Sao Joao da Madeira - Portugal's Shoe Capital


Portugual’s smallest municipality, on the road from the northern city of Oporto (home of the tipple “port”) to Coimbra, is also its shoe capital. The “Madeira” in the name is not directly-related to the Atlantic island and popular tourist destination: it simply means “wood” in Portuguese and refers to the extensive forests that used to cover the area. In full the name means “Saint John (the Baptist) by the Wood”.


Originally a Celtic settlement, and then going through the usual Iberian ritual of belonging to the Romans, Visigoths and then the Moors, before being taken for the Kingdom of Portugal in the early Middle Ages, the small town rose as an industrial centre making hats in the 19th Century. During this time local worthy António José de Oliveira Júnior played a prominent role in expanding the nascent industry of the town, and thanks to his energy and efforts it hosted the largest factory in Iberia by the end of the 19th Century.


In more recent times hat manufacturing has declined, although it remains important to the town, and shoemaking has risen in prominence to replace it. The small city is known in Portuguese as a Capital da Calçada (The Capital of Shoes) and hosts many of Portugal’s shoe manufacturers, as well as related educational establishments such as the Centro Tecnológico do Calçado (Footwear Technology Centre) and Centro de Formação Profissional da Indústria do Calçado (Footwear Industry Centre for Professional Learning).


The town’s shoe output is mainly, though not exclusively, luxury styles, many of which have proven popular in China. In an attempt to beat the economic downturn, the city’s administration in 2014 took the unusual step of making instruction in the Mandarin Chinese language compulsory for 8 – 9 year olds. The idea was to give the local youth an advantage when dealing with China that is generally lacking: outside of specialist educational establishments Mandarin is still not widely-taught in Europe despite the increasing importance of China on the world stage.


The inroads achieved by shoes made in a small northern Portuguese town in China, the world’s factory, may seem strange, but it should be remembered that China’s success is built upon churning out large quantities of inexpensive, yet relatively low-quality, goods, and Sao Joao da Madeira’s specialisation in luxury shoes has gained the interest of an affluent section of the Chinese population who have a taste for luxury, especially European-style luxury, and are increasingly fond of handmade Portuguese footwear (the second most expensive in the world after Italian-made shoes).


The language policy seems to have gone down well with the local children, many of whom have gained an interest in China’s culture and history, with some expressing an interest in visiting China. This generation may grow up to be fluent Mandarin-speakers with a strong advantage when doing business with China. The town’s shoemakers eye the Asian Giant as their future main market, and in doing so echo the aspirations of their ancestors, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in their sturdy wooden ships with a view to sailing to China and accessing the famed riches of the Orient.