less, Monte wicker basket sleigh was hence invented.

As a profitable aside, the local inhabitants soon discovered that rich Europeans and Americans would take the journey just for fun - hence, the original Madeira tourist attraction was created. Indeed, Ernest Hemingway famously described his Monte toboggan wicker basket sled ride as the "most exhilarating experience" of his life.

Today, the toboggans persist, but they are for the holiday-makers only. Two carreiros guides, dressed in traditional white with straw hats, will propel you down a shortened route from Monte.

There are no seat belts and the only brake you can rely on is the rubber sole of your driver's shoe. The views can be stunning, if short-lived and the usual souvenir photo awaits you at your journey's end.

The ride is priced rather expensively by Madeiran standards. But, if you want to treat yourself to an experience that you are unlikely to find anywhere else, then give the Monte toboggans a go.

To read more about the famous see our tourist guide: Monte Toboggan Ride in Madeira


Robert James BSc(Hons) is the editor of the independent Madeira travel guide. He has been a Freelance Computer Professional for 25 years and has had numerous articles published in the trade press.

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