Sunday, October 16, 2016

Madeira Island - Emanuel Serrao

Madeira Island archipelago  (from madeira-web)

Set in the Atlantic Ocean c.350 mi (560 km) off the coast of Morocco, Madeira, the largest island, and Porto Santo are inhabited; the Desertas and Selvagens (the latter being somewhat closer to Africa) are not. Known to the Romans as the Purple Islands, they were rediscovered (15th cent.) under HENRY THE NAVIGATOR.

When the Infante Dom Henrique, better known in English as Prince Henry the Navigator, gathered together the finest cartographers and navigators of Portugal at the beginning of the 15th century, his plan was to extend the knowledge of the coast of West Africa. Armed only with square-rigged ships, compass, hourglass and astrolabe, the initial sea captains were severely handicapped in their endeavours. But in the course of their ventures, the finest hour of Portuguese maritime history, luck brought greater riches than the purities of science and logic.

Two young sea captains, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were blown off course on their journey around the African coast and after many days at sea found land on a small island that they named Porto Santo - the very first of the many discoveries made by Henry's school of navigation. On reporting to Henry they were promptly ordered to return and colonise the island. The year was 1419.

Seductive as are the charms of the golden sands of Porto Santo, it seems somewhat incredible today that it took a further year before the next discovery was made. The captains had reported a dark mass of clouds visible on the southern horizon. They were now encouraged to explore this foreboding mass. As theories to whether the world was flat had yet to be completely disproved, it took an enormous leap of faith to cross the traverse.

As they approached, the huge Atlantic rollers breaking along the north coast and the boiling turbulence of the cross currents at the Ponta de São Lourenço cannot have eased the concern of the superstitious sailors. But on rounding the headland they discovered the bay of Machico, the threshold to the heavily forested island that they named Madeira. Prince Henry immediately organised the colonisation of the island, with the first families coming from the Algarve region of Portugal.

Today the statue of Zarco looks down on the descendants of the first colonisers as they navigate the corner in front of the Bank of Portugal building in downtown Funchal. As the Portuguese overseas possessions have shrunk so the relative significance of this first great discovery has gained in importance. To find a needle in a haystack can be trying, but to find Porto Santo in an Atlantic storm was a lucky prize indeed.
The volcanic origins of Madeira can still be seen,; the amphitheatre that surrounds Funchal was once a caldera. The Island is surprisingly mountainous with peaks of 1,860 metres; over 6,100 feet high! Fortunately for the tourists, volcanic activity stopped about 6,500 years ago. This activity has endowed the island with a fertile landscape where much of the island was, until comparatively recently covered in ancient subtropical rainforest. Indeed this is the reason for the name of the island, 'Madeira' meaning 'wood' in Portuguese.

Parts of this forest (Laurisilva) still remain, mainly on the northern slopes and have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the superb blooms for which the island has become famous may be found in abundance all year round. One of the nicest ways to see the dynamic and panoramic vistas is to take a Levada Walk along side the water channels designed to supply irrigation to the drier parts.

Today Madeira is a scenic, year-round resort. The islands produce bananas, sugarcane and Madeira Wine, but now derive much of their economic growth from tourism. The north remains mainly rural in nature whilst the south, especially in and around Funchal has developed with the discerning traveller in mind. Most, but by no means all, of the Island's finest hotels are found in this area.

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