Destination Discovery: Funchal, Madeira

by Janis on October 21, 2010

The main harbor for Madeira, a Portuguese island known for wine, flowers and toboggan rides. 

When the Portuguese discovered Madeira in 1419 –  621 miles from continental Europe and 323 miles from Africa —  it was uninhabited by humans.

The island was settled Portuguese farmers, who harvested timber, grew wheat and sugar cane.  Today Madeirans are Portuguese but have developed their own distinct cultural traits.  An hour and a half flight from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, Madeira is the outermost region of the European Union.

Named after fennel

Funchal is Madeira’s main harbor.  The port city is a frequent stop for trans-Atlantic passenger cruises between Europe, the Caribbean and North America.

Funchal was named by early settlers for the abundance of fennel (funcho in Portuguese) that grew on the island.

A cable car ride to Monte  

For visitors to Funchal, the best way to enjoy magnificent views of the bay is by taking the cable from the port of Funchal to Monte.  Click here for a detailed more in-depth views.

Monte Palace Tropical Garden and Austrian Emperor’s Final Resting Place.

Located just off the cable car terminus, Monte Palace Tropical Garden contains 100,000 species of plants from around the world. Sheltered by mountains, flowers bloom year round, making Madeira lush, green and relaxed.

Also near the cable car landing, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is dedicated the patron saint of Madeira. Besides providing terrific views, the church houses the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Charles I, who died in 1922 at Monte. Charles had been deported to Madeira in 1921 after his second unsuccessful coup attempt on Hungary.

Down the hill via a Toboggan Ride

After viewing the sights of Monte, it’s time for an exhilarating ride in one of the traditional Monte sledges. Two carreiros (drivers) push guests in wickerwork toboggans on wooden runners down streets on the  steep hillside towards Funchal.

Not Yet Back to Funchal

The toboggan rides end only halfway down the steep route back to Funchal. You can take an overpriced taxi (many are waiting), or, take the steep but beautiful downhill walk.  

The views are worth the hike.

Madeira Wine Museum
Back in Funchal, we wanted to learn more about Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine made in the Madeira Islands. There are four types of Madeira wine than range from very sweet to dry: Malvasia, Baal, Verdelho, and Sercial.

In downtown Funchal, a small museum tells the history of Madeira wine, which dates back to the days of early explorers.  In these days, Madeira was a standard stop of ships, where they would pick up wine, before heading to the New World or the East Indies.

Spirits were added to wine to prevent it from spoiling.  When a shipment of wine was returned after a long voyage, wine traders discovered that the long sea voyages – exposing the wine to prolonged heat and movement — had transformed and improved the wine’s flavor.

The long-shipping-at-sea-aging method was replacing with a unique winemaking process of heating the wine to high temperatures for an extended period of time and deliberately oxidating it. This process gives Madeira wine a robust flavor long after it’s opened.

Visiting Funchal via Cruise Ship

Funchal continues to be a main port of call for Atlantic cruises. We visited Funchal on a transatlantic cruise on Holland America Line’s ms Prinsendam.  View our post here.

Ready for visitors after February mudslide

Record rainfalls over a short time period  in February, 2010, resulted in devasting and deadly mudslides in Maderia.

The island has quickly repaired most tourist attractions and is recently launched a new international tourism campaign, “Madeira as Beautiful as Ever.”

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