The municipality of Calheta is the more extense in Madeira Island, with an area of around 116km2, is located in the far west of Madeira and has population of 12.000 people.
With an area measuring roughly 116 km2 (corresponding to about 15% of the Island), Calheta is the largest municipality on the Archipelago. Situated on the far south western part of the Island, it was among the first regions to be populated.
There are 8 civil parishes with a current population of about 11,521 inhabitants (Censos 2011). Calheta was perhaps the birthplace of a great portion of emigrants forming the Madeiran diaspora.
According to a decision made by the Municipal Assembly the municipal holiday of Calheta is celebrated on the 24th of June, feast day of Saint John the Baptist. The annual municipal festival is also held during this period, and for a week, many different activities take place from exhibitions to concerts to sporting events.
Calheta is made by eight parishes: Arco da Calheta, Calheta, Estreito da Calheta, Fajã da Ovelha, Jardim do Mar, Paul do Mar, Ponta do Pargo e Prazeres.
Arco da Calheta Parish
The name Arco da Calheta comes from two elements. Firstly, arco (meaning arch) is a description of the semi-circular shape the hills form; Secondly da Calheta refers to the close proximity to the neighbouring civil parish of Calheta. This parish was one of the very first to be settled and subsequently farmed and is one of the wealthiest in artistic and patrimonial treasures. It was here that João Fernandes Andrade, known as João Fernandes do Arco settled at the end of the 15th century. He owned vast lands of wheat, sugar mills and slaves, and set up a home with a private chapel and chaplain. Arco da Calheta is mainly irrigated by a branch of the important Levada do Rabaçal and another known as Madre Grande, which has its origins in Paul da Serra. This parish’s confining limits are the civil parishes of Madalena do Mar, Canhas and Calheta.
Civil Parish founded in 1430. The name Calheta meaning cove or inlet presumably refers to the small bay that serves as port for the area. This region was chosen by João Gonçalves Zarco for the purpose of bestowing land to his children João Gonçalves da Câmara and Dona Beatriz.
It is one of the oldest civil parishes on the island and one of the first to be explored by the early settlers. With virgin land for the noble lords and knights to inhabit, their legacy lives on today in the place names of the hills that make up this region: Lombo do Doctor; Lombo da Atouguia.
Estreito da Calheta Parish
Civil parish created in the 14th century with its origins in a Hacienda granted to Polish Fidalgo André Gonçalves de França. His son, João de França, built the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Graça (Our Lady of Grace), where the new parish would later be created and installed and also the seat of the estate he founded in 1503. Another early settler, judge of orphans (person who would regulate all matters concerning orphans) and noble squire, Francisco Homem de Gouveia established himself here in the 16th century and founded the estate and chapel of Reis Magos (Wise Men).
The name Estreito meaning strait (gorge, valley or deep), originated possibly in reference to a smaller area taking on this description because the civil parish, as a whole, does not present this orographic layout.
A region of enormous natural beauty “The houses up there, right on the mountain crest; the fields at your feet, subject to the persistent work of men…the smell of fresh earth, the orchards and the abundance…This is Estreito da Calheta, authentic, sunny and real. Just waiting for a sensitive visitor to enjoy.”
Fajá da Ovelha Parish
The name Fajã da Ovelha (Land slip/deposit of Sheep) may be related to the settlement on collapsed land that had worryingly reaped a sheep. The incident remained alive among the population’s memory attaching itself to the area, and from there it spread to the whole parish.
This civil parish was founded in the mid-16th century and its headquarters were based at the Manueline influenced Chapel of São Lourenço (Saint Lawrence). One of the very first settlers (15th century) was Gonçalo Ferreira de Carvalho who owned land there. This parish merits much interest from those curious about the past, many marks are still maintained by the stillness of the present.
Jardim do mar Parish
Jardim do Mar (Garden of the sea) started off as a parsonage dependent firstly on Prazeres and then secondly on Paul do Mar. Its creation dates to the second quarter of the 18th century. It lays on a Fajã (land-deposit), formation unknown but most likely prior to the discovery of the Island. The beauty of the place, once carpeted with wildflowers, is the origin of the name Jardim do Mar and is reflected in other place names such as Sítio das Roseiras (Place of the rose bushes). On the waterfront, where there once stood a fountain, the ruins of the old mill indicate the sugar wealth of this civil parish.
Other symbolic traces of the past are some of the prismatic chimneys and the houses that surround the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário. Framed by the sea and enclosed by cliffs, the tranquillity and quietness of years gone by are preserved in this parish, scattered in its typical narrow streets, low houses and decorative chimneys. This parish borders the civil parishes of Paul do Mar, Prazeres and Calheta.
Paul do Mar Parish
The name comes from the orography of the parish which according to Dean Gonçalves Andrade, the area “forms a valley under tall cliffs, by the sea”. One of the earliest settlers, João Anes do Couto founded the chapel of Santo Amaro, the former parish seat.
The sea, abundant in fish, is of great importance to the local population so much so that in 1912 the tuna canning industry developed there. The old chimney of the factory bears witness to the now extinct activity.
Ponta do Pargo Parish
The precise date of foundation is unknown, but it is believed to be prior to 1560. Located at the extreme southwest of the Island, the name Ponta do Pargo (Tip of the Snapper) is allusive to an episode that happened to the explorers while discovering the Madeiran coast line. Whilst fishing on Severo Afonso’s ship the sailors reeled in a huge fish similar to a snapper, thus giving the name Ponta do Pargo.
Much of the land here belonged to Garcia da Câmara and to Afonso Henriques Lord of Alcáçovas (16th century). The coast of Ponta do Pargo is extremely treacherous to navigate, resulting in the construction of a light house on the very top of a cliff (Ponta da Vigia), it was opened 5th June 1922. It is very different to the rest of the Island, its flatness, size and suave terrain are contributing factors.
Quiet and original, this parish maintains its charm all year round. The main religious festivities and the Pear Festival give it new points of interest.
Originally linked to Estreito da Calheta, the civil parish of Prazeres became independent on 18th December 1676. Its name comes from a small chapel dedicated to Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres (Our Lady of Joy), built prior to the creation of the civil parish.
Natural beauty has the power to elevate the senses and with the landscapes here, it is easy to understand why. The parish its self is an extensive natural viewpoint from where you can view seemingly distant places, in perfect symbiosis with the ocean, forming an exclusive meeting point between land and the sea.