The 21 km in length and 14 km at the maximum width provide the 173.1 sq. km of the island of Faial with a pentagonal shape. Faial is the third most populous island of the Archipelago with 14,994 inhabitants (2011 data). The island is part of the Central Group and is the westernmost corner of the so-called “Triangle Islands”, which also include São Jorge and Pico, the latter just 6 km away from Faial. The island’s highest point is the Cabeço Gordo (1,043 m of altitude) in the Caldeira area located at 38º34’34’’ latitude north and 28º42’47’’ longitude west.
It is believed that the Portuguese discovery of the island took place after the maps of Terceira had been drawn. Faial was probably named after the large amount of fire trees (faias-da-terra) that covered the island. The first official settlers, from Portugal and Flanders, must have arrived around 1465 as part of a failed expedition to find tin and silver ores. Two years later. Josse Van Huertere, a Flemish noble, returned to Faial attracted by the fertility of the soil and became, in 1468, the Portuguese donatory captain. Under a royal decree issued by King Afonso V, he brought more people from Flanders to live in the Flamengos valley before moving to Horta.
The foreigners introduced woad. The export of this dye plant and of wheat was the main pillar of the economy during two centuries. In 1583, when Faial was occupied by the Spanish and pirates were attacking it, mainly french and english, the island witnessed a period of dilapidation of its wealth and heritage. The 1672-73 volcanic eruption also causes the destruction in the northwest of the island.
During the 17th century, after the Portuguese Restoration of the throne, there were better times as Horta, with its sheltered harbour, became a navigational stopover between Europe and the American Continent. Wine and spirits, made from the grapes of the islands of Pico, São Jorge and Graciosa, were exported to mainland Portugal, Europe and the British colonies. During the 18th century, the island was involved in the production and the export of oranges, which was then the main financial source of the archipelago. The harbour of Horta enjoyed a golden era, supplying the steam boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the North American whaling fleets.
During the 19th century, infesting diseases decimated the vineyards and the orange groves within one decade. But given its location, the island became a crucial centre for telecommunications. The transmission of information between North America and Europe was done via submarine cables that passed by Horta, whose first station dates back to 1893. Successively, various international companies installed submarine cables linking the continents via Faial. Additionally, the island gained a new dimension in early 20th century when the Horta Weather Observatory opened in 1915.
Aviation also took advantage of the privileged location of Faial for the stopover of the first sea planes crossing the North Atlantic. The first one stopped in Horta after World War I in 1919. During the 1930s and 40s, the airlines of Germany, Britain, France and North America chose Faial as the site for alighting their sea planes.
To this day Faial has benefited from its geographic location. The Horta Marina, opened in 1986, is one of the world’s most famous harbours. With the establishment of the autonomic model of government, the city of Horta became the seat of the Regional Parliament of the Azores and followed the regional economic trend, becoming a services-based economy.
From the lookout of Cabeço Gordo, the ground seems to slide softly until it levels out by the seaside, where a profusion of hydrangeas brings to land the colour of the sea, as if materializing a romance between the blue of the flowers and the green of the vegetation and pastures. The same happens along the road leading to the Caldeira, in the centre of Faial, and on other roads, justifying the nickname of Blue Island. But there is a complete change at the Capelinhos Volcano, with its arid and rough landscape proving that grey can also be charming.
The genetic symbol of the island, the Caldeira is an awesome caldera given its size and because it has so many flowers, plants and trees that shine under the sun light. The 7 km long walls are covered by various plants, including beech tress, junipers, moss, cedars, ferns and hydrangeas. At the bottom, 450 m below the Caldeira lookout, a fragmented lake and a small volcanic cone, with vestiges of the primitive laurissilva forest, dot the landscape in another exciting game of colours.
At the westernmost point of the island, the Capelinhos Volcano majestically rises up to the sky, as the witness to the last volcanic eruption that took place in the Azores and that added new land to the existing one. Entering this area is like landing on the moon, with the grey volcanic ash and lapilli tossed out between 1957 and 1958 starting to be invaded by green vegetation, which is determined to colonize this new territory. In the abrupt cliffs of Capelinhos and Costado da Nau, one can see the inside of these volcanoes in a sequence of contrasting rocks, layers and contours and in a game of surprising colours and textures.
A pilgrimage site for the international scientific community, the Capelinhos Volcano forced the emigration of part of Faial’s population, which had to foot the bill for the damage in houses, farms and plantations in a trail of destruction silently witnessed by the old lighthouse tower. Presently, the switched off tower is home to the magnificent Interpretation Centre, featuring the most advanced multimedia and exhibition techniques. The visit ends with a climb to the top of the lighthouse to enjoy an unbeatable emotional and visual experience.
Faial offers great lookouts and views over the neighbouring islands. By the ruins of the Ponta da Ribeirinha Lighthouse, destroyed by the 1998 earthquake, one can enjoy the sublime outline of the island of São Jorge. At Ponta da Espalamaca, in the lookout by the monument of the Saint Nossa Senhora da Conceição and in front of the whole Bay of Horta, the Pico Mountain rises majestically. From Cabeço Gordo, on a clear day, the horizon extends to all the triangle islands and to Graciosa.
Looking inland, great extensions of pasture land come into view; they climb all the way up to the Caldeira, being interrupted here and there by woods and trees. This natural landscape coexists on the island with indelible elements of the human presence, with some typical windmills painted red dotting the landscape, along with flowery and cultivated fields in the Flamengos Valley, and rows of hydrangeas painstakingly aligned along roads or delimiting the fields.
And on the way between Varadouro and Castelo Branco, a rock surrounded by water and sea birds catches our attention. This is the Morro de Castelo Branco [White Castle Hill], which lives up to its name with trachyte white rock and a castle-like shape, as if it was some kind of impregnable fortress.
From the Triangle Islands, this is the one that has more volcanic sand beaches; the Porto Pim, Almoxarife and Norte Beaches invite you to enjoy sea bathing. The shape of the east coast varies considerably; sometimes it is high and other times it lies almost at sea level, given the action of gigantic tectonic forces that divide it into several blocks of large dimensions.
The coastline on the west side of the island is dominated by the imposing cliffs of Ribeira Funda and Praia do Norte and the ones that lie between Morro de Castelo Branco and Varadouro, sharply plunging into the deep ocean. These towering cliffs give way to rocky cliffs at the Capelo Peninsula, which extend west and correspond to the most recent geological formations of the island.
The amphitheatre made by the bays of Horta and Porto Pim, surrounded by houses and others buildings from the Horta city, has exceptional lookouts at the hill of Monte da Guia and at Ponta da Espalamaca. Among the buildings, the imposing São Salvador Church stands out, with its rich, golden wood interior and panels of tiles. The architecture of the houses reveals the international spirit of the island. The samples of this centuries-old cosmopolitanism are enriched by the buildings and homes built during the 20th century to accommodate the English, German and Americans who worked at the submarine cable stations. The eclectic atmosphere is still felt in Horta, and the mythical Peter Café Sport is a meeting place for sailors and travellers coming from all over the world.
The tanglement of streets and alleys runs down from the slopes until reaching the sea level at the seaside avenue and at the marina of Horta. This nautical infrastructure, which opened in 1986, is a modern extension of a port and bay with a centuries-old importance. It is traditional for yachtsmen to leave a painting on the grey concrete walls. According to legend, this act will safely lead the boat to its destination, and thus sailors can continue their trip with a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, those arriving at the marina are faced with an open-air art gallery; the whole world fits in the breakwater of an Azorean harbour, represented by creative and colourful paintings and drawings.
The handicrafts of Faial made from fig tree pith are so famous that the Horta Museum has an entire room completely filled with the works of Euclides Rosa, the great master of this art. The motifs of the delicate pieces are varied, raging from flowers to ships, animals and well known buildings. At the Escola de Artesanato do Capelo (Capelo Handicrafts School), the talent of local artisans is preserved and encouraged as they do flower arrangements from fish scales or wheat straw embroideries on tulle.
Although no one is quite sure where Manuel de Arriaga was born, it is certain that he came from an aristocratic family from Horta. He studied Law in Coimbra, and later he stood out as a politician and one of the main ideologists of the Republican Party. In 1911, this Azorean lawyer was elected the first President of the Portuguese Republic.
Part of the history of Faial can be witnessed at the Museu da Horta (Horta Museum), installed in the old Jesuit College, storing collections of documents, ethnography, photography and art. In the old site of the Fábrica da Baleia of Porto Pim (Porto Pim Whaling Factory), there is presently a museum section with exhibitions of machinery and other instruments that were used in whale hunting and processing. Anchored in the Peter Café Sport, the Scrimshaw Museum stores a precious collection of sperm whale teeth and bones with engravings and paintings. These are the witnesses of the times when the whales were a source of income for countless families living in the archipelago and a source of inspiration for the local artisans.
São João Festival takes place on 24 June, a festivity which dates back to the settlement of the island by nobles from Terceira Island. The event includes the gathering of brass bands coming from all over the island that meet on the square Largo Jaime Melo, where the chapel built by the most pious devotees of São João is located. Concerts, folk dances and parades fill the day. Family members and groups of friends come together to either enjoy an open air meal or eat at the food stalls and enjoy the delicacies of the local cuisine.
Despite the Holy Ghost Festival also being traditionally celebrated on Faial, the biggest religious festival is the da Nossa Senhora das Angústias Festival. The streets of Horta are filled with the procession and popular celebrations on the sixth Sunday after Easter Sunday, a tradition that also goes back to the time of settlement when a statue was brought from Flanders. On 1 February of each year the town hall fulfils a centuries-old promise, with a procession and prayers in the Nossa Senhora da Graça church at the Praia do Almoxarife. This tradition dates back to 1718 when the people were frightened by the volcanic eruption which took place in Santa Luzia, Pico Island.
In August, the blue sea dominates the festivities. On the 1st, to celebrate the Senhora da Guia Festival, a parade of ships escorts the statue of the Virgin from the sands of Porto Pim to the harbour of Horta. The festivities continue during the Semana do Mar (Sea Week). This festivity was initially dedicated to yachtsman, but now it is shared by locals and visitors. The extensive programme includes music shows, handicrafts exhibitions, cuisine fair, whaling boat regattas and various sporting activities that enliven the bays of Horta and Porto Pim.
One of the most typical dishes of Faial is stewed octopus in wine, which is also common to the other islands of the archipelago. Fish is very important, especially stewed or served in a broth. Bread and corn cake are preferentially included during meals. As for meats, there are the local sausages, eaten either as a meal, when served with taro root, or just as a snack. The recipe for boiled beef tastes better when spiced, especially with pepper, cumin and cinnamon to stiffen the broth in which the beef is going to be cooked.
As for pastries, the Fofas do Faial are typical: this aroma pastries include fennel seed and are baked before being stuffed with a cream based on egg yolks, milk, sugar, flower and lemon peel.