Portugal - Madeira - More Information

Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago in the north Atlantic Ocean. It has a worldwide reputation for walking holiday and hotel to hotel treks. It is one of the Autonomous regions of Portugal with Madeira Island and Porto Santo Island being the only inhabited islands. Although it is part of the African Plate it belongs politically and culturally to Europe. Madeira known originally to the Romans as the Purple Islands was rediscovered possibly accidentally, by Portuguese sailors and settled by Portugal as early as 1418 or as late as 1420. The archipelago is considered to be the first discovery of the exploratory period initiated by Henry the Navigator of Portugal. It is a popular year-round resort, noted for its Madeira wine, flowers, and embroidery artisans, as well as its New Year's Eve celebrations that feature a spectacular fireworks show, which is the largest in the world according to the Guinness World Records..

Geography and climate

Madeira Island is the largest island of the group with an area of 741 km², a length of 30 geographical miles (57 km), a breadth of 13 miles (22 km) at its widest point, and a coastline of 80 to 90 miles. Its longer axis lies east and west, along which lies a mountain chain with a mean altitude of 4,000 feet (1,220 metres), considered the backbone of the island from which many deep ravines radiate outward to the coast. Its most famous cliff, the Cabo Girão, is one of the biggest in Europe. The highest point on the island is Pico Ruivo, at 1,862 meters (6,107 feet).

In the south, there is very little left of the indigenous laurisilva subtropical rainforest which once covered the whole island (the original settlers set fire to the island to clear the land for farming) and gave it the name it now bears (Madeira means "wood" in Portuguese). However, in the north, the valleys contain native trees of fine growth. These laurisilva forests, notably the forests on the northern slopes of Madeira Island, are designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

A long, narrow, and comparatively low rocky promontory forms the eastern extremity of the island, on which lies a tract of calcareous sand known as the Fossil Bed. It contains land shells and numerous bodies resembling the roots of trees, probably produced by infiltration.

Madeira Island's geographical position and mountainous landscape result in a very pleasant climate ideal for walking holidays and hotel to hotel treks. The climate varies between the north side, south side, and smaller islands groups like Porto Santo and Savages. The mean annual average on the coast line can reach more than 20°C in the south. With its mild humidity, the weather of the island is classified as oceanic subtropical and with its low rain level, desertic on the Savages. Influenced by the Gulf Stream, sea water temperature varies between 26°C during the summer and 17°C in the winter.

Culture and People

The islands are noted as the source of Madeira wine. The islands are also known for their exotic flowers, sub-tropical, tropical fruits and New Year's Eve celebrations with a spectacular fireworks show, considered the biggest in the world.

This island now produces also banana, mangoes, papaws, guyabas, pinneapple, sugar cane, avocados, passionflower, coffee and many others. On their gardens also grows coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), rubber trees and others.

Traditional pastries in Madeira usually contain local ingredients, one of the most common being mel de cana, literally sugarcane honey - molasses. The traditional cake of Madeira is called 'Bolo de mel', which translates as (Sugarcane) 'Honey Cake' and according to custom is never cut with a knife but broken into pieces by hand. It is a rich and heavy cake. Visitors to the island will see plentiful examples of handicraft on sale in shops.

There are around 250,000 inhabitants (1991) in the two main islands, while only 4,800 live on Porto Santo Island. Most of the early settlers were from the Portuguese regions of the Algarve and Minho. The islands have historical monuments, streets and plazas (praças) with many gardens and typical small towns.

Wildlife and Nature

Madeira has three endemic birds: Zino's Petrel, the Trocaz pigeon and the Madeira Firecrest.

It is also of importance for other breeding seabirds, including the Madeiran Storm-petrel, North Atlantic Little Shearwater and Cory's Shearwater.

The Macaronesia region harbours an important floral diversity. In fact, the archipelago's forest composition and maturity are quite similar to the forests found in the Tertiary period that covered Southern Europe and Northern Africa millions of years ago.

The great biodiversity of Madeira is phytogeographically linked to the Mediterranean region, Africa, America and Australia, and interest in this phytogeography has been increasing in recent years due to the discovery of some epiphytic bryophyte species with non-adjacent distribution. Madeira also has many endemic species of fauna–mostly invertebrates but also some vertebrates such as the native bat, some lizards species, and some birds as already mentioned. These islands have more than 200 species of land molluscs (snails and slugs), some with very unusual shell shape and colours.

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