Azores from A to Z: Faial Island

I focused my eyes on the distant sea and slowly brought them closer to the shore. As I did so, the dark blue sea lightened up into softer and softer shades of turquoise, before twirling into slowly moving white foam. We stood on top of the same old lighthouse that, barely 60 years so, witnessed this same very sea boiling in anger and spitting out a giant mushroom of lava and ashes.

This is the fourth instalment 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. Read the first parts here, here and here.

The eruption of the Capelinhos volcano lasted for 13 months and had a profound impact on the island. Not only did it add 2.4 square kilometres the equivalent to 500 football fields – but it also drove almost half of the population into exile.

Slowly, Tomás went up the spiraling steps of the old lighthouse. It was just before dawn, and he struggled to shake the torpor of the ill-slept night from his legs. The end of the Summer was nearing, and the chilly breeze from the sea reminded him that he had left his jacket downstairs. But there was something far more uncomfortable running through his mind.

Last night, he had witnessed a procession at a nearby village, a plead for protection against the hundreds of increasingly stronger earthquakes that had shaken the island over the last few days. Tomás was not a particularly religious man, but he was still moved by the power of those prayers, strengthened by the shimmering lights of thousands of candles and the tears running down women’s faces.

They all knew that the volcano was merely dormant, a giant sleeping for as long as they could pray for. Their only wish was that those recent earthquakes were merely a stretch from that giant, rather than an omen for its full rouse.

Halfway up the stairs, Tomás heard the dreaded signal from the whale watchers. It was a pang to his heart, as he knew was happening. From their posts, the watchers had surely seen the water boiling and rising. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation on his mind: whale watchers knew the shapes of the waves and the smell of the winds like no one. He rushed downstairs and picked up the phone to sound the warning.

Not even an hour had gone by, and the sea was now raging in full fury, roaring with deep guttural sounds. Enormous clouds of dust, ash and smoke filled the sky. Fire and water shot up to incredible heights. The sea, always his companion in loneliness, was now a terror instilling foe.

Paralysed by both fear and an illogical sense of duty, Tomás just stood there, unable and unwilling to leave his post. Alone in that lighthouse, he stood as the first line of defense against the rising hell.

All over the island, the buildings that had survived the earthquakes from the previous days were now buried under a thick mantle of ash. Crops were ruined, cattle was dead. Tears trickled down blackened faces of both men and women, young and old, brave and skittish.

Afterwards, and for countless years, Tomás would tremble with fear whenever he saw the now iconic black and white photo that shows his old lighthouse engulfed in thick clouds of smoke. In one of those tiny windows stood Tomás, the man who refused to abandon his post.

The volcano would continue to spill its guts for more than a year, until finally falling back to sleep in October 1958. By then, nearly half of island’s population had emigrated, many to the US under a special decree signed by John F. Kennedy, then a lesser known senator from Massachusetts.

Faial had always been an island with two distinct realities. The cosmopolitan Horta home to a harbour well known by all those crossing the North Atlantic stood in stark contrast to the rural villages scattered throughout the rest of the island. By poisoning fields and preventing agriculture for decades, the volcanic eruption further broadened this gap.

If you visit Faial and you should  you will be hard pressed to find any signs of the eruption, apart from the old lighthouse and a few other buildings that were left untouched, seemingly as a peace offering to the sleeping giant.

And there’s certainly no blackness in the islander’s hearts, which remain as colourful as the thousands of flags painted along Horta’s harbour. The large 20th century passenger ships and whalers that used to stop at Faial on their way across the Atlantic are long gone, replaced by small sailing yachts.

Many of these diminutive crafts, apparently too fragile for anything longer than a Sunday trip around the island, are in fact making multi-year-round-the-world trips. As Verne, Gabriel and I strolled through the harbour, we saw several of their crewmen which ranged from retired couples to entire families – painting new flags with depictions of their wanderings.

The ritual left an impression on all of us, but particularly on Verne, perhaps because his father is a retired navy officer and they always lived by the sea. The next morning, he woke up before dawn to return there. I briefly considered joining him, but the calling of a soft pillow and a warm blanket took the better of me, so I’ll let Verne tell you this part of the story:

When I got to the harbour, the sun had not yet appeared above the horizon. Hundreds of mast silhouettes were cast against a soft orange and purple sky. Apart from the gentle rocking of the waves, the boats stood motionless.

As I made my way onto the pier, the sun suddenly appeared from under the horizon, prompting a flurry of movement. Some of the crewmen were busy getting ready to set sail. Others appeared more relaxed, enjoying a cup of coffee while sitting on the deck.

A kid, perhaps eight or nine, jumped from one of those boats and walked towards me. He had a big smile and the tan of a sailor,  and set his tripod next to mine with the familiarity of someone that had done it hundreds of times,  perhaps while witnessing other mesmerizing sunrises around the world.

Later that day, the three of us drove to Caldeira, a giant volcano crater in the middle of the island. As we made our way up, Verne enthusiastically told us tales of savvy sailor kids that collected sunrises. If it wasn’t for the fact that we know nothing about boats, we would have probably convinced ourselves into making a sailing version of our round-the-world trip.

Not all was lost though, as the Caldeira hiking trail would take us on a circumnavigation trip around the big volcano. The entire crater was filled with thick clouds, twirling around like a boiling soup in a cauldron.

Gabriel, although thrilled with the hike, quickly succumbed to the gentle rocking of his carrier and fell asleep.

Verne and I continued our way around the volcano. Almost imperceptibly at first, and then faster and faster, the thick clouds gave way to an unimpeded view of the bottom of the crater. The entire scene seemed plucked from the pages of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.

Somewhere, deep beneath that monumental crater, slept the same giant that had awaken 60 years ago, spreading fire and fear throughout the island.

Jules*

32 thoughts on “Azores from A to Z: Faial Island

      1. I’ve done it already! Was just reading your adventures on San Miguelito. We’ve also been to Panama a few years ago, and fell in love with the country. Truth to be told, we were probably only in the touristic parts, but it is remarkably beautiful! – Jules

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  1. So great to see another in a series of your wonderful posts. I see that you have divided your responsibilities. Something tells me that Gabriel will soon be setting tripods with a big grin as well. 🙂 And who knows, if you find a skipper with a good fit you may really make that sail trip around the world happen some day. 😉 Marvellous photos – of that staircase! and the non-doors! – and fascinating story. Greetings to all three from springy Tuscany!

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    1. Thank you so much Manja! It is so good to always find your super nice comments on the other side 🙂 Gabriel already wants to play with daddy’s tripod, so indeed, I imagine that it won’t take long before he puts one for himself on his x-mas list. Not sure though about the RTW on a boat: I imagine that after some time you end up getting bored with the view! And although Verne is a sea person, I always feel safer with my feet on the ground…
      Tuscany must be beautiful, this time of the year, with Spring blossoming! – Jules

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  2. What a lovely post, beautifully written. It reminds me – again! – that it is the details that are important, that make the writing interesting and draw you in. I make notes for future posts when I travel, but never seem to pay enough attention to the details.
    Thanks.
    Alison

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    1. Thank you so much for such lovely words Alison! Was just reading your post on Beijing and the first words started to sound so familiar to me… we too fell for the tea scam, but in Shanghai. I feel sorry for you, but hey, it’s also part of the experience (at least that’s what I keep telling myself, after all this time!). Looking forward for your next posts! – Jules

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      1. It was definitely part of the experience. And I don’t feel sorry for me since I enjoyed the experience and it was only $40, not $400 lol. I hope they didn’t take you for too much in Shanghai! In retrospect I’m quite amazed by how naive I was, especially given how much travelling I’ve done. On the other hand we had a Thai girl approach us in Bangkok Station saying she wanted to practice her English and that’s really all it was. So sweet. It’s hard for me to live in a suspicious place.
        Looking forward to your posts too. I enjoy your writing.
        Alison

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  3. YASSSSSSS A MAP! And a wind-rose to boot! You guys must’ve had a great-great-great-great-great-great-blah-blah-father who did maps as a trade for Vasco da Gama or somebody like him; I can see you penning down the outline of the route to Galle and thence to the Spice Islands.

    Great story of Tomás. He reminds me of his modern-day counterpart, Anthonius Gunawan Agung, who alas perished. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45702619

    Some views from Azores – the dark rock, the nude concrete – brought back some echoes of Iceland, whilst the baroque building with their black stone echoed of Catania.

    Thanks guys!

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Fabrizio, I do have a father that studies 16th century cartography! I’m hoping he doesn’t pay too much attention to the accuracy of this map though, or I’ll get to hear how Vasco da Gama’s map makers were beheaded for much lesser offenses…

      – Verne

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  4. Top marks all around; the story of Tomás interweaving past and present along with the lighthouse steps, the gorgeous sunrise, the crater, the reminder that when I see the name Verne I’m reminded of the old French author (especially when it’s written by someone named Jules.)

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    1. Thank you so much Dave! We really enjoyed Faial, so it was easier to put together a story. And then mother nature did the rest, with those stunning landscapes… I see that you are in Scotland: we keep postponing a trip there, but your pictures just re-ignited our desire! – Jules

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, two things many Indonesians are familiar with. They take lives and leave paths of destruction, but they will eventually provide a fresh start for life to return. We, humans, merely take advantage of what nature gives us. I’ve been enjoying this series on the Azores!

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    1. You are quite right Bama: despite all the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, Azores is probably one of the places I’ve been where nature is more luxurious and lively. Wherever you look, you see shades of green and animals of all sorts, both above and below surface. So glad that you are enjoying this series: next on the menu will be Flores, for me the most beautiful place on earth! – Jules

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      1. Ahh, we also have an island called Flores in Indonesia because for centuries it was colonized by the Portuguese before it was ceded to the Dutch. Many people on that island still bear Portuguese surnames even today! Looking forward to your story on the Azorean Flores. 🙂

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    1. Don’t put ideas in our minds! We might do it just to get you on board!!! Now seriously, it’s time to arrange a Thailand 2.0 (can be in any part of the world, of course :))). How about Sri Lanka next year?

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