Madeira, a treasure island

In 1419 a fierce storm threw two brave Portuguese sailors João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira ashore of Porto Santo, one of the islands of the Madeira archipelago. A year later, a bigger island was discovered. Impressed with an abundance of forests and greenery, the sailors called it Madeira, a “tree” in Portuguese. The legend says that before the Portuguese, other adventurers also stopped on these islands, but for some reason, they did not stay here. At the beginning of the 15th century, the island was virgin and uninhabited.

A caldera of volcano in Madeira
A volcanic landscape

The Portuguese quickly colonized the island and began to plant vineyards, wheat fields, and sugar cane plantations. The first vine, according to history, was brought here from Candia, today’s Crete, and this was the very original Greek Malvasia, which gave aromatic, rich wines, so valued in the Middle Ages. These wines were so good that when the English Duke George Plantagenet, accused of treason, was allowed to choose the method of execution, he wished to be drowned in a barrel of Malvasia. Thanks to the British, Madeira became a favourite of the North Americans. According to another legendary story, it was the drink of the celebration after the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the “Founding Fathers” – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. The remote and exotic island also excited the imagination of the Russian nobility. The Russian Empire and the United States were the main markets for Madeira wines until the first decades of the twentieth century, until the first plunged into the Bolshevik revolution, and the latter introduced the Prohibition.

A barrel of Madeira sweet wine Malmsey
A barrel of Malmsey

Madeira wine is a fortified wine; however, its production differs from its rivals, port and sherry. During the aging, the wine is heated. This tradition originated in the era of seafarers. They used to take on board various goods, including several barrels of Madeira wine and set off on a journey during which they crossed the Equator several times.

The wine was exposed to the tropical heat, high humidity, and salty sea winds. The sailors quickly noticed that the taste of such a wine was richer and more interesting. They called it “vino da roda,” a wine that travelled around the world. Today winemakers use more modern methods, which allow Madeira to remain affordable wine, despite the small volume of production.

A bottle of Madeira wine on top of the Pico Ruivo
Above the clouds

Things to do

In addition to the tastings of local wines, Madeira offers diverse activities. In summer, lovers of unconventional beach holidays flock here from all over Europe, because there are no traditional sandy beaches on the island. Due to the volcanic origin of the archipelago, there is almost no sand, and the soil is basalt, so the beaches are mostly pebbly, and specialized platforms are built to enter the water. But lovers of hiking have a place to roam around here. The tourist office offers routes of various lengths and complexity—one of the most popular lies between two mountain peaks, Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruiva. From a height of 1862 meters, there is a breathtaking view of the whole island.

A few days must be devoted to the capital of the island – Funchal. Football fans are advised to visit the museum of Cristiano Ronaldo, a native of Madeira. The airport of Funchal was recently renamed in his honour.

A seaside view in Madeira
Black sand and blue sea

Art lovers will appreciate a walk in the old part of Funchal. The local government is now trying to transform it into a creative cluster. The street of Santa Maria (Rua de Santa Maria) was converted into an open-air gallery, where artists can create their works on the doors of old houses. Now there are more than 200 exhibits in the project “Art of Open Doors,” and anyone can touch the art freely.

Funchal’s central market, Mercado dos Lavradores, is also worth a visit. There you can try a variety of exotic fruits, including giant avocados, juicy mangoes, and a local fruit called Annona, which Wikipedia calls a sugar apple. Personally, I was struck by at least ten types of passion fruit, the strangest of which is a banana-passion fruit, which resembles a mini-banana with a passion fruit pulp and tastes like a tropical mixture of the two parents.

Extreme adventure lovers are advised to ride on a traditional sleigh. Locals claim that this is precisely how the townspeople used to get from the mountain village of Monte to the coastal Funchal. Today, a 10-minute breezy ride will cost few dozens of euros.

What to try?

Madeira’s primary fruit is a banana. In the southern part of the island, banana plantations cover even the steepest slopes of the mountains. Bananas are eaten fresh, used in the preparation of desserts, and even fish dishes. One of the local specialties is “Espada,” a deep-sea black scabbardfish served with caramelized bananas.

In any restaurant, you will be offered “bolo do caco,” a traditional Madeira tortilla made from sweet potatoes and wheat flour. Before serving, it is coated with garlic oil. “Lapas” (limpets) is another attraction of Madeira. It is a type of seashell, similar to mussels, but with a denser texture. They are found only in Madeira and the Azores, so you definitely need to try them. They are served in a hot pan-fried in garlic oil.

Traditional houses in Madeira
Traditional houses

Sugar cane is still an important agricultural product. It gives both sugar and local agricultural rum, of which a traditional cocktail, Poncha, is prepared. It is an alcohol-vitamin shot of lemon and orange juice, citrus zest, mountain honey, flavored with a generous portion of rum. “Feel yourself a pirate!” The locals say that this elixir can be sold in pharmacies as a cure for the cold. There is a legend that inspired by poncha the Brazilians invented their caipirinha.

From molasses, the black viscous liquid left after the sugar production, the Madeirenses make a dessert called “bolo de mel de cana.” Due to the abundance of spices and dried fruits in the recipe, it resembles a Christmas gingerbread. It is usually served with the sweetest Madeira – Malmsey.

When to go?

Madeira is welcoming all year round. According to statistics, most tourists come here in January, February, and October. The hottest and driest weather is from April to September. November is a great month for wine and gastronomic vacation. The temperature in the south of the island does not drop below 16-18 degrees, there is little rain, very few tourists, and hotel prices fell to a minimum. Madeira is located 500 km from the coast of Morocco, 1000 km from Portugal, 1.5 hours of flight from the capital of Lisbon.

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