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Finding João's village

Across the Atlantic, exploring the Old World of ancestors who long ago left for America

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff / April 4, 2004

PONTA DELGADA, São Miguel, Azores -- The islands shine in the summer. Religious festivals are in full swing. The country roads are lined with flowers. And the weather rarely mars a leisurely stroll through the narrow, stone streets of the Azores' Old World cities.

Last fall, though, when my wife and I were visiting, the weather reminded us we were traveling among nine isolated islands 750 miles off the coast of Portugal. Sudden storms swept across the land, unleashing bursts of rains, then disappeared over the horizon as quickly as they had appeared.

Kim and I were not as interested in the sun as we were in finding my late grandfather's village and exploring the land my family still calls ''the old country." Our hopes for seeing Grandfather João's home were not especially high. Before we left Boston, a relative assured me that João's village was not on any map and his house would be difficult to find.

But we found Agua Retorta clearly marked at the eastern tip of São Miguel, the archipelago's largest island, on a map we picked up at a car rental agency. And the agent, after I told him we were returning to my ancestral village, was delighted to show us the fastest route.

Due to the uneven quality of São Miguel's roads, that route was not at all as the crow flies. So we drove roughly west, then north, then east, then roughly south, and finally east again, through a rainy morning and early afternoon until we arrived in a tiny village that clings to the earth before the land drops into the sea. Then, using directions I had gotten back in the States, we found João's home near the end of a narrow lane at the edge of the village.

The lane was deserted, though we could see scores of villagers farming a nearby hillside; a cafe run by friends of my family was closed. So Kim and I made the most of the quiet by sitting in front of João's small house and imagining it as it was 100 years ago, on what was then a dirt path, with half a dozen children inside and no running water or electricity.

The poverty of the early 20th century drove thousands of Azorean farmers to the textile mills of Fall River and New Bedford, in scenes depicted by the muckraking photographer Lewis W. Hine. The islands' fishermen, too, followed the routes of Azorean whalers from the 19th century to fleets anchored in New Bedford, Gloucester, and Provincetown.

Today, more than 150,000 people of Azorean descent call Massachusetts home. Hundreds of thousands more live in California and Canada and other parts of North America. Yet the Azores remain a mystery in the American imagination. That's partly because Portuguese immigrants were vastly outnumbered by the Irish and Italians in the 19th and 20th centuries, and partly because travel to the islands traditionally has been difficult.

American visitors are often told they must journey first to Lisbon before getting to the Azores, but the introduction of regular, direct routes to Ponta Delgada from Boston -- and, in the summer, from Providence -- has placed the Azores within a relatively quick four-hour flight of New England.

Although hardship has often marked the Azores' past, João's village today resembles a pastoral ideal. That's largely because the Azores are enjoying one of their periodic booms, thanks to demand for their beef and dairy products, especially cheese. Wandering through the empty village, Kim and I admired its neat, tidy homes and spotless streets, and vowed to return on another visit to the islands.

. . .

With our familial mission completed in unexpectedly short order, we quickly switched into tourist mode -- expecting to find more connections between the Azores and Massachusetts -- and once again the travel gods were with us. As we pulled out of Agua Retorta, heading north to the larger town of Nordeste, the sky cleared suddenly and dramatically.

That was fortunate, because the 30-mile drive from Nordeste to Ribeira Grande, along São Miguel's northern coast, is spectacular. The winding, two-lane road wends its way along high cliffs, leading from one breathtaking vista to the next, with never a billboard in sight, offering visions of whitewashed villages with orange-tiled roofs and steepled churches in the rocky coves below.

Returning to Ponta Delgada, we explored the modest working port in little more than a day. New high-rise hotels are going up near the yacht club at the western end of the harbor, but there are no broad, sandy beaches and few of the other amenities -- nightclubs and designer shopping, for instance -- that lure the beautiful people to popular European destinations.

Instead, the harborside promenade is a dreamy throwback to another time, especially at dusk, with a few streetlights coming on and an angry line of storm clouds racing across the horizon.

Along the waterfront, the Hotel São Pedro offers a direct connection to the city's 18th-century past and another tie to Massachusetts: Boston merchant Thomas Hickling, the first American counsel to the Azores. The hotel, which stands as it did in the 19th century, was originally part of a Hickling estate in the days when the Azores were an essential exporter of oranges and a way station for traders, pirates, and military expeditions.

. . .

It's impossible to see each of the nine islands of the Azores -- all of them formed from the remains of volcanoes -- on a 10-day vacation. So we picked three, which was ambitious enough. To save time, we decided against the inter-island ferry service and instead flew from São Miguel to Terceira, the second most populous island in an archipelago that stretches 375 miles end to end.

Terceira is perhaps best known for Angra do Herosmo, an 18th-century city designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the US air base at Lajes Field, where President Bush met with the leaders of Britain and Spain in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. We had little interest in the base and, though we found Angra do Herosmo charming enough -- especially since cars are barred from the city's cobblestone streets -- our primary motivation for choosing Terceira was the chance to see a bullfight.

Every year from May through September, villages throughout the island host more than 200 of these encounters between man and beast, but Kim and I were arriving at the end of the season. Taking our chances, we arrived at the Angra Garden Hotel, where one of several gracious staffers produced a schedule that indicated we were in luck: A bullfight would be held the following afternoon in the village of Amoreiras, at the eastern end of the island near Praia da Vitória. The trouble was, no one knew how to get there.

That afternoon, we took a cab to the nearby fishing village of Ponta de So Mateus and reveled in a meal of grilled swordfish and cod, washed down with a bottle of local white wine. The experience affirmed our growing conviction that the food at the islands' family cafes is invariably superior to the fare at its pricier restaurants -- and a second bottle of wine inspired us to rise the next morning in search of the mysterious village of Amoreiras.

After renting another car -- without a doubt the most rewarding way to explore the Azores -- we traveled the circumference of Terceira, taking in the rough ocean views at the western end and stopping for an unforgettable swim in the crashing seas off the black lava coast of Ponta dos Biscoitos. Although weather in the Azores can change quickly, the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures warm throughout the year and the ocean is never too cold for swimming.

Arriving in Praia da Vitória later in the day, we found a young clerk at a jewelry store who was able to provide a complicated set of directions, via unmarked roads, to Amoreiras, small village in the hills outside town.

Within an hour, we were walking down a village road crowded with spectators -- young men prowling the street and women sitting safely behind makeshift barriers obviously erected to protect the citizenry from a raging bull. Amazingly, we found places to sit on a vacant stone wall at the center of the village, but we quickly retreated when told the bull would be charging by that very spot.

When the contest began, we found that the bullfights of Terceira do not in any way resemble the spectacles of Spain and Mexico, where tens of thousands gather in large arenas to see the art of the matador and the killing of the bulls.

Instead, these are village entertainments where the animal is loosely guided on a long tether while teenagers and young men brandishing brightly colored umbrellas or old T-shirts test their courage by getting as close to the bull as they dare, before diving over a stone wall or barricade to escape the charging animal. The bull, although teased and taunted to the point of rage, is never harmed.

. . .

Our next stop was the island of Pico, a 19th-century destination for New Bedford whalers and, in the years since Portugal signed the international whale-hunting ban, a renowned center for whale and dolphin watching. Pico is also the site of the dormant volcano for which the island is named. Rising nearly 8,000 feet, it dominates the island, offering hikers stunning views of the archipelago.

To appreciate these splendors fully, we had planned to spend more than two days whale watching and hiking, but this time, the weather wouldn't cooperate. Rough seas made it impossible for the whale-watching boats to leave port, and the mountain remained shrouded by impenetrable fog.

What to do with the time? Fortunately, we were staying at Hotel Aldeia da Fonte, a collection of spacious stone cottages perched on a rocky cliff and built around a restaurant featuring local wines, cheeses, sausages, and the great variety of Azorean seafood. With three islands to see in only 10 days, we hadn't planned on much relaxing, but we got used to it.

Yet our Azorean adventure wasn't over. Returning to the island of São Miguel with only a day remaining before our flight back to Boston, we set out for the twin crater lakes near Sete Cidades, Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, at the western end of the island. For whatever reason, the lakes -- one is said to appear blue, and the other green -- each looked a little gray.

But the drive through steeply terraced farmland, once again without a billboard in sight, more than made up for any disappointment we might have felt -- and in the afternoon, we journeyed farther, to the seaside village of Mosteiros, where we completed our trip with an experience that for us defines the Azores: a satisfying meal at a small family restaurant and spectacular views of the sea.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

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