My unconditional love for Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores
I can’t tell you how many times I wrote and rewrote this post about Corvo Island. I always write based on experiencing a place. I don’t see the point in telling people a story if I haven’t felt it under my skin.
The reason why I have been struggling for so long to write it, it’s because I want to do well, make sure I’m telling the story right.
You see, this is the homeland of my father, my (large) extended family, and my own for over twenty Summers.
It’s more than a volcanic lump of land in the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s part of my DNA.
I can state the geographical facts about this island so that we both have the same context.
Area, 17.13 Km2 (6.6 square miles).
Population, approximately 400 people.
Western Group, Azores Archipelago, Portugal.
About 1.500 Km (932 miles) from Europe and about 4.000 Km (2485 miles) from North America.
But just stating the facts doesn’t cut it. You will ask what is unique about it? So it’s small, so it’s isolated, so what? And I will close my eyes, take a deep breath, and let out in a sigh that “you have to be there to see it.”
So I am telling you my story of Corvo (that means “crow” in English) as if you were there to see it.
As you are touching its ground for the first time (be it from the plane or from the boat from the neighboring island of Flores), the definition of Nature comes to mind. There is indisputable beauty around you of green pastures, of blue ocean, of black basalt rocks.
There is no pretension here.
It has been UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2007, which means we expect nothing less of you but deep respect for the environment and your surroundings.
It’s about 4 Km (2.5 miles) long and 6 Km (3.7 miles) wide.
I assure you you can visit Corvo in a day, but you can’t see Corvo in a day.
The view at the top of Caldeirao alone will tell you there is no rush — you are facing the extinct volcano that started it all. There is a hiking trail that takes you down and around the lagoon. I’ve gone down to that same crater before, when there was no marked trail (well, at least I can’t remember one being there), slipping on moss, stumbling on rocks, in and out of the mist.
The ocean’s vastness brings you a mix of awe, fear, resilience, and frustration. You will love the feel of the salt on your skin after a swim in the Summer, but you will hate how it can kill every plant and turn everything around you to rust with a shift of the wind the next day.
Storms are thunderous and fierce, but you can’t help to admire the raging waves’ white foam against those black rocks.
We all know there’s nothing you can do against a storm except taking precautions and waiting for the calm; we assess the damages the next day and patch up what needs patching up.
In the old side of its only town, the cliffs’ houses seem to be all tangled together. You feel they are welcoming, but you also feel the underlying purpose of protection – the houses are incredibly close to one another. The streets that meander between them are narrow. The way it was built feels like an organic tight-knit.
Not everybody is a farmer, but almost everybody knows how to live off the land — you see, big or small, “owning” land is more of a need than a symbol of wealth.
The islanders grow their potatoes, and corn, and tomatoes, and beans, and watermelons, and cabbages, and turnips, and pumpkins. They fish. They fatten pigs for slaughtering around Christmas. They keep chickens for eggs and cows for milk (and cheese, butter, and occasionally beef).
It is a self-sufficient small village but don’t expect it to be frozen in time. There are paved streets and cars and motorcycles and speedboats and tractors. There is an Internet connection and cell phone reception.
There is a cheese factory that, although modern, stays true to the artisan process. There is an airport with regular flights two to three times a week (saying that landing a plane on that runway is challenging is an understatement).
Corvo is already on the map; you need to look closer.
Most of my memories from Corvo are sensory: the milk (the true meaning of organic is one single glass of that milk, I assure you), the heat and the humidity (it’s denser, more massive), the nocturnal “cagarras” (that quacking sound seems so much louder there).
I have a very vivid memory of several cheeses aging on wooden shelves in the dark and my great-aunt cleaning them with a damp cloth.
I’m sure that homemade cheese violated many EU regulations, but it was the best I ever tasted. It was just about right, salty, dense, with a thick crust that I loved nibbling on.
I don’t know what Winter in Corvo feels like.
Or crossing the ocean to give a shot at the American dream.
Or daring to come back to the island after you tried living somewhere else.
Or losing a father, a brother, a son at sea during a failed attempt at a whale hunt.
But I feel their sense of community deeply, how they lean on each other, and how deaths and births are an affair of all without making those moments less intimate.
As a non-religious person, I have trouble understanding faith, although I respect those who have it unconditionally. I remember the celebrations of Our Lady of Miracles every August 15th. How everything revolved around the church. How the men carrying the saint walked on carpets made of fresh flowers that women had skillfully crafted on the streets just hours before.
They say that the statue protected the town during a surprise attack by pirates in the 1600s.
These cultural manifestations have an implicit symbolism that you don’t need to understand to experience. They go beyond simple folklore.
Corvo isn’t a sidekick detour of a one-week vacation in Flores.
Or the destination of a boat ride that you take in the morning with the hope of seeing some dolphins along the way and come back after lunch.
There is a quietness to this island that I haven’t (yet) found anywhere else, and without any warning, this island will “happen” to you.
All the pictures on this post were kindly made available by Kathy Rita.