The Azores: the fire-born islands

Paul Morrison tracks down the little-known Azores archipelago and reveals its best-kept travel secrets

7 mins

New Year’s Day 1980 arrived with a bang in the mid-Atlantic. Or, more accurately, with a shake. In just eleven cataclysmic seconds an earthquake stronger than any in living memory rocked the Azorean island of Terceira, leaving 61 people dead and 21,000 homeless. And as I ponder the aftermath of this great natural disaster I have visions of news reporters around the world reaching for their atlases to answer the most commonly asked question about the Azores: “So where the hell are they?”

“We’re at the fold in the map,” the residents kept telling me, which as it turns out is rather appropriate. This group of nine islands straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the line where the American and Euro-African continental plates meet, a third of the way across the Atlantic toward the New World. And it’s not quite a coincidence, for the break in the earth’s crust is what brought the Azores into being. These are not some breakaway remnants of continental partings, but the product of great eruptions from beneath the ocean floor, which accounts for the intermittent quakes and explosions that have always been a part of life in the Azores.

Three centuries before Terceira’s big shake up, the island of São Miguel experienced one of its own geological upheavals, when 200 people died in a volcanic eruption centred at a place that they now call Furnas. Today the crater holds an an idyllic lake, edged with lush woodland alive with bird song. Only the faint smell of sulphur spoils the image of Eden.

On the far side of the lake I walked out of the woodland and into a steaming vision of Hades. Bubbling mud spurted from the ground and fizzing pools of boiling water spat at the passersby.

Ana, a local guide who was born on São Miguel, explained what I was seeing. “These are what keep Furnas safe – they work like the valve on a pressure cooker.” The cooking analogy was quite appropriate, for on the edge of the steaming pools there were a number of cylindrical holes cut into the ground. Their purpose was revealed when we watched a pair of sturdy locals haul a big metal pot from out of one of them and take it across to their waiting car.

The communal kitchens at Furnas are at their busiest on summer Sundays. Families come down early to lower their metal casseroles full of meat and veg into a vacant hole. A pile of earth is shovelled on top, and then it’s back home and off to church for the next five hours, by which time Sunday lunch is ready, courtesy of nature’s steam oven.

I liked this example of taking advantage of the very forces that threaten life on the island. On a bigger scale the government’s geothermal energy programme is already supplying 20% of São Miguel’s power needs. Let’s face it, the islanders need a few breaks. The Azores have had a turbulent history, and not just in geological terms. Pirates and invaders, political strife and religious persecution, crop failures and economic crises – there’s always been something to take your mind off the next seismic rumble.

The discovery of the Azores

The Portuguese discovered the Azores in 1432 during a time in their history when their naval power and ambitions were at a peak. Their ventures along the African Atlantic coast required them to loop out into the ocean on their return to Lisbon due to the prevailing currents, and so it was a matter of time before one homeward bound vessel came across these virgin islands.

Their strategic value was immediately apparent, offering a safe stopover in the Atlantic where ships could replenish provisions. To build up this oceanic larder, King John ordered domestic animals to be shipped to the islands, and so goats, sheep and rabbits became the Azores’ first terrestrial mammals.

The first settlers soon followed, with the promise of land a-plenty and a new beginning. They had the back-breaking task of clearing the land of its volcanic debris, but the warm, wet climate and mineral rich soil proved a rich combination for a wide range of crops, from figs to pineapples, yams to bananas. As traders and explorers brought more plants to the islands, the landscape of the Azores was gradually transformed. Today São Miguel is like a boundless botanical garden. Even the woodlands have cedars from Japan and eucalypts from Australia alongside European oak and Canadian conifers. The roadsides blossom all year round with a succession of lilies, azaleas, hydrangeas and camelias. I distinctly remember my first hour on the island – the drive from the airport with the taxi-window open. I closed my eyes and inhaled the cocktail of scents, every lungful smelt different. Pure, unadulterated aromatherapy.

Visually, too, I found São Miguel to offer a potent mixture, with a puzzling yet pleasing combination of the strange and the familiar. The Iberian legacy was evident in the houses with their pantile roofs and wrought-iron balconies, but the stark contrast of white paint on black, basalt stone is a far cry from the soft pastels of Portugal.

Black, black and more black

The earth itself offers no colours at all, as if the furnace that made the islands burnt the spectrum right out of them, leaving black soil for the farmer, black stone for the builder, even black sand for the beachcomber. But you’d be wrong to consider this makes for a gloomy landscape. Like the darkened background of a theatre, the blackened earth makes the rich tones of life even more vivid – the intense greens of the vines, the dazzling profusion of wildflowers against the dry-stone walls.

There’s no doubt that volcanic origins of these rugged islands forged a distinct and pervasive character to the landscape, which in turn has reflected in its people. Politically they may still belong to Lisbon, but they consider themselves Azoreans, not Portuguese. In fact their centuries of separation from their cultural origins has meant that in many respects the links that remain are to a Europe that no longer exists. Many traditions long vanished in Portugal are still alive in the Azores, and I was to encounter a stark example of this link to the past one sunny Saturday morning in São Miguel’s capital.

As I wandered the pretty streets of Ponta Delgada, with its decorated pavements and outdoor cafes, I was forming the impression of an Old World city that was comfortably existing in the modern day. But as I rounded the corner into the main square I witnessed a scene torn straight out of history.

An elderly woman, a black shawl wrapped tightly around her head, wiped the sweat from her face and sat back on her heels to relax. Looking up to the heavens, she leant forward once more and shuffled ahead a few metres, her bloodied knees scuffing against the cobbles. Behind her a young woman was crawling painfully on all fours, her snoozing infant strapped to her back. And as I looked around the crowded square I saw dozens more scenes of silent suffering. Women of all ages were shuffling around on their knees. Many carried bundles of huge metre-long candles on their shoulders. Some were alone, others had family walking alongside to offer moral support.

It was the festival of Nosso Senhor Santo Cristo. A time for rejoicing, I was told, that dates back to 1700. Though not everyone was so keen on this style of celebration.

“It is not too good for me to see the people doing this,” declared Father Tavares as he surveyed the square with disapproval. “I ask them, ‘What are you doing, why are you doing that?’ And they answer, ‘It’s my secret,’ or 'I made a promise.’ ”

The priest walked across to a woman, clearly in pain, as she inched her way forward to the chapel where her penance would end. He leant down and spoke briefly to her, then turned back to translate in a low, quivering voice.

“She says that her son is very sick, so she promised God if he can help she will do this.” Father Tavares took a deep breath and composed himself. “I can do nothing,” he sighed, the despair evident in his voice, “Nothing.”

I recalled a phrase of Ana’s, when she sought to explain why most Azoreans still cling so dearly to the Catholic church. “It is because of the volcanoes,” she had declared. I suppose that a religion preaching heaven and hell should indeed do well amongst a people so familiar with fire and brimstone. Here in Ponta Delgada I could see just how deep the feelings went.

The island of Pico

The island of Pico lies in the heart of the Azores. And at the heart of Pico is Pico Alto – a volcano that looks just like a volcano should – tall and pointy and menacing. For centuries its elegant cone has been a landmark for sailors nearing the islands. But it wasn’t the ominous mountain that had lured me to Pico. Not even the spectacular fields of frozen lava than run down its slopes to the sea. I had come to Pico for whales.

“I’m not going to promise anything!” declared Serge, in his thick French accent. But the bright look in his eye told me all I needed to know – if there are whales around Pico, then Serge is the fellow to find them. He’s been there six years now, taking a growing number of tourists out in his motorised dinghy, from his base in the old whaling port of Lajes. The last whale hunt in the Azores was in 1987, and the story of how this bloody business has been superseded by a benign leisure activity will gladden the hearts of any conservationist. But the greatest and most satisfying irony is an unlikely allegiance between a key figure in the hunting community and the newly formed business of whale-watching.

“When I first came to the island I told people that I wanted to see whales,” recounts Serge. “That was how I was introduced to João.”

Everyone spoke about João in Lajes, and in my few days there I would come to understand why. For 36 years his eyes had spotted the whales and guided the hunt to their quarry from the local look-out tower. No-one could find whales better than João; though Serge hadn’t quite appreciated this at first.

“When I first explained to João what I wanted he said, ‘OK – pay me 5000 escudos now and tomorrow you will see whales.’ The next day I went out in my old Zodiac and João stayed on shore with my radio transmitter so he could give me directions. “Go further out!” he kept saying. And so I kept going and going. But after seven miles out I thought, this old man is sitting in a bar drinking beer with my money and thinking, ‘Crazy Frenchman!’. But I went another half a mile and stopped the boat where he told me. Five minutes later a huge sperm whale exploded to the surface just 200 metres away.”

That was how the island’s first whale-watching business began. An extraordinary and very effective partnership between the old and the new way of exploiting the whale – though Serge did have to teach João to apply his skills to a wider range of subjects. There are believed to be 20 species of whales and dolphin in Azorean waters, but in João’s day only one of them mattered – the sperm whale.

“Everything else was just ‘fish’,” Serge explained. “The sperm whale was hunted for its oil and because it is one of the only whales that floats when it’s dead. With the traditional way of hunting in small boats they could not hunt the other large whales.”

It was this persistence of the traditional hunting methods that made the these whalers so different. Azoreans began whaling in the 18th century, using methods picked up from the New England whaling boats that hunted throughout the Atlantic. And two hundred years later they had hardly changed. At the Whaling Museum in Lajes there are photographs and artifacts of the whole operation, giving a real insight into the life in a whaling community. The museum’s Director, Francisco Medeiros, helped me understand. “It was the same method of hunting as in Moby Dick, using the hand-thrown harpoon, the lance and the rowing boat.”

He began to explain how the hunt worked, and it all began with a watchman, such as João, in a vigia (lookout tower). When João spotted a whale he would light a rocket which would shoot over the town and bring the huntsmen running from the hillside. For there were no full-time whalers in Lajes – they were all farmers with land to work. They responded to the signal like volunteer lifeboatsmen, and in a matter of minutes they were out on the water, whilst João gave directions from the tower, originally with flags, but later using radio.
Once they had reached the whale the harpooner would hurl a barbed harpoon into its back and then the real work would begin.

A wild account

Carlos, a curator at the museum, and whose father was the last harpooner to work in the islands, gave me a vivid account of what happened.

“The harpoon did not kill the whale – it was just to get the whale attached to the boat. Once the whale was tired they would tug on the line and get closer to it, and then the harpooner would throw a lance many times – it is this that would kill it. It could take minutes, hours, maybe all day to kill a whale.”

But it wasn’t always one-sided, for the thrashings of a wounded whale could be lethal. “They would not hunt whales less than the length of the boat, so imagine a whale over 15  metres long next to a 12 metre boat. Some of the men did not know how to swim, so if anything happened, that was it.”

Carlos could not really explain why they persisted with this method. The developments in whaling technology, which elsewhere brought about the mass slaughter that threatened so many species’ existence, would have made their lives a lot easier. But the whalers of the Azores did not want to be associated with industrialised whale hunters, whom they still call ‘assassins’.

These days the whale hunters in these waters are armed only with cameras. And all this talk of the ocean was making me restless to join them. The next day I had an appointment with Serge.

Cetacean encounters

It was a perfect day to go out. The ocean was like a lake, the morning sun had burnt the dawn mists away, and the elegant cone of Pico Alto was without its usual garland of cloud. A mile from shore João’s instructions crackled over the radio as Serge listened intently.
“Hold tight!” he yelled. And the Zodiac burst into life and took us bouncing across the surface at an exhilarating pace. After a prolonged and enthralling encounter with an exhuberant school of common dolphins, we took another teeth-jarring ride across the water towards our thrill of the day, a large group of pilot whales.

Cautious yet curious

When Serge cut the engine we bobbed gently on the ocean whilst the cautious yet curious whales encircled us. The calm power of these graceful creatures held us spellbound, their long, dark bodies and dome-shaped heads gliding through the water. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves and the occasional breaths of our cetacean companions, which sounded like great exaltations to keep the peace. “Sssshhh!” went the pilot whales, and we obeyed their commands, involuntarily resorting to theatrical whispers to communicate – though all along they were talking behind our backs.

Serge lowered a hydrophone over the side to eavesdrop on their conversation, and immediately we could make out a medley of sounds amongst the white noise of the deep. A mixture of echo-location clicks and a squeaky dialogue that left us desperate for an interpreter.

On our journey back to port we passed alongside the cliff, where a white tower, like a windmill bereft of sails, stood perched near the edge.

“Wave to João!” Serge commanded. And we did, in gratitude and respect. Then Serge opened up the throttle and we skimmed like a stone all the way back home.

In the cool of his tower, João sees all on the ocean, and the spartan workplace has everything he needs for his quiet hours of vigil. A glass statue of the Virgin stands next to his ashtray; a nautical chart on the wall above the radio set. Squatting on his stool he peered through his binoculars, then turned around to speak.

“I remember seeing people dying in the hunting time,” he said softly, glancing back out to the sea. His gentle voice and calm manner seemed so out of context with these violent scenes. But I knew that whaling was ingrained in this community, so I had to ask him which he preferred – the excitement of the hunt, or the new benign alternative.

“I prefer it now – it’s more fun and less dangerous. And I’m better paid!”

But doesn’t he feel like joining us out on the water, in the thick of the action?

“No thanks, I prefer it here – I can sit down and drink my beer; I don’t get wet, I don’t get sick and I don’t get sunburnt – I see the same as you!”

João’s wisdom when it comes to whales is certain. But Serge’s partner, Alexandra, had let me in on a secret. João, she alleged, would never let women look through his binoculars. He was convinced that they would damage the lenses if they were having their period. Was this true?

“If it’s a weak binocular it’s OK, but a strong one – no way. It would be crazy. Once it happened and I knew she had it because they didn’t work anymore. So I threw them away and got another pair.”

João’s conviction made me smile

Listening to him speak made me think again about the people of Lajes. Their lives were tough, on land and at sea. When the world decided it had no more need for whale products – or it was economics that brought the industry to an end – some just stayed on the land, some turned to tuna-fishing, whilst others looked out across the water for the dream of a new life elsewhere.

People have been leaving the Azores almost as soon as they arrived, and today you’ll find Azorean communities in North America, Brazil and the Caribbean, established centuries ago by disenchanted or dispossessed islanders. They left on the trading and whaling ships that stopped off on their trans-Atlantic journeys, and whenever the roller-coaster of economic fortunes hit bottom in the islands, another wave of Azoreans would follow. The intermittent earthquake or volcano offered additional jolts of encouragement. And then there were the man-made perils that have plagued the islands, for there’s certainly nothing pacific about these Atlantic islands’ history.

The island of Terceira was for centuries the focal point of warfare in the Azores. From early time pirates preyed upon its coastal settlements, and then, in the sixteenth century, King Philip of Spain set his sights on the islands, with Terceira as the would-be stronghold.
Stern resistance, including a famous encounter in which villagers drove the invaders back into the sea with their fighting bulls, kept the Spanish at bay for a while. But in 1583 they took Angra, the capital, and began a brutal regime that lasted for almost 60 years.
Spanish rule gave its foe on the high seas – the British – another target for attack. Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh played the parts of pirates in these waters, attacking Spanish galleons returning from South America or coastal settlements deemed to have Spanish allegiance.

In the Second World War Azorean waters became a notorious stronghold for German U-boats, who mercilessly attacked the transatlantic convoys supplying Britain. Too remote to offer aerial support from the mainland, and with Portugal staying neutral in the War, for a long time there was nothing the Allies could do but run the gauntlet and hope. But eventually Lisbon succumbed to Allied ‘persuasion’, an airbase was established on Terceira, and the battle for the Atlantic was turned.

I found it hard to appreciate this history of warfare and disaster when strolling through the peaceful, picturesque streets of Angra. After the devastation of the 1980 earthquake it was declared a UN World Heritage Site, prompting an impressive exercise in rebuilding and restoration that continues today. It’s a lesson in Azorean perseverance, for it seems likely that whatever nature chooses to destroy on these beautiful islands, there will be people ready to build it back up again.

That is not to say the Azores won’t change, and as more visitors discover its unspoilt attractions, tourism will play a bigger part in its economy. But I can’t see another Algarve in the making – the islands are just too distinct and, perhaps, too remote to succumb to those spoiling forces.

In the end it hardly seems to matter what grand plans people may harbour for the Azores, for there is one pervasive factor that will never disappear. One that forged the unique character of these very special islands. And anyone who forgets this will sooner or later find themselves standing on decidedly shaky ground.

The islands

The Autonomous Region of the Azores (poopulation: around 250,000), sitting in the Atlantic about 1,500km west of Portugal, is part of the Portuguese republic, though has its own President.

There are nine islands in three groups: Corvo and Flores are the western group; Graciosa, Faial, Pico, São Jorge and Terceira are the central group; São Miguel and Santa Maria the eastern.

São Miguel: The largest and most populous island with the capital, Ponte Delgada. Good walking, famous for its lakes. Has the most facilities for tourists.

Faial: Stopping off point for transatlantic yachts at the main town of Horta.

Pico: Rugged island, dominated by the volcano, Pico Alto. Base for whalewatching.

Terceira: Some of the finest architecture, and most flamboyant festivals. Famous for bullfighting which does not involve killing the bull, but wrestling or pulling with ropes.

São Jorge: Fringed by sheer cliffs. Centre of the Azores’ dairy industry.

Graciosa: Of interest to potholers, geologists and divers. Also has the most windmills.

Santa Maria: Tranquil. Good diving.

Flores: Perhaps the prettiest island, named after its profusion of flowers. Good watersports.

Corvo: Smallest and most isolated of the islands, with only one village. Very little accommodation.

When to go: Temperate maritime climate. Average temperatures range from 14-30C in winter to 22-30C in summer. Humidity is high. Be prepared for showers – take waterproofs. May to November are the best months to visit, but weather can be changeable at any time.

Related Articles