This is an interview article with guest Maria Luisa Balacco, better known as Vera, who is an SEO translator from Russian and English into Italian. We met at Nomad Island Fest in December 2023, where she was volunteering and I was a speaker and attendee.

Vera and I discussed her experience as a digital nomad in Madeira, Portugal, a growing hotspot for remote workers. She shared what she and others consider to be the appeal of Madeira, including its favourable work environment, beautiful scenery, and welcoming locals. She also talked about her experiences with co-living spaces in Madeira and the role of community managers in organising events for nomads on the island.

Interview

Toks: Could you tell me a bit about your background story – where you’re from, who you are, what you do, and why you moved to Madeira?

Vera: So I’m Vera. I’m from the South of Italy, and most of my life I have always liked to travel since I was a student. That’s also why I studied languages – because I like to travel, discover new cultures and so on. 

Vera at Funchal Azulejos. Photo Credit: Vera Balocco

So basically when I started my career as a translator, after my studies, I just found out then, in my hometown in the South of Italy, I was lucky to be able to work from there from home since in my area, many people have to move somewhere else for better job opportunities. I was one of the lucky ones who could still live there and work from home. But it still was quite alienating, and also a monotonous routine, because I didn’t have many things to do in my free time outside my place. I experienced the COVID period when I was finishing university, but honestly, even after COVID, there wasn’t so much difference. Yeah, professionally speaking, not, but socially speaking was kinda the same. 

So I was following some Italian content creators. They were already travelling as digital nomads, and they were sharing this lifestyle on their channels. Also, they were describing how you can easily meet fellow travellers and work together from the same place, coworking in shared houses. I was curious about that. So I just started typing “coliving” in the Google search engine to find out more. Coliving spaces in Europe were affordable for me. 

My first travel as a digital nomad working remotely was in May 2022 in the Azores, Portugal, because it was the first space I found. However, it wasn’t really a coliving, so I don’t consider it my first coliving experience, because it was simply a shared house with coworking, but I loved the island. 

So months later after summer, I decided to travel again to Portugal and this time I went to Ericeira. If you don’t know, it’s a famous surf spot near Lisbon. I really liked that vibe in the surf house and working with other people from there. They were also tourists, as it was September, which is still the high season – in October, it was more quiet. 

After that, I decided to try out the Canary Islands since they are quite famous for working remotely from. Here, I tried my second coliving space on the island of Lanzarote where I received the suggestions to go to Madeira because I was telling people, “I don’t know where to go next from summer onwards, but I would love to work again from Portugal.” They suggested to me Madeira, not just to experience coliving life, but mostly for the community that was there that was quite organised. And so even outside these safe spaces colivings where it’s easy to make friends with your housemates, you could also meet other travellers quite easily. So I was curious about this community thing. 

Toks: Do you mean the community that’s not inside the coliving, but one that’s just across Madeira Island? 

Vera: Yes. What they explained to me is that basically, they were community managers in more than one location on the island. They were organising events for the nomads to meet and gather.

I went there in mid-June for the first time and overall I spent 8 months on the island, and in the end, I tried out all three locations. So my first one was Machico, where I stayed for a little bit more than two weeks in a house there. That was the first suggestion that I received actually, and is where I met the first community manager, Dina. 

After that, I went to Ponta Do Sol, which is the most famous location for the concept of the first Nomad village in Europe. There, I stayed in a coliving space, but I also met other people who were in other houses nearby in Ponta Do Sol. 

Then in September, I moved to Funchal where I lived until the end of my stay. In Funchal, you’ll find the biggest community of nomads, in my opinion, because it’s also the main city of Madeira. It’s where all the infrastructures and the services are as it’s the biggest city on the island, so that’s why most of the people live here. It’s easier than to move around and so on. 

So the community managers of Ponta Do Sol are Gonçalo and Catarina. They also manage the Banana House Coliving. In Funchal, the community managers there are Luis and Marelin.

Vera at Machico Valley. Photo Credit: Vera Balocco

Toks: Okay, that sounds really interesting. Was Banana House the only coliving that you stayed at in Madeira?

Vera: Yes, it was the only coliving space I tried! So I spent two months in this coliving space: July and August. I could have also spent one extra month, but no more than that because they have the rule to spend a maximum of three months and a minimum one-month stay. Also, you have to arrive on the first of the month and stay until the last day of the month. Well, you can also arrive a bit later but they still charge you full price. Though, some people spend three months there, then one month somewhere else, and then they come back. You can also do that. In my opinion, though, three months is more than enough. Even two were enough!

Toks: I can understand that rule. I know some colivings require a minimum length of stay, and you have everyone move in on the same day and leave on the same day. Is this just to help them get to know each other better, rather than people just coming in and out?

Vera: Yeah, the concept is that. Well, in the two months I was there, there were still very different groups that completely changed, but it still depends on who you meet. Like, the group of July wasn’t so united and close as the August one. I was also lucky that after August when I left, some of those housemates were still around the island until Christmas. So we managed to meet up at that time. But yeah, it still depends on the people who you meet. So even if you spend a lot of time together and do many things together, it’s not obvious that you will be best friends forever after that.

So honestly, even being in this coliving, there were still the activities of the community that you could join. In that case, Gonçalo and Catarina also manage the coliving when they are not in Madeira because often they’re outside Madeira to follow their projects and other communities that they’re creating around Europe. Now they are also in Brazil. They delegate their role as community managers to someone else. So it’s a project that goes on even without them being there in person. 

So the main activities that you find, not only in Ponta Do Sol but also in Machico and Funchal, are the community lunches once per week. Across the three Madeira communities, they happen on different days of the week, so technically if you wanted to and you had a car, you could join all the community lunches 3 days a week. 

Also, they organise the community workout in Ponta Do Sol twice per week, and in Funchal, it’s every Saturday. In Machico, at the moment you have to pay a small fee for it, if I recall correctly. Both in Machico and Funchal, you also have the community meetup once per week, when you simply gather in a local bar. In Ponta do Sol, they don’t organise it because it’s quite a small community.

Then Ponta Do Sol has famous organisers of the Purple Fridays party that happens almost every Friday, and the name of it is because the sunsets in Ponta Do Sol are usually purple. I don’t really see them always purple, but pink – yes, quite often. I prefer it in summer because the daylight is longer and the sunset happens later. So when you go to the party that starts around 7:30pm, if you go early, you can enjoy the sunset and go slow into the mood. Now that it’s winter, and even from September, you miss the sunset because it happens earlier. The nice thing is that it’s not just a party with electronic music. So even if you don’t really like electronic music, I think it’s worth going at least once, first of all, because it’s free, and if you’re not located in Ponta Do Sol, there is the free shuttle from Funchal. And also because it’s a good way to meet new people since all the nomads from the island are there. You speak and you have a drink, even if you don’t really like to dance or listen to electronic music. 

Also, people from the community can propose to organise further activities. There is one guy who organises salsa and Bachata classes. In Funchal, they also do their social dance every Saturday. Also, other members organise meditation circles, or other activities related to spirituality. You can also join workshops in the coworking spaces. In Ponta Do Sol, there is free coworking in the village that is available for everyone. In Funchal, you have paid coworking spaces, but they also organise workshops that are donation-based or free, and during the day of this workshop you can also work from the coworking space for free – this is Sangha Cowork. In Machico, they used to have a beautiful coworking at the sandy beach of the town, but they had problems with the owner. They are still working to put it back there because at the moment it is quite off-road, so it is more difficult to reach.

Funchal Old Town. Photo Credit: Vera Balocco

Toks: That’s a lot of good information, especially about the community managers. So, how did you find Banana House Coliving? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Vera: I would recommend it if you’re a bit lazy in finding accommodation. I mean, it’s a safe choice because you just book it. You can see in just one month if you like it. Okay, I don’t think you need to figure out if you like Madeira because everyone would like Madeira Island – it’s a beautiful place to be. But it’s good to see if you like the vibe on the island because what I also noticed is that sometimes it’s a different target of people that you have. Like, the first time, I saw all these workouts and activities that didn’t really fit me. However, it’s a safe choice just to be there. Enjoy a quiet life in a village with just a few streets, few restaurants and not that many options. But if you enjoy a quiet life with the pebble beach that is reachable within walking distance, and maybe after you can look for another accommodation if you want to see more on the island. 

It’s a very good house. It’s also in the very centre of the village, because it’s a very small village, so most of the houses are far away from the centre. Banana House is the perfect location to enjoy the free coworking space and live the experience of the community in Ponta Do Sol. The venue of Purple Fridays is very close, in a beautiful hotel that you can see and enjoy even just for a drink or to use the facilities they have. The beach is reachable by walking distance. 

But personally, I prefer Funchal because it’s a proper city. After a while, I got tired of village life. This is my personal opinion. Funchal is a proper city with everything. So Ponta Do Sol is different, but it’s still worth giving it a try. Every time I go back to Ponta Do Sol, I recall many nice memories.

Toks: Okay, that sounds good. So did you move to Funchal because it was like a city but also you wanted your own space in your own apartment? 

Vera: Yes, both of those reasons. Coliving life after a while is a bit too intense for me. Even if you join all the events of the community that can happen almost every day, it is still a busy life. 

I was looking for my own space and I prefer honestly to be in a city. Also here in Madeira in general, outside Funchal, you always need a car to do literally everything. The downside of Ponta Do Sol is that you don’t have a proper grocery store. So even for that, you need to take a car and go to the closest town. You have the mini market at the gas station, they have food, but of course, it’s overpriced because it’s a gas station. Every Saturday morning, they also have the farmers market but with a few options. So being in Banana House, we had a shared car for all of us in the house. But here in Funchal, I can just walk to the supermarket. 

Toks: That must be very convenient. Okay, how easy was it to find your apartment? Like, what platform or what way did you find it?

Vera: I think I’m a bit of an exception to finding a long-term room in an apartment – I shared an apartment with a Portuguese girl because she wrote in the Slack channel. I forgot to mention earlier, that there is a Slack channel for all the community, location and activities of digital nomads in Madeira. It’s great if you don’t like WhatsApp groups because there are so many WhatsApp groups. You have all the channels on Slack literally for anything, not just the announcement of the activities by the community managers, but also for activities like salsa, yoga, and lifts, and there is also the accommodation channel. And someone wrote that there was this room available when I was still in Banana House. It was a very good price in a good location, so I reserved it from September onwards.

Otherwise, you can ask for help in that accommodation channel, asking “Do you know if there is a free room for these days?” Or contact the community managers and they will help you. Marelin and Luis put always a lot of effort into helping foreign people find accommodation in Funchal!

Toks: Is this a Slack channel that’s run by the Madeira community managers that you mentioned?

Vera: Yeah, it’s the Slack channel where everyone takes a look. It’s easier to read because it’s just for announcements. In WhatsApp groups, there are so many messages all the time. In a Slack channel, it’s easier to read just the main topic of the announcement.

Toks: I agree with you actually, that a lot of people like to use WhatsApp. I feel like Slack is better though because it’s more organised – you can have more different categories of chats.

Vera: Let’s say, you open it just if you’re really interested.

Toks: Yep. You mentioned before as well that this community helps you find accommodation. So is it just through that Slack channel, or do they have another way that they can help you find an apartment or somewhere to stay in Madeira?

Vera: As far as I know, if people struggle with finding accommodation, they simply contact the community managers because you have their contacts on the website. It’s quite easy to understand. So they simply contact them because they manage some real estate. 

Yes, of course, it’s easier to still ask in the Slack channel because maybe some nomads are leaving, so you can replace them.

Vera pictured amongst the volunteer and staff team at Nomad Island Fest 2023. Photo Credit: The Nomad Escape

Toks: Yeah, that sounds good, because I imagine it can be hard to find apartments, so it’s good to have that help. OK, we were both at Nomad Island Fest, and I’m wondering how you found out about that and why you decided to get involved with volunteering at the Nomad Island Fest.

Vera: As I mentioned so far, in several communication channels of Madeira and WhatsApp groups, The Nomad Escape organisers posted that they were looking for volunteers. This was in October when they posted about it. I was interested since I was already on the island just to live a different experience. Also, I was a volunteer in the past for some events, such as the association called Erasmus Student Network. They are also in the UK, even though not very spread out. I’ve been a volunteer for them for three years, organising events for the Erasmus students. So I thought, “I can be a volunteer in this Nomad Island Fest event.” Also, I liked the concept that you were also a participant like everyone else after your shift of duties. 

After my application, they arranged the call just to know each other better. We met in person with the team of volunteers twice before the event to get to know each other better – everyone who was already on the island. Not everyone was already here of course, but we were still a group of 10 people. I enjoyed it because after my shift and during the event, I was basically a participant like everyone else, so it was a good opportunity in my opinion for being already in Madeira. And also I went back to Ponta Do Sol for one week after all this time, so it was a new memory for me in this village, as well.

Toks: Yes, I suppose you had lived there previously, and then you just came back for that event? 

Vera: Yeah, just for that event, to be in the same spot.

Toks: Great! When I went to Nomad Island Fest, I was just a participant the first year, and then the second year, I was a participant and I was also speaking, but I’ve never volunteered. I’m curious – do you think it was a good experience? Would you recommend volunteering at that event?

Vera: Compared to my past volunteering experiences, I was used to doing a lot of work – believe me! Of course, we enjoyed it, but not like the Erasmus students since we had our own responsibility. But it was also a different vibe. So here, of course, it is a professional event organised by professionals – it’s their job. So they just need your help with logistics stuff. Other volunteers were more involved in customer service or content creation, or to help with the meditation sessions that were part of the morning activities of the event. I was involved in just the logistics. So every morning at my shift, they told me what would I need to do according to the schedule. 

Honestly, I like that I could see the event from the background, and I also have the impression that I connected with more people, because I’m the one who knew, not just the participants, but also all the volunteers and the organisers of the event. So it was a way to be in touch with more people. And the ones that are still in Madeira, if I go around, I can easily meet them randomly even if we don’t arrange to meet. It’s more connections on the island that you have.

Funchal Praia Formosa. Photo Credit: Vera Balocco

Toks: Anything else you want to add?

Vera: I can talk more about Madeira, as a location that you can choose as a digital nomad, apart from community and colivings. So in my opinion, it’s an island that has everything, because you have mountains, ocean, and endless spring. And I mean, even during summer it was never too hot. And in winter, sometimes there are some storms because we are in the middle of the ocean, but it’s like an endless spring. 

However, it depends. If you are really keen on sandy beaches and that vibe of beach life, you don’t really have that here. Where I am from in the South of Italy, we mostly have pebble beaches, so for me, I don’t see the real difference. But let’s say, people don’t choose Madeira for the ocean, even though it is not something to be underestimated. Even in summer, all the beaches were never full. You always find your space, there’s always clean water, there are not many waves, and it is never dangerous. It is clean and empty. You will have no issues with this matter. 

Most people choose Madeira for hikes, for the mountains and nature. I’m not even really into hikes, but I still enjoy the island, so everyone can give it a try. 

But if you expect beach life, it’s not there like it is in the Canary Islands. This is a different vibe but it’s still worth giving it a try, in my opinion. The only sandy beaches you find in a few locations in Madeira with its natural black sand, are Praia Formosa in Funchal, Seixal in the north of the island, and Prainha in the East.

Other locations like Machico have imported the sand, and also in Calheta, on the west coast, there is a sandy beach with imported sand. Otherwise in Maderia, mostly it is pebble beaches. 

But for hikes, you have 200 trails to discover, so you will never finish. 

Connect with Vera

Vera’s translation services website: https://veratraduzioni.com

Vera’s Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/veratraduzioni/ 

Digital Nomads Community in Madeira: https://digitalnomads.startupmadeira.eu/

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