Fun in Funchal, Madeira


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Many people may recognise the name of this Atlantic island of Portugal more as the classic sweet wine it produces than as a destination. But on the other hand, at least a million Brits, Germans, other Europeans, and sundry travelers per year do well appreciate the charms of Madeira, the farthest-flung outpost of the European Union, to which Iberia starts flying July 4, 2015.

Made up of five islands settled by the Portuguese beginning in 1419 – Madeira itself (pop. 268,000), along with much smaller Porto Santo and the three Desertas islands – this archipelago with a semi-tropical climate that’s mild year-round  (temperatures 16-23° Celsius/low 60s to low 70s Fahrenheit), has in addition to gorgeous scenery a feel of traditional Portugal.

Capital Funchal has much of Madeira island’s population and businesses, as well as being a significant cruise port of call (check out the ships in ports as well as myriad yachts, fishing boats, whale-watching cruise boats, and ferries to Porto Santo by strolling along Avenida do Mar). It’s a city with charming historic architecture and landmarks such as the 16th-century (cathedral, known especially for its elaborate inland ivory-tile ceiling) and the 17th-century Convento de Santa Clara (Calçada de Santa Clara 15), where nuns still do their thing, but they let visitors have a poke around the rooms with their lovely tiled ceilings as well as the marvelous, orange-tree-filled courtyards.

Did you know? On New Year’s Eve, Funchal stages one of the world’s best fireworks display – and its biggest!

Even more impressive, looming over the city, the Fortaleza do Pico is an early 17th-century fort built to defend against pirates. The Portuguese navy still uses the place, but parts are open to visitors, as is a small onsite museum. Speaking of which, other museums in town include the Casa de Azulejos (Calçada de Santa Clara), dedicated to a notable Portuguese speciality, porcelain tiles (also with tiles from Spain, Turkey, and elsewhere); the next-door Casa Museu Federico de Freitas (Calçada de Santa Clara 7), the 19th-century style home of a local doctor; another upper-class house-museum, the 17th-century Museu da Quinta das Cruzes (Calçada do Pico 1); the Museu da Arte Sacra (Rua do Bispo 21) , a onetime bishop’s palace full of religious art especially from Flanders; and the Madeira Story Centre (Rua Dom Carlos I 27–29),  an unusually entertaining and engaging example of a local history museum.

And speaking of entertaining, for local colour you can’t really do better than the Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers’  Market) on Largo dos Lavradores, to rub shoulders with islanders buying and selling produce, fish, flowers, and more.

A big part of the Madeira experience is getting out of town, as well. One of the easiest options is taking the cable car up to the uphill suburb of Monte, historically a tony getaway for the wealthy of Funchal and home to several fine gardens and parks (and a charming option is a whoosh back down to Funchal along the steep streets in a “toboggan” guided by fast-running locals). And speaking of gardens, if you have a car, or are up for hopping a bus, head some 3 kilometres (2 miles) outside town to an old plantation house that’s now the nucleus of a pretty botanical garden (Caminho do Meio 174) with all sort of tropical flora, natural history museum, and views over Funchal. (For more cool stuff even farther afield on the island, stay tuned for my next post!)

And finally, of course, you won’t want to miss visiting one or more of the Madeira wine estates producing the island’s most famous product, its namesake Madeira fortified wine (right), with a long, distinguished history (among other things, it was a favourite of William Shakespeare’s, and even given shoutouts in several of the Bard’s plays), such as the Adegas de São Francisco.

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images | Bengt Nyman, Dubes, Grilled Ahi