Praia is also home to the island’s commercial port © Francisco Caravana, Shutterstock
On the island of Terceira, Praia da Vitória feels open and bright with an attractive main square and extensive shopping street.
In contrast with other towns in the archipelago, Praia always feels open and bright. It has an attractive main square and a long pedestrianised shopping street. In winter, it wears the clothes of an out-of-season resort, with slow business at the hotels and restaurants. In summer, its large, artificial beach and sheltered bay attract holidaymakers and the town kicks into life: the major festivals take it to a whole different level again. Seasonal ferries land visitors from other islands here and Praia is also home to the island’s commercial port. The extensive lowlands of this eastern half of the island produced large quantities of wheat, and the wealth created is reflected in many fine houses in the town. At first called simply Praia, it gained town status in 1640. In 1581, after bombarding Angra, a Spanish fleet of ten ships was reconnoitring the Terceira coast and anchored in Salga Bay, in the southeastern corner. They were seen and the alarm given but by the time the Portuguese arrived 1,000 Castillians had landed and were already bent on destruction. After a morning’s fierce but indecisive fighting an Augustinian friar had the idea to drive cattle at the enemy. Over 1,000 animals were stampeded at the Spaniards, who fell back in disarray and were either killed or drowned on the shore. Thus ended the Battle of Salga. Again battle came to Praia in 1829, when the town, supporting the Liberal cause, successfully resisted an attempted landing by an Absolutist fleet of 21 ships. In commemoration, the town was called Praia da Vitória in 1837. The nearby Lajes airport now covers much of what were the great wheatfields of earlier days.
In the main square, the Praça Francisco Ornelas da Câmara, is the Liberty Statue, erected on the centenary of the 1829 battle won by the Liberals in homage to the heroes. Overlooking the square is the attractive town hall, and further along on the Rua de São Paulo is the parish church, the Santa Cruz church. This was founded by one of the first settlers and has a 15th-century Gothic doorway and a 16th-century Manueline side doorway. Inside there are fine carvings, rich giltornamentation and various works of art. Further along on the same road, on the left, is the house where the writer Vitorino Nemésio (1901–78) was born. He held several senior academic posts in Lisbon and was a novelist, poet and scholar and also a popular television personality; his novel of 19th-century life on Faial and Pico, Stormy Seas, is in English translation.
In the opposite direction, towards the far end of the main pedestrianised Rua de Jesus, is the town market, built in the final quarter of the 19th century. Alternatively, in the opposite direction, take the Rua da Alfândega which becomes Avenida Álvaro Martins Homem and leads down to the beach and along to the modern marina.
The reduced strategic importance of Lajes airport has had an effect on the town, with the number of US military personnel reduced from 2,500 to fewer than 200. For a small town like Praia, that is a significant dent to the economy. New direct flights from Boston and Madrid have helped to alleviate the damage, and the promise of budget flights from the Portuguese mainland will provide further stimulus.