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Stopover presentation: Funchal

Third cruise stop: Funchal, Portugal

Funchal, capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira, off the coast of Morocco, has a history spanning centuries of exploration, colonization and economic development.


A little history...

The history of Funchal begins with the era of Portuguese discovery. In 1419, Portuguese explorers João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira discovered the island of Madeira. Attracted by the dense forests and lush landscapes, in 1421 they founded a colony on the southern coast, which later became Funchal. The name “Funchal” is said to come from the Portuguese word “funcho”, which means fennel, a plant abundant in the region.

In the 16th century, Madeira became the world's largest producer of sugar. Funchal's natural port facilitates trade and the island's sugar plantations bring wealth to the region. Today, only 3 sugar cane processing factories remain of this golden age. The city's growth was also influenced by other cultures such as wine and the production of precious woods.

At the same period, due to its strategic location in the Atlantic, Funchal faced numerous pirate attacks over. In 1566, the town was attacked by the buccaneer Peyrot de Monluc, younger son of Blaise de Monluc, Marshal of France. Funchal was sacked, its inhabitants massacred, churches pillaged and nuns raped. Peyrot de Monluc is killed during the capture of the city.

In response to these attacks, Portuguese authorities fortified the city, building defensive structures such as Fort São Tiago and Fort São João to protect against raids.

Le fort Sao Tiago
Le fort Sao Tiago

In the 18th century, Madeira wine gained international fame and became a major export product. The port of Funchal is an essential stopover for ships traveling between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The British played an important role in the island's wine trade, notably by establishing cellars.

The 19th century brought modernization to Funchal. The city has grown and infrastructure has improved. The opening of the railway at the end of the 19th century improved transport within the island. The railway line was nevertheless abandoned in 1943 and replaced by a road.

In the 20th century, tourism became increasingly important to Funchal's economy, with visitors attracted by the island's natural beauty and favorable climate.

Today, Funchal is a dynamic and cosmopolitan city. It has turned to tourism, with its historic sites like the Sé Cathedral and the tropical garden of Monte Palace and its modern facilities. It continues to honor its maritime heritage and remains a gateway to exploring the picturesque landscapes of Madeira.

My selection of sites to visit

Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption Cathedral: This Gothic-style cathedral, dating from the 15th century, is one of the most emblematic monuments in Funchal. The building is constructed with blocks of volcanic rock transported from the cliffs of Cape Girão. The facades are mainly coated and painted white, with stone corners1.

The roof of the cathedral, made of cedar wood, is of Mudejar inspiration (Muslims who became subjects of the Christian kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragon and Portugal). The wooden choir stalls depict prophets, saints and apostles in 16th-century costume. The seats and armrests are decorated with scenes from Madeira life, such as cherubs carrying a bunch of bananas or a bottle of wine.

Notre-Dame de l'assomption
Notre-Dame de l'assomption

Monte Palace Tropical Garden (Jardim Tropical Monte Palace): located on a hill overlooking Funchal, this garden today boasts some 100,000 plant species from around the world. From this vast collection, spread over an area of 77 hectares, the century-old cycads, considered as living fossils, stand out.

The garden also houses the Monte Palace Museum, which displays a collection of art and objects.

Madeira Botanical Garden (Jardim Botânico da Madeira): Covering an area of 8 hectares, the Madeira Botanical Garden is home to more than 2,000 exotic plants from all continents, some of which are endangered in their place of origin. Faced with the increasing loss of biodiversity and habitats around the world, this space also includes a research and conservation zone, which aims to preserve endangered species.

Fort São Tiago: this historic fortress, built in the 17th century to defend against pirate attacks. Visitors can explore the museum's exhibits and enjoy views of Funchal's harbor from the fortress walls. Construction of the fort began in mid-1614, under the responsibility of Reais Jerónimo Jorge, the royal master builder. It was then completed by his son, Bartolomeu João.

This urban fort, of military architecture, served various purposes: from the cantonment of British troops or the military police, to sheltering victims of the flood that occurred in 1803, including the installation in this space of the Museum of Contemporary Art, in 1992 (transferred in 2015 to Casa das Mudas, in Calheta).

Les carreiros
Les carreiros

Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmers Market): Lively market in the heart of Funchal, Mercado dos Lavradores offers fresh produce, flowers, local crafts and traditional Madeiran specialties. It’s a great place to experience the local culture. The building, which was designed by Edmundo Tavares, features typical Estado Novo architecture. Its size and location reflect the intention of making Mercado dos Lavradores the city's major supply center. The facade, the main door and the fishmonger are decorated with large tile panels from 1940, from the Faiança Battistini factory of Maria de Portugal, painted with regional themes by João Rodrigues

Funchal Old Town (Zona Velha): Stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town to discover charming squares, colorful houses, and local shops. Rua de Santa Maria, in particular, is known for its painted doors created as part of an art project.

Sled ride from Monte to Funchal: For a unique experience, take a traditional wicker sled ride from Monte to Funchal. The ride is an exciting way to descend steep streets, guided by carreiros (drivers). The route begins under the steps of the Monte church. This small village perched on the hills overlooking Funchal, 6 km from the center of the capital, was once a spa resort for European high society.

Madeira Wine Lodges: Explore the wine culture of Funchal by visiting one of Madeira's famous wine lodges. These wineries offer tours and tastings, giving an insight into the production of the famous Madeira wine.

Some local personalities...

Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria (1837-1898) came to treat her ailing nerves in Funchal in 1860.

Charles I of Austria (1887-1922), last emperor of Austria-Hungary, in exile since 1921, died the following year and buried in Funchal, in the Da Nossa senhora do Monte church. Beatified in 2004.

La statue de Sissi, place du Casino à Funchal
La statue de Sissi, place du Casino à Funchal

Marie-Amélie of Brazil: at the beginning of 1852, she became engaged to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, brother of Emperor Francis Joseph I. She contracts tuberculosis and has to go to Madeira for treatment. Seriously affected by illness, she died in Funchal in 1853. Very touched by the disappearance of his fiancée, Archduke Maximilian undertook a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the princess, to Portugal and Brazil. This trip subsequently greatly influenced his acceptance of the Mexican imperial crown in 1864, with the dramatic consequences that we know.

Cristiano Ronaldo (1985-), football player.

Culinary foray...

Espetada: This is a popular dish consisting of skewers of marinated and grilled beef or other meats, often flavored with garlic, bay leaves and wine. Espetada is usually served with milho frito (fried corn) or salad.

Bolo do Caco: Traditional bread from Madeira, Bolo do Caco is a flat, round bread made from sweet potato and baked on a caco, a type of flat basalt stone. It is often served with garlic butter and parsley and can accompany a variety of dishes.


Lapas com Molho de Manteiga e Limão: Lapas are limpets, a type of shell commonly found in the coastal waters of Madeira. They are often prepared with a sauce made from butter and lemon, creating a savory and flavorful dish.

Milho Frito: Made from corn, milho frito is a side dish consisting of polenta cubes fried until crispy. It is often served with meat dishes or as a stand-alone snack.

Madeira: its method of production is partly due to chance: in order to better preserve it during navigation in the tropics, the British supplemented it with sugar cane alcohol. It was upon observing that this mixture, stirred for weeks in the overheated holds of ships, acquired remarkable taste qualities that we attempted to reproduce these conditions: it was therefore stirred and steamed at 50°C for several weeks to produce the madeira, titrated at 18°C, and of which there are four varieties: Malvasia (sweet, the sweetest), bual (semi-sweet), verdelho (semi-dry) and sercial (dry).

In his art history lectures, Fabrice Roy combines the past with the present, in a poetic and playful evocation of the 19th century in France...


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