NATURE CULTURE IN MADEIRA ISLAND
THE PEARL OF THE ATLANTIC
Portugal’s Madeira Island offers European comfort with almost every sub-tropical luxury. Geologically dramatic, bursting with exotic colour. Pure, inspiring, introspective, this is a paradise in the middle of the Atlantic. The archipelago, which is made up of two inhabited islands – Madeira and Porto Santo, and two sub-archipelagos that are natural reserves, Selvagens and Desertas. Nature culture in Madeira Island is particularly rich, boasting of year-round spring climate, soaring emerald and umber hued rugged mountains and cliffs that plunge into the deepest sapphire blue ocean with breath-taking views and African sunsets. The main attraction is undoubtedly the levada walks in Madeira Island.
The history of Madeira begins with the discovery of the islands by Portugal in 1419 during the Golden Age of Discovery (15th to 16th century). This 600 year old Portuguese colony off the coast of Morocco, was first recorded in 1419 when captains of Prince Henry the Navigator, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira, were driven by a storm to the island they called Porto Santo, or Holy Harbour, in gratitude for their rescue from shipwreck.
It was named Madeira (the Portuguese for wood) due to its lush and dense Laurel forest (Laurisilva in Portuguese) which grew until the island’s shore. To gain the minimum conditions for the development of agriculture, they had to rough-hew a part of the dense forest of Laurisilva. Then fires were started, which are said to have burned for seven years. The colonists constructed a large number of canals that are used today as hiking trails called levada walks in Madeira Island.
A VOLCANIC BOTANICAL GARDEN
The nature culture in Madeira Island is showcased with an abundance of exotic fruit and seafood, but mostly by its levada walks and hikes in the Laurisilva with its fauna and flora. The Laurisilva of Madeira is a UNESCO heritage site which is an outstanding relict of a previously widespread laurel forest type. It is the largest surviving area of laurel forest and is believed to be 90% primary forest. It contains a unique suite of plants and animals.
These forests display a wealth of ecological niches, intact ecosystem processes, and play a predominant role in maintaining the hydrological balance on the island. It has great importance for biodiversity conservation with at least 76 vascular plant species endemic to Madeira occurring in the property, together with a high number of endemic invertebrates and two endemic birds including the emblematic Madeiran Laurel Pigeon.
The Laurisilva covers a series of very steep, V-shaped valleys leading from the plateau and east-west ridge in the centre of the island to the north coast. The forests of the property and their associated biological and ecological process are largely undisturbed, and play a predominant role in the island’s hydrological balance.
Most of the island is an exuberant botanical garden of volcanic soil where just about anything grows, the difference being that the formal gardens have created a semblance of order in the horticultural chaos. Madeira Island is the emergent top of a massive shield volcano that rises about 6 km from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean that rises up from a vast underwater plain, within the African Plate, of which 1/3 comes above the water.
MADEIRA FLOWER FESTIVAL
The Flower Festival is a celebration of spring that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Stunning carpets of natural flowers fill the city’s main arteries, attracting the attention of visitors with their colourful beauty. The festival’s main attraction is the Flower Parade, where flower-bedecked floats make their way through the streets of Funchal accompanied by hundreds of people dressed in costumes lavishly adorned with flowers.
Throughout the city there are flower and fruit markets and botanical displays. Perfect for those who don’t have an opportunity to do levada walks, yet still get to see some of its botanical beauty and be experience some of the nature culture in Madeira Island.
FAUNA & FLORA LEVADA WALKS
The levadas originated out of the necessity of bringing large amounts of water from the west and northwest of the island to the drier southeast, which is more conducive to habitation and agriculture, such as sugar cane production. They were used in the past also by women to wash clothes in areas where running water to homes was not available. The idea of this style of water channel was brought to Portugal by the Moors during the time of al-Andalus which has extensively influenced nature culture in Madeira Island.
There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas and they provide a remarkable network of walking paths. Some provide easy and relaxing walks through beautiful countryside, but others are narrow, crumbling ledges which can be dangerous for novices. There is something for everyone. Here are some of our favourite iconic levada walks in Madeira Island:
Distance: 4.2 km | Degree of difficulty: Easy
Caminho Real do Monte (PR3.1), the path from Ribeira das Cales to Monte is a link between the natural mountainous environment of the Funchal Ecological park and the historic centre of the parish of Monte, with its interesting heritage of buildings. Here at the start of the walk, in the area around Casa da Ribeira das Cales and the surrounding woods, you will find a wide variety of indigenous and exotic vegetation and the most common species of birds of this habitat.
As you follow the path through the Park, the itinerary takes you past the Ribeira das Cales plant nursery and the belvedere at Pico Alto (elevation 11290 metres). From this point you have one of the widest panoramic views over the municipality of Funchal.
the heritage and characterizes the history of the Parish of Monte are in evidence, particularly the main church, some old Quintas (estates) and the Monte Gardens.
In the historic centre of Monte you can also visit the Monte Palace Tropical garden and the Largo das Babosas. Wicker sledged and two cable car options offer additional ways to discover the charms of the municipality of Funchal.
Distance: 8,7 Km (+ 8,7 Km return) | Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Levada do Caldeirão Verde (PR9), beginning in the Queimadas Forestry Park, this walk crosses some spectacularly steep slopes, but is one of the finest ways of penetrating the deep valley of the São Jorge brook on foot; you’ll need a torch on this walk, which passes through a tunnel, which continues as the Levada Caldeirão do Inferno.
Worthy of mention are the excellent specimens of elegant Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica), European beech (Fagus sylvatica) with their dense reddish foliage, Canary Island junipers (Juniperus cedrus), Madeira laurel (Ocotea foetens), Pau branco or southern olive (Picconia excelsa), hundred-year-old broom heath (Erica scoparia) as well as some specimens of lily-of-the-valley tree (Clethra arborea), and Madeira blueberry (Vaccinium padifolium), which can be seen along the trail.
Species of indigenous avifauna that can be seen include the chaffinch (Frigila coelebs), the firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis), the Madeira long-toed pigeon (Columba trocaz trocaz), grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea schmitzi), and the buzzard (Buteo buteo harteti).
PONTA DE SÃO LOURENÇO
Distance: 3 Km (+ 3 Km return) | Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço (PR 8), visiting some of the finest cliff scenery on Madeira, this walk explores the long thin peninsula at the eastern end of the island. This peninsula is volcanic in origin, and is mainly made of basalt, although there are also some limestone sediment formations.
The semi-arid climate and its exposure to North winds have sculpted the low vegetation and explain the lack of trees, which distinguish this area from the rest of the Island and is a veritable natural heritage. Here you can see the Island’s basal plate at its best and several rare and endemic plants.
Of the 138 species of plant identified on the peninsula, 31 are endemic (exclusive) to Madeira island. In terms of fauna there is one of the largest colonies of seagull (Larus cachinnans atlantis) in the region, which nests on the Desembarcadouro islet. Along the route you can often see several bird species.
Distance: 6,1km (VO) – 7km (VE) | Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Vereda do Areeiro (PR1), this trail of 2,8km an d duration of 1.30 hours allows you to get to the highest summit of the island, Pico Ruivo. The trail climbs along the ridge that separates the cliffs of Faial and those of Santana.
This area is known as a high-altitude heath and is marked by the presence of various endemisms of Madeira, which include the Madeira violet (Viola paradoxa), Madeira grey heather (Erica madeirensis), the rock orchid (Orchis scopolorum), and the Madeira kidney (Anthyllis lemanniana).
Various birds can also be seen, some of the more important ones being species restricted to Macaronesia, the canary (Serinus canaria), Berthelot’s pipit (Anthus berthelottii madeirensis) and the plain swift (Apus unicolor), as well as other subspecies found only in the Madeira archipelago: the Madeira rock sparrow (Petronia petronia madeirensis), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs madeirensis), and the firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus madeirensis).
Distance: 2,8 Km (+ 2,8 Km return) | Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Vereda do Pico Ruivo (PR 1.2), this 7km walk has a duration of about 3.30 hours and connects two of the highest peaks of Madeira Islands, this is a stunning walk, involves tunnels, and some steep ascents and descents, with fabulous views of the central core of the mountains.
This trail connects two of the highest peaks of Madeira Island, Pico Ruivo (1862 m) and Pico do Areeiro (1817 m), crossing part of the Central Mountain Massif, an area integrated in the Natura 2000 Network which is known as the central mountain massif. It covers from the highest peaks to 1200m above sea level.
It is characterised by herbaceous and bush vegetation that is well-adapted to big temperature variations, heavy rains and strong winds, and is where you can find many types of heather (Erica scoparia ssp maderensis and Erica aborea), which many years ago were used to produce charcoal.
RIBEIRA DA JANELA
Distance: 2,7 Km | Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Vereda da Ribeira da Janela (PR15), this path follows the remnants of an old footpath used by the inhabitants to bring wood from the forest, which was essential for their daily lives. It was also the path used by the inhabitants to connect them with settlements on the south side of the island, mainly Calheta and Ponta do Sol. Robust young men climbed the mountain slopes, their backs laden with barrels or goatskins filled with wine to be sold and/or traded for other goods.
At Ribeira da Janela you can come in contact with this traditional and unique agricultural area with its typical terraced farm plots, held in place by laboriously built stone walls, where sweet potatoes, potatoes, beans, maize and the indispensable vineyards of Ribeira da Janela are cultivated.
This is a good location for seeing the Madeira long-toed pigeon (Columba trocaz), an endemic bird exclusive to Madeira. During the migratory seasons, some migrating bird species may be seen in the mouth of Ribeira da Janela as they pass through: the little egret (Egretta garzetta), the purple heron (Ardea purpurea), and mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos).
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