Madeira is an autonomous, volcanic island that was discovered and settled by Portuguese explorers. Big into plantations, the first settlers developed farming and vineyards early on, and wine is still a major export today. Madeira is a popular port for cruise liners, and its ancient capital, Funchal, retains many stunning, historic edifices.
Although Madeira was included on maps as far back as the 1300’s, it was rather unknown until stumbled upon by captains Zarco and Teixeira under Henry the Navigator during the Age of Discovery in the early 1419. After that, nearby Porto Santo, Funchal and Machico were settled.
People came in droves from southern Portugal, and Funchal became a city by the early 1500’s with it’s main cathedral, Sé, finished in 1514. Other towns like Ribeira Brava, west of Funchal, started popping up and the 17th century Forte de Sao Bento is still a highlight today. Fishing villages like nearby Camara de Lobos and Porto Moniz on the northwest coast, also were formed around this time.
The farming of wheat was followed by sugarcane, which became the mainstay of the economy for hundreds of years. Madeira wine became the main product in the 17th and 18th centuries, and since freshwater for the crops was scarce, a network of canals, known as levadas, were constructed running from the interior in the mid-1400’s. Building continued all the way through the 1960’s and their paths remain a popular attraction for hikers today.
The British occupied Madeira in the Napoleonic Wars, and helped to develop the wine industry, returning the island to Portugal soon after. Germany bombed Funchal Harbor in WWI, and when the Portuguese sided with the Allies in WWII, many evacuees from Gibraltar eventually settled here.
Madeira was granted autonomy from Portugal on July 1, 1976, which is celebrated as Madeira Day today. Officials realized the potential of the year-round tourist dollar, and the number of arrivals burgeoned greatly after the archipelago’s remoteness was overcome by the invention of the jet engine and the cruise industry gained popularity.
The best way to learn more about Madeira’s history is to visit the Madeira Story Center in Funchal and the Museum of the Madeira Wine Institute. Alternately, visitors can learn about Madeira’s formation and volcanic past at the Volcanism Center in São Vicente.
Madeira is Portuguese, both in its customs and language. All the main Portuguese festivals and events are celebrated here, plus many unique occasions, such as the Madeira Wine Festival. Madeira is still big into agriculture, and many of the annual events are as focused on crops as they are on religion.
Festivals are a good way to experience the Madeira of yesteryear, as many have folks dancing in traditional garb. Once such example is the Dancing Folklore Festival in Santana, where visitors can sample local food and wine.
Shopping is a also cultural highlight largely due to the range of local crafts, fantastic embroidery and wickerwork. The locals are quite conservative and religious, but are very friendly and enjoy hosting visitors. Importance is placed on dress and hygiene, so be sure to cover your shoulders and knees when touring churches.