Since becoming Mayor of Bridgwater, Diogo Rodrigues has not only dragged the role into the 21st century, he’s transformed how Town Councillors interact with the public, engaged with young, old and inbetweeners alike and broadcast the fame of Bridgwater around the globe. The boy from Madeira has done a good job, and to top off his year he took a small Bridgwater delegation back to the island in the sun from whence he came. Plus, a backpack full of Bridgwater tourism brochures.
And I went with him. On Madeira they constantly told us how they’d won ‘best island in the world’ awards on numerous occasions. As someone who had grown up on Anglesey I wanted to check out this claim…….
Sub Tropical Paradise
But Madeira truly is a sub-tropical mid Atlantic paradise, nearer in fact to Africa than to mainland Europe, and with a climate to suit.
So, we went in February.
Our delegation included Diogo as Mayor, myself as Council Leader, Ana Luisa and Milene from the Somerset Portuguese Association plus Tim Mander and Julie Cooper from Sedgemoor District Council. In Europe, councils tend to pay for these trips and have sizeable budgets to encourage international links. In Britain we do things differently. So, we paid for ourselves. Which is right, and proper, and British. But luckily, not that expensive.
You can fly by Easyjet to Madeira from Bristol quite cheaply. It takes about 3 hours and the good news is that when you get there you’re still in the same time zone…..although, now, somewhat overdressed.
A Volcanic Plug
Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal (so we’re still in the EU) and has a population a third the size of Somerset. The capital, and lets face it, only city, Funchal, is about the size of Exeter. The runway at the airport is , lets say, ‘bijou’, and had an extension put on it because an aeroplane once fell off the end.
The island was a volcano. That means it’s one big shout out into the sky so everything is up or down. Nothing is flat. Even Christiano Ronaldo is said to have developed his particular skills because he had to run up and down a mountain several times a day on his way to the one football pitch situated precariously on a ledge. Check out his calf muscles for evidence.
This means that the roads are windy, small, tight and inevitably full of coaches hurtling towards you at every bend. Our own minibus had a massive slab of concrete tied into the back of it, presumably for recreating that final scene from ‘The Italian Job’ where the bus hangs over a cliff and they have to rescue it.
One day we went to the very top of the island. Where they have a military base and a radar system. We were literally above the clouds and it even started to get a bit chilly. So we hurtled back downwards to the beaches, quaint old townships and cliffs apparently higher even than the ones in County Clare (which are the highest in Europe) (ok, apart from these).
Now Who Was That Football Chappie? Eusebio??
So where to start? Landing at the airport our feet had hardly touched the tarmac and we’d barely had the chance to worship the first statue of Ronaldo, than we were met by the enigmatic Goncalo Santos, who was there to welcome us (well, Diogo) on behalf of the Madeiran Government. And he stayed with our group regaling us with facts, figures, anecdotes and tales of his own life experiences throughout the journey.
We were whisked up the side of a cliff (well, the main street in Funchal) to the Hotel Monte Carlo – straight away with British connections as it was where many women and children from Gibraltar were evacuated to during world war 2. So quaint that it didn’t really have any disabled access, but it did have a splendid terrace with spectacular views over the whole of Funchal below it,
Madeira is of course a major wine producer, so our first stop was Henriques & Henriques the Madeira wine company. A few drinks – well, I’m not sure why they put a spittoon in front of us but I wasn’t spitting any out – and maybe not the best time to visit the highest cliffs in Europe. But we did.
In the afternoon it was the first of many receptions by one of many Madeiran Mayors, all of who wanted a piece of the Diogo action. Dr Pedro Coelho from the Parish of Lobos had us all round to the Lobos city council. Well, the restaurant next door. And shortly after that it was down to the Ronaldo museum- which his brother Hugo had opened. High on the hill was the bluest house in the poorest area where the famous ball kicker himself grew up. Right next to the massive mountain that he used to run up.
Viva El Presidente!
The next day we were guests at the presidential palace and received by the actual President of Madeira. Diogo had already met Dr Miguel Albuquerque at an event at the Portuguese embassy in London and so was already a celebrity as Britain’s first Portuguese born Mayor – yet another first for Bridgwater. Also there were journalists who all wanted to interview Diogo. Meanwhile I kept up a relentless routine of slipping Bridgwater tourism brochures into the hands of anyone who asked ‘and so, what is this ‘Bridgwater’ of which you speak?’
For lunch we met up with the actual tourism and culture secretary Paula Cabaco, who was immediately sold on the possibilities of links with Bridgwater ‘home of carnival’ . Madeira has its own carnival tradition – and one which was more ‘Brazilian’ in style. But there was a connection immediately. Diogo worked his magic and plans for co-operation were initiated.
Drinking rum and well, more rum..
The next day we visited a working sugar cane mill. The main product appeared to be a delicious rum. I immediately pretended to be an expert. And was given a bottle. Which prepared me for the visit to the home of literary giant (well, in Madeira) John Dos Passos. A contemporary of Hemingway and anarcho-socialist revolutionary of note (until he changed his politics) an immediate Bridgwater connection sprang up. Little known to even the staff at his home/museum. One photo on one wall showed him being arrested at the trial in the USA of Sacco and Vanzetti (the socialists persecuted by the state of Massachusetts back in the 1920s for their trade union activities). They were tried and imprisoned in Bridgewater, Mass. Bet no one else spotted that one!
But right next door to Dos Passos’s house they had an art centre which regularly hosted shows by visiting artistes and a stones throw away was the beautiful beach of Ponta Do Sol with its crashing waves.
On the cliffs above was a massively expensive modern art gallery. I think we were the only people in there. But well worth it for the stunning coastal views.
Counter Tourism Unit
And it wasn’t far until the next Mayoral meet up. This time Dr Carlos Teles from the Parish of Calheta and several of his councillors all keen to meet the local boy made good and his ‘fellowship of the ring’ entourage thrusting yet more Bridgwater tourism brochures into their mits extolling the virtues of Quayside Festivals, Engine Rooms and Art Centres, Mercure hotels, Green Olives and water based breaks on the Bridgwater-Taunton canal. Of which they could only dream…..
That evening we met the Funchal Boy Three. Well, the organisers of the Municipal choir of Funchal. Dr Jose Julio had taken his singers all around Europe. And so had we. Well, not HIS singers, OUR singers. The Bridgwater based Voice of the People choir came with us every year to a different European country, sang with their choirs and often invited them back. Dr Jose was delighted to have the opportunity to welcome a Bridgwater choir to Madeira in the Autumn and immediately set about making plans. Alongside him sat Dr Sandra Nobrega, the head of Culture and Tourism Division and luckily responsible for the Baltazar Dias Theatre…which seemed like a good place to put on a show.
Homecoming Mayors got a Tourism Brochure
Saturday was Diogos day of triumphal homecoming. His family had lived in the parish of Camacha in the district of Santa Cruz (a similar population to Bridgwater at 40,000) and had left for England to find work. Which they did, in the restaurant business, first in Essex and then in Somerset. Diogo’s ancestors worked on the wicker, and this was still in evidence in Camacha where a living working museum was our first port of call. Mayor of Camacha , Pedro Fernandes, showed us round enthusiastically and even demonstrated the wicker weaving himself.
Camacha has another claim to fame. On the slightly flat town centre recreational space a large wall declares that this was the first place where football was played in Portugal, introduced by British sailors from off a visiting ship in 1875 (doubtless looking everywhere for any flat bit of grass where the ball didn’t either roll down a hill or into a volcano). A return match beckons!
We sat down in the Town Hall at Camacha , where the council had recently saved the local post office by opening it up in one of its side rooms. We discussed co-operation. We thought it would be great for Bridgwater and Camacha to twin. Portugal was Englands oldest ally after all (dating back to 1373 -and I say England because Scots will tell you that their ‘aulde alliance’ with France dates back to 1295) and Diogo was Britains first Portuguese born Mayor of course.
Mission accomplished and off back home for some of us, while Diogo himself stayed on a few more days meeting even more high flying celebrities such as Dr Paulo Cofofo, the President of Funchal and, for balance, the opposition candidate for the upcoming Presidential elections.
Bridgwater has 5 twins towns. La Ciotat in France, Homberg in Germany, Uherske Hradiste in the Czech Republic, Marsa in Malta and Priverno in Italy, all with active exchanges enriching and benefiting the lives of the people of Bridgwater and our partners.
This week the Town Twinning Forum voted to add Camacha, Madeira to that list.
Well done Diogo.
The boy done good.