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Madeira is a small island in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa. Twenty five miles to the north east is the smaller island of Porto Santo. Sixteen miles to the south east is the long narrow chain of uninhabited islands known as the Desertas, which are an important nature reserve.
The island was known to C14th sailors and appeared on early maps but its discovery is attributed to Joao Goncalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira who landed on Porto Santo in 1419, having been blown off course in a violent storm. They returned the following year and landed on Madeira, taking possession of it for the Portuguese crown. There is no record of any indigenous population before then. Within a few years there was a small colony of early settlers attracted by he fertile soils and warm climate. It became an important staging point on voyages from Europe to the Americas. It is now an autonomous region of Portugal.
In the late C19th, Madeira became a popular winter holiday spot of wealthy Northern Europeans. Today, Madeira is still a popular holiday destination and tourism forms a major part of the economy. It is also a popular stop for cruise ships which tower over the harbour and passengers flood the town, particularly from October to April. Small kiosks sell tours of the island and there are ranks of yellow taxi cabs everywhere. Nearly everyone speaks good English.
The island is noted for its Madeira wine, hand embroidery and crafts including leather work. Hand embroidery was very much a cottage industry with the women and girls decorating household items. Originally it was sold to visitors at the harbour or at their lodgings. in the 1860s, Elizabeth Phelps, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant, began to sell the embroidery in Britain. Much of the embroidery sold in tourist shops is now manufactured in factories. The best and most expensive still hand embroidered by women in the home. Bordal on Rua Dr. Fernão de Ornelasis the best place to go for hand embroidery, although they are very coy at showing prices. May be its a case of ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it’! It may be possible to watch women at work and there is a small display inside with patterns and explaining how these are transferred to the cloth for embroidery.
Madeira enjoys a mild climate throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 19-26˚. Most rain falls between October to mid April. The rest of the year rarely sees rain. During the summer cloud can often build up over the tops of the mountains during the day. The air is often clearer in late afternoon than mid day.
Many attractions close between 12-3pm when temperatures are at their peak. It is usually only tourists who are seen out walking at these times!
Madeira is volcanic and the basalt weathers to produce a very fertile soil. The natural vegetation is woodland and particularly laurel forests. Forests were cleared by burning and terraces built on steep slopes to increase the amount of cultivatable land. Water channels known as levadas were constructed to bring water from the mountains to irrigate the crops. These now make popular walking trails.
Sugar cane was introduced in 1425 and led to the rapid economic development of the island. Sugar from Madeira flooded the European Markets and was nicknamed ‘white gold’. Wealth enabled the building of impressive mansions known as Quinta and also funded the building of churches including the Se cathedral. The arrival of cheap sugar from Brazil in the C17th lead to a diversification into the production of syrup and rum. Engenhos do Norte in Porta da Cruzis the only remaining steam powered sugar cane factory on the island crushing the cane to produce rum.
The wealth of Madeira attracted the attention of pirates and Madeira suffered a major raid by French pirates in 1566. Small forts were built along the coast.
The British occupied the island briefly during the Napoleonic Wars, returning it to Portugal in 1814. The English Church served the garrison.
Vines had been introduced in the C15th by Henry the Navigator but were mainly used for small scale local production as the wine did not travel well. In the mid C18th was found that fortifying the wine and ageing in warm surroundings improved the wine. Madeira wine was born and rapidly became popular drink in Britain. The production of Madeira wine expanded rapidly with the arrival of British families of wine exporters, like the Blandys in the early C18th. It is still a major export. Now there are many other major producers, many offering tasting sessions.
Bananas have been grown on Madeira since the C16th, mainly in small family plots. It wasn’t until the C20th they became a major export. The fruit is smaller than those of Latin America and EU regulations now mean they cannot be traded outside Portugal.
All my pictures of Madeira are here.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.