The Azores resemble very little of the mainland Europe I left lying off in the horizon. Earthy, damp and though the clouds are low and the rain frequent, you get the impression that it never gets too cold.
What is it that pulls me closer and closer to these places? The ones that provide such a visceral peek down into the centre of the earth? And how is it I keep finding myself lost in obscure, narrow, cobbled European streets – this time in a truck about the width of a whale?
The Azores, a First Impression
I keep finding myself drawn to the most geologically active spots in the world and into challenging driving situations while I’m at it.
After a few weeks travelling mainland Portugal, a last minute change of plans, and a sprinkling of fate lead me here. One-third of the way to the United States, to a small archipelago of volcanic, Azorian islands.
The Azores are found at latitude 37.7412° N. New Zealand at 40.9006° S.
This means the archipelago sits almost exactly the same distance North of the equator as New Zealand is South. It is this geographic location, combined with the island nature and volcanic geography that explains why this small, Portuguese inhabited island feels like home.
Wildflowers, Whales, and Volcanos
It’s the sub-tropical laurel laurisilva forests and damp, fern-clad forests found across these latitudes that give this volcanic cluster a similar landscape to New Zealand. Providing me with the occasional pangs of homesickness, a reminder of just how long I’ve been away. Yet, the lashings of lilies, smatterings of waist height wildflowers and the walls of blue hydrangeas that give this place the name A Ilha Azul (the blue island) set it apart, and give frequent nudges to remind us we are still in Europe. If only just.
The nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores all have their own unique flavour. Subtle differences in culture, dialect and micro-climate make each island unique. Way back when the islands were first settled, people arrived from across Europe – not just Portugal. This leaves some of the islands with distinctly Flemish, French or Scandinavian undertones.
“The man that had the idea to border the road with these plants should have a statue on the island. In no other place, do they prosper better: they need a covering of light, humidity and heat…they are in their place. Their blue, is the blue that adorns the Azores on lipid days…this is a blue that is even more blue, the bunches of flowers of a colour more intense and more fresh. They are in every direction: rising along the roads and the fields forming hedges; they serve to divide the parcels and to cover the peaceful animals.” — Raul Brandão, As Ilhas Desconhecidas (1926), p.33
Faial, the Blue Island
The island I’m on? Faial, the blue island. A popular stopover for trans-Atlantic sailors. Those who have made it two-thirds of the way across, generally not having set foot on land in three thousand miles. I’m here on a solo excursion to care for a herd of horses and turn thirty, in no particular order.
I spend my early mornings baling hay, with views down across the harbour and out Pico, with a trusty canine compadre at my ankles.
Four hungry, horsey, mouths nuzzle at my feet, awaiting an after breakfast snack. A fifth – a small, rescued foal, whinnies from her separate paddock across the other end of the arena.
A traditional way of life is still popular with many. Some of the local Azorians still use a horse-pulled plough to tend to the fields, and the community windmill to grind their grain.
As Ilhas Desconhecidas
Besides to the blue island of Faial, so named for the beech-trees (faias), but nicknamed because of the brilliant blue hydrangeas, there are 8 more islands that make up the Azores. Raul Brandão, poet and impressionist painter who visited the archipelago in 1924, christened Faial the Iha Azul, or the blue island, and dished out his own colour palette of nicknames, waiving his paintbrush across the Ilhas of the Azores.
From the glorious Ilha das Flores is named for its flowers, penned as the llha Amarelo Torrado, yellow island, due to the goldenrod flowers that cover the island with fierce yellow blooms. to the tiny Ilha do Corvo, which translates to Island of the Crow the smallest inhabited island in Portugal, but also an international bird sanctuary known as the black island, There’s a nickname for every island in the Archipelago. There’s Graciosa, which means enchanting and is known as the white island. Terceira is nicknamed the lilac island, São Jorge the red island, São Miguel the green island, and Santa Maria was gifted the nickname lha do Sol, or the island of the sun for it’s white, sandy beaches and dry, warm weather.
Pico, the Little Peak of the Azores
And last but not least, the one I can see as I pack the mornings hay into twine bags. Pico, meaning peak and referring to the towering, conical, volcanic peak that you can see all the way from here in Faial. It’s the largest mountain in all Portugal, and Raul Brandão bestowed upon it the Back Island, due to its black volcanic earth. Famous for vineyards grown in a labyrinth of basalts walls, rich in volcanic minerals which absorb & give back heat, lending extra sweetness to the plump Azorian grapes the island has become famous for.
Horta is famous with sailors making the ambitious trans Atlantic crossing. Down at the harbour, tiles adorned with paintings, names and signatures lines the access way to the water. Leaving your mark in Horta is a right of passage for sailors making the long and often arduous Atlantic crossing.
Each morning I awake to the cone of Pico towering over the ocean, 7 kilometres away from these shores. I switch on the coffee maker and pull on my rubber boots, heading outside to feed the horses before they grow too impatient with me. I take a trip into the narrow Portuguese cobbled roads of the island’s main town, and some days explore the perimeter of the island and up to the heights of the volcano. Each evening before the sun returns to from where it came, I head out to the horses again, dog in tow, to feed the horses and bag some more hay.
As far as places to turn 30 go, this one is pretty alright.