Trips to The Azores

Scattered in the North Atlantic Ocean almost 1000 miles west of the Iberian Peninsula, the Azores are a group of nine spectacular volcanic islands which are collectively classed as an autonomous region of Portugal. Internationally renowned as one of the best locations for watching whales and dolphins, they also boast an inviting subtropical climate and a breath-taking landscape filled with crater lakes and naturally heated springs.

Geothermal forces are very much at the heart of what makes the Azores so unique, and the islands seem to continuously breathe in recognition of this. This can be clearly seen on the largest member of the archipelago, São Miguel, where the fumaroles of Furnas exhale away. Here, pools warmed by the earth make for therapeutic bathing spots, and steam from the ground is used by the locals for cooking.

The Azores are traditionally divided into three groups of islands. São Miguel forms the eastern group with Santa Maria, while Corvo and Flores make up the western group. The central group is comprised of Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial. Together, the nine exist as a destination which is culturally European, recognisably exotic, and unmistakeably exceptional – all at once.

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Geography and Climate

The Azores have a subtropical climate, which means that they experience warm weather throughout the year, with hot and humid summers and rather pleasant winters. June to August brings sun-filled days with temperatures hitting the low 30s (degrees Celsius).

All the islands are noticeably mountainous, with abundant greenery and a variety of beaches – some, like Santa Bárbara and Praia do Almoxarife, with black sand. In the west, the appropriately named Flores abounds with flowers, while tiny Corvo contains a gigantic caldera. In the centre, Pico is home to the largest volcano in the archipelago, while Graciosa has the lowest elevation out of the nine.  

São Miguel has it all: the sublime lagoon of Sete Cidades, the geothermal splendour of Furnas, the hilly beauty surrounding Lagoa do Fogo, and the flourishing forests of Nordeste.

Food and Drink

The cuisine of the Azores shows how mainland Portuguese gastronomy has been changed to suit island tastes. There is a strong emphasis on seafood, as well as hearty dishes and countryside produce. Azorean dishes also tend to be more spiced than those on the Continent.

In terms of seafood, the likes of lobster, swordfish, clams, and sea bass can be sampled, as well as octopus, known as ‘polvo’. A favourite from Portugal is ‘bacalhau’ (‘salted cod’), which can be found in a variety of recipes. Sample ‘Bacalhau à moda das Furnas’ on São Miguel Island, which applies Furnas-style cooking to this much-loved ingredient.

Furnas is especially well-known for its version of the Portuguese ‘cozido’ stew. The ‘Cozido das Furnas’ is prepared using natural steam from the volcanic ground. Another place on São Miguel which is linked to a specific delicacy is Povoação village. ‘Fofas da Povoação’ might be described as the Azorean take on éclairs – delicious, chocolate-coated, cream-filled pastries that can satisfy any sweet tooth. Other treats eaten across the islands include tigelada, which is a type of set custard, and pineapples, which are locally grown.

It would be wrong not to mention the wide range of cheeses which can be eaten on the Azores. Most famous of all is that produced on São Jorge, which is well worth a try.

History and Culture

The Portuguese began to colonise the Azores in the early 15th century, starting with Santa Maria in 1439, then São Miguel a few years later. Settlers came not only from Portugal, but also France and later, Flanders. Farming spread as all the islands were gradually inhabited, with wheat, oranges, and sugar being important exports.

The islands fell into Spanish hands after an invasion in 1583, and were eventually returned to Portuguese control in 1640. The 17th century saw the Azores become an important site in the struggle against European piracy. Various Atlantic battles were fought, some with the help of France, which brought further French influence to the local culture. The position of the islands also made them ideal for navigating between Africa and the Americas. Following civil war in Portugal during the 1800s, the Azores were split into three districts. They were unified on becoming an autonomous region of Portugal in 1976.

The wide-ranging aspects of Azorean history are expressed in its culture today. Its European Catholic heritage comes out in its splendid churches and religious festivals. The historical practice of whaling, which formed a substantial industry for the islands until it was outlawed in the 1980s, now has a present-day contrast in the booming whale-watching business. On the island of Pico, scenic vineyards planted in the 15th century continue their valued production and are recognised as one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the Azores. The other is the town centre of Angra do Heroísmo, which is admired for its excellent architecture. 

Image credits: Futurismo Azores Adventures

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