Isle of Madeira

Madeira stretches over 736 km2 and is the capital island of the archipelago of the same name. Extremely rugged and scored by deep ravines, it has numerous calderas, or cauldron-like cavities, and coastal escarpments. Flatlands are few, and the main plateau is Paúl da Serra (1500 m), in the western half of the island. The coastline is generally sheer, with cliffs towering to over 200 m in some sections. The highest is Cabo Girão, which plunges in a near vertical drop towards the sea from 580 m. Natural beaches are few and mostly of pebbles and black sand, although the peninsula of Ponta de São Lourenço has a fine beach of golden sand. The highest points on the island are Pico Ruivo (1861 m) and Pico Arieiro (1810 m), located in the mountains in the eastern section. The great valleys of Curral das Freiras and Serra de Água are magnificent, as are the deep ravines that carry water all year round, such as Ribeira da Janela, which is the longest hydrographic basin on the island.

A marked altitudinal gradient brings Mediterranean microclimates at lower and mid-altitudes, and milder weather in higher zones. Average annual temperatures are around 15 ºC and 20 ºC, with average annual rainfall of 1500 mm and 1000 mm, across the northern and southern flanks, respectively. In Funchal, the island capital, average rainfall drops to 600 mm, and in some north-facing mountainous areas it can rise to 2500-2800 mm. Moreover, in the highest regions, temperatures can plummet to below 0 ºC, in winter and spring, often bringing frost and snow.

The name Madeira (wood) derives from the island’s abundant forests. According to tradition, in the early 15th century, a huge forest fire spread across the island and burnt for seven years, which is highly unlikely given the amount of environmental moisture in most areas. Madeira was officially discovered in 1490 by Portuguese navigators Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz, although this has been questioned. Traditional activities, such as agriculture, livestock farming and fishing are still vital to the island economy. Tourism was already present in the early 20th but in recent times has increased considerably, contributing to improving the livelihoods of the local people. Traditional wickerwork is also important for the island economy, particularly in Camacha, a town just north of Funchal. Madeira also has a rich tradition of local cuisine based on tasty meat dishes (e.g., espetada or beef cooked on skewers made from bay leaf sticks) and fish (e.g., sword fish), as well as excellent wines. The magnificent gardens and quintas or country houses in Funchal and the surrounding area reflect the aesthetic and architectural tastes of the local people.

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