Madeira Island, Portugal, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in December 2006
Madeira wicker basket sled ride #1, 11-second video clip
Madeira wicker basket sled ride #2, 21-second video clip

Meaning "wood" in Portuguese, Madeira constitutes an autonomous region of Portugal and is thus a part of the European Union.  The island lies 863 km (535 miles) from Lisbon and 774 km (480 miles) from the Azores but only 580 km (360 miles) from the coast of Africa and 387 km (240 miles) from the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Madeira, consisting of two main islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, was settled by Portugal from 1420 onward.  Mountainous Madeira Island, the largest island in the archipelago, is 57 km (30 miles) long by as much as 22 km (13 miles) wide.  Its mountains average about 1,220 meters (4,000 feet) but they range all the way up to 1862 meters (6,107 feet), with many deep ravines running out to the coast.  Madeira has little in the way of good beaches.  Porto Santo Island, on the other hand, is much smaller than Madeira but it has an excellent 9 km-long (5.6-mile-long) beach.  Madeira and Porto Santo are the only two inhabited islands in the archipelago.  Of the total population of some 250,000, only about 5,000 live on Porto Santo.

Sugar cane was one of the earliest crops grown in the archipelago.  By 1514 some 5,000 permanent inhabitants were farming on Madeira.  Funchal, with its pretty tile roofs, has always been the main port and capital.  With a population of 150,000 inhabitants, Funchal, perhaps named for fennel ("funcho" in Portuguese) which grew wild there, is situated in a beautiful natural amphitheatre.  Sacked by the French in 1566, Funchal was not returned to Portugal until 1662.  In 1801 and in 1807 an English fleet temporarily took over Funchal. 

Tourism to Madeira began in the 1890s and it was at this time that the British began arriving in numbers to reside.  Today tourism constitutes 20% of Madeira's GDP.  Visitors come mostly from the European Union -- from Germany, the U. K. and Portugal in particular.  March and April are the peak tourist months in spite of the fact that the best time to visit is during the dry season from May through September.

The highlight of many a tourist's visit to Madeira is riding a cable car from Funchal up to Monte and then being pushed 2 km (1.2 miles) back down toward Funchal in a wicker toboggan sledge mounted on two wooden runners.  It is thought that Funchal's two-seat wicker toboggan sledges were developed around 1850 for the very practical reason of speeding transport into town.  Today's tourists can still thrill to this adrenaline-raising but very safe experience where speeds of up to 48 km (30-miles) per hour can be achieved.  The downhill journey from Nossa Senhora do Monte Church requires about 10 minutes.  Each sledge is pushed down narrow, winding asphalt streets by two local men dressed in traditional white cotton clothing and a straw hat.  When the sledge attains sufficient speed, the local men jump on the back and steer by using the soles of their rubber boots as brakes.   


The most frequent air service into Funchal is on Air Portugal from Lisbon.  Lisbon in turn can be accessed via any northern European airline or, alternatively, on Iberia via Madrid or Barcelona.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  Web site:

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