Sliding down a steep road, polished to an almost glassy sheen, in a large wicker basket may, at first, seem a bit bonkers. Until you try it.
The large wicker sledges are one of those ‘must do’ tourist attractions when you visit the Portuguese island of Madeira.
Start by taking the cable car at Fajã dos Padres. You’ll save yourself the long, steep climb up the Cabo Girão cliffs to Monte. Instead, you’ll enjoy wonderful panoramic views of the small bay of Fajã dos Padres, the city of Funchal, and the myriad tiny banana plantations perched on the terraces clinging to the rock.
You’ll arrive in Monte ready to enjoy the scenery, the Tropical Gardens, and most importantly the “Monte sledge” – a large wicker basket, on wooden runners.
The sledges are powered by two carreiros, or sledge drivers wearing white uniforms and straw hats. They control the basket with the help of ropes and their feet. Wearing strong boots, with strips of car tyres stitched onto the soles, they regulate the speed by using their boots as brakes.
The basket has seats for two, and the carreiros stand on the back, steering a slalom through the streets. The road surface is polished to an almost icy shine by the frequency of sledges passing over it. At junctions, assistants are waiting to stop cars, giving the giant baskets right of way to continue their zig-zagging course.
The ride takes about 10 minutes and covers approximately 2km. It’s definitely on my list of ‘must do’ activities when visiting Madeira. And, it’s not simply a clever tourist attraction dreamed up as a way to earn a few more Euros – it has a long, functional history.
The sledges first appeared in the mid-1800s as a means of downhill public transport for local residents who wanted to travel quickly from the mountain village of Monte to the coastal town of Funchal.
They were made of wicker, which was already establishing itself as an important industry on the islands. Centred around Camacha, Boaventura and Sao Vicente wicker working is still an important activity today with traditionally made baskets and other objects exported all over the world.
So, if you are visiting the beautiful island of Madeira, do what the locals used to do; take a ride in a giant wicker basket.