Funchal, Madeira; a Travel Guide

Funchal Town - the harbour and the surrounding countryside are features of this picturesque Madeiran town
Funchal Town - the harbour and the surrounding countryside are features of this picturesque Madeiran town | Source

Introduction

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Madeira is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, about 600 km off the coast of Morocco. Up until the 15th century the island was uninhabited, but soon after Portuguese explorers first landed on the island in 1418, its strategic position in the Atlantic led to the establishment of Madeira as an important trading outpost. Despite a few upheavals, the island remains Portuguese territory to this day, though now with a largely autonomous local government which handles most of the island's affairs.

Only 56 kilometres (35 miles) long, and 20 kilometres (14 miles) wide, the highest mountain of Pico Ruivo rises to 1862m. Indeed most of Madeira is more than 500m above sea level, so the island has what is essentially a mountainous geography. And this, together with the location of Madeira in the subtropics, ensures that the island enjoys a mild climate, albeit with diverse local weather patterns. As a result, Madeira is a green and pleasant land, but a land where the majority of the non-farming population live on the narrow coastal strip. And of these by far the largest number of Madeirans live in the capital, Funchal. 110,000 people call this their home - nearly half the total population of Madeira. This page is a brief guide to the town of Funchal.

All photos were taken by the author in and around Funchal in March 2011.

The red-roofed town of Funchal, photographed from the cable car to Monte
The red-roofed town of Funchal, photographed from the cable car to Monte | Source
Christopher Columbus sailed in the Santa Maria, during his epic 1492 voyage of discovery  to the New World.  Today, a replica of the Santa Maria offers short  tourist trips from the harbour at Funchal
Christopher Columbus sailed in the Santa Maria, during his epic 1492 voyage of discovery to the New World. Today, a replica of the Santa Maria offers short tourist trips from the harbour at Funchal | Source
Funchal Cathedral stands in the town centre, and dates from the late 15th century
Funchal Cathedral stands in the town centre, and dates from the late 15th century | Source
A turret at Sao Tiago Fort
A turret at Sao Tiago Fort | Source

The History of Madeira and the Town of Funchal

Even from the very earliest days of Portuguese colonisation, there was a natural harbour on the southern coast of Madeira which soon became the site of a major settlement, This was where the island's capital town, Funchal, was established. One visitor in these early days was Christopher Columbus, who married a Madeiran girl, Filipa, in 1479. Christopher and Filipa then lived briefly in Funchal, but in 1484 the marriage sadly came to an end when Filipa died in childbirth.

During the following centuries, the island's sovereignty would come under dispute from Spain and France, and it was only in 1662 that Portugal finally established its permanent authority. Although during the Napoleonic Wars, the island again briefly became a focus of tension, and Portugal's long-standing ally Britain temporarily took control of Funchal in order to remove a French army which had taken up residence.

As an island community, the exports trade was always critical to the survival of Madeira's economy. Initially, the key crop was sugar cane. Later, various other crops, as well as the famous Madeira wine and Madeira lace, would become significant, though the benefits which accrued from this trade in past centuries were largely confined to the wealthier sections of the population.

The majority of Madeirans remained poor farm workers. However, recently the island has benefited considerably from the establishment of democracy in Portugal and the setting up of a regional government in Funchal, as well as EU grants for road building projects, and above all, the growth of tourism. Madeira is now one of Portugal's most affluent provinces, and Funchal is prospering.

Sao Tiago Fort was built in 1614 to defend Funchal against pirates, and was later briefly occupied by 3500 British troops defending Funchal during the Napoleonic wars.
Sao Tiago Fort was built in 1614 to defend Funchal against pirates, and was later briefly occupied by 3500 British troops defending Funchal during the Napoleonic wars. | Source
The Convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1496, but was later destroyed by pirates. It was rebuilt in the 17th century.
The Convent of Santa Clara was founded in 1496, but was later destroyed by pirates. It was rebuilt in the 17th century. | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? | Source
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? | Source
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? | Source
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? | Source
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I?
Many of the streets of Funchal are decoratively tiled in black and white in various designs. I seem to have taken lots of photos of these; sad aren't I? | Source

The Modern Town of Funchal

Set in front of - and encroaching up the side of - the mountains of Madeira, the red-roofed, white stone houses of modern Funchal make this one of the most attractive of towns. There is a relaxed feel to the place, as you walk around its picturesque squares and along narrow side streets, cobbled or decorated in black and white paving tiles. Dotted around the town are civic buildings, and churches, and shops, many of which cater to the needs of tourists. A number of museums in the town reflect Madeira's history and culture. And everywhere there are cafes and restaurants, almost all with outside street seating, which serve Portuguese and Italian dishes, but also Chinese and a range of other cuisines.

In a central location is the Praco do Municipio, Funchal's main square, surrounded by historic buildings like the Town Hall and a 17th century church, the Igreja do Colegio. And not far from the square is Funchal's cathedral. To the east is the old town, which includes the coastal fort of Sao Tiago, and the town marketplace. And to the west lies the so-called hotel zone, where the majority of tourists who arrive on the island by plane will be housed.

Today the built-up area extends to include several neighbouring coastal resorts and mountain villages, and yet the modern conurbation of Funchal still retains the air of a small town, with plenty of open spaces and greenery.

There cannot be many capitals, where you look in one direction and see subtropical seas, and look in the other direction and see snow-capped mountains
There cannot be many capitals, where you look in one direction and see subtropical seas, and look in the other direction and see snow-capped mountains | Source
Boats in the marina at Funchal
Boats in the marina at Funchal | Source

The Harbour and Marina

The harbour was the place where the first settlers on Madeira landed, and it has remained the key reason for the growth of Funchal since then.

The harbour today has a marina which is home to a variety of yachts and day trip boats, but such has been the growth in the tourist industry that these are all too often dominated by the vast cruise liners which dock here each and every day to churn out thousands of tourists on to Funchal's streets.

The Reids Hotel is world famous. Built in 1822, guests have included Winston Churchill and Captain Scott of the Antarctic, as well as kings, queens and film stars
The Reids Hotel is world famous. Built in 1822, guests have included Winston Churchill and Captain Scott of the Antarctic, as well as kings, queens and film stars | Source
The Funchal fruit and vegetable market (the Mercado dos Lavradores)
The Funchal fruit and vegetable market (the Mercado dos Lavradores) | Source

Tourism and Industry

With an influx of nearly one and a half million visitors each year, tourism is now Madeira's biggest money earner, and a large proportion of the population are now engaged in some aspect of this industry.

But the traditional economy of Madeira has been built on agriculture and wine production. Agriculture is practised on small terraced farms on the island's hillsides. And the farmwork remains traditionally manual, simply because the undulating landscape precludes the use of heavy farm machinery.

The main market of Funchal, is well worth a visit as a place where all the local produce of fruit and vegetables are on display in an array of stalls set round a central courtyard. There's also a fish market here, as well as stalls of wickerwork and other local crafts, and cut flowers. The market gives a real feel for what has made Madeira prosperous.

The Protea
The Protea | Source

Selected Madeira Flowers

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Arums grow like weeds in MadeiraThe Bird-of-Paradise FlowerAzaleas are common shrubsDaisies in a park in FunchalShrubs in Monte Botanical Garden
Arums grow like weeds in Madeira
Arums grow like weeds in Madeira | Source
The Bird-of-Paradise Flower
The Bird-of-Paradise Flower | Source
Azaleas are common shrubs
Azaleas are common shrubs | Source
Daisies in a park in Funchal
Daisies in a park in Funchal | Source
Shrubs in Monte Botanical Garden
Shrubs in Monte Botanical Garden | Source

The Flowers of Madeira

'Madeira' means 'wood' and is named after the original laurel forests. Even today, the island is best known for its greenery, and as an island of flowers.

The mild climate allows a wide range of plants to bloom throughout the year. Many of the most familiar of these are not really native species, but can be seen in botanical gardens around the town, and as specimen plants in Funchal itself. These include Bird-of-paradise plants, Bougainvillea, Azalea and Protea shrubs, Arum lilies and Mimosas. But there is one species which is native and grows widely in the countryside - the colourful blue Echium candicans - known as the 'Pride of Madeira'.

The Pride of Madeira - Echium candicans
The Pride of Madeira - Echium candicans | Source
The cliffs of Cabo Girao
The cliffs of Cabo Girao | Source

Camara De Lobos

It's not far to anywhere on an island like Madeira, but there are two places closer than most to Funchal. These are Camara de Lobos and Cabo Girao.

Just 4 kilometres west of the capital is the pleasant little fishing village of Camara de Lobos, easily reached via the coast road by bus, or even just by walking. Camara de Lobos was made famous by Winston Churchill, who as a keen amateur artist vacationed here for several months in 1949 painting the harbour and the fishing boats. And just west of the village is Cabo Girao, a rock face which holds the distinction of being the highest sea cliff on European territory, and the second highest in the world. Cabo Girao cliff is 580 m high.

Camara de Lobos
Camara de Lobos | Source
Cable car
Cable car | Source
Nossa Senora do Monte (the Church of Our Lady of the Mountain)
Nossa Senora do Monte (the Church of Our Lady of the Mountain) | Source

Monte

Up in the mountains at an altitude of 550 metres is the village of Monte, a popular site for a half-day visit. Monte can be reached by road, but the best way is by cable car from Funchal, a mode of transport which gives nice views of the capital. There are a couple of landscaped gardens here that can be visited, one of which is reached by a second cable car across a deep valley. There is also Nossa Senhora do Monte, said to be the most important church on Madeira, and undoubtedly one of the most attractive. This twin-towered church was built on the site of an older chapel in 1818. A few restaurants and cafes are also to be found here.

However, for many who come here, the biggest attraction is the way down from Monte. You can take the cable car, or bus, or you can just walk down, but the toboggan run is the traditional way to do it. In the 19th century, wicker basket sleighs pulled along by horses, were used to descend the mountain from Monte back to Funchal, but since the beginnings of tourism, these have been adapted as a novel mode of transport for the visitors. Today, 'drivers' wearing white trousers and wicker hats push the baskets off, and then ride and steer the back as the toboggan picks up speed on a steep but narrow 2 km road.

The Toboggan Ride from Monte. Ernest Hemmingway once took this ride and described ithis experience as 'exhilarating'
The Toboggan Ride from Monte. Ernest Hemmingway once took this ride and described ithis experience as 'exhilarating' | Source

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A Visit to Funchal

I guess people don't go to Madeira to visit Funchal. Mainly they go for the landscape, the mountains and valleys, or they go for the gardens and the flowers, or possibly for one of the many festivals which take place on the island each year, such as Carnival week.

But Funchal is where many will stay during their time on this island, and their enjoyment of the island will in large measure therefore be determined by their experience of Funchal. The capital has history and modernity, and it's all set in a pleasant green environment. The people are friendly and the town is as safe as any I have visited. As such, it makes a nice place to stay for a week or two, and I suspect it makes a nice place to live too.

© 2011 Greensleeves Hubs

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I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun 17 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Alfred thank you! It is indeed a really nice, picturesque island - probably a great place to retire (or to be exiled like the Austro-Hungarian Emperor!) I probably did not experience as much of the island in my one short visit as you did in your several visits, but I do hope to go back again one day - perhaps to get some better photos of the landscape than I managed last time, when rain and mist were against me on two days I spent in the mountains. Alun.


Alfred Hoeld profile image

Alfred Hoeld 3 years ago

All your Hub-Pages so far, nicely done! Congratulations.

I was 3 times on Madeira, first when I was 12 young. I always liked it.

Last 2 holidays, borrowed BMW motorbikes and drove around everywhere! Amazing.

Like also the good, special Madeira beef spits grilled over wooden fires and than placed in rings which are placed in the ceiling.

The spits than hanging from the ceiling above the table and the plate.

= "Espetatada"

As well as the special "Deep sea fish" that can be captured around Madeira, which have a formidable taste = "Espada" (Black scabbardfish)

Regarding, Church "Nossa Senhora do Monte" on the "Monte" mountain overlooking Funchal,

as an Austrian, I sorry you forget to write, is the Resting place of "Austro-Hungarian Empires last Kaiser-Emperor Karl 1-Charles 1" who died relatively young in Exile on Madeira, short after the 1st World war.

His last Residence-Villa on the island is a museum.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Suzie;

My visit to Madeira in the spring of 2011 certainly left me with pleasant memories. As a generality, I think the island tends to attract older tourists, presumably because the climate is relatively mild, and the main appeal is the scenery and greenery - there are beaches and a nightlife, but they are perhaps not comparable with the islands of the Mediterranean or the Canaries. It's a really nice place to relax for a week however - very easy to adjust to, very safe, and very picturesque. I hope your parents enjoyed their time on Madeira.

I liked the tiled streets. Some are quite simple with white lines on a black base, or vice versa, and others have complex patterns - some of the locals must have felt I needed to be put away when they saw me staring down towards my feet taking photos of the ground !!!

Suzie, thanks so much for your beautiful and warm comments, which are appreciated more than I can express. Alun.


Suzie HQ profile image

Suzie HQ 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

Hi Alun,

How did I not see this! Wow, What a stunning look at Funchal in Madeira.

What drew me was my parents had spent their silver wedding anniversary there. I love island destinations and have been to Majorca but not here.

Your photos really are magical Alun, you have SUCH A GIFT with a lens and the written word.

I loved your pics of the tiles, such intricate work by true artists

Really interesting and full of great reasons for all travelers to see this gorgeous place. The flowers are stunning and again you surpass expectations.

Voting everything and sharing this - it is a gem!!


kitty 5 years ago

You too, Im ok , I dont have your E-mail now can not send to your e-mail, I sent messages on this web.

Hope you still fine now, Take care also.

I will wait to see your web page about Thailand ^__^


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Kitty soon I finish writing a page about Alisa’s village. It is a page describing life in an Isaan village which I think American and English people may find interesting, (because Isaan culture is so different to Western culture). It is not a page about Alisa, but there will be pictures of her.

I tell you this, because I do not want it to be a big or bad surprise for you if you see it. I don't want it to upset you. Thinking of you. Take care.


Kitty 5 years ago

Thank for care, and hope you still fine too. ^__^


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thank you Kitty. This is same Kitty I know?? If so, hope you are OK and happy, and thank you for smile. It helps. Alun


kitty 5 years ago

^___^


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks so much Derdriu for commenting. About the sky - it's true; because of the mountainous nature of the island you can virtually experience all four seasons in a day as you drive around. One of my intentions was to produce a page showing the dramatic mountains and valleys - unfortunately I was only in Madeira for about a week, and the days I booked for a mountain tour it poured with rain and became very misty, so my photos were just not good enough - I went in March and the weather would be more reliable in summer.

I didn't try the toboggan as I wanted to walk down and take some pics, but I really regret it now - it's an experience I missed out on. There's no seat belts, and it's probably not very fast at all (maybe 10+ mph I guess?), but feels much faster than it is, because the passengers are so exposed, and not in control. Ernest Hemingway tried it once and described it as 'exhilarating'.

About a dozen Pride of Madeira seeds germinated and are now about 9 inches tall. I just hope I can keep them alive through the winter as they're probably not fully hardy outdoors in England.

Thanks for the questions Derdriu, and for showing an interest. Great to hear from you.


Derdriu 5 years ago

Greensleeves Hubs: Thank you for sharing your attentive impressions and beautiful photographs of your visit to Madeira. It is interesting to see how much the sky varied during your trip, from brightly blue to darkly overcast. Did you try the toboggan, do the drivers get backaches, do passengers wear seat belts, and how fast does the sled go? Also, how is your Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) doing?


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks so much 'Sunshine Today' for your generous comment. Such a nice comment brought a bit of much needed sunshine into my day!


SunshineToday 5 years ago

Simply great Hub! Stunning photos too. Thanks for sharing.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thankyou Kitty. I am now trying to grow some seeds of the 'Pride of Madeira' flower.


LoverKitty profile image

LoverKitty 5 years ago

Beautiful color of flowers and house ,I like it ^^


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks for your nice comment Misty


Misty39 profile image

Misty39 5 years ago from Massachusetts USA

Beautiful scenery,that's on my wish list as well.This site is well put together.Great job......Thumbs up.

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