Built in the 18th century, Vila Baleira is a small village on Porto Santo Island, just off the coast of Madeira. The island’s only town was built around its harbour which has been reclaimed to turn it into a marina. A large population of feral cats have since moved into the abandoned part of the town making it their home.
The island was once very important for trade to the settlements of Madeira and Portugal but is now mainly used by tourists looking to explore its beautiful landscape, cliffs and beaches. There are very little amenities on the island apart from a church, restaurant and hotel where ferries that pass by will stop for a brief time allowing passengers to stretch their legs.
Once a year, an event is held in Vila Baleira called the Festival of Fire which has people from all over the island come together with guitars and tambourines to sing traditional folk songs around campfires. The second Friday of July sees this celebration take place until Sunday where everyone gathers for food, drink and conversation around the fire.
The marina was built in 2008 and is now a major international port for yachts and small cruise ships, particularly for those travelling to the nearby islands of Porto Santo and Madeira as this is often seen as a stepping stone before moving on towards Cape Verde and The Canary Islands. This has helped to boost the economy slightly but has also meant that many young people have now moved away from the island to find work on the mainland resulting in an ageing population.
Many houses on the island are abandoned and only a few of them are still occupied with inhabitants. Some of these houses can be seen leaning to one side, ready to collapse at any moment, while others are still in good condition.
The recent refurbishment of Vila Baleira’s church has helped to bring some life back into the town since it was nearly falling apart. The last census shows that there are currently only 260 people living on the island which is a significant drop from its peak of 2000 inhabitants during the 19th century. There are no cars on the island and transport is instead done by tractor or horse carts. Most of the residents make a living from fishing and tourism but few go out to sea now as there are much easier ways to make money such as tourism.
Local residents still remember when Madeira was hit by disastrous forest fires in 2003 that destroyed many homes and killed three people. This caused a large decrease in tourism meaning that many people lost their jobs and had to move away from the island to find employment on the mainland.
Many of the streets are narrow with small alleys leading off into other areas along with many steps which makes it difficult for vehicles to get around. As most residents live inland, there are very few roads and many of these are just tracks that lead to other small settlements.
The Pico do Arieiro which sits on the island has spectacular views over the whole archipelago and is one of Madeira’s major attractions. On a clear day it is possible to see not only Porto Santo but also parts of the African coast which are only a couple of hundred kilometres away.
The headland was formed over thousands of years by lava flows erupting from the island’s central volcano reaching the coast to form steep cliffs that tower above the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape is scattered with volcanic rocks that have tinges of green, black and red colours depending on their mineral content.