About Azores

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Geography

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.

History

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.

Festivities

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.

Source: Visit Azores