Curral das Freiras — Valley of the nuns

On the first day in Funchal, we spend a little too long sorting out the car. We arrived late the night before, so late that the car rental company had closed and locked up by the time we were able to make it to them. Therefore, we spend quite a bit of the morning hanging around waiting and trying to sort a car out. Impatient as I am, it doesn’t take long until restlessness grabs hold of me. When the receptionist in the car rental agency says “we’ll just bring your car around now,” I actually think it means she is about to bring out the car. She is — only that it takes her 20 minutes.

When we eventually are on our way, we head to Curral das Freiras – known as the Valley of the nuns or the Nuns Valley. It is not too far from the capital and we want to make the best of what’s left of the day.

Curral das Freiras is actually at the bottom of a volcanic crater. The name was given to the place in the 16th century when nuns fled there to escape from pirates. On the way there, we drive along eucalyptus woods so I roll down the window to breathe in the smell from the trees. The roads are scarily narrow and throws us one sharp curve after the other along the steep crater walls. The locals have developed a driving rule which goes like this: honk the horn before you extremely speedily make a sharp turn on narrow roads. I think it is a way of “claiming” the road. “I honked, so you better know I am coming at full speed even if you don’t have an x-ray vision that can go through mountain walls!” At one point I simply decide to not look out the window, though I cannot but wonder how the 16th century nuns actually managed to get down here.

We arrive in the valley in time for lunch. I try the local espetada which is beef skewered on a bay leaf stick. It tastes lovely – and is really filling for what is next to come: the climb from the valley, back up the crater wall to the top! But this time by foot!

Before we start the climb, I simply enjoy the view: we are on the upper plateau, and can see down to other plateaus, all locked in from all sides by green and lush, steep mountain wall sides. The valley itself is not particularly large, but I do admire the sheer stubbornness that I am convinced must be a necessity to live in such steep places.

As we start ascending from the valley, it doesn’t take long until I make a rule for myself: don’t look down. And don’t even try to look at the scenery while walking! The path is narrow, and at some points I feel the urge to grab onto something to cross – only there isn’t a whole lot of sturdy things within reach.Though it hasn’t been raining, the ground is still wet. The plants growing on the mountain side are covered in dew from humidity. I am suddenly grateful that I am visiting in winter: in the summer time this walk would be very, very hot, I am sure.

Looking up, we can see the top of the crater penetrating clouds. It feels strange to know that this is where we are heading! Not a big fan of heights, my travel companions inform me that we can turn back if and when I like. But I don’t take them up on their offer because I have realised that turning back is not an option. Going up isn’t too hard. But I cannot imagine getting back down in one piece.

And. We make it to the top. On the way, the green growth becomes more sparse, the lushness fades and we enter the fog. At the top we meet other visitors from Australia: they are wearing their winter coats and scarves as we finally arrive to the top plateau in t-shirts. On the top we are proudly welcomed by a hotel and a shop that sells wines, coffee, post cards, and whatever you can imagine of touristy gimmicks. Still. We have a coffee here while we contemplate getting back down to the Nuns Valley: after all that is where the car is. Our shoes and trainers are wet with slippery soles after the journey up. Oh, and for me there is also the height thing. In addition, it is the time thing.

At the end we call a cab that swiftly drives us back to the Valley of the nuns. New and fancy roads and tunnels takes us there in less than fifteen minutes. (Needless to say, that is not the route we took by foot).


Well worth a visit, especially if you are up for a hike. The guidebooks advise that the hike would take 90 minutes each way, though it took us about an hour including stops. Even if you don’t like walking, there is a nice look-out point on the top of the crater, accessible nearly all the way by car.

Where to eat? In the valley for good and reasonable local food. You can also eat at the restaurant at the top, but the price costs about a third more and you will eat surrounded by souvenirs for sale. The view of flora in the fog is pretty nice, though.

Fog on the top of the crater

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