The fertile island of Madeira

Last modified 10.03.2022 | Published 09.05.19941990's, Portugal, Southern Europe, Travelogue

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Madeira may not be the biggest party island around, but receives a high score for its natural beauty.


Overall impressions

It’s not that this remote province of Portugal discourages you from a typical sun&bath vacation. There are swimming pools in the hotels and occasional sandy beaches scattered along the rugged and rocky coastline. Madeira is first of all a haven for florists and avid mountaineers. For most of us, it is spectacular.

The green, green, island of Madeira in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was fascinating. We had booked flights and a hotel room for a week. We had kind of expected to be victims of continued rainfalls, for something must be causing the lush valleys, green gardens and almost jungle-like vegetation around the levadas. On the contrary, we were bestowed with sunny days and pleasant temperatures.


A World Heritage

The “Laurisilva of Madeira” is a natural wonder and was five years after our visit awarded a place on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. They state the following: “The Laurisilva of Madeira, within the Parque Natural da Madeira (Madeira Natural Park) conserves the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest or “laurisilva“, a vegetation type that is now confined to the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. These forests display a wealth of ecological niches, intact ecosystem processes, and play a predominant role in maintaining the hydrological balance on the Island of Madeira.”

We rented a car and went around the island. The south and north coasts are dominated by tall cliffs falling vertically into the ocean. The road winds at some places on top of the cliffs, at other places cutting straight through in tunnels or just hanging kind of outside the cliffs. Driving here is not for the faint-hearted. The east, around the town of Machico has sandy beaches. Elsewhere the beaches are hard to come by.

The interior of the island has three features. First there is the plateau of Paul da Serra. This is kind of a large plain with little or scarce vegetation. Secondly you have the mountain tops with the highest being Pico Ruivo at 1862 metres. Thirdly there are the valleys and ravines cutting like scars from the central parts of the island down to the coastline. These valleys are very lush, they contain several villages and much of the traditional farming lands. It is also here we find the famous “levadas“.

The levadas were fascinating and we spent hours of walking up and down the paths leading between and along them.


UNESCO writes

“The settlers of Madeira constructed water channels, known as levadas, which run through the forest following the contours of the landscape, and clinging to the cliffs and steep-sided valleys.

Typically 80-150 cm wide and constructed of stone or more recently concrete, they carry water from the forest to hydropower stations and to the towns of the south, where they provide essential drinking water and irrigation supplies.

Along the levadas there are paths typically 1-2m wide, which allow access to the otherwise almost impenetrable forest.”

Read more about the World Heritage Site


About Funchal

Our stay was at a hotel in the capital of Funchal. This city has several fascinating old hotels, serving excellent sea food at night like the fascinating and tasty long and slim fish called Espada (Black scabbardfish).

They catch this fish at depths of between 600 and 1600 metres.

In the afternoon some of the hotels serve tea, British style, giving an odd feeling of decadence and luxury.

The pleasant central streets and market is filled with typical Portuguese colonial style buildings and mosaic tiles. This was actually my first visit to Portugal. However, I had experienced the same architecture before, in the former Portuguese colony of Brazil.

Needless to say, but several places offer Madeira wine for tasting and purchase. What was deeply fascinating was this little piece of fact: It is not every day you are able to taste a vintage 1865 red wine.