The Azores: Nine Islands
The Azores originated as a result of the 1766 volcanoes that are to be found in this archipelago, nine of which are still active. The Azores Geopark was born out of all this natural wealth, as part of the European and Global Network of Geoparks. Its aim is to promote and protect the geological heritage of the archipelago.
The Azores Geopark is unique worldwide because it offers 121 geosites scattered throughout the nine islands and surrounding marine area, mirroring the vast volcanic geodiversity of the archipelago. There are nine islands, but only one Geopark!
In the subsoil, there are nearly three hundred volcanic cavities in the form of caves, grottoes and crevices. On the landscape, there are dry calderas, lakes in craters, fumarolic fields and hot springs. Underwater geothermal sources are found out at sea. The majestic mountain of Pico, whose cone is still intact, seems to protect all these geological riches. As a testimony to the power of nature, the archipelago’s volcanic history is impressive for the diversity of the region’s geological heritage that reflects a geological memory of 10 million years.
The Azores Geopark Association has created new services, routes and interpretative products, implementing a high level of quality geotourism in the region, in close connection with other strands of Nature Tourism.
PICO, THE MOUNTAIN ISLAND
With an area of 448km2, the Island of Pico is the second largest in the Azores and one that is home to Portugal’s highest mountain, also called Pico, at 2,351m above sea level. Often referred to as the Mountain Island, Pico forms one of the points of the so-called “triangle islands”, being the most southerly of the central group of the archipelago, and just 6km from Faial.
Pico’s hot, dry climate, together with the mineral-rich lava soil and the organisation of the land in a stunning mosaic of black stone – the “currais” (plots) – has meant a growing success in the cultivation of vines, predominantly of the Verdelho variety. Gradually, the wine and the brandy became more and more appreciated both on and outside the island, and Verdelho achieved international fame. It has long been exported to Europe and America, and at the time was even a feature on the dining table of the Russian Tsars.
The extensive lava fields that dot the island’s landscape, which the local population calls “lajidos” or “cookie lands” form the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture, declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 2004. Lajido da Criação Velha and Lajido de Santa Luzia are the best examples.
On the black lava ground, the “rilheiras” – ruts left by the wheels of ox carts carrying the grapes and barrels – are worth seeing, and in the harbours and coves along the coast the “rola-pipas” – ramps excavated to make it easier to roll the barrels of wine to the boats, still remain as witnesses to the wine industry.
The immense volcanic cone of Pico Mountain, the third largest volcano in the Atlantic, imposes itself on the island’s landscape. Inside its main crater there is a cone of lava designated Piquinho, on top of which fumaroles permanently vent steam to remind us of its volcanic nature. At around 1250 metres above sea level, where the footpaths to the Mountain start to climb, you can get a view of much of the island, as well as the neighbouring Faial and São Jorge. The climb to the top is tiring, but rewarded by fantastic, unique panoramic views which, on a clear day, offer the additional reward of a glimpse of the islands of Graciosa and Terceira.
It is on Pico that one of the largest visitable lava tubes in the world is found, in the Gruta das Torres, which stretches for five kilometres and is embellished by various types of lava stalactites and stalagmites, and ridged walls.
For lovers of geotourism, there are other must-see sites to visit: the Furnas (geothermal sites) of Frei Matias, Silveira and Montanheiros; the “Mysteries” of Santa Luzia, Prainha and S. João, formed by lava from volcanic eruptions that occurred in the sea and were joined to the island; and also the Arcos do Cachorro, an impressive grouping of lava perforated by numerous tunnels and caves through which the sea passes creating a maelstrom.
Other places to visit are the Capitão, Caiado and Paul lagoons, and also the Terra Alta Viewpoint on the road that circles the island to the North, from which you can see the island of São Jorge, and the landscape that Pico’s wealth of forest offers.
Pico is a land with a strong whaling tradition. The island is divided into 3 districts, Madalena, São Roque and Lajes, and like the other islands in the Azores, its architectural heritage is concentrated mainly in the churches and chapels in the various parishes: the Churches of Santa Maria Madalena, in Vila Madalena, São Roque and the Convent and Church of São Pedro de Alcântara in São Roque do Pico, and Nossa Senhora da Conceição and the Chapel of São Pedro in Lajes; but there are also many others.
The Pico Museum is also worth a visit, with its three divisions: the Whaling Museum in Lajes, the Whaling Industry Museum in São Roque, and the Wine Museum, in Madalena, each of them portraying an important period in the history of Pico. The Wine Museum is housed in the former Carmelites Convent, and offers visits to the vineyards, wine tasting, and in September, the opportunity to participate in the grape harvest.
Besides its natural wealth, Pico also offers a fine gastronomic heritage, very much based on fish and seafood, whose highlights are the famous Caldeiradas (bouillabaisses), stewed octopus with vinho de cheiro, sausage with yams, molha de carne (a roast meat speciality) and fish soup. Its figs are also famous, with their bright red flesh, and the honey produced from frankincense flowers and Pico Cheese – soft cheese from cow’s milk (particularly São João and Arrife). All washed down, of course, with Verdelho wine, or with the Island’s highly prized red and white wines.
Pico is a land with a strong whaling tradition, and various handcrafted items of whale bone and tooth, as well as straw hats, flowers from fish scales and wooden miniatures of whaling boats are all good suggestions for souvenirs.
FAIAL, BLUE, COSMOPOLITAN ISLAND
Faial is located in the central group of the Azores archipelago, and is part of the so called “triangle islands”, together with São Jorge and the neighbouring Island of Pico, separated by the Faial Channel, a narrow sea inlet about 8 km wide.
The Island covers an area of about 172km2, and is 21km long, with a maximum width of 14km. It was discovered in 1427 and colonised in 1432 by a number of Flemish settlers. It was given the name Faial because there are many beech trees here (faias), but no other island can boast such a huge mass of hydrangeas in different shades of blue, which frame the houses, separate the fields and border the roads, justifying the nickname Blue Island.
Faial underwent considerable development from the 17th century on, making it an important trading post due to its geographical position as a safe haven between Europe and the Americas. More recently it was the communications hub between the continents and today is a mandatory point of reference for international yachting.
The highest point is Cabeço Gordo, in the centre of the island, at 1,043m above sea level. It is a magnificent natural viewpoint which in fine weather enables you to see all the islands of the triangle and as far as Graciosa.
Close by lies a huge crater called Caldeira, about 2km in diameter and 400m deep. It is surrounded by blue hydrangeas and lush vegetation, amongst which cedars, junipers, beeches, ferns and mosses stand out, and some of which are important examples of the original vegetation of the island. This area, the Faial Natural Park, was the first Portuguese tourist destination awarded the EDEN prize (European Destination of Excellence).
- take a picture of one of the island’s symbols – the mills
- visit the Botanical Garden of Faial, at Quinta de São Lourenço, in the Flamengos valley
SÃO JORGE, THE ISLAND OF FAJÃS
São Jorge is an island of cliffs, crags and fajãs, one of the greenest in the Azores archipelago and the perfect place for a holiday in contact with nature and the sea.
The island is 54km long and 6.9km at its widest point, and is part of the Central Group and one of the apexes of the so-called “triangle islands“, together with Faial and Pico, from which it is 18.5km away.
From a landscape point of view, the contrast of the central mountain range that runs almost the whole length of the island stands out, with its rugged, jagged coastline, dotted by the typical fajãs that extend into the sea. The fajãs are small plains originally created by lava or landslides and there are over 40 on São Jorge, which has earned it the nickname island of fajãs. In some cases there is only pedestrian access, so the trails are one of the best ways to discover it, using paths that are suitable for various physical conditions and specialist guidance.
From the Fajã da Caldeira do Santo Cristo, the most famous because of its tasty clams, to the Fajã dos Cubres, with its crystal clear lagoon, and the Fajã do Ouvidor with its natural pools, a tour of the island of São Jorge means admiring the land divided into plots for subsistence farming, the stone houses with three-pane sash windows, the waterfalls and the curious steel cables for transporting wood to the coastal plains.
- surf the waves of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo
- taste São Jorge Cheese, the clams, barnacles, crabs and limpets
TERCEIRA, THE FESTIVE ISLAND
The island of Terceira, one of the main entry points to the Azores, together with the islands of Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial, forms the central group of the archipelago.
As its name implies, this was the third island of the archipelago to be discovered, although at first it was called the Island of Jesus Cristo. It began to be populated in the 15th century, and has developed steadily since then, largely due to its geographical location.
But what makes Terceira so special is the magnificent contrast between the natural beauty of this volcanic island and the admirable work of man in the historic centre of Angra do Heroísmo, its capital, founded in 1534, and the first place in the Azores to be made a city and to be classified World Heritage by UNESCO. Indeed, the title “Most Noble, Loyal and Ever Constant” attributed to the city emphasises its importance throughout the history of Portugal. The bay of Angra gained great importance not only as an internal trading post for regional products produced on the other islands, but also for its even greater prominence as an intercontinental staging post for ships sailing between Europe, the Americas and India.
Seen from Alto da Memória or the viewpoint on Monte Brasil, the historic centre of Angra do Heroísmo is a testimony to the kings and noblemen who passed by here, leaving behind some beautiful architecture in its network of streets and alleyways, and its churches, palaces, mansions, monuments, squares and gardens, which have been preserved until the present day.
Visits must be made to the forts of São Sebastião and São João Baptista, unique examples of military architecture dating back more than 400 years, the 16th century Cathedral, considered the largest church in the archipelago, the Palace of the Captains-General, the Town Hall, the Church of São Gonçalo, the Bettencourt Palace, the Angra Museum, located in the former S. Francisco monastery, and the Duke of Terceira Garden, with many well-tended species, among other monuments.
GRACIOSA, THE WHITE ISLAND
The Island of Graciosa, classified by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve, is the northernmost of the five that make up the central group of the Azores archipelago. It is known as the White Island, a designation inspired by the island’s geomorphological characteristics and place names, in particular those given to places like Pedras Brancas (White Stones), Serra Branca (White Hills) and Barro Branco (White Clay).
The island has just one municipality, Santa Cruz da Graciosa, comprising four parishes: Vila de Santa Cruz, Vila da Praia, Guadalupe and Luz. Santa Cruz is notable for its typical houses and its narrow cobbled streets, which branch out from the large central square where you can see the bandstand, some water tanks and candelabra trees. It is worth visiting the Parish Church of Santa Cruz da Graciosa, the Church of Santo Cristo, the Cruz da Barra and the Ethnographic Museum, which houses exhibits linked to wine culture, with traditions on the island, and to whaling. In Vila da Praia, the highlight is the Church of São Mateus, which has a pipe organ dating to 1793, one of the finest of the Azores, and in Guadalupe, the church of the same name, dating from the 17th century.
There’s a wonderful panoramic view of Santa Cruz, the northern part of the island, from the Mount of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda. In this area you can also visit three shrines dedicated to S. João, S. Salvador and Nossa Senhora da Ajuda. The latter is one of the best examples of “fortified religious architecture” in the Azores. Attached to it is the “pilgrim home” designed to accommodate those who went there on pilgrimage.
The architectural heritage of the island is preserved in various types of buildings, particularly churches, chapels, cottages, and a curious “water course architecture” associated with a centuries-old network of reservoirs and drinking water supply systems. Another interesting feature of the island’s landscape is the windmills with red cupolas, of Flemish influence, that testify to the abundant production of cereals in former times.
The Caldeira da Graciosa is the most emblematic element of the island’s landscape. Classified as a Regional Natural Monument, this large, beautiful crater also contains the Furna da Maria Encantada (Cave of Enchanted Mary) and the Furna do Enxofre (Sulphur Cave), veritable shrines to Mother Nature.
ISLAND OF FLORES
As a part of the global network of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, the island of Flores, the westernmost territory of the Azores and Europe, has landscapes that are true havens. Together with the island of Corvo, this island is part of the western group of the Azores archipelago.
If there are places privileged by nature, the island of Flores is one of them. Its 141.4 km2 surface divided into two municipalities, Santa Cruz and Lajes, plus the friendliness of its people, make it a must see destination in the Azores.
It is estimated that its discovery was around 1452, by the navigator Diogo de Teive, and although initially called the island of São Tomás or Santa Iria, its name was quickly changed to Flores, due to the abundance of yellow flowers, the goldenrod, which covered the entire island.
Characterised by a heavily indented and extremely rugged coastline, Flores is an island of water: waterfalls, lakes, streams and wells form a catalogue of unforgettable experiences, which seem to concentrate within themselves all the natural beauty that is scattered across the other islands of the Azores.
Due to its small size it is not hard to cover the entire island, and a good suggestion to set out on your exploration is to start the day on a boat trip, from which you can have a different view of the breath-taking rock structures and caves. This is the case of the Santa Cruz das Flores Arch and the islet of Maria Vaz, which are visible only from the sea, like the Enxaréus and Galo caves.
- visit the Boqueirão Environmental Visitor’s Centre
THE ISLAND OF CORVO
Corvo, considered by UNESCO to be a World Biosphere Reserve, forms, together with the island of Flores, the Western Group of the Azores archipelago. Its origins are volcanic, and it is the smallest of the nine islands, with an area of only 17.1km2.
Corvo and Flores were discovered at the same time by the Portuguese explorer Diogo Teive, around 1452, and it was initially called Insula Corvi.
The only settlement on the island, Vila Nova do Corvo, is located in a lava fajã which forms the island’s main level surface. It is a picturesque and unusual village which features facades of black stone with white trimmed windows and doors, and narrow streets, locally called canadas, paved with rolled pebbles and weathered slabs. The use of wooden locks on the doors of the houses, made by the craftsmen of Corvo, is one of the remaining traditions that symbolises life on a peaceful island where everyone knows everyone else.
It is worth visiting the Church of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres (the island’s patron saint) which contains a picture – the Virgin and Child, of Flemish origin – and an Indo-Portuguese ivory crucifix, as well as the Corvo Visitors’ Centre.