One unique area of Portugal is the archipelago that includes the island of Madeira. In this area, all of the islands are volcanic, and Madeira accounts for approximately 93% of the area. The island is very mountainous, consisting of peaks, valleys and ravines that make the interior part of the island almost inaccessible.
Due to this geography, most of the villages are found at the mouths of the ravines, where the rains that fall during the fall and winter make their way to the sea.
Funchal, the capital and the main city of Madeira, lies on the southern coast of the island. It has been the capital of the island for over five centuries, as well as being the first city built by the Portuguese in the Atlantic. The area is a naturally formed harbor, with its streets and villages built on the slopes of hills rising towards the center of the island. Funchal is in a valley shaped like an amphitheater, which provided a safe shelter for the settlers first living there. The city got its name from the early settlers because of the large amount of fennel that they found in the nearby forests.
Due to its convenient position, the harbor at Funchal is the busiest on Madeira. In the past, settlers were drawn to the area because, in addition to the harbor, the fertile soil there allowed for productive growing. Many say that Christopher Columbus was one of the early settlers of this port city. Today, commercial ships as well as cruise lines traveling between North America, the Caribbean, and Europe use this harbor. A leisure walk to the Funchal Harbor will allow the visitor to enjoy viewing the colorful yachts and other luxury ships from around the world docked there.
As is the case in other cities in Portugal, those interested in architecture of the past will find many fine examples in the city of Funchal. One of these is the Palace de Sao Lourenco, built in the 16th century, facing in the direction of the port. In the forested area overlooking the city is the church of Our Lady of The Mountain, built in the 18th century. Another church known for its unique architecture is the Cathedral of Funchal on the Avenue of Arriaga. Although it looks very plain on the outside, the inside is full of surprises, such as using materials not usually used together. In this church cedar wood and marble, not often combined in buildings, make for a beautiful interior of the church. A walk through the town allows the visitor to view the roadwork and houses built in the 18th century, something that all those interested in early architecture can enjoy.
The city of Funchal is also home to several museums. The Museo do Arte Sacra (Museum of Religious Art) is located in the Episcopal Palace. A collection of valuable Flemish paintings from the 16th century can be found there. The Museum of Natural History, which is home to a marine aquarium as well as a collection of local fauna, is located in the Palace of Sao Pedro. The Museo da Quinta das Cruzes focuses on decorative art from the period of the 16th to the 19th century. Items from this museum include furniture and Chinese porcelain. In addition, surrounding this museum are gardens and an orchid greenhouse, something all visitors can enjoy.
Funchal city is also the site of some unique activities. One of the most interesting takes place in the densely forested area surrounding the city. In order to reach the top of this area, a cable railway is provided. However, in order to go back down, a wicker and wood sled on wheels is used for a “dry” sled ride to the bottom, with residents dressed in their traditional costumes guiding it down.
Funchal is also known for its various celebrations. The most popular is their New Year’s Celebration. It is the largest fireworks show in the world, and many visit the city just for this reason. The display can be viewed from all parts of the city. Other festivals include the Flower Festival, held in April-May; the Music Festival, held in June; the Food Festival, held in August; and the Wine Festival, held in September. During the Christmas season, the decorative lighting of the city brings a special atmosphere to the area, enjoyed by all.
In addition to all the sites mentioned above, there are many more available for the visitor to enjoy. Funchal, though not as large as some of the other cities of Portugal, has become a major tourist site. Because of the large number of places to visit, many tourists do not have enough time to see all that they were hoping to see. Therefore, anyone planning a trip to this city should research it, and plan to have enough time to enjoy all that this beautiful city has to offer.