When visiting the beautiful Madeiran islands, it’s hard not to get caught up in the rich culture and the deep history of this tropical destination. Religion, music, and even the island’s farming practices, have all helped nurture vibrant traditions that are a delight to experience in person.
Madeira’s history begins with the legend of sweethearts, Robert Machin and Anne d’Arfet, who fled England to escape their disapproving parents. Shipwrecked after a storm, they discovered the paradise of this volcanic island, and lent their names to the modern city of Machico.
From these romantic beginnings, the history of Madeira evolved, becoming more about its busy ports and beautiful Atlantic location. In this sun-soaked spot, across from the Moroccan coast, and north of the Canary Islands, the subtropical islands became a premier destination for travellers from the very start.
Madeira was a stepping stone in the search for the New World, and so it became a cosmopolitan hub of trade and culture. As well as its Portuguese charm, Madeira culture was influenced by a variety of European countries, with merchants visiting from Holland, Belgium and Italy.
For a complete view of these cultural influences, a trip to the capital, Funchal, and its many museums is a must. The Sacred Art Museum of Funchal is the perfect way to experience the deep history of Madeira’s Catholic faith, while a trip to the nearby Cathedral of Funchal will really give you a sense of the beauty and culture the island’s religious connections inspire. Or for an alternative, there’s the Museu CR7, a museum highlighting the life and achievements of Madeira’s most famous citizen, professional footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
From exploring these locations and wandering the city’s streets, you’ll notice the many beautiful flowers that cover the island. Some originally from Antwerp and Amsterdam, these, along with the colourful local flowers, such as poinsettias, cranesbills and the blossoms of lily of the valley tree, helped fuel the popular Flower Festival that attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Madeira is sometimes affectionately called The Floating Garden because of the incredible variety of eye-catching flowers and plants on the island. In fact, you can quite literally float over gardens, on the Monte Cable Car that connects the centre of Funchal to the smaller mountain suburb of Monte. Once aboard, you’re flown over the stunning botanical gardens before arriving at the top, where you can either saunter back down at your own pace, or take the wild traditional toboggan ride. Powered by two carreiros, sledge drivers dressed in traditional white outfits with straw hats, you’ll be pushed down the winding cobbled roads aboard this greased wicker sled.
Unwinding in a cafe after the thrilling ride, you may hear some of the beautiful local folk music. These performances use instruments native to the islands, such as the ukulele lookalike, the cavaquinho, the machete de braga and machete de rajão, or the brinquinho, a unique instrument that uses dolls in traditional costume to entertain and amaze.
To guarantee you’ll get a chance to hear these wonderful instruments played, visit during the Christmas season. The island bursts with a wonderful energy. Religious services are accompanied by the traditional music, and unique masses are held celebrating the Virgin Mary’s nine months of pregnancy. Events fill the calendar all the way to New Year’s Eve, with Funchal being an incredibly popular destination for the big countdown thanks to its spectacular fireworks displays.
On the evening itself, you can join in the tradition of twelve raisins and champagne. As you eat each raisin at the strike of midnight, make a wish for good fortune in the coming year. Once you’ve finished your last one on the twelfth strike of midnight, drink you glass of champagne and your wishes should come true. It’s a magical place to see in the New Year, with beautiful surroundings, fireworks and a welcoming atmosphere.
June is also a month of celebration, in honour of three beloved saints. St. Anthony’s Parade, The Feast of St. John and St. Peter’s Festival provide more chances to experience the vibrant Madeira Culture. And throughout the summer, even more traditional parties and religious festivals fill the streets with life, with festivities held for The Born Jesus, Lady of Piety, St. Vincent and St. Martin.
Whenever you visit Madeira you’ll be able to take in some part of its incredible culture and inspiring history. From religious celebrations, to flower festivals and folk music, you’ll find yourself delighted by the unique events on this floral paradise.