Posted by: Author | January 9, 2013

Porto Santo

General Information

Porto Santo lies 43 km northeast of Madeira.

Zarco and his crew took shelter here in 1418, while on their way to explore the west coast of Africa. Realizing that the island would be a useful base, he returned here in 1419 to plant the Portuguese flag, going on to Madeira the following year. Early settlers introduced rabbits and goats, which quickly stripped the island of its vegetation, so Porto Santo is not as green as Madeira. Instead, the “Golden Island” has one major asset: its magnificent sandy beach, which brings holiday makers from Madeira and mainland Europe in search of sunshine, sea and the agreeable sense of being a very long way from the busy world.

Map Porto Santo Island, Madeira
The Beach On top of Porto Santo’s volcanic rocks, limestone, sandstone and coral were laid down millions of years ago, beneath a warm, shallow sea. Falling sea levels exposed the coral to erosion, and the result is the magnificent 10-km sweep of sand that runs along the southern side of the island. Backed by dunes and tamarisk trees, the beach is clean, wild and undeveloped, but bathers are never far from a beachside café. Enjoying the beach may have therapeutic benefits: burying yourself in the sand is said to bring relief from rheumatism and arthritis.
Vila Baleira All life on the island centres on the capital, which sits roughly halfway along the southern coast. Pavement cafés fill the main square, Largo do Pelourinho (“Pillory Square”), where offenders were once punished and public proclamations read out. The town hall, with its double staircase flanked by dragon trees, now stands on the site of the pillory. The cobbled pavement in front has a glass-topped, stone-lined pit, which was once used for storing grain.
Nossa Senhora da Piedade To the east of the main square in Vila Baleira stands the majestic parish church, Nossa Senhora da Piedade, completed in 1446. Gothic rib-vaulting and rainwater spouts carved with human and animal heads have survived from this earlier church, which was torched by pirates, then rebuilt in 1667. The 17th-century altar painting of Christ being laid in his tomb is by Martím Conrado. The saints on either side were painted in 1945 by German artist Max Romer.
Casa Museu Cristóvão Colombo Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) came to Madeira in 1478 as the agent for a Lisbon sugar merchant. Here he met and married Filipa Moniz, daughter of the governor of Porto Santo. Their son was born in 1479, but Filipa died soon after the birth, and Columbus left the islands in 1480. The house where he and Filipa are said to have lived is now a museum, displaying portraits of Columbus, maps of his voyages and models of his vessels.
The Seafront The palm-lined path leading from the centre of Vila Baleira to the seafront is flanked by landscaped gardens dotted with rusty cannons. There are also memorials to Columbus (a bust set on a pedestal), to the 16th-century soldiers and sailors who colonized Madeira (an obelisk carved with abstract figures), and to the sailors who used to risk their lives crossing heavy seas to keep Porto Santo supplied with food and firewood (a bronze statue of a sailor at the rudder of a boat).
Pico de Ana Ferreira Porto Santo consists of a saddle of land between two groups of cone-shaped volcanic peaks. At 283 m, the Pico de Ana Ferreira is the highest of the summits at the more developed western end of the island. A road up its southern slopes will take you as far as the 17th-century Church of São Pedro. From there, a track leads around the peak to a disused quarry featuring an interesting formation of prismatic basalt columns aptly known as the “Organ Pipes”.
Ponta da Calheta The westernmost tip of the island is a beautiful spot, with a series of secluded sandy coves reached by scrambling over wave-eroded rocks. From the bar and restaurant at the end of the coast road, you can look across to Ilhéu de Baixo, the large, uninhabited rocky islet south-west of Porto Santo. Madeira, too, is visible on the distant horizon, resembling a huge whale, and usually capped by clouds.
Zimbralinho Zimbralinho is the most beautiful of all the little rocky coves nestling along the western flank of the island, its transparent blue seas popular with swimmers and divers. The cove is at its best around lunchtime, as it is shaded earlier and later in the day. The path to the cove starts at the end of the road that leads to the Centro Hipico, at the western end of the island.
Fonte da Areia Water once bubbled straight out of the sandstone cliffs at Fonte da Areia (“Fountain of Sand”), but in 1843 the spring was tamed, and you can now taste the natural, rock-filtered mineral water by simply turning a tap. The path to the spring leads down a wind-eroded gully, where the cliffs have been sculpted into laminated sheets of harder and softer rock. Lovers have carved their names on the rock face, but so ferocious is the scouring wind that declarations of perpetual love inscribed 10 years ago are now growing faint.
Pico do Castelo The high peak to the east of Vila Baleira is called Castle Peak, though despite its name, it was never fortified. From the 15th century on it was used as a place of refuge whenever pirates threatened to attack. It was equipped with a cannon, which still survives at the lookout point near the summit. A cobbled road takes you all the way to the lookout, past the cypress, cedar and pine trees that have been planted to turn the slopes from sandy to green.
Porto Santo

Outdoor Activities

Diving Thanks to unpolluted seas and the absence of commercial fishing, Porto Santo’s shores are rich in marine life. See for yourself with Porto Santo Sub, based at the marina.
Beachcombing Take a leisurely stroll along the unbroken sands from Vila Baleira to Ponta da Calheta. Tropical shells and the occasional bean-shaped seed (known as “Columbus Beans”, because they are said to have inspired the explorer to look for land on the other side of the Atlantic) often wash up on the shore.
Horse riding Porto Santo’s newly opened Centro Hípico (Equestrian Centre) takes beginners, and is located at Ponta, at the western end of the island. Location: Centro Hipico, Ponta.
Exploring Taxis offer reasonably priced island tours, but if you prefer to explore independently, you can hire a car for the day or rent out bicycles and scooters.
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