Are you going to walk the levadas? And then they give a wee smirk. And you wonder what on earth they mean by smirking. No-one, however, gave me any real notion of what this iconic activity would entail. Here, for anyone who ever wanted to know, is how I experienced it.
Levadas are irrigation ditches, ensuring that the rain which lands on selected spots on Madeira is used sensibly. Right now, they need to do more in this line, as they are already onto next summer's water supply and still allow 80% of their water to run into the sea unused. But these levadas are remarkable nonetheless, built at considerable risk to the labourers who made them. Each is about a foot wide, and beside it runs a maintenance path, sometimes in the soil beside the levada, sometimes on the retaining concrete wall. In either case, the path tends to be about a foot wide also for much of its length. This is what you walk along.
If you try walking along, say, a strip of newspaper about a foot wide, you should have no problems (unless you're drunk. Then it might be harder). But if that strip is above a sheer drop, so that you have water on one side and a view of the valley below on the other, it can be harder not to see the drop as well as the path. Remember, you have been told several times not to try to take photos or look at the view without first stopping, and to keep your eyes on the path. Sometimes your eyes feel as if they're on stalks with the effort of focussing. Happily, the steepest and most vertiginous bits are now protected by a fairly substantial fence consisting of two lines of plastic-coated wire rope suspended between iron poles concreted into the ground. Unhappily, on the Picos walk I described earlier, we saw one place where a rockfall had knocked a pole and its retaining concrete blob out of the ground, so that it dangled unnervingly above the abyss, still attached to the fence which, until then, we had all been clutching gratefully. A walking pole can be helpful in maintaining balance - particularly if the ground is wet - but it can also be a complete pest when the path is too narrow to accommodate it. Be warned.
Levadas are, by their very nature, completely horizontal, so you are contouring every bit of the way, covering miles of hillside, deep into valleys which you can reach no other way. When the hillside becomes too lumpy, they are in tunnels, some of which are so long you need a torch to cope with them. If you want to answer the call of nature - a delicate expression, I always think - you have to allow your compadres to get ahead of you and hope that no-one if following fast. Forget hiding behind a bush; just concentrate on not falling down the hill. If you want to stop for lunch, wait till you come to a place where the path is lower than and wider than the levada - otherwise you'll have to eat standing up.
Doing a walk like this lets you see some of the amazing plants of Madeira. Many of them are huge variants of familiar things - a dandelion with foot-long leaves, buttercups whose leaves are the size of water-lily pads, the heather trees already mentioned. It is incredibly lush, and the smells are amazing. We were completely unbothered by insects, and the birds were inquisitive and bold. Oh - and I learned how to make a fantastically annoying bird-whistle using the inner part of a montbretia leaf. I can't wait for summer to do it again...