Party in Madeira’s Winter Sun

In chilly February, when everyone else is waiting out winter and longing for some sun, Madeira is dancing in the streets. This Portuguese island, just off the coast of Africa, is one of the best places in the world to celebrate Carnival.  At the end of February each year, Madeira hosts one of Europe’s biggest street parties, with warm sunny days and whirl of live music and parades, sparkle and colour.

The beauty of vibrant Carnival is that it is celebrated across the archipelago, and almost every village you visit will have its own parades and party spirit.

Of course, the historic capital Funchal is the star of the show, where the streets become a sambadrome, and dancers bedecked in sequins and feathers sashay their way through the city accompanied by huge floats and that rhythmic beat of samba music.

Join the parade

Next year, Carnival runs from February 19 to March 1, so you might want to time your visit to Madeira to coincide with its biggest party.  You’ll be swept up in the Carnival spirit as the costumed dancers, who have been preparing their choreographed routines for an entire year, take to the streets.

On Tuesday February 25 – Shove Tuesday – one of the more comical events of Carnival takes place.  The Slapstick Parade features a whole variety of volunteer troupes, who dress up, clown around and even stage satirical skits, all in their bid to make you laugh.

Take to the streets

In the week leading up to Shrove Tuesday, there are performances and live music as street entertainers take to Funchal and in particular the main Avenida Arriage.  Here you’ll see live bands play, there are magicians doing amazing tricks for the children, colourful shows and comedy skits.  It’s all a merry warm-up ahead of the big event.

During the celebrations there is a Children’s Carnival, with families in homemade masks parading through the city.

There are theme nights and fancydress events at bars, locals even stage Carnival ‘robberies’.  Traditionally, this involved people breaking into friend’s houses to ‘steal’ Carnival sweets, doughnut-like sonhos and malassadas, an event that always descended into a party.

These days it tends to be a more organised affair, with people bringing the traditional sweets and enjoying a party hosted by their friends.

Another event worth experiencing is Compadres Feast, this is held ahead of Carnval week in the city of Santana.  It represents the passing from winter to spring and features satirical sketches performed by locals and a parade of giant male and female dolls which are later burnt as symbol of regeneration.

Get out and explore the island

Carnival may be a big date in the Madeira calendar, but there is plenty more happening throughout the year.  The warm winter sunshine and beautiful scenery – think lush rainforest and volcanic peaks, tropical flowers and dramatic cliff soaring.  High above the Atlantic Ocean – Medeira has long been a favourite spot for adventurers.  Hiking routes criss-cross the mountainous island, there are beautiful cliff walks and even mountain biking routes.

Fancy trying your hand at orienteering? In January the Madeira Adventure Club hosts the Madeira Orienteering Meeting and anyone can take part in the sprint and middle-distance, to compete for the trophy.

For those up for a real challenge, the Funchal marathon takes place in January, with a mini, and half and full marathon. Don’t worry, the island maybe mountainous, but the route is flat.