Madeira: Introduction

  • © oma,

    © oma,

Discover Madeira!

The plane banks boldly to take a left above the deep-blue waves, then suddenly turns to the right – and before you know it the wheels are touching the runway. Bem vindo – welcome to Madeira, the green pearl of the Atlantic! Madeira is breathtaking – and that even applies to landing at the airport, which is no longer a dangerous manoeuvre thanks to the extension and widening of the runway.

Sometimes the Ponta de São Lourenço, the barren eastern tip of the island, appears unexpectedly out of the thick clouds to give a memorable first impression of this mountainous volcanic island, which covers an area of almost 800 sq km (310 sq mi). It’s true: Madeira’s eternal spring is not a legend. But mild doesn’t necessarily mean sunny, and there is a good reason why the vegetation is so lush and green. Not only that, but the island, which is only 22 km (14 mi) wide and 57 km (35 mi) long and lies at the same latitude as Casablanca some 900 km (560 mi) from its mother country Portugal, is marked by considerable variation in altitude.

At Pico Ruivo (1862 m, 2040 yds), the highest of Madeira’s weather-beaten lava peaks, the temperature is always much lower than it is down by the coast. A cold wind often blows in the uplands and the exposed peninsulas – a fact emphasised by the numerous wind generators that now produce energy there. The moist trade winds often bring rain to the northern side of the island’s mountains while at the same moment the weather is beautiful on the south side or at lower altitudes.

Madeira’s laurisilva forestis a World Heritage site

As long ago as the 15th century the first settlers took advantage of these geographical conditions by hewing narrow watercourses, levadas, into the rock in order to channel precious water from the rainy mountains to their sugar-cane fields. The levada system functions to this day. Most of today’s channels were made in the second half of the 20th century, usually in association with small hydroelectric plants.

The paths used for maintaining the levadas have become a popular and extensive network of walking trails. Along with the veredas, old cobbled paths, they lead from the coast, which falls steeply into the ocean and is rocky and rugged in many places, to the green heart of the island with its wild gorges and geological formations that are millions of years old. There are superb panoramic views round almost every bend – especially in the northwest, where much of the original laurisilva forest, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage site, has been preserved.

Lava pools and sandy beaches

Whether you like walking or playing golf, hang-gliding, windsurfing or diving, climbing, canyoning or mountainbiking – in terms of sports, Madeira has it all. There are now even beaches of golden sand on this volcanic island – created, admittedly, using sand from Morocco. Until a few years ago the islanders and sun-seeking tourists had to cross to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo if they wanted to build a sandcastle.

Today those who feel like a dip in the Atlantic can decide whether they would rather spend a day on the yellow sandy beach in Calheta or Machico, or enjoy the more traditional beaches of pebbles or black sand, for example in Funchal, or even enter the water by means of ladders in natural lava pools. If you are looking for miles of sand, then Porto Santo is still the best place to go. It’s just a short hop by air or a two-hour crossing by ferry to Madeira’s sister island. Along with the Ilhas Desertas some 30 km (19 mi) to the southeast and the Ilhas Selvagens, which are also  uninhabited and lie approximately 250 km (155 mi) away, these two dissimilar islands make up the Madeiran archipelago.

Kings, emperors and artists came to the island

Madeira’s natural beauty has many sides. There are almost 800 different species of native plants and more than 500 imported species on the island, two thirds of which has been designated a natural park since the 1980s. In its subtropical climate grapes for wine, bananas and a great many other exotic fruits grow extremely well on its terraced fields. In the mountains aromatic wild herbs are to be found, and flowers of all shapes and colours line the serpentine roads.

In the early 19th century, rich English families who had settled on Madeira vied with each other to cultivate the loveliest and most unusual jardins. The island’s famous gardens and parks were thus created around the family estates – and many of them are open to visitors today. It was not long before the British also dominated the Madeiran economy. Under their influence, both the wine trade and tourism prospered. The latter is now – directly or indirectly – the source of earnings for most of Madeira’s 260,000 inhabitants.

Agriculture is becoming less and less important, as many young Madeirans are reluctant to take on arduous work in the terraced fields for poor returns. They prefer to move to the towns, where they work in the tourist business or other jobs in the service sector. For the older generation, too, rural life is hard because the poios, the narrow terraced strips, can usually only be cultivated using hoes and sickles. In the past the farmers personally travelled to the capital by donkey or boat to sell what they harvested, but now purchasers from the cooperatives do the rounds of the villages in their trucks.

As there were hardly any roads on the island for a long time, tourism was mostly restricted to the capital, Funchal. The first tourist boom happened in the late 19th and early 20th century, when emperors, kings and artists all wanted to spend part of the year on the ‘island of flowers’. Many of them were following their doctor’s advice: Madeira’s constant, mild, wet climate was seen as excellent medicine for respiratory complaints, heart disease and ‘nervous disorders’. Empress Elisabeth of Austria was probably the most prominent among those who came to the island in search of recuperation.

The people of Madeira are helpful and willing

In the 21st century, the theme of physical well-being again came to the fore in marketing the island’s benefits. Health, fitness and relaxation are the new buzzwords, and new hotel complexes with spa facilities are springing up everywhere – not only in Funchal. However, so far the island’s only large town has also remained the centre of the tourism industry, which is why Funchal is expanding on all sides of its charming historic centre with an evergrowing belt of modern architecture.

New areas of housing are creeping up the slopes into the mountains, because young people are crowding into the city despite the high rents. This marked spread of settlement in the south of Madeira caused problems in February 2010, when heavy storms turned small mountain streams into swollen, raging torrents. Although the people of Madeira immediately showed their solidarity and helped out, some of the damage will be visible for several years to come.

Alberto João Jardim, the president of the island who has ruled Madeira for more than 30 years as head of the conservative Social Democrats, has shown that he is a man who gets things done – in difficult times as well as good ones. Where some accuse him of being a corrupt opportunist, others praise the indefatigable commitment that he devotes to the development of Madeira. Both locals and visitors benefit from the improvement of infrastructure, which has been financed largely from EU funds that Jardim untiringly applies for.

In this process, economic growth and protection of nature have to be reconciled. Madeira is an archipelago of contrasts: a heavy shower of rain falls – but shortly afterwards the sun is shining from a cloudless sky. Visitors see luxuriant green forests of laurel, but a dry peninsula, black lava pools and beaches of golden sand also await discovery. The local people will greet you with unforgettable warmth and the delicious specialities of the island.

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