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Funchal, Madeira; a Travel Guide

Updated on May 3, 2017
Greensleeves Hubs profile image

The author has travelled extensively and writes illustrated articles about his experiences, with advice on must-see sights.

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

N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops

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, 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. EU grants for road building projects, and above all, the growth of tourism, have also helped Madeira to become one of Portugal's most affluent and provinces.

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 such as the Town Hall and a 17th century church, the Igreja do Colegio. And not very far from this 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 island's 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 cafes and restaurants are also to be found on the streets of Monte.

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 early days 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

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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