From Martha’s Vineyard to the Azores

From Martha’s Vineyard to the Azores

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A village along coast of Faial. In the Azores the sea is never far away — in fact and in the consciousness of the residents. — File photo by Photo courtesy of John Alley

John Alley, former proprietor of Alley’s General Store, a justice of the peace, cemetery commissioner in West Tisbury, a selectman in that town for years and a Dukes County commissioner for years as well, is a descendant of Azoreans, but he’s never visited the mid-Atlantic archipelago. John and his wife, Anna, along with Phyllis Meras, also of West Tisbury, made the trip recently. It was John’s first travel internationally. What follows is his account of his travels. A portion of the tale appears here, in the print edition of The Times. The balance of the story appears online at mvtimes.com, along with several additional photographs.

My grandfather, Antone Alley, was born on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores in 1871. I had always been curious about the Azores, but never really tried to figure out how to visit the nine volcanic islands spread over hundreds of miles about two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic from us. Our friend and neighbor, Phyllis Meras, a travel writer who has been there before, said, “Go to any travel agent in East Providence.”

I did just that, and the American Travel Agency, whose owners were born in the Azores, planned the trip. There was a lot of preparation and anxiety that led up to the big day. Foreign country, language problem, exchange rate, and I didn’t know what to expect other than the material in travel brochures. The big day arrived on June 7, my first international trip requiring a passport. I had one but never had any reason to use it. My wife, Anna, along with Phyllis and her companion Sal Laterra, all headed out on what to me was the adventure of a lifetime.

Anna did all of the driving in a country where we were not familiar with the signage, and she did a superb job. We thoroughly enjoyed the scenery, relaxed lifestyle, friendly people, food, and learning the history of the islands. It is a most impressive set of Islands, and we got the chance to visit five of them.

At Logan Airport, after checking in, I met several people with ideas and suggestions about my adventure, all headed for Lajes Airport in Terceira, which interestingly, is shared with the U.S. Government. The Azores, I later learned, were of strategic importance to us during WWII, in addition to being an important stopping-off point for troops crossing the Atlantic.

On board I sat across the aisle from a very nice woman from California named Paula Belnavis who was headed home to visit and attend a close friend’s wedding. She enthusiastically offered me a wealth of information about Terceira and convinced me there was a lot to see and people to talk with. There is quite a history with those volcanic islands discovered in the 15th century. Our first stop was Angra do Herosima, one of the older cities in the western hemisphere, it also was the last city conquered by the Spanish when they overran Portugal in the late 1400s.

Our hotel, the Beira Mar, was located right on the harbor, with a beautiful view of the 15th-century fort on Mt. Brazil. The desk clerk was a huge help in getting us settled and suggesting the best places to visit. On the first day, despite jet lag, I managed to climb all 125 steps to the top of the Obelisk da Memoria, a memorial obelisk in the beautiful gardens in the center of the city. On another day, we climbed up to the fort on Mt. Brazil only to realize later there was a road from Angra that led us to it. Later we did drive up the narrow winding road nearly to the top of the mountain. The views along the roads in all of the Azores are simply stunning.

We rented a car and toured around the island of Terceira. The original plan was to hire a taxi with a driver who could speak English, but the hotel desk clerk convinced Anna that she could drive around herself, and it was possible to find the way on our own. The people seem to have a calm lifestyle, and they were very friendly, helpful, and accommodating even if they spoke a limited amount of English. Farming and fishing are the chief industries. Often, even if it was cloudy in the morning, it would turn hot and sunny by the afternoon. A superb dinner for four including wine and a tip was very affordable. Our last day on that island also happened to be Portugal Day, a national holiday.

On to Blue Island

We then flew to the island of Faial, also known as the Blue Island, because of the color of the thousands of hydrangeas. They were everywhere, frequently used as hedges to mark who owned which field. They were not in full bloom everywhere during our visit because the weather had not yet been warm enough, but they were spectacular nonetheless. Next time we will go a week or two later. I began to realize that each island is quite different when it comes to celebrating local customs.

Jean Andrews, of Edgartown, had given me the name of Terry Cardosa, an excellent cab driver, who if you can get him, she said, will give you a complete tour of the island. I did call him, and he was just superb and very detailed in his descriptions. He pointed out the close ties between Faial and the U.S.A. going back to Western Union days. In fact the quarters built for their employees is now a hotel. The island played a vital role in WWII supporting military operations of the U.S.A. He told us of the Flemish influence introduced to the Azores in the 1700s — matter of fact, he has blue eyes! Terry showed us the difference between Portuguese and Flemish windmills. If it was cone shaped on top (it had gears inside that enabled it to turn with the wind) it was Flemish. The Portuguese ones were flat-roofed, which meant the blade was always in a stationary position.

Terry took us to the crater on top of the highest hill on the island and then to several villages. Faial, like all of the Azorean Islands, has a population of twice as many cows as people. He showed us the volcanic activity of the late 1950s where it buried a village and covered two floors of a lighthouse. He told us how the name of the capital city, Horta, was shortened from Horatio, the name of an early sea captain who made it a part of his many voyages to stop over. He showed us Horatio’s house. Of course we stopped, at my request, at one of his favorite spots for some sweetbread and coffee. He is one kind person and so very knowledgeable about his home island. We also dined at the famous Peter’s Sports Bar and Café in downtown Horta on the waterfront where sailors from around the world stop and seem to congregate in the café. One sailor was wearing a Black Dog tee-shirt and a Red Sox cap. It turned out he owned a place on Cape Cod.

Anna took the time to visit a famous scrimshaw museum located above the restaurant.

The next day we headed over to St. Jorges Island on a local inter-island catamaran to tour that island. A guide from the Portuguese Tourism office met us at the dock, courtesy of Phyllis. The guide, Jorge M. Silveira, spent the day with us showing us his home island, and like Terry he was superb and showed us all around. He spoke fluent English — he had lived in California for 20 years. We found the island relaxing and peaceful. Among the many stops that I remember with fondness was a visit to what I would call an out-of-the-way location where two sisters, Alzira and Carminda Nunes, had looms and made rugs in various patterns. I thought of Katherine Long and Tom Vogl and how much they would have enjoyed that visit.

The Nunes sisters also did a lot of embroidery work, and behind their house they had several coffee trees! They would pick the beans, dry them in trays in the hot sun and in what may have been a garage at one time they had the cleanest neatest little café where they sold their special homemade cookies in the shape of a horseshoe and espresso coffee made, of course, with their very own home-grown beans. It was absolutely magnificent. We certainly would not have known to get there without our guide’s help. Believe me, if you have been there once you would never forget it.

We also stopped by the shop of Zelina Soares who sells a lot of fancy embroidery work on a consignment basis, and we got to witness that island’s version of a bullfight. About once a week in the summer the local population gathers in the village street, where a bull is controlled by local farmers with long ropes. Some folks taunt it so it charges, and then everyone gets out of the way quickly.

We visited a church dating back to the late 1400s that was ornate and beautiful. St. Jorges is noted for its cheese, and it is wonderful, something like Wisconsin cheddar, but the difference in taste is that cows on all the islands are fed only homegrown corn and hay from the fields. They never go inside a barn; instead, portable milking machines are towed to the pasture daily and a truck or a donkey delivers the milk to a cooperative facility.

Our dinner that night consisted of a pound of their famous cheese, a loaf of Portuguese bread and a bottle of wine purchased just before boarding the boat for our return trip to Faial.

The next day we went over to Pico Island, the site of the highest hill (volcano) in all Portugal. After talking with us, a young woman and her dad on the boat going over realized we were strangers and made all the arrangements with an English-speaking cab driver to take us around. We visited a whaling museum where whales were processed until the early 1960s, a winery, and a museum. To my eyes, the island wasn’t quite as green as the others. A large amount of land is devoted to growing grapes in confined spaces of about 20 by 20 feet marked by lava rock walls. They produce an excellent wine and also grow figs, and produce a fine cordial that on the second sip will curl your socks. They too have a lot of farming and nearly 40,000 cows. In addition to wine, the other three local industries are a tuna fish cannery and two cheese factories. Their cheese is famous, and residents of Portugal and other countries in Europe primarily consume it. You can buy cheese from the Azores in Portuguese stores in the U.S.A.

We then traveled over to Sao Miguel, the largest island in the chain and the birthplace of my grandfather. Ponta Delgada, the capital, bustled like a big city surrounded by old world customs, and a fort protecting the harbor. There are 53 parish churches on the island. We rented a car and began touring visiting many small villages, and often stopping at mirandoras, or lookout observation points (strategically placed on each island). We drove up a steep and winding hill to Lago do Fogo for pictures of breathtaking landscape and visited a tea factory in Gorreana. I had no idea that tea was grown on the island, but it is produced in vast quantities. We watched them harvest the leaves, process them, and hand pack it on the premises for resale.

We had a bit of a problem finding the place (it turned out we were approaching it from the wrong direction). We met a Portuguese couple who were also lost and several residents that could speak no English. I met a farmer who was towing a cow in the trailer behind his truck. He motioned for us to hop into the truck body, and he would take us there. We do have pictures of the black and white milk cow in the trailer puzzled by the strangers, but what we wouldn’t give for a photo of us all crawling into the truck for the ride up a very steep hill on a bad road. By the way, the same couple lost looking for the tea factory recognized Anna and me three days later walking on the street in Ponta Delgada and joked about us being lost again.

They also grow pineapples in hot houses, and we set out to find the plantation, but again, the roads were confusing, so we stopped to ask a man walking down the street for directions. He told us that it would be very complicated to explain how to get there due to road construction, detours, and one-way streets, but he had some time, so he offered to ride with us and help us find our way. He got us there, and then walked back to work. We never would have found it without his help.

We were told for the best fish dinner on the island to go to Ponto dos Carnelos, located right on the water. Of course, we got lost again, but a young woman just getting home from her job was extremely helpful, and ordered her brother to lead us to the place, which he obediently did. It was a wonderful dinner.

One day was reserved for an experience eating regional cuisine cooked in large kettles that were lowered into small lava-lined pits (calderias) near steaming hot springs in the village of Furnas. The kettles are buried, then a wooden cover placed on top and a foot of lava-like sand is placed over the cover. After eight hours it is fully cooked and ready to enjoy. When it is all prepared, it is transported to Tony’s Restaurant in town to enjoy.

We stopped at a local pottery shop in a small village and the potter was wearing a Red Sox cap. It seems he had lived in New Bedford for a few years with family before returning home.

We concluded the vacation with a trip to Solar Da Graca where they serve traditional-style home-cooked food, fabulous deserts, and all the wine you can drink — plus traditional dances and music. Since we were the only English-speaking people there, mixed in with about 100 people from Finland and many local residents, the owner, Paulo Cruz, served as our interpreter and filled us in on the local customs and background about his restaurant. His father had turned an old carriage house, hidden from public view by a large board fence, into a charming restaurant that included a dance floor. I had not attempted to dance a Chamarita for 50 years, but I tried my best. It was a wonderful and memorable evening.