Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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Treasure Islands

A two-hour flight from Lisbon, the Azores archipelago is a rich mix of Spanish and Portuguese culture

High above the island of Faial, a buzzard glided through the warm limpid air, scanning the ground for prey. When the Portuguese, who landed here in the 15th century, saw buzzards flying overhead, they mistook them for goshawks (açores) and named the islands after them.

The Azores archipelago has always benefited from its strategic location. It consists of nine islands, located some 1300 kilometres off Portugal's mainland and spread over 600 kilometres of the Atlantic

Ocean. Between 1580 and 1640, when Portugal was under Spanish rule, the Azores prospered from trade with the New World. In the 19th century, American whaling ships regularly called into port to pick up crew and provisions. In the 20th century, the islands were used as transatlantic cable stations and military bases. They are now an autonomous region of Portugal and part of the European Union.

My visit to the Azores began with Faial (pronounced Fayal), known as the Blue Island because of the hydrangeas that bloom in such profusion during the summer that the island seems to be covered with a blue mist. But blue is only one of the colours on Faial's vivid palette. Red windmills stand against lush green pastures; the roads and fields are bordered by hydrangeas, pink belladonna lilies and lavender sunbursts of agapanthus.

Horta, the island's capital, has a fine harbour and is a favourite stopover for yachts crossing the Atlantic. Superstitious sailors believe that they must leave some trace of their visit in order to ward off disaster at sea. Their calling cards, painted on the stone quays and seawall of the harbour, have turned the marina into a colourful open-air art gallery.

Peter Café Sport on the waterfront is a popular meeting-place for thirsty sailors, who congregate at the bar to trade tall tales. The rooms above the bar contain a fascinating scrimshaw museum, with superb examples of this unique art. Engraved on sperm-whale teeth and bones are scenes of whale hunts and portraits of famous yachtsmen.

From this café the Baleia à Vista company arranges whale- and dolphin-watching excursions around the island. The waters of the Azores are visited by at least fifteen species of whales and half a dozen species of dolphins. For 150 years whaling was an integral part of Azorean life, but since the whaling ban was established in the early 1980s, islanders have used their skills for conservation instead of for killing. Today, the cry "baleia à vista!" (whale in sight) is the signal for whale-watchers to put to sea in rubber dinghies for a thrilling close-up view of the magnificent mammals.

For those who prefer to stay on land, one of the most impressive sights on Faial is the sweeping panorama from the summit of Monte da Guia. To the west, under the brooding mass of Monte Queimado (Burnt Mountain) lies the great bowl of the Bay of Porto Pim, connected by an isthmus to the harbour of Horta. To the south is the rocky horseshoe of the Caldeira do Inferno (Caldera of Hell), a volcanic crater now filled by the sea. On the horizon, like glimmering mirages, are the pale blue silhouettes of Pico and São Jorge islands.

Faial's greatest attraction is the Capelinhos volcano on the west coast. In 1957 there was a huge volcanic eruption under the sea which sent superheated gases and steam shooting 4000 metres into the air. A small island rose briefly from the sea, and was submerged again. A second volcanic island with an area of 2.4 square kilometres lifted out of the sea to a height of 127 metres, and was joined to Faial by a bridge of lava and ash. Volcanic activity -- underwater explosions, lava flows, eruptions and showers of hot ash -- continued for more than a year. The village of Capelo and the lighthouse were buried under several metres of ash and more than 300 houses were destroyed.

Today the empty lighthouse points at the sky like a skeletal finger of stone, standing in an eerie, treeless landscape that resembles the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Near the lighthouse is a museum containing a permanent exhibition that documents the cataclysmic events at Capelinhos in a series of photographic images and maps.

After three days on Faial, I went down to the Santa Cruz docks and boarded an early morning ferry for the 7-kilometre crossing to Pico. As we pulled away from Faial, there was a marvellous view of Horta's handsome waterfront, with its white houses against a backdrop of green mountains. As the ferry approached Madalena harbour it passed between two large volcanic rocks -- Em Pé (Standing) and Deitado (Lying Down) -- ringing with the sleepy clamour of seabirds.

Pico is dominated by its volcano, whose purple cone rises to a height of 2351 metres, the highest point in Portugal. There is something hallucinatory in the suddenness with which the volcano appears and disappears among wreaths of white cloud. For hikers, climbing the volcano is the highlight of a visit to Pico.

Within its small area (447 square kilometres), Pico contains surprisingly varied landscapes, from the rugged coast with its tattered fringe of dark lava rocks breaking up in the Atlantic, to the lakes, pastures and vineyards of the central plateau. The land is studded with strange black domes that resemble half-buried elephant skulls. These mistérios were formed by lava that flowed from minor volcanic eruptions in previous centuries.

The wine produced on Pico, known as verdelho, was celebrated for 200 years in England and America and was served to the Czars at the Russian Imperial Court. Vine-mildew destroyed all of Pico's vines in the mid-19th century, but the wine industry is making a slow recovery. The grape vines here are grown in rich volcanic soil in small plots enclosed by low walls of black lava. From the air, these corrals of stone look like black honeycombs. Pico now produces three excellent wines: Terras da Lava, a white; Basalto, a red and Lajido, an aperitif.

I drove along a coastal road brightened by pink belladonna lilies to Lajes do Pico on the south coast, another popular centre for whale-watching excursions, organized by Espaço Talassa. The Museu dos Baleeiros in Lajes records the history of whaling in the Azores and includes a full-scale whale boat, harpoons, tackle, scrimshaw and whalebone artifacts.

After my tour of Pico, I returned to Faial by ferry and then flew on to Terceira. In 1427, Terceira ("third" in Portuguese) was the third island of the archipelago to be discovered. The capital, Angra do Heroísmo, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Situated on the curve of a wide blue bay, and sheltered by the green slopes of Monte Brasil, the town is the most beautiful port in the Azores.

From the top of Monte Brasil there is a superb view of the town, with the twin bell towers of the Sé (cathedral) soaring above the whitewashed buildings with green shutters and red tiled roofs.

Religious festivals, with marching bands, processions and extravagant floral displays, are an important part of Azorean life. Devotion to the Holy Ghost is a tradition that dates back to the first settlements on the islands. It is particularly strong in Terceira, which has 68 impérios (empires) of the Holy Ghost. These small chapels, brightly painted and lovingly tended, are the focal points of the Festas do Espírito Santo (Festivals of the Holy Ghost). An emperor, who is elected by the people and crowned by the parish priest, is presented with a sceptre on a silver platter (emblems of the Holy Ghost) and accompanied to an império, where a special home-baked bread and a hearty beef and vegetable soup is distributed to the villagers.

The feast is followed by a tourada ácorda, a bizarre ritual in which a bull with a long rope tied round its neck is pulled by four men. The animal charges at bystanders, who run before it. The bravest stand their ground and taunt the bull by rapidly opening and shutting a black umbrella in front of its nose.

Most of Terceira's 402 square kilometres are given over to agriculture and dairy farming. The flowering fields, green pastures and stone walls reminded me of Ireland, but the whitewashed, single-storey farmhouses were very different. The facades were outlined in blue, yellow or green; the tiled roofs, with large white chimneys, reflected the influence of the Algarve. Beside each house stands a burra do milho, a wooden rack shaped like a pyramid, on which maize cobs are left to dry.

Driving along the southern coastal road, I passed several country estates and quintas (manor houses) with enviable sea views. I stopped at the pretty fishing village of São Mateus de Calheta and watched the boats bringing in their catch. On the north coast, Biscoitos (biscuits) is named for the crumbly black lava rocks which have been eroded by the sea. There are many natural rock pools here where bathers gather for an exhilarating swim.

I could not leave Terceira without seeing Algar do Carvão, a geological wonder in the island's interior. I walked through a short underground tunnel and emerged into a vortex of green light at the base of a moss-covered volcanic chimney, the sky a blue disc 45 metres above me. I descended the rough steps into a series of three rock chambers with arched roofs. The central chamber was a vast cave with stalactites of silica hanging from the roof and walls like pendants of milky crystal. The extraordinary colours of the rock -- rust red, yellow ochre, mauve and black -- were reflected in the still pool at the bottom of the cave, creating an effect like a fluid abstract painting.

São Miguel
The last stop on my Azorean odyssey was São Miguel, the largest (747 square kilometres) and most populous island in the archipelago. There is a certain poignancy in the faded splendour of the capital, Ponta Delgada. The churches and mansions are relics of the town's former glory, when it was a port of call for Spanish treasure ships returning to Europe from the New World. Later, the trade in oranges with England was another source of wealth, until the orange groves were destroyed by disease in 1860. Today São Miguel's main crop is pineapples, grown under glass in more than 6000 hothouses. The island also grows its own tea with a delicate flavour that's rather like Darjeeling.

The vibrant heart of Ponta Delgada is the Praça Gonçalo Velho Cabral, a spacious square named in honour of the man who "discovered" the island. The square is paved with a mosaic of black basalt and white limestone set in beautiful, intricate patterns. The statue of Velho Cabral faces the sea and behind it are the three elegant arches of the 18th century Town Gates, built of basalt and limestone.

On the northeast corner of the square is the imposing 16th century parish church of São Sebastião, with a Manueline doorway of finely carved limestone. The interior of the church is decorated with azulejos and has beautiful 17th-century furniture made of jacaranda wood. The treasury next to the chancel contains a rare collection of gold and silver plates and medieval vestments.

São Miguel is known as the Green Island and it isn't difficult to see why. A local artist told me that she had identified more than 200 shades of green, from the grass of rich, fertile fields to the darker tones of juniper, laurel, Japanese red cedar and Victorian box. The variegated greens of the trees make a perfect backdrop for the flowers that grow wild on the island. Everywhere on São Miguel one sees the festive blue globes of hydrangeas, pink lakes of belladonna lilies and lovely golden-yellow blooms of kahili ginger -- known locally as chupa-chupa, a name that imitates the sound made when nectar is sucked from the flower.

Driving on the island is a pleasure; the country roads are lined with plane trees and banks of hydrangeas and one is constantly surprised by goatherds and horsemen giving friendly waves as you pass by. In the highlands the scent of green heather, bog myrtle and gorse is so strong, it's almost overpowering. The coastal roads offer stunning views of the sea as well as some unusual examples of ecclesiastical architecture. The church of Sïo Roque is perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking the sea, like a white eagle with furled wings. At Vila Franca do Campo, the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is reached by a double staircase with crossed balustrades inlaid with azulejos on each landing. From the chapel there is a wonderful view which takes in Ilheu da Vila (a partly submerged volcanic crater in the sea), the town of Vila Franca do Campo on the edge of the Atlantic, a chessboard of cultivated fields and the white glass roofs of greenhouses in which pineapples are grown. The town is famous for its queijadas da Vila, delicious little cakes made with egg yolks and cream.

Some 80 kilometres west of Ponta Delgada is Sete Cidades (Seven Cities), perhaps the most famous sight in the Azores. From the Vista do Rei (King's View) belvedere, you can look down on a caldera with a circumference of 12 kilometres. The crater contains two lakes -- one blue and the other green -- which are separated by a bridge, with the town of Sete Cidades like a drift of white petals at the bottom of the crater. The caldera was formed by a volcanic eruption in 1440 and has inspired many legends, including one about a blue-eyed princess who fell in love with a green-eyed shepherd. When they were forced to part, the tears they shed formed the two lakes.

Untouched by mass tourism, the Azores cast a powerful spell on visitors. The natural beauty of these floating gardens in the Atlantic is enhanced by the warmth and civility of the people and the relaxed, unhurried rhythms of their daily lives. When it was time to leave, I was consoled by the knowledge that there are still five islands in the archipelago to discover on my next visit.

The Portuguese Trade and Tourism Commission (60 Bloor Street West, Suite 1005, Toronto, ON M4W 3B8; tel: 416-921-7376; fax: 416-921-1353; email:


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