Madeira Blog

Funchal, Madeira’s capital city

What a difference the distance of three sea days between Cape Verde and Madeira makes!  The country of Madeira, like Cape Verde, also discovered and settled by the Portuguese, is the opposite of Cape Verde.  The population of both countries is similar, around a quarter million inhabitants.  Both countries are of volcanic origin.  They both achieved independence from Portugal following the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1975.  There the similarities end. 

Funchal as seen from the ship. Note the bridge which is part of the modern road which circles the island.

We landed at the port of Madeira’s capital city, Funchal.  Tourism is Madeira’s largest industry.  Though Madeira is a country of only a quarter million inhabitants, it was visited by 1.7 million visiting tourists in 2017.  Thus, the covid pandemic caused extreme economic distress among hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-related employers.  The Madeiran government provided aid to those citizens suffering from job-loss in the tourist industries.  Thus our cruise ship visit was welcomed enthusiastically.  The minimum monthly wage in Madeira is 723 Euros/month, which is much higher than Costa Rica and Panama, our previous most prosperous cruise destinations.  Also, healthcare provided for free to minimum wage workers.  I wish this were an American policy for our grossly underpaid American minimum wage workers.

Buildings reminiscent of Europe. One of several streams running through Funchal, something Cape Verde lacks.
Striking Bank of Portugal facade
A Funchal pedestrian alley

The name/word madeira means wood in Portuguese.  Madeira was named the “island of wood” because it was totally covered with trees when it was first discovered.  The climate difference between Cape Verde and Madeira is significant.  Madeira receives much more rain, almost year-round, with only a few dry months.  Thus, agriculture flourishes in Madeira.  Bananas are the primary export crop, at around two hundred tons(!) of bananas exported each year. 

However, the alcoholic spirit named after the island is Madeira is its most famous export.  Madeira wine is a “fortified wine” i.e. red wine with additional pure alcohol added, in the style of Port wines produced in Portugal.  But a different grape variety is used for Madeira than for Port wine.  Madeira wine has been produced for centuries.  (Portuguese explorers first settled in Madeira in 1440.)  Vintage bottles as old as 140 years old(!) are in existence, costing many thousands of dollars/Euros per bottle.  In the main street wine shop where Susan and I purchased a couple of five-year-old bottles (at ten Euros/bottle), there were vintage bottles for sale dating back to the 1940’s.  We were told that madeira was the favorite beverage of our first president, George Washington. 

Exotic Madeira Fruits
Mostly the more usual fruits

The early Portuguese had African slaves early in Madeira’s history, who were forced to work in the banana trade.  However, once the New World was discovered and colonized, those slaves were transported to Brazil to work on the emerging banana industry there. Thus we saw no blacks at all in Funchal, and there is no mestizo population as in Cape Verde.  Madeiran farmers adapted by switching from bananas to sugarcane as their export crop.  But again, New World countries soon overtook Madeira in its sugarcane production, the sugarcane industry declined.  Sugarcane continues to be harvested in Madera.  It is used domestically for Madeiran rum as well as “mel de cana” literally “sugarcane honey” which is known in English as molasses, and is the key ingredient of Madeira’s signature pastry, “Bolo de Mel” literally “honey cake.”  On our city tour, we were offered a drink named Poncha, consisting of Madeiran rum, lemon juice, and honey.  Poncha has twice the alcohol amount compared with Madeira wine.

View south toward Funchal from the overlook
This is the view looking directly 1900 feet down from the glass-floor overlook.

Our city tour took us to “the second highest cliff in the hemisphere” at 1900 feet above the ocean below.  (They didn’t tell us what the highest cliff is.)  The government created an overlook with a reinforced glass floor, allowing one to look down 1900 feet under one’s feet.  A few fellow passengers became queasy looking down.  I was unable to take a usable photo due to reflections from the sun overhead.  On the way to the overlook, we passed many fields of bananas, as well as a lesser number of grape vineyards and sugarcane patches.  These fields in between the residential areas are irrigated by an aqueduct system called “levadas” that was constructed over centuries to channel water from the mountains to the agricultural areas close to the coast.  The landscape around Funchal is very steep.  This means that all agriculture work (pruning, cultivating, harvesting, etc.) must be done by hand.  The land is too steep for tractors and other agricultural devices to be used.

Photo taken from the cliff-overlook road. Not that every free space is cultivated, in this view the majority of fields below are bananas.

Funchal makes a very European impression.  The Portuguese influence is very evident, from the presence of the characteristic blue tiles to the signs all in Portuguese, and the sound of Portuguese being spoken.  The landscape is lush, with beautiful gardens and flowers.  As in every landscape with high precipitation, every potentially bare piece of land is covered by green vegetation.  Some of Funchal’s buildings reminded me of buildings in towns on the Italian coast.  The pace of traffic was very leisurely.  Cars gave pedestrians the right-of-way without a sense of impatience being shown by the drivers forced to wait for slowly moving pedestrian tourists.  The sense of being welcomed by Madeirans was so evident, that Susan and I agree that this is our favorite port of call so far on our cruise.  We could see ourselves returning to enjoy some days in Madeira (perhaps to be following by a week in nearby Morocco). 

In the center, a vintage photo of The Ritz Italian Restaurant, bounded by two Portuguese tiles.
In a Funchal shopping mall, a genuine “Piano Bar” serving coffee and pastries (no alcohol)

We are enjoying our world cruise immensely.  But we are very aware that our short port visits (usually just a few hours) yield only a superficial introduction to these exotic destinations.  We receive enrichment briefings prior to each port, informing us of each country’s history and current environment.  A variety of different day tours are offered, always with one free tour, and several other optional tours that can cost as much as $200/person (when lasting all day and including a meal).  We are constantly reminded that every country has a unique history, environment, and culture.  These brief encounters at each port-of-call make us aware of how little we know about the world.  But our desire for more travel is reinforced.  Susan and I have tentatively booked a 2023 Viking cruise from Hong Kong to Taiwan to five ports in Japan, ending in Tokyo.  I hope I’ll be able to write blogs such as this one for years to come.  Stay tuned!

A Madeira sunset as the Viking Star sails away

Below are four detailed photos from the stunning interior of the Funchal Cathedral. Madeira is 96% Catholic.

Hi, I'm Dallas Smith

My blogs offer the vicarious pleasure for my readers to learn of my travels and musical adventures.
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Comments (8)

  1. William Berger

    March 1, 2022 at 8:50 pm

    Beautiful pictures 📸 thanks for sharing 😊

  2. Susan-Marie Hagen

    March 1, 2022 at 10:08 pm

    March 1, 2022. Dear Dallas + Susan, I am so enjoying “touring with you” on your 2022 Viking tour. (Happy March Birthday soon, dear Susan! And Congrats! We will celebrate on your return home!)

    Dallas, your desire to take “the wide-view” in describing the early origins + histories of regions + countries, their politics + “norms”. And how they developed into the current ports-of-call + destinations you are visiting today help us “see” the cultures as they have adapted + evolved into the present. Your research + style, + then Susan’s + your direct open experiences seem very perceptive. And are so fascinating + intriguing, lively + informative, wide yet personal. Your travel writing style makes for a richly rewarding experience for us, your “crew of vicarious arm-chair travelers”, who are indeed indebted to you both for your superb efforts! Thank you sincerely! (All this, amid a world-wide pandemic + a very real, looming threat of a possible world war). I am indebted to you both! Many deep thanks! (I have spent many vicarious evenings since you started your cruise, truly captivated by your writing style + descriptions.

  3. Audrey Behnke

    March 2, 2022 at 12:00 am

    Beautiful photos of a beautiful place. So lush and green. What a difference from Cape Verde which should be green just by its name. We’re happy that you are enjoying…and sharing your trip with us. We look forward to your posts.
    Audrey & Wolf

  4. Margaret Tippett

    March 2, 2022 at 2:08 am

    Your fotos alone are reason for reading the Blog but I’ve also enjoyed your commentary. Please put me on the list of recipients (that’s IF going on the list is permitted). We’ve been getting your blogs because our neighbor is on your Blog list and she forwards them to us (!)

  5. Jan hyatt

    March 2, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Thanks for taking us along—beautiful photos and informative blogs! Be safe my friends.

  6. CJ

    March 2, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    Your journey is awesome. Thanks for sharing so much with us. Don’t you guys love your Viking ship! I took a journey on one from Montreal to NYC – it was fabulous. I would love to go around the world on one! SOON! Have fun and thanks again for sharing your journey.

  7. Eduard Paul and Yvette Paul

    March 5, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Absolutely amazing travels! We are so lucky to share your trip with you ! I admire your style of description of all these beautiful and interesting places and sights! Thank you Dallas and Susan 🥰👏

  8. Melissa

    April 3, 2022 at 1:04 am

    I’m so appreciating these pots, and the photos. Wow! Really great shots! Thank you for the mini-vacations all along your way. 😋🥰❣️

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