I had been vaguely aware of a slit of light coming from the window and slowly creeping towards me. It moved from the wall to the floor, then to the edge of the bed and finally onto my pillow. I woke up from my slumber when it hit the corner of my eye. I rose up and peeked through the window. A seemingly endless deep blue ocean stretched from a tangle of shoreline trees, with the rooftop of a distant house raising through the foliage. Very close to the window, an old farmer picked up strawberries from his small plot of land.
This was the first morning of our trip through Azores, a Portuguese archipelago that sits on the Atlantic Ocean, roughly a third of the way from Lisbon to New York. Our trip – scribbled below on drawing paper I pilfered from Gabriel – started in Terceira and went on for five more islands: São Jorge, Pico, Faial, Flores and Corvo. The archipelago’s remaining three islands – São Miguel, Santa Maria and Graciosa – will need a second trip.
Azores is probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen, but my usually ice-cold perspective may have been warmed by childhood memories. In my early teens, my uncle – who had married an Azorean – took me on a trip through Azores. We cycled round islands, hitched rides on pick-ups carrying foul-smelling cows, and camped on cliffs overlooking the ocean. At the end of that magical couple of weeks, my uncle dropped me off at the airport and I got to fly alone for the first time, an experience that was both terrifying and mesmerizing.
Jules – who had never been there before – also puts Azores on the top of her list, above this, this and even this. Alas, Gabriel – our recent addition that turned Jules Verne Times Two into a trio, is less impressed. His reasoning is largely lost in translation, as we have yet to master his monosyllabic language, but he seems to resent the lack of construction and excavation equipment, his latest obsession. Indeed, compared to our hometown Lisbon – a city whose new status as a trendy destination has sprouted countless construction sites – Azores is remarkably machinery-free.
He nevertheless quickly learned to take advantage of the quietness and peacefulness that surrounded the small house we stayed at, where only a grumpy old cat and a nosy cow caused occasional disturbances. Gabriel – who learned to walk since our last trip – would often spring out the always open front door, looking for the old farmer and his stash of strawberries.
That sense of quietness and peacefulness extends to the whole island. Green is the dominant colour, as rain is frequent and plenty. Everywhere, knee-high walls made of black volcanic rocks enclose individual plots of land.
Driving is a slow affair, as the next bend often hides cattle taking over the full width of the road while being transferred from one plot of land to another. Instead of impatiently tapping on the wheel while waiting for the cows to get out of the way, as one would do at a traffic light, Azoreans will instead get out of the car and chat with the fellow drivers trapped behind the bovine obstacle.
As fans of adhering to local customs, we did the same, first hesitantly, and then readily abandoning our car in the middle of the road. While Gabriel oversaw the cattle herding operations, Jules and I would get to know the Azoreans.
One of the things we most enjoy about our voyages inside Portugal is to discover the cultural nuances from one region to another. Accents are the most immediate difference, from the clipped pronunciation of Northerners to the sung softness of Southerners. Personalities and wines follow the same gradient, from the energetic North to the mellow South.
In this scale, Azoreans would be further south than even the Portugal’s southernmost Southerners. Centuries of insularity made them shy but kind, quiet but curious, restrained but happy. Take this profile with the grain of salt due to any sweeping generalization of regions and people, of course.
Indeed, the growing proximity to not only mainland Portugal but also the US East Coast (to where many Azoreans have emigrated over time, following natural cataclysms and other hardships) adds fresh ingredients to this melting pot. Don’t be surprised to hear a local give out directions to a lost tourist in a perfect Massachusetts accent.
Nevertheless, those looking for the sophistication of Boston or the opulent monuments of Lisbon will be disappointed. Throughout the centuries, this isolated archipelago served as an important but modest navigation and trading post, rarely raising much interest among the Portuguese aristocracy and settlers.
Indeed, Terceira’s largest city – Angra do Heroísmo, or Angra for short – has a population of a mere thirty-five thousand. That’s less than Panama City in Florida, US’ 1000th largest city. It may not be grand, but it is certainly fascinating. In the 15th century, Angra (‘bay’ in Portuguese) was the first settled place in the island, as the surrounding hills and extinct volcano created a secluded bay that offered protection from foes and elements.
Over the next two centuries, Angra became a regular stopover port for ships coming back from India, laden with spices and other treasures. Today, a ship travelling from the East to Europe will simply go through the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. But before this canal was dug through Egypt in the 19th century, ships would need to travel around Africa and sail northwest towards Azores before turning back East to Europe (to take advantage of prevailing winds), a convoluted path that added 7,000 km (4,400 miles) to the journey.
Sitting atop the extinct volcano that protects Angra’s bay, Jules and I contemplated the port below, imagining the flurry of those bygone days. Gabriel was less interested in the view, devoting his attention instead to the nearby playground.
The next day, the three of us made our way to the airport to catch a 30-minute flight to São Jorge, the second island on our Azorean route. Gabriel was eager to get in the small propeller plane, Jules was eager to get out.
Read the second instalment of our trip through Azores here.