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Population: 250,000 on the Azores; 140,000 on São Miguel
First settled: 1420s
Unusual produce: Home to Europe’s only tea plantation
Days of rain a year: About 188
Azores motto: ‘Rather die as free men than be enslaved in peace.’ Also: ‘Eat cheese’

Can I get off now please? Perhaps it was the black rain that was smudging out the horizon and drawing down unfriendly clouds over the mountains. Or maybe it was the choppy grey sea pounding on the black volcanic beach. Or could it have been that I had just eaten too much of the abundant local cheese? (This really is no place for the lactose-intolerant.) Either way, as I stood there prodded by the gale, I couldn’t help thinking that just beyond the horizon – two hours’ flying time from this rock – was Lisbon, at this moment sunning itself in a 30c glow. It was a low point.

This is not an unusual feeling to strike people on the Azores. We will meet young festival organiser Sofia Botelho properly in a bit but, when I told her about my anxiety hour, she was sympathetic: “Outsiders are like this, they see the sea as an obstacle but we see it as a way of leaving whenever we want – it’s like a street.”

Perhaps, but it’s a street that tens of thousands of Azoreans have used over the decades to leave these nine autonomous islands sprinkled in the Atlantic, about 1,500km from the coast of the motherland, Portugal. And for many it’s been a one-way street as they have settled not only on the mainland – or “continental Portugal” as people here refer to it – but in the large Azorean communities that have become rooted in Toronto and Rhode Island; there are direct flights to and from Toronto and Boston.

Today the population of the Azores stands at 250,000 and is gently growing. And despite a number of challenges – far beyond the cheesy diet – there are some intriguing people who have decided to call this scatter of islands their home. For the next few days, wobbles over, we will join them on the largest of the islands: São Miguel. Now that the rain is clearing and cracks of blue are veining the sky, let’s see where the hell we are.

São Miguel is about 60km long and 15km wide and there are points on its mountainous roads where you can pull over and stare down the length of the island and see two stretches of village-dotted coast running away into the distance. Intriguingly for an island that used to be the base of numerous whale-hunting stations until the 1980s, and which is now home to a €60m annual whale-spotting industry, it is actually shaped like one of those fleshy submarines.

The island is pockmarked by three sets of vast lakes – Furnas, Fogo and Sete Cidades – that deservedly make it onto all the postcards. And while it may be regularly rain-lashed, it never falls much below 10c so the feisty vegetation runs from heather to tree-fern forest. It’s bloody lush, hence all the cows.

The capital is Ponta Delgada, a “city” of about 70,000 souls. There’s a busy port where cruiseships, freighters and a Portuguese navy frigate come and go as we watch from the quay. It’s an ocean-front road lined with 1960s hotels and some public buildings from the Estado Novo period that look distinctly fascist. Behind them you will find outposts of modernist architecture and traditional white houses with black volcanic-rock trimmings in the shape of windowsills and doorframes. It makes for a pleasing, low-slung city.

While there is much that is fresh and new, you don’t have to look far to find shops and offices with polished fittings and furnishings that have remained wonderfully unchanged for decades. For a start there are the inky offices of Tipografia Micaelense, which seems to be using its letterpresses to print half the island’s business cards. Then there’s Louvre Michaelense (Micaelense, or Michaelense, means “from São Miguel”), a new shop selling “Made in Portugal” and Azores products that is based in an old milliner’s dating back to 1901. Today it’s run by the energetic Catarina Ferreira, who moved to the island as a teacher 15 years ago and has been passionate about the place ever since. “I’m the crazy lady from the Azores,” she says, laughing. As well as teaching and running this shop – along with its café, which serves some very fine pastéis de nata (custard tarts) – she also has a vegetarian restaurant and says that with the uptick in tourists, “this is the time to do something here”.

It’s a big uptick too. Just over a year ago permission was given for low-cost carriers to operate flights from Lisbon and Porto to the islands. Suddenly, instead of paying €300 for a return flight you could do it for €50 or less (although to keep Azoreans on the islands the government has always run a flight-subsidy scheme for groups, including university students). That’s why tourist numbers are up by as much as 20 per cent. And instead of just the traditional visitor – German, 60, hiking obsessed and likely to wear sports sandals to dinner – young guns are coming to hang out or go to one of the music festivals such as Tremor. It also means that a number of people from the mainland are coming looking for investment opportunities – and in reverse that for young Azoreans, when that claustrophobia strikes, they can simply go to the mainland for a weekend.

Our next stop is Portugal’s oldest newspaper: Açoriano Oriental. The offices are on a long, skinny one-way street but you can easily spot them as every time we pass – and you pass most places a lot in this tiny capital of one-way roads – someone is outside drawing ambitiously on a cigarette. We are here to meet the editor, Paulo Simões, who finds us in the lobby, where a stuffed bird of prey rests on a perch above the reception. The paper’s masthead is adorned by an almost Germanic eagle but this taxidermied mascot looks a little more roadkill than eagle-eyed reporter.

Simões may run a paper with a daily print run of just 5,000 but an hour in his company leaves you feeling that he’s a vigorous, clear-sighted journalist and editor who could be commanding any paper and who is dealing with the same challenges faced by, say, the editor of The New York Times (how to tackle the balance between print and digital being key). Despite that short print run he has a decent team of reporters and a very decent output: there’s the paper that appears every day except Christmas and after New Year (when they are “too drunk”); a Sunday supplement; a radio station on which Simões hosts a show called Conversa a Quatro (A Conversation with Four People); and then the videos for the website. He’s busy.

Simões explains that each island has such a tightly knit community that they only read their own island paper – so he can’t sell Açoriano Oriental elsewhere. As for Lisbon’s news publications, “People don’t really buy the continental papers,” he says. “Only the elite.” And in case you were thinking that the paper’s stories would be trapped in village-fête territory, he says that there are a lot of good reports to track on an island that is changing fast and where traditional social ties are loosening. “In Ponta Delgada we have some of the virtues and also some of the dark sides of a great city – but all in a microcosm.”

A dark side? Here? “In the past the only drugs were at the US base [on Terceira] but now if you want it you can have it,” says Simões. “Things have changed: today we have brothels but also better schools.” The ships and yachts in the harbour may bring the appeal of contact with the outside world but every now and then one might be packed with cocaine.

Simões is not keen on scandal or brawls making the front page; he likes his paper being local and vital. As such, he investigates where money is wasted by officials: in the past some overgenerous drops of EU cash have ended up being used to build swimming-pool complexes that never opened and a rash of roundabouts on an island with no real traffic. He also covers the travails of the fishing industry and the equally struggling dairy sector – thanks to Russian sanctions and the changes to the EU quota system – that nevertheless produces half of all Portugal’s milk and a third of its cheese. Then there’s that fast-growing tourist trade and how it can be managed – although Simões is quick to agree that the folk who think it’s turning the place into Benidorm are a little adrift from reality.

We leave Simões on the street and he directs us up the hill to where, in a few short minutes, we are due to meet the president of the regional government. We wander through the palace’s gardens and arrive at the entrance. The president’s head of press is waiting on the doorstep with his photographer, who is going to document our meeting.

We wait for a few minutes in a lounge with plumped sofas before Vasco Cordeiro arrives. He’s a giant of a man with a solid handshake and a happy smile. And he’s reassuringly presidential in his look and manner; you would vote for him. Cordeiro runs through the tricky things he has to deal with: 30 per cent youth unemployment; education reform (“We don’t have pretty numbers”); and those struggling dairy and fishing trades. But he’s also confident that the islands can, with some changes, have a promising future.

For a start Cordeiro thinks that the Azores could act as a lab for becoming self-sufficient in energy by using thermal and solar power. He’d also like to team up with a company that could use the islands as a place to test how you convert a population to electric cars. “How do you change the patterns of consumption and decrease imports?” he asks. “The Azores would be the perfect location for such a programme; the impact would be huge.” Sounds like he should be getting in touch with BMW i or heading to Silicon Valley.

After the interview Cordeiro walks me around the grand villa and shows me the richly decorated rooms and the portraits of the Portuguese royal family, who stayed here in 1901. Houses like this one were built by families who became rich through the orange trade but then a blight hit that killed all of the orange trees. “Our story for almost 600 years has been one of resilience,” says Cordeiro. “We have survived volcanoes, earthquakes and battles. We have faced nature but we want to be here.” It’s no wonder that he thinks they can cope with a dip in the milk price.

Later, over coffee, we catch up with Sofia Botelho. She is the organiser of the Walk & Talk Festival, which aims “to bring some art to the streets of Ponta Delgada”. Botelho explains that this has included large-scale murals – done with the backing of city hall – by artists from the mainland and street furniture inspired by the drying racks used for tobacco (along with tea and pineapples, one of the post-orange crops). She’s part of a push to make the Azores a cultural destination; the islands seem to organise festivals faster than you could ever make the wristbands. But she’s the interesting one. She studied in Lisbon before being drawn back to these islands; she says you need to return if you are an Azorean to recalibrate and feel peace again. “I also know that I will probably go away again,” she says. “But you get this special connection.” Like a pebble on one of those black beaches, the Azorean tides push and pull its people back and spit them out too.

The next day we head out in our Fiat Punto to the opposite coast: we are off to the town of Ribeira Grande. It’s late afternoon but even so there is not much life on the streets and the doors of the brightly painted former fishermen’s cottages are mostly tightly shut. It’s a town that seems to be crouching low, attempting to prepare for winter winds. It feels poor in some places – we pass a bar where the drinkers are stumbling drunk – but elsewhere there are gleaming modern homes and the vast new Arquipélago Contemporary Art Centre by Mais é Menos Arquitectos.

A combination of a converted tobacco-and-alcohol factory and new concrete event, performance and gallery spaces, the centre seems a little big for a town of just 32,000 but is here in a bid to attract more visitors and give this community something to be proud of. It’s beautiful and its grand vision of being a meeting point between the Atlantic islands, Americas, Europe and Africa is admirable – even if it looks like a big task.

The woman charged with pulling all of this off is Fátima Marques Pereira, the centre’s director. She dazzles in more ways than one: today she’s dressed in a gold jacket with matching gold shoes and as she gives us a tour she always has a lighter and a packet of cigarettes in one hand. While Pereira is proud of her work it’s clear that it’s not easy. “The government was visionary to do this but we have to work hard to engage with the community,” she says. “We are getting about 40 visitors a day.” That’s fewer people than the bar probably hosts. As she adds, the town “is closed, poor and made up of people who are working in agriculture so it takes a lot of work to draw them in”. On the day we visit there’s an artist-in-residence workshop that has managed to attract some locals but it’s going to be a long slog before the place is ever packed.

Most people who come to the Azores are after a different kind of long slog: one that’s done in walking boots. The islands have a following among hikers and older folk, in part because of their arguably misplaced reputation for being sleepy and crime-free. During our stay we (not least our photographer, who has to keep his nerve during the rain and drive at breakneck speed when the sun shines) crisscross back and forth as we check out thermal swimming pools, old-school spa hotels, outposts of contemporary architecture and the gripping landscape. We go to the vast flat Furnas Lake and the muddy hot swimming pool on offer in the town of the same name. We also head up to the twin lakes at Sete Cidades – but rain obscures the view.

On our final morning the sun is out and the barreling clouds are white and genteel so we drive to Lagoa do Fogo; on every bend of the road there the view stuns. We pass the steaming geothermal plant that supplies half the island’s power and then there is the lake: dramatic, with a steep cliff and seagulls flying far below. Now, we are not going to claim it made us want to buy a farm and settle down here but the Azores’ allure and pull were finally clear.


THE AZORES DIRECTORY

A round-up of the islands’ best places to shop, stay and see – as well, of course, as a last-minute spot to buy cheese.

Stay

Pico do Refúgio: This inn is based in a converted tea factory just outside the town of Ribeira Grande. The handful of rooms are vast and nicely decorated with mid-century furniture and bold works of art made by painters who have stayed here on residencies. You get a good breakfast at the communal dining table but don’t expect room service and you’ll need to head out for dinner. Owner Luís Bernardo’s family has lived on this estate for centuries – you can see the family mansion across the fields – and he’s a good source of island news.
5 Roda do Pico
+351 296 491 062
picodorefugio.com

Terra Nostra Garden Hotel: If you fancy a night in the spa and thermal-pool town of Furnas, this place is always recommended by the locals. Originally built in the 1930s, the building has been updated with all the things you would expect in a nicely conservative, well-run four-star establishment. It’s set on the edge of an extensive botanical garden that has an outdoor thermal pool filled with warm brown-clay-coloured water (get in, it’s good for you). It’s perhaps not the liveliest crowd; think people doing Sudoku or dozing in their chairs on rainy afternoons.
5 Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho
terranostrahotelazores.com

Azor Hotel: When we were in town this large ocean-facing hotel had just opened in the capital and was not fully up and running – so we cannot give a review of the spa or gym. It has well-designed bars and restaurants; the rooms we saw looked comfortable too.
Avenida Doutor João Bosco Mota Amaral
+351 296 249 900
azorhotel.com

Shopping

Regional products: Cheese? You can stock up at the airport if you fancy some full-fat protein. Also look out for the dense and delicious egg tarts; known as queijadas de vila franca do campo, they come in nicely branded wrappers of greaseproof paper. There’s also a good gourmet food shop called Com Certeza on Rua Dr Francisco Machado Faria e Maia. And, of course, check out the Portugal wares at Louvre Michaelense on Rua Antonio José d’Almeida.

Tipografia Micaelense: If you’re in need of some business cards visit Dinis at Tipografia Micaelense. Even if you don’t, it’s worth poking your head in to say hello because it’s such a glorious – and just a bit chaotic – world of ink, type and friendly faces.
33B Rua do Castilho
+351 296 284 262

Getting around

Car: You really need a car and can pick one up at the airport upon arrival. Or you can walk; there are some ambitious trekkers on the islands.

Culture

Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Centre: You should definitely take time to see this small collection, which is of variable quality but worth seeing just for the architecture by Francisco Vieira de Campos and Cristina Guedes from the Consortium Menos é Mais Arquitectos. The building has been shortlisted for numerous prizes.
Rua Adolfo Coutinho de Medeiros
+351 296 470 130
arquipelagocentrodeartes.azores.gov.pt

Furnas Monitoring and Investigation Centre: If you want to see some more contemporary architecture head to the Furnas Monitoring and Investigation Centre, which was designed by Aires Mateus Architects. Two grey-stone, single-storey buildings slouch on the lake’s edge, making a dramatic and sharp-edged mark on the landscape. They appeared to be in need of some upkeep when we visited but were worth the detour.
Rua da Lagoa das Furnas

Agenda Cultural Journal: Fancy a festival or an exhibition? Get your hands on the free Agenda Cultural Journal, which is packed with listings and distributed in galleries and bars.
culturacores.azores.gov.pt/agenda

Don’t miss

SpotAzores: This app seems to be on everyone’s phone (it’s also a website). It links you to cameras all over the island so that you can see, in real time, what the weather is up to. It’s useful because while there may be a downpour in Nordeste the sun can be glinting in Ponta Delgada.
spotazores.com

Açoriano Oriental: This tabloid is our newspaper of choice on São Migeul. It was founded in 1835 and has stayed relevant and vital ever since.
acorianooriental.pt

Essentials

Weather: It flips in seconds so be prepared for rain showers, sunny spells and chilly evenings. There are lots of thermal pools so don’t forget your swimmers. And some sensible shoes won’t go amiss if you fancy a hike.

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