top of page

The Captain's Tower

“It’s surprising what you discover rooting around the upper echelons of the delightful city of Funchal. ” — David J Whyte

I’ve got a ‘thing’ about discovering tasquinhas, the tavern-style restaurants tucked far away from the touristic trails of Funchal. My mission is mainly alimentary; to sample their ‘Prato da Dia’ or ‘Dish of the Day’ which comes in around €10 including a glass of wine or two and a cup of coffee. What’s not to love for a cost-conscious Scotsman?

‘Sabores do Palheiro’ in the northwest of the city is such a place, a stone’s throw from the ‘Madeira Shopping’ centre. It serves local fayre in a simple decor and with cheery, appreciative-of-your-business staff. Best of all is the price! As we finished a satisfactory lunch, I noticed the gates of the church opposite were open and decided to take a look. We were in for a pleasant surprise!


Santo Amaro Chapel has stood spotless on this spot for over 200 years.

The grounds of ‘Santo Amaro Chapel’ are populated by a diverse group of buildings from distinctly different time periods. A diminutive chapel is the centrepiece. Next to it, a stout block stands out in canary yellow, the remains of an ancient lookout tower. These are both backed by a group of modern buildings coated in terracotta red. It is a colourful combination! Elsa and I set off in different directions to explore the place and I was instantly intercepted by an administrator who seemed keen to show me around. I got the impression she was slightly surprised to be getting visitors.


She took me into the chapel, its interior as bleached as the outside with contemporary, Ikea-type pews that didn’t at all seem in keeping. And not at all comfortable! These faced a sanctuary & alter with a simple white cross and a minimalist statue of ‘Our Lady’ gracing the corner. This was an austere presentation, especially for a Catholic chapel!

The minimalist interior of the chapel is not what you would expect of a Catholic church.

“These tiles are reproductions,” my guide told me pointing at the blue, criss-cross design that helped to break up the nakedness of the room. “There was a fire here in 1989 which practically destroyed the chapel,” she went on. “All the gold filigree decorations melted and were mostly lost.” I could imagine it was once much more ornate than the echoing chamber that faced me now. The only nod to the space’s antiquity was the stone-hewn ‘Collection Boxes’ near the front door, each dedicated to either San Antonio and San Amaro. The devoted would deposit their coins depending on which saint they were backing that week. Two overseers were appointed to open the boxes simultaneously to ensure one didn’t rob the other.


We stepped into the sunshine and across the lawn to a modern gallery where another ‘administrator’ joined us. I presumed these were public servants of the city of Funchal who were thrilled to have some ‘public’ to serve. This was an elongated room with modern gallery lighting picking out the impressively colourful art pieces; a.k.a ‘Momento Zen’. “All of these works are created by children and young adults with learning difficulties,” she told me. “They attend a local facility in Santa Luzia, a sectional parish or ‘freguesia’ of Funchal of which there are 12 and this is part of a 'social inclusion’ programme. It’s a way of getting those kids and young adults into the community and even raise a little money,” she concluded. I was totally impressed!

Finally, Elsa and yet another lady joined us. It felt like we were minor B-list celebrities. “Ah, we spoke a lot with him,” my first guardian chimed. “Our English is not so good but I think he understood something.”


El Capitão Tower, Torre do Capitão or The Captain’s Tower; call it what you will - is all that’s left of a 15th-century tower that linked with forts and lookouts built around Madeira island’s coast to help fend against the French Corsairs or Barbary pirates who plagued these islands not long after their discovery. They’re not sure how many floors would have stood here but at least three to allow a clear view of the ocean and any impending attack. “This military tower goes back to 1452,” our newest escort informed. “This was one of the first houses in Madeira to be built in stone.” You get a sense of the building’s antiquity by the narrow loophole's or cross-shaped apertures that allowed archers to fire on attackers with some protection. I need to learn a lot more of Madeira’s pirate privations but I’ll leave that for another article. We came away feeling fortunate to have discovered a little-known corner of Funchal. If you’ve got a hire car or are visiting the ‘Madeira Shopping’ centre, take a few minutes to cross the street and see what’s on in the gallery and enjoy the chapel and tower. You couldn’t be met by a more enthusiastic team. “We want more people to come,” they almost said collectively as we left.

David J. Whyte


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page