I am blessed to have biological heritage that originates from the ‘paradise on earth’ that they call ‘Madeira’. Despite growing up in an English family aged ten, I was also aware of my Portuguese roots and throughout my childhood years had traveled to Madeira until my passport was destroyed by my stepmother, but that’s a half a decade battle for ‘citizen status’ that I wont go into right now.Still I digress; it might not be a ‘ravers haven’ and you’re more likely to go ‘hiking’ than partying but for someone like myself who prefers swimming in the sea or long mountain hikes to getting rat arse drunk, it’s little wonder that I have so much love for my parents homeland. One of the best places to live in Portugal, Madeira is a teal mecca of natural swimming pools, lush mountain valleys and basalt sand beaches that are teeming in uniqueness.
Founded in 1419 alongside its ‘partner island’ Porto Santo (1418) by the Portuguese navigators Tristão Vaz Teixeira, Bartolomeu Perestrelo and João Gonçalves Zarco, Madeira’s capital city Funchal became a mandatory port of call for European trade routes. Largely due to its abundance in agricultural crops such as sugar cane and exportation of ‘white gold’ to all of Europe, Madeira was a reputable trading partner, although like many European colonies its history is marred with slave labor, whose ‘free labor’ contributed to the growth of the Portuguese ‘Crown’, which ended in 1910. Despite its less than ideal ‘founding principles’, Madeira’s presence in the food and drink sector, including its ‘world famous’ wine, made it a popular exporting ‘point of call’ during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Although Madeira was prevalent in the trading community, it was not until the 19th and 20th century that Madeira was used as a ‘tourist destination’ which was largely due to Funchal’s construction of an airport to accommodate visitors.
Today Madeira receives 1.7 million visitors per year, making it the fifth most visited Portuguese ‘tourist destination’ after Lisbon (6.3 Million), Porto and Northern Portugal (4.4 Million), the Algarve (4.2 Million) and Central Portugal (3.2 Million). Not bad considering that Madeira is a small volcanic Archipelago with an estimated population of 267,785 (2011). Even more surprisingly despite being the fifth most visited place in Portugal, it is the second richest Portuguese economy after Lisbon. But why should you visit Madeira when the beauty of more exotic destinations like the Caribbean beckons?
- To Document The Breathtaking Natural Swimming Pools & ‘Lava Pools’ In Porto Moniz
Porto Moniz is a small municipality, located west of Santana and Machico and Northwest of Funchal. While Porto Moniz is famed for its breathtaking parishes and religious buildings, more famously it is has been canonized in Maderian culture for its complex ‘natural lava pools’, which in some cases have been transformed into ‘natural swimming pools’. Unlike the south of the island, temperatures are cooler and winds often ‘vehement’ but this only adds to the beauty of the lava pools, creating ‘white cloud river’ formations that appear to be quite literally frothing at the ‘mouth’. I remember the last time I went to Madeira 5 years ago and how excited I was to see the ‘natural swimming’ pools. However the weather was wild and temperamental and within 15 minutes, the flag turned from green to red, as the lava pools got caught up in the wild western winds.
Despite the ‘wild weather’ just capturing the natural beauty of the lava pools, gives you an insight into a new world, where technology ceases to exist and a beautiful chaos runs rampant. Of course the winds make Porto Moniz ideal for experienced surfers but I would recommend a trip to the natural swimming pools as opposed to ‘surfing’. Naturally for those who ‘visit’ with children, there may be concerns regarding safety, which is why I recommend a visit to the Piscinas Naturais do Porto Moniz, which has been altered for public use and costs €1.50. For those who describe themselves as ‘thrill seekers’, the unaltered Ilheu Mole black basalt rock pools creates the most beautiful artistic photos but be careful not to fall in!
Speaking of Porto Moniz…
2. To Discover Madeira’s Levada Hike’s Throughout The Island
While Porto Moniz is a relatively small town, it also boasts Madeira’s most beautiful ‘levada’- Levada da Ribeira da Janela. For those who are new to the concept of a ‘levada’, essentially it is an irrigation channel or aqueduct that were built in the Sixteenth Century to bring large amounts of water to the ‘drier’ South-East of The Island. Today the levadas are not only an important source of water, but they also provide hydro-electric power and remain a popular tourist destination. While more dangerous or ‘thrilling’ levadas like Levada Caldeirão do Inferno and Levada Do Norte are popular among hikers, for those who crave a more flat terrain should visit Levada da Ribeira da Janela which begins in Lamaceiros, Porto Moniz.
Your path will follow Madeira’s longest river ‘Riberia Da Janela, from the springs in Rabacal and will take you through a 7-8 hour walk through waterfalls, African Lilies and Hydrangeas, as well as ‘rock basalt caves’ abandoned churches and bird song. Not to mention that nature lovers will love that the walk enters through Europe’s oldest and biggest Laurel Forest. Easily the most beautiful Levada, ensure you pack food, hiking boots and waterproof clothing as the cave ‘tunnels’ can get quite slippery!
Another levada route I would recommend is Pico Ruivo Do Paul Da Serra, which ends at Pico Ruivo, the highest peak of the island and can only be reached by ‘foot’. Unlike Riberia Da Janela which is famed for its ‘lush vegetation’ and ‘wet’ terrains, Pico is mostly dry, with brittle bracken and beige rock formations before leading you to the beauty that is the ‘Janela Valley’, where the ‘levada water system is sourced’.
Other notable Levada Routes: Rabacal-Madeira’s most popular Lavada, Queimadas – Laurisilva’s Tropical Rain Forest, Kings-situated in the Lush Valleys of Sao Jorge and ‘Nun’s Valley’ in Curral Das Freiras, where my biological mum is from.
3.To Tour Its Breathtaking Botanical Gardens
As someone who appreciates natural beauty, Funchal’s very own Botanical Garden in Quinta do Bom Sucesso immerses you in wildlife, history and breathtaking landscaped gardens. There are five main areas to visit:Indigenous and endemic- which contains over 100 plants from Madeira, Azores and Cape Verde, The ‘Tree Garden’ containing ‘trees from ‘ecologically opposed areas of the earth’, like the Himalaya and the Tropics,Succulents from South America, Tropical/Cultivated plants like papaya and sugar cane and Loiro Park, home to rare and exotic birds like dwarf parrots.
The entrance fee is €3 per person, children under 4 are free, and children 4 – 12 years of age pay half price. To get there, you can take the cable car ( Teleferico) from Monte which will cost €7.75 including entrance ticket.
For those who are a fan of Japanese gardens, then ‘Monte Palace’s’ Tropical Garden will be sure to tickle your fancy. Curated by Jose Berardo and open to the public since 1991, Monte Palace not only features Portugal’s most important tile collection, but it also features Koi fishes, which come from East Asia and are considered to be extremely valuable. After Berardo’s trip to Japan and China, he added two oriental gardens, Buddhist sculptures, mythological animals to act as ‘guardians to the temples’ and iron structure chronicling the social, political and economical relationship between Portugal and Japan.
Entrance Fee is €10 and children under 15 go FREE!
Other Reccomended Gardens: Quinta das Cruzes-last residence of the discoverer of Madeira, João Gonçalves Zarco, Jardim of Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro-private gardens owned by ‘The Blandy Family’ and Santa Luzia’s Public Gardens- open to the public.
4. To Take Part In Madeira’s Infamous Festivals
While many of Madeira’s festivals are religious or pagan festivals, August is renowned as its ‘season of wine’. Queue Madeira’s Wine Festival (27th August to 10th September); The festival begins in the village of Câmara de Lobos with the actual picking of the grapes, the pickers’ parade, the treading of the grapes and other related traditions that are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Entrenched in ‘folkloric traditions’ this festival features traditional folk dancing, light and sound effects as well as wine and food tasting sessions.
For those who appreciate religious festivals (Madeira is Roman Catholic), Monte Festival (14-15th August) is one of the largest on the island.Pilgrims take part in a procession to the church, with the streets covered in flowers, while Nossa Senhora do Monte Church is beautifully decorated with flowers in honour of Our Lady of the Monte, the patron saint of Funchal city.
While the summer festivals are a lot of fun my own personal favourites are Festa dos Compadres – Santana (January) and Madeira Flower Festival (May). Festa dos Compadres is a 50 year old festival that marks the start of ‘carnival season’. Held in Santana, the town celebrates the occasion with a parade of decorated floats, troupes in traditional costumes and musical entertainment. Actors perform comic sketches about social and political issues, while giant figurines (usually political) are publicly ridiculed, judged and cheerfully burned in the spirit of the carnivelesque, which takes delight in the ‘grotesque’. Best of all are Madeira’s infamous gastronomic specialities which include ‘espetada’ (large garlic beef skewers rubbed in salt and garlic) and bolo do caco (a round bread that is often served with garlic butter and Portugal’s ‘Prego Steak Sandwich), but don’t worry there will be more on food later!
On the other hand Madeira’s Flower Festival is a perfect demonstration of what Madeira is all about;community, natural beauty and friendship. Every year two weeks after Easter the ‘flower festival makes it way through Funchal’s city centre with colourful flower floats as you can see below. I have been lucky enough to have witnessed a few of the flower parades myself and while the floats themselves are stunning it is the ‘wall of hope’ in Praça do Município that is the most inspiring. Made entirely out of flowers, the ‘wall of hope’ symbolizes Maderian’s desires and dreams which is then documented in time. There are also flower carpets, folklore performances and classical music concerts.
5. To Explore The Caves of São Vicente & Find Some Surprises Along The Way…
Situated in Sao Vicente, the volcanic cave formations and Volcanic centre takes you through an enthralling insight into the islands ‘beginnings’. But the biggest surprise is before you enter the ‘caves’, which you guessed it features breathtaking floral and fauna gardens, plus you might even meet a little lizard friend like I did below! Complimented by charming cottages, entrance to the Volcanic Center and ‘caves’ is €8 for adults.The São Vicente Caves were formed 890 thousand years ago by a volcanic eruption and were first discovered in 1885 by locals. After being opened to the public in 1996, tourists can enjoy a 1,000 m underground route running through the caves before a visit to the Volcano Center. Featuring educational and audio visual displays that simulate the birth of the Madeira islands and an eruption of a volcano, the Volcano centre is a treat that all the family can enjoy!
6. To Taste Its Gastronomical Delights
Madeira is renowned for being somewhat of a ‘foodie haven’; from its fresh seafood inspired dishes to popular pastries, there is something for everyone. Some common dishes include Bacalhau com late (salted and dried Cod with potatoes and creamy milk), Espada com Accorda (Black Swordfish with bread soup) and picado (small pieces of beef fried with garlic in a pan, sometimes with the addition of red peppers, served in one big dish surrounded by French fries). As a vegetarian however my own preferential dishes include Milho frito (delicious deep-fried cubes of cornmeal ), salted pimpinela (choka, similar to cucumber) with large tomato slices and lettuce, doused in olive oil and vinagerette and Caldo verde (cabbage soup which is normally made with Chorizo but can be made without). While the main courses are delightful, in my eyes it is the Portuguese deserts that make the tastiest delights (although some argue that its alcohol is the most influential).
My own personal favourite Portuguese deserts include bolo de mel (made from dark sugar cane molasses and laced with nuts and sultana), broa de mel ( round treacle and cinnamon biscuits) and pastel de nata (Egg Custard Tart, although not exclusive to Madeira). For some Madeirenese, it is their alcohol that tourists are most attracted to. From its self-titled rich and fortified Madeira wine to Nikkita ( made with vanilla ice cream mixed first with pineapple juice, and then sugar and beer-my personal favourite), right through to Poncha (traditional alcoholic drink made with Aguardente de cana which is distilled alcohol made from sugar cane juice, honey. sugar, lemon and lemon juice)they sure know how to drink!
7. To Visit Its Renowned Viewpoints and Geological Formations
From Ponto De Sol to Cabo Girao, Madeira’s viewpoints are quite unlike anything you have seen before. Cabo Girao’s viewpoint features a popular skywalk which suspends you over vertiginous view of the fajãs of Rancho and Cabo Girão – small areas of cultivated land at the foot of the cliff – as well as magnificent panoramic views over the ocean and the municipalities of Câmara de Lobos and Funchal. Receiving over 1,800 visitors a day, Cabo Girao also has a nearby souvenir shop where you can buy straw wine baskets, bolo de mel and more. Ponto De Sol however is a small municipality in the southwestern coast of the island, which has secret walking trails through bracken and basalt, overlooking churches, distant stretches of sea and Levada Do Moinho. A fairly easy walking trail, you will traipse through well cultivated farmland, endemic flora and fauna and waterfalls.
9. To Immerse Yourself In Traditional Customs And Get A Glimpse Into Madeira’s Past
Despite being a relatively new country in comparison to England, Madeira’s history is nevertheless intriguing. From its cultural and political importance as an importer of ‘sugar’ , whine and wheat during the 14th-17th Century, to reclaiming its status as an ‘independent island’ in 1978, Madeira’s past is laced with success. Now Madeira has its own Flag and government but what is really interesting is its folkloric traditions, which are most present during festivals that mark ‘agricultural importance’ throughout the year.
Young and old will come together dressed in a rich yellow and red vivid ‘folk costume’, complete with a pinched cap and botachas (boots), made from tanned cow skin and adorned with red ribbon. While the costume can differ in accordance to region and gender, the costume is often used in folkloric parades and even ‘traditional dances’ like “bailinho”. Bailinho is a dance accompanied by voices and music and the well-known “challenges”, where two singers alternately improvise lyrics of social satire nature. The typical dances range between the “chamarrita”, the “charamba”, the “mourisca” and the “bailinho das camacheiras”.
Dances and parades are often full of emotion, conveying the island’s pastoral traditions, love for its people, as well as documenting tragedies during its time on earth. Common dance customs include ‘treading of the grapes’ to mark its importance as a distributor of wine and ‘head down’ which problematically represents the time of slavery, where slaves would bow down to its master. Admittedly the tradition of ‘bowing your head’ to represent slavery is a dance tradition that should be emitted but nevertheless still a powerful dance to behold. Common instruments used include the “rajão”, the “braguinha”, the fiddle, the wire guitar, the accordion, the triangle and the traditional “brinquinho”, locally made.
10. To Experience the Beauty Of Island Hopping
While Madeira is a beautiful gem, its surrounding islands are just as beautiful and are easily accessible by ferry, boat or plane! Its three main ‘sister islands’ are ‘Porto Santo’, Desertas Islands and Selvagens Islands . Unlike Madeira, Porto Santo is a relatively ‘dry and flat terain’ and relies almost entirely on its tourism income, due to being a small island. Featuring a breathtaking white sand landscape with crystal blue waters, Porto Santo is regularly voted as being a Top 5 ‘Portuguese Beach’. Although Porto Santo does have a golf course, a series of bars and restaurants, churches and museums, it is the white sand beach that attracts the tourists. The other two islands however are deserted, savage islands that are both reputed for its ‘marine’ and wildlife that are protected by the National Geographic society.
Desertas is a small archipelago, in the Macaronesia region of the Atlantic Ocean and has been constituted as a nature reserve since 1990 to protect a colony of 20 Mediterranean monk seals. While explorers attempted to colonize Desertas in the past, its only inhabitable island -Deserta Grande- , failed to colonize due to the impracticality of ‘communal agriculture’ , thus it is only visited by geologists and boaters. To visit you can book a Ventura do Mar Sailing Tour, which for €80 (£53), you get lunch, drinks and a donation to the Monk Seals Project, as well as a one day tour to the island. Similarly Selvagens was turned into a nature reserve in 1971, recognizing its role as a very important nesting point for several species of birds including Cory Shearwaters. For birdwatchers Selvagens is an ideal visit and can be obtained through Ventura do Mar. You may also have sightings of dolphins, whales and Selvagens Gecko Tarentola boettgeri bischoffi, which can be found throughout the island. Unlike Desertas however, Selvagens is not cheap and costs €1100 for a six day tour. However, it includes meals, insurance, licenses, taxes, fuel and snorkeling equipment.
Have You Ever Been To Madeira Before? If Not What Would You Do?