All the nine islands of the Azores Archipelago are volcanic origin and are located in the North Atlantic, scattered along a 600 km stretch of ocean from Santa Maria to Corvo, approximately between 37° and 40° north latitude and 25° and 31° west longitude. According to 2011 data, 246,772 people live in this island territory that covers 2,325 sq.km, distancing 1,600 km from mainland Europe (Portugal) and 2,454 km from the North American continent (Canada).
The islands of the archipelago are divided in three geographical groups: the Eastern Group, comprising Santa Maria and São Miguel, the Central Group, including Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial, and the Western Group, composed by Corvo and Flores. The Azores, along with the archipelagos of Madeira, Canary Islands and Cape Verde, constitute the biogeographic region of Macaronesia, a name which means "fortunate islands" for those who live there and visit them.
In the realm of legend, some associate the Azores to the Atlantis, the mythical island kingdom quoted by Plato. As for history, references to nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean located approximately in the position of the Azores can be found in books and maps since the 14th century. However, it was with the Portuguese Maritime Discoveries, led by Prince Infante D. Henrique, that the Azores were definitely registered in the map of Europe. It is unknown whether the first navigator to reach the archipelago was Diogo de Silves in 1427 or Gonçalo Velho Cabral in 1431. The origin of the name Azores is also debatable as there are various theories. The most common associates the designation of the common buzzards found on the islands which were mistaken as being another bird of prey: the northern goshawk (açor). What is now certain is that it was Prince Infante D. Henrique who incited the settlement of the islands. First, animals were sent, between 1431 and 1432, and later settlers started to arrive from 1439.
From that date, the settlement continued throughout the 15th century (Western and Central Groups) and the 16th century (Western Group). Jews, Moors, Flemish, Genovese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, and African slaves came together with the Portuguese from the mainland to face the hardships of such a task.
This epic start moulded a people that throughout the centuries was able to resist volcanic eruptions, isolation, invasions of pirates, political wars and infesting diseases. The courage of the Azorean people was confirmed when they resisted the Spanish domination during the succession crisis of 1580, and when they supported the liberal movement during the civil war (1828-1834). During the 20th century, this bravery was once again evident during the whale hunting era, when the men would go to sea in small, wooden boats ready to confront, in the endless blue sea, giant sperm whales.
Located in the area of contact between the Euro-Asian, American and African tectonic plates, the Azores Archipelago has a volcanic origin. Throughout the millennia, eruptions and earthquakes moulded a land with a common characteristic: the mark of volcanoes. But each one of the islands has its own identity. The fossils of Santa Maria, the lakes of São Miguel, the caves of Terceira, the cones of Graciosa, the fajãs of São Jorge, the Mountain of Pico, the Capelinhos Volcano of Faial, the waterfalls of Flores, and the Caldeirão of Corvo are unmistakable features. To travel throughout the Azores is to get to know nine islands where the same genetic code generated profiles that are distinct from one another.
The long lists of natural parks, of areas of protected landscape, of protected fauna and flora species, of forest reserves, of geolandscape, and of sites with geological interest guarantee the preservation of a priceless natural legacy. As a form of compensation for all of this effort, the Azores are considered to be a sanctuary of biodiversity and geodiversity and one of the best locations for Nature Tourism.
The expression 'nature all around you' could well be used to describe the Azores Region. The archipelago offers unmatched conditions for nature tourism by virtue of its unique natural heritage . This heritage has been preserved and classified and includes marine biodiversity, flora and fauna, volcanic caves and geolandscapes, nature parks and botanical gardens, as well as natural resources exclusive to each island. All of this biodiversity and geodiversity, together with the islands' traditional towns and villages, present unparalleled opportunities for nature tourism.
Examples of the quality and richness waiting to be explored include themed tourist routes (such as those based on wines, volcanoes and spas), numerous trails carved along breathtaking natural landscapes, diving, and fantastic golf courses with views over the sea and mountains. The ideal place to enjoy unmatched experiences in a natural setting, the Azores also play host to other activities not to be missed, such as geocaching, whale-watching, birdwatching, scuba diving, hiking and canyoning.
The Azores have sought to establish themselves as islands of quality and excellence, where what is genuine and unique marks the difference and imposes itself in a globalized world, contributing to the development of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. The classification by UNESCO of the historical centre of Angra do Heroísmo and of the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture as world heritage sites is an important recognition, as is the classification of the islands of Graciosa, Flores and Corvo as Biosphere Reserves.
In other areas, the archipelago stands out as a prime tourist destination that respects environmental and socio-cultural values. Different initiatives and national and international awards have attested this, and they include the election of the Sete Cidades Lake and of the Pico Volcanic Landscape as Natural Wonders of Portugal, as well as the distinction of "second best islands in the world in terms of sustainable tourism", where along with the friendliness of the people, a successful environmental preservation and an harmonious tourism development are praised. The Azores Geopark joined the European Network and Global Geoparks Network in March 2013 under the sponsorship of UNESCO.
The architecture is one of the main things to see in the Azores. As for the churches, convents, manor houses, and rural homes spread throughout the archipelago, there is a contrast of colours between their white walls and their black basalt, ignimbrite and trachyte stonework. Windmills and watermills, wrought iron balconies, ovens and chimneys, streets, alleys and lanes, and houses with dark stone walls are the other elements that make each island so typical. Angra do Heroísmo, in Terceira, is a special repository of the architectural identity of the Azores, not to mention the unexpected rainbow colours of the façades of some buildings.
If you are looking what to see in Azores, then the Azorean museums store various ethnographic collections that reflect a history that is deeply connected with the land, cattle breeding, handicrafts and fishing. Whale hunting was most intensive on the islands of Pico and Faial, as per the objects and tales of an era filled with courageous men. Various museum rooms are dedicated to collections of religious artefacts, but most of the pieces are still kept in the churches.
Throughout the centuries, the Azorean people has shown a highly political conscience, which helped to mould the first President of the Portuguese Republic, Manuel de Arriaga, and his successor, Teófilo Braga. The local tradition for social activism was reinforced by literary and poetic writings, with some lyric tones as in the work of Antero de Quental, Vitorino Nemésio and Natália Correia. In other artistic fields, the works of Domingos Rebelo and Canto da Maya stand out.
There are flowers arrangements made with fish scales, scrimshaw, dolls made with corn leaves and miniatures from fig tree pith. These are four samples of the Azorean creativity in using natural resources to create artistic pieces. As for ceramics, weaving and embroideries, the bright colours are mixed with white to achieve various singular patterns.
The local guitar viola da terra, inherited from the times of the first settlers, is still played – and made – in various locations in the archipelago. Presently, the Azorean music conservatories teach how to play this guitar, as it requires a specific technique.
The frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that took place throughout the centuries on the Azores Islands were responsible for some of the religious traditions that are still held with great fervour. During Lent, the Romeiros (pilgrims) walk the island of São Miguel in a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. At the time, the inhabitants prayed for divine assistance to placate Nature’s wrath. As a way for people to express their thankfulness for divine intervention, these pilgrimages have continued throughout the centuries.
The most ethnographic aspect of the Azores is the cult of the Holy Ghost that takes place from May to September around small little chapels locally known as impérios. The catholic spirit of the archipelago also spreads to other festivities, such as those of the Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres on the island of São Miguel, or even those that celebrate the patron saint of each parish. Frequently, religious festivals are linked to profane activities, such as the celebration of São João, known as Sanjoaninas, on the island of Terceira. The programmes of the festivities can include dancing, parades, concerts, nautical sporting activities, cultural events, food fairs, handicraft exhibitions and even bullfights.
Carnival is celebrated intensely on all the islands, thus being the peak of the festive spirit of the Azoreans. Music and dancing are also part of the festive island spirit of the Azores and almost every parish has its own brass band. The cantigas ao desafio, songs in which a singer challenges a reply from another singer, spread joy amongst the listeners, and the popular and folk dancing groups enliven the festivities that carry on throughout the whole summer.
To these old traditions the Azoreans added modern events that celebrate the past but look towards the future, such as the Semana do Mar (Week of the Sea) on the island of Faial, the Festa dos Baleeiros (Whalemen’s Festival) on the island of Pico, the Maré de Agosto festival (August Tide) on the island of Santa Maria, the Semana Cultural das Velas (Velas Cultural Week) on the island of São Jorge, and the Festa do Emigrante (Emigrants’ Festival) on the island of Flores. These events are the highlights on a very full festival calendar.
Although there are some common tastes on the Azorean cuisine, each island’s recipes have their own imprint. Therefore during your vacations you can discover all the nuances of Azores through a gastronomic tour.
FISH AND SEAFOOD Fish such as tuna, blue jack mackerel, chub mackerel, forkbear, red porgy, and swordfish are commonly served. Freshness reigns on grills, stews, roasts or in fish broths. There are lobsters, mediterranean slipper lobsters, crabs, spider-crabs and barnacles. Limpets are served grilled, with Molho Afonso sauce or are cooked in rice or mashed bread. The island of São Jorge is the only island that offers clams.
MEAT The Azorean beef benefits from a protected geographical indication, with some dishes being prepared from it, such as the Alcatra (rump) from Terceira island, boiled beef, and regionally-flavoured steaks. Liver sauce cracklings and sausages are must haves, whilst linguiça can be the main course if served with taro root, and blood pudding an appetiser if complemented by pineapple.
SPECIAL DISHES Cozido das Furnas, made with various meats and vegetables, is cooked by the geothermal heat in a pot that is placed under the ground. Some delicacies are common during the Holy Ghost Festivals, such as the Sopa do Espírito Santo (Soup of the Holy Ghost) and the Massa Sovada (Portuguese sweet bread). The bread known as bolos lêvedos, typical from Furnas, is served at any time throughout the whole year.
CHEESE The cheese Queijo de São Jorge is at the top of the list of tasty dairy products, with skilled hands and ripening time being the secret for a myriad of tastes and textures. Everything starts with fresh cheese that is served with pimenta da terra (red pepper mash). When cheese is served for dessert, it can be complemented by bananas or husk tomato jam (the husk tomato is known for its exotic and perfumed flavour).
FRUIT In addition to bananas and apples, the Azorean climate favours exotic fruit such as the strawberry guava and the cherimoya. The pineapples and passion fruit of São Miguel have earned the right to wear the seal of denomination of protected origin.
PASTRIES Pastries whose origins can be traced back to convents stand out among the cakes and sweets that are typical of each island and are a pleasant surprise given their names and flavours.
DRINKS Wine is produced on the islands of Pico, Graciosa and Terceira, but now from different grapes and complementing the once famous verdelho wine. Beer, soft drinks, fortified wine, fruit liqueur, and brandy complete a diversified offer. Tea is planted on the island of São Miguel, adding another exotic taste to the pleasures of the Azorean cuisine.