“HAWAII” In the ATLANTIC: The Azores Islands
There are many comparisons between Hawaii and the Azores.
Both are volcanic islands created from volcanic eruptions more than 70 million years ago. Both are a chain of islands, none of which are close to each another. Therefore, both island chains require air transportation between their scattered islands. Both Hawaii and the Azores grow pineapple. Both island chains have the same temperature year-round and neither has ever had snow (especially not during their volcanic-eruption days). The waters that surround both island chains offer dolphin and whale watching. This was a delightful first for me. The day I went whale watching, I saw many dolphins and whales.
If you love Europe and want to visit someplace new that basks in European culture – it’s the Azores. With Azores Airlines you can even stop over for free in the Azores on your way to Lisbon – and even Paris – and p-enjoy an entirely different travel experience. You can dance in the streets with the locals, as I recently did during one of the island’s many festivals.
While I’ve visited 117 countries around the world, my most surprising trip was to the Azores. No matter what you’re looking for – or want to look at – the Azores has it from “A to Z.”
As an architecture professor I search the world for great buildings with their original interiors. I found the most spectacular world-class interiors in the Azores that I have never seen before, in the most unusual of places – caves! While visiting Algar do Carvao, a gigantic cave in the middle of Terceira Island, I discovered the greatest interior spaces could also be designed by the world’s greatest architect – nature. When our terrific guide, Ramiro Barbosa, told me that I’ve never seen anything like the Algar do Carvao cave, I caved into his estimable suggestion to visit. And boy (and girl), am I glad I did!
As I entered the cave, light was beaming through a hole high up in the natural roof, surrounded by a bright organic green frame. As I descended the many, seemingly non-ending, flights of stairs down into the overwhelming cavernous space, I perceived a lake far down at the cave’s bottom with a miraculous shine reflecting the light from the sky.
While continuing the long arduous journey down, I noticed the walls suddenly changed into different patterns of color. At one point the colors merged: beiges, browns and oranges with bands of gold and black that were interspersed in intriguing patterns.
PAST TO PRESENT
After visiting the Azores, I take umbrage with the saying “Times Square is the crossroads of the world.” The true crossroads of the world is the Azores – in the middle of the Atlantic, just 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. The Azores was the stopover of great explorers such as Vasco da Gama on his way to India via the Cape of Good Hope. It was the stopover for the Portuguese explorers on their way to found Brazil. Even Christopher Columbus stopped over in the Azores on his way to the New World for Spain.
Although the Azores was founded by the Portuguese and is an outpost of Portugal today, it was Spanish from 1580 to 1640. And because it was of such strategic importance to trade and power, its defense was of the utmost importance. Many important ports and trading-posts around the world constructed forts to stave off attacks. The city of Angra de Heroismo has not one, but two Spanish forts on hills overlooking the harbor, both in excellent states of preservation.
The stupendous late 16th-century Fort of Sao Jaoa Baptista has a bridge resting on a magnificent stone arcade placed over a still-existing (but dry) moat leading to the entrance. Despite its imposing 16th-century, stone, sculpted portal, it has touches of early “Baroque” that looks 17th-century Italian. And so it should, since its architect was Italian. (The Azores indeed is a crossroads of culture, too.) On the sides of this grand portal, I found a startling detail that portends the future – way into the future. It has Art Deco motifs that look like they’re straight out of the 1930s – not 1580s!
The Azores’ cities have culture you can live with – and even live in. Angra’s other late 16th-century Spanish fort, Fort Sao Sebastiao, has the remains of the Governor’s House – and a building where the visitor can live even better than the Spanish governor. In the middle of the fort’s old main square is a modern luxury hotel with a pool.
Angra, a UNESCO World Heritage City, has buildings so old that Columbus could have prayed in its beautiful white and blue pastel Church of the Miseracordia, on a hill dominating the harbor, on his way to discover the New World. Many churches and convents date from as early as the mid-14th century. Besides churches, Angra has many excellently preserved palaces and secular buildings.
If you love the art of ceramics, brightly hand-painted ceramics tiles, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll find tiles in intriguing patterns with some even assembled to depict scenes – a “tile canvas.” And you needn’t visit a museum to see them. Just walk the streets of Angra with its many buildings accentuated with “Azuelos,” the Portuguese word for its unique art form that decorates walls (outdoors and indoors) – and even some doors.
In the Azores you’ll enjoy walking the streets and looking up and around at the beauty. However, life in the Azores is always “looking down.” Yes, you really must watch your step in Angra. Not out of safety, but out of beauty. Everywhere you place your feet are mosaic stone sidewalks. And most of the mosaic sidewalks aren’t just utilitarian, like cobblestone roads, they’re actual art, forming recognizable patterns like waves and even fleur de lys.
While the Azores is renowned for its beautiful churches, it has many outstanding, well-preserved secular buildings serving many different functions. In Angra’s harbor (next to the church of the Miseracordia) is its well-preserved 15th-century Customs House, also attesting to the Azores as a center of early developing worldwide trade. Angra’s 15th-century’s Customs House is in mint condition.
You don’t have to be an architect to be enchanted and overwhelmed by the scope and state of preservation of the numerous churches, convents and palaces. Many of the palaces, some dating from its founding, are still inhabited by the same families. There are palaces from the Bishop’s Palace to Captains General’s Palace which is one of the “newer“ buildings, dating from 1766. Today it’s a home of the President of the Azores, the office of the Vice President and a museum complete with period furniture and portraits.
Just a few blocks away is yet another museum, the Angra Municipal Museum, on a hill overlooking one of the most enchanting small gardens, a combination of “French formal” flower beds and “English natural” style gardens. There’s even a bandshell, filling the streets with yet another sensory pleasure.
The Angra Municipal Museum combines the best of the ecclesiastical with secular; it’s in the former Convent of San Francisco complete with a cloister and a fountain. It serves as many museums condensed into one, with amazing post-earthquake remnants collected over many centuries, a high-waisted early 19th-century dress that Empress Josephine and Jane Austen would have fought over, and furniture pieces from the 16th century down to the 20th – even an early gramophone.There are four-legged powered coaches dating from the 16th to early 20th centuries, and sedan chairs – powered by the four legs of two men, there’s even an old Ford!
Azores has Michelin-starred restaurants, and the food in them is, as expected, excellent, as were all the restaurants I ate at in Angra. I expected to sample a large variety of fish since the Azores is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I was totally surprised when I discovered that the locals eat much more beef than fish. Everywhere on the island you’ll see cows naturally grazing on grass, which also gives the island delicious pure milk, tasty cheese and creamy gelato.
Terceira is my favorite desserted island in the entire world. It’s where I ate my favorite dessert for breakfast, at lunch, and after dinner. It’s the “nata” – a round flan tart in a crisp, flaky crust.
The time flew in my week in the Azores. I could easily have spent yet another week. And here’s the kicker – my entire week in the Azores was spent in just one island, the extraordinarily beautiful Terceira Island. FYI: “Terceira: in Portuguese means, “third.” To me, Terceira is first – first rate, and a must see.