Madeira is an island - or rather one large and 3 small islands - in the Atlantic ocean, north west of Africa. It is also the name of the a sweet dessert wine produced on the island. The island belongs to Portugal.

The Madeira island 

Madeira is interesting since it has never had a native population. The archipelago of Madira was known to Phoenician, Greek and Roman travelers - even though it often was confused with the Canary Islands. It can be seen on maps from as far back as 1351. In 1418 the nearby island Porto Santos was discovered by Portuguese seamen on their way to Guinea. They were surprised by a storm, and it took them to the island. One year later, the Madeira itself was annexed by the Portuguese.  Both islands were explored and exploited almost immediately. The island of Madeira was rich enough to be self sufficient and soon the first settlers arrived. Madeira grew quickly in population, while Porto Santos with its more sparse natural resources did not attract the same attention. From the start, it served as an important supply of cereal, which were produced at hundreds of farms. In order to clear ground for the farms, the forests which covered the whole island were set on fire. This fire lasted 7 years, and resulted in a unique and extraordinary soil

At the end of the 15th century a vast amounts of slaves were brought to the island, and they built a intricate and amazing irrigation system consisting of canals leading from the high mountains in the center of the island to the coastal areas. These canals are called levadas and remaining 1,500 miles can today  be used for hiking. More on that below. In 1508 Funchal was declared a city by the king Manuel I of Portugal, and it has been the capital of Madeira ever since. It was the first city ever founded by Europeans outside of Europe. Madeira and Funchal soon became an important city for the Portuguese trade and explorations. In 1580 there were some 20,000 inhabitants on the island. In the 16th century, sugar became the most important export of Madeira, and the whole of Europe was the market. 

However, the sugar business suffered from diseases and competition from Brazil, and a recession followed. Funchal still was an important port for travels to Africa, Asia and America, though.  In the 18th century the wine production started, which became and together with tourism, sugar and bananas remains as the most important income for the island.  Step by step, Madeira has gained its freedom; in 1766 it was allowed to mint money; in 1901 it became a autonomous administrative region, and in 1974 it was granted full economic and political autonomy. Today the population is over 260,000 .

Madeira is 22 by 55 km - 14 by 34 mi - with some 140 km/90 miles of coast. The small island has high mountains at the center, the highest - Pico Ruivo - peaking at 1860] meters (6,100 feet). From this, radial ridges goes all the way out to the coasts, leaving a few passes here and there. This highland center results in very different weather for the southern and the northern part of the island. Situated in the Gulf stream, the temperature is even all year round at 15-20 C (50-70 F). The northern side gets some 1500 mm (5 feet) of rain, while the southern side only sees some 650 mm (2 feet).

The vegetation is heavy, especially on the northern rainier side. Only a small portion of the original forest remain, though. Some 20% of the vegetation only exists here (endemic) or on the Canary Islands. There are some species of butterflies that have drifted by the wind from America. The only native mammals are two species of bats.

Travel Tips
Madeira has a wonderful nature, and walking the levadas is a fantastic experience. Thanks to the local bus traffic, it is possible to take the bus and walk back. High up in the mountains you have extraordinary views of the landscape, sometimes all the way down to the oceans. Sometimes the clouds come in low below you in the valleys, making it almost an unreal experience. The one and only reference guide for Madeira in general and the levadas in particular is Landscapes of Madeira by John & Pat Underwood.  

The city of Funchal is the only major city, and it's both modern and full of history at the same time. The island has had tourists for over 100 years, so there are many beautiful old hotels and sites to visit. Having been reached by boat only until 1964, many of the finest hotels are situated on the shore, with private harbors.

It is very easy to drive around the island, and any point on the island can be reached in just one day, and you can still make it home for dinner. There are no beaches on Madeira, so bathing is done in sea pools. The nearby island Porto Santo has beaches, if that's what you like. If you want to be alone, there are many villages with estalagems where you can stay and relax and make day trips from. Just sit by the Atlantic ocean and watch the sun set and listen to the waves.

The Madeira Wine

A glass of Madeira can be enjoyed for any reason, anytime. They come in so many different kinds, that everyone should be able to find a favorite. 

The first grapes were imported from Greece in the 15th century. It was in the 18th century that it became what it is today: a fortified wine suitable for drinking anytime. At first it was the local version of Port, made with different grapes. It was soon discovered that the wine gained a special taste after having been on a trade ship for some months. The reason turned out to be the heating of the bottles of wine in the tropics. The Madeira wine trade was developed by the British and the major wine houses were founded by Englishmen. In 1750, they started fortify it with brandy in order to prolong it endurance for the seamen. 

Today, the heating, sweetening and fortification is done artificially. They are still stored on oak casks for at least 8 years, though. The Madeira wine is extremely durable, and the older they get, the better the wines become. It is possible to purchase a Madeira that is up to 200 years old, if you're willing to pay. There are four distinct types of Madeira:

  • Sercial which is the driest, goes well with fish or as an aperitif. Served chilled.
  • Verdelho is medium-dry, and is perfect together with cake or fruit.
  • Bual is dark and medium-sweet and can be enjoyed instead of Port.
  • Malmsey is heavier and much sweeter, and is best enjoyed after a meal.

source:, britannica, portugal info

Ma*dei"ra (?), n. [Pg., the Island Madeira, properly, wood, fr. L. materia stuff, wood. The island was so called because well wooded. See Matter.]

A rich wine made on the Island of Madeira.

A cup of Madeira, and a cold capon's leg. Shak.

Madeira nut Bot., the European walnut; the nut of the Juglans regia.


© Webster 1913.

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