Madeira Islands are a group of islands that lie in the Atlantic Ocean off Morocco and the northwest coast of Africa. The islands, volcanic in origin, belong to Portugal.
First to discover the islands were the ancient Romans who called the group Purpuriarae, or Purple islands. Then the Portuguese arrived in 1419 and took over. They gave it the name of Madeira, which means wood in Portuguese, because the islands were heavily wooded.
The Spaniards seized and held the islands from 1580 to 1640 and the British occupied them twice in the early 1800s. But the rest of the time the islands have belonged to Portugal.
The islands cover 308 square miles. Most of the 250,000 residents live on Madeira, the larger of the two inhabited islands. The other inhabited island is Porto Santo, which is noted for its sandy beaches. Porto Santo lies about 26 miles northeast of Madeira.
The Desertas and Selvagens are groups of tiny, unihabited isles.
The island of Madeira is a great mountain range rising to a height of 6,104 feet above sea level. It is known as the "Rock Garden of the Atlantic" because its settlements and farms rise in terraces, covered with exotic flowers and trees. There are lush growths of orchids, bougainvillaea, begonia, hibiscus, camellias, hydrangeas, wisteria and jacaranda.
The richness of the vegetation is remarkable because rain fails only in the winter months. In order to grow crops, water has to be rationed and distributed by stone aqueducts, called levadas. Water. retained from the rainy season flows down the levadas from the hills to the farms and villages.
Chief crops include sugar cane, corn and other vegetables, bananas, oranges, grapes, pomegranates and mangoes. Wine production is the principal industry.
Another important industry of Madeira is the making of willow wicker furniture and baskets. Also important is the embroidering, which is done by most of the women at home.
Funchal is the capital of Funchal district, which includes the Madeira Islands. It ranks as the largest city and chief resort center of the group. Funchal has ship connections with Lisbon, Portugal and English ports, and air links with European and North African cities.
Funchal was founded in 1421.
Madeira has several unusual kinds of local transportation. Oxen draw sleighs over the iceless steep streets and roads. Basket sleds for fast, downhill travel provide thrills. Visitors to remote places can also travel in hammocks carried on poles by two men.
On Madeira, you find lots of trees growing, including the mimosa, eucalyptus, Brazilian auracarian, Indian fig, West Indies coral and the Japanese camphor. In addition, you'll find bamboo, laurel and palm.