The authors’ take
The Azores are Europe’s best-kept secret: verdant, tranquil, diverse and exquisitely beautiful © Vicky Spaenhoven, Dreamstime
It is perhaps strange to think there is a cluster of nine small islands, completely isolated but thriving, lying between Lisbon and New York and surrounded by the great Atlantic Ocean. Very much part of Europe and members of the European Union, they have many of the accoutrements of modern life: the latest fashion trainers, cars, second homes, and the very latest communications technology connecting home computers with the internet.
Yet few people are aware of the existence of the Azores and many of those who are hold an image of dry, sun-baked volcanic islands like Lanzarote in the Canaries. And they almost always assume they belong to Spain.
The Azores are Europe’s best-kept secret: verdant, tranquil, diverse, exquisitely beautiful, always welcoming. Further south and close to the African coast lies Madeira, Portugal’s more familiar Atlantic island; sunnier and with less rain and cloud but considerably more developed for tourism, and famous for its wellpromoted flowers and gardens. It was going to Madeira that aroused my curiosity about those other far-off islands; a flight from Funchal took me to Ponta Delgada, and back to an ambience that possibly could have been found in Madeira half a century ago. One needs to take the Azores at their own speed. Fight it, and you will be frustrated; relax along with it and you will return a different person. Old-World courtesy prevails, a reminder of the many tiny niceties of life that have been sacrificed to the exigencies of faster lifestyles.
Since they were first settled in the 15th century, each island has developed at a different speed, depending upon the quality of its harbour, terrain, crops, and its distance from the others. Today this is reflected in their diversity, each island offering the visitor its own individual character that makes the Azores such a varied entity.
All the islands are green, the flowers are mostly sophisticated and subtle, the gardens are steeped in history and, like the flowers, are more cerebral than flamboyant. While some main towns have their roads and traffic, just a short distance away men ride horses to their pastures and pony carts filled with milk churns clatter over cobbles. Flashing neon lights are rare, streets are narrow, shops modest and in keeping with the streetscape, coffee bars are numerous while nightclubs are few. The islands reflect their turbulent geological past and offer rural landscapes enhanced by rocky or precipitous coasts surrounded by an often travel-brochure-blue sea. Religious and secular festivals riot through the calendar and touch the lives of every island and islander. There are sailing regattas, golf tournaments, big-game fishing tournaments, cycle races, car rallies and other events that come as rather a surprise and largely leave the non-enthusiasts in happy oblivion. There is so much to explore, so much to experience; these islands should be savoured like a rare wine.
Coastal walking trails abound on the Azores © Anibal Trejo, Dreamstime
For me the Azores were an immediate coup de foudre. The scenery is very beautiful, I could never tire of walking the hills, there is an interesting flora, the geology is fascinating, the natives are extra friendly, and there is blissful peace. I was spending months each year in distant countries where travel is hard work, and to suddenly find all the natural attractions with the wonderful bonus of good coffee, excellent wines, a comfortable bed and easy flight seemed a paradise. It still does, even after 30 years.
The long-established Azorean travel agent Albano Cymbron and I pioneered a series of walks (and even marked the routes with blobs of red paint), and in 1991, wrote and jointly published a modest guide to six of the islands. We sold 2,000 copies. A year later I was invited to advise on the restoration of the Terra Nostra garden in Furnas, one of the great gems of Azorean heritage. This developed into a major project, and from there came two more garden restorations, this time for the Ponta Delgada Municipality. Friendships have matured over the years, and the islands remain as lovely as ever – what more could one wish for. Now three entire islands have been recognised by UNESCO as Biosphere Reserves for their balance between man, nature and sustainable development. Someone else must have fallen in love with the Azores!