By Alison Appelbe
Nelly Furtado may be the Azores’ biggest claim to fame — in Canada at least. The superstar singer was born in Victoria to parents from Sao Miguel, the largest of nine islands in the Azorean archipelago, 1,300 kilometres west of mainland Portugal.
Today the Azores is an emerging tourist destination — visited mainly by northern Europeans in pursuit of mild weather, spectacular volcanic scenery, abundant flora, quiet coves and beaches, and a distinctly laid back way of life.
It wasn’t always so. From the 16 th century until the advent of satellite technology in the 20 th , these scattered islands, approached on favourable trade winds, were an essential port of call for most ships sailing between Europe, West Africa, the Americas and the Far East. In other words, the Azores was a strategic and renowned location.
Ordinary islanders spent much of their time fending off buccaneers and pirates — when they weren’t subsistence farming. For all but a few wealthy landowners in what is today the Azorean capital of Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, and the important port city of Angra do Heroismo, on the island of Terceira, the Azores was a tough backwater.
Thousands of islanders, like the Furtados, emigrated to Canada, the U.S. and South America. Little wonder then that when you stop on a rural road to chat with a man on a donkey laden with milk canisters, he talks of a brother in Toronto. Or that a Ponta Delgada taxi driver wants you to know about his aunt and uncle in Vancouver.
And while Portugal’s membership in the European Union has brought added prosperity, the Azores remains a remote beauty spot of rugged peaks and secluded lakes, lush hedgerows and pastures, winding country roads dotted with white-washed villages and tiny shrines called Imperios, unendingly and varied coastline, and a handful of small cities dominated by late-medieval fortresses and baroque churches and palaces.
Looking south from the Hotel Sao Jorge Garden on Sao Jorge — one of the lesser visited though no less lovely islands — the Pico volcanic cone rises 2,350 metres over the neighbouring island of Pico. From here it’s hard to imagine the Azores as anything but tranquil, yet volcanoes and earthquakes have repeatedly devastated the chain.
On narrow and steeply sloped Sao Jorge, volcanoes have spewed long tongues of lava well into the ocean. Called “fajas,” these island extensions are fertile. One, the Faja da Caldeira de Santo Cristo, is an internationally recognized nature reserve where cockles are harvested from a natural lake. Though visible from a mountain road, this exceptional setting is accessible only by a hike of several hours.