Portugal’s Madeira islands are a favorite European holiday spot, and famously the birthplace of soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo.
The archipelago is particularly prized among German tourists who made up more than 28% of the 1.3 million visitors in 2017, just behind the nearly 29% from Britain, according to official statistics.
Closer to Africa than Europe, Madeira lies 500 kilometers off the coast of Morocco and is about 1,000 kilometers southwest of Lisbon. With two main islands, Madeira and Porto Santo, it is home to 270,000 people, more than 130,000 of whom live in the capital Funchal.
The main island is 57 kilometers long and 22 kilometers wide, making up 90% of the archipelago’s land surface. Known as the Pearl of the Atlantic, it has a mild climate, a volcanic landscape and an abundance of colorful flowers.
Neglected for centuries by the mainland, the once poor province has undergone spectacular modernization over the past 40 years, thanks largely to European Union funds. The rapid urbanization has brought in significant infrastructure to cater for the flocks of tourists, including luxury hotels, airports, marinas, motorways and road tunnels. For instance, the Funchal seafront is in particular lined with hotels.
The construction boom was largely overseen by island’s president between 1978 and 2015, Alberto Joao Jardim, whom green groups accused of promoting urban sprawl with little regard for the environment. It also clocked up a massive debt that brought Madeira to the brink of default.
Many Britons have taken up residence in the archipelago and once controlled the production of its famous fortified sweet Madeira wine.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill is among its most famous visitors, staying in what he called the “Floating Garden in the Atlantic” in the 1950s.
Funchal is also proud to have been the place where Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sissi, stayed in the mid-19th century to recover from tuberculosis.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was born in a poor area of Funchal in 1985 and has established a museum there, called Museu CR7, where his trophies are on display. In March 2017 the main Madeira airport was renamed in his honor. CE/JB