Every time I say “I’m from the Azores” one of these two reactions are expected: “oh wow that is awesome, you’re so lucky!” or “oh now I get why you left, it must be awful to live in an island.” Not to mention the occasional jokes or unbelievable questions. “When the tide is shallow you must be able to cross from one island to the other hey”, “are there any cars”, “are there any schools”, “how come you don’t have the same accent as the others” (and by the others they mean people who live in St. Michael’s island). Over time, I have learned to take these hits (some harmless) with a smile and patiently explain what it’s like to be from the Island of Flores in the Azores.
Last week I took you to Corvo in a glimpse. Flores will probably not take more than a glimpse too. It’s not because there isn’t much to say. I assure you there is, about both of them. But the best way to know these islands is to visit them and experience them.
Legend (or History) has it that the island was named Flores because it was covered in flowers when Diogo de Teive discovered it in 1452. This 143 Km2 piece of land is the most western point of Europe, marked by a tiny islet off the coast west of Fajã Grande called Ilhéu do Monchique. That tiny tip of a rock is where Europe begins.
When you grow up on an island and have the urge to see the world, home always seems like the same old same old and feels small. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about when foreigners fell in love with my homeland. Then life continues to go by, time is shorter, and the trips back home become rarer. I miss the small things the most: I urge to see emerald green and bluish gray lagoons. Lately, I find myself missing the things I never did while living there.
As I meet people who have been to the island and listen to their experience, I can’t help to think “how on Earth did they find this place.” I never ask. I want to share it with the world of course (it is what I am doing right now), but I don’t want to give all the goods away in one shot. Yes, it is a territorial thing. Usually, I will make some absent-minded comment about the silent beauty of the seven lagoons and how unfortunate it is that the weather doesn’t always allow you to see their full potential.
The population of almost 4.000 people now has always fluctuated a lot. A French military base was settled on the island in the 1960’s, and I remember attending kindergarten with a few French kids; starting first grade, they would attend their school in the base. They always mingled with the Islanders: on the grocery stores, in the cafes, celebrating Carnaval. In reality, their separate block of houses was a mere formality. I remember being little and knowing that the day after my birthday always meant fireworks at the French quarter — as I grew up I understood the fireworks were for the Bastille Day on July 14th (for years I secretly thought they were throwing me an after party). By the early 1990’s they left and the base was deactivated. Some say the island’s economic balance has been shaken ever since. Behind they left the construction of the first airport, the hospital, the first roads, electricity and a dam. More than the Portuguese government had done for the island.
Nature is all around you, it is the Azores trademark of course, and I find myself trying to remember how Spring and Winter feel like in Flores. And I can’t. I can’t remember the last time I was there when it wasn’t Summer. It doesn’t matter what season it is when you choose to visit — the weather on an island in the North Atlantic will always be somewhat unpredictable. But I believe that’s part of the experience. Don’t expect a tropical resort where everything is thoroughly planned to indulge you. People will, of course, be more than glad to show you around or point you in the right direction when you seem lost. But here, as in Corvo, you have to strip to your rawest self. It’s a destination that takes some patience (and love) to get to, so I believe those who reach it come for the passion of being an islander.
The hills and valleys call for a hike. The waterfall of Poça do Bacalhau calls for a quick dip. The warm sea of Fajã Grande calls for a swim. The sunset in Fajãzinha calls for a dinner of local cuisine at the Restaurant Por Do Sol (accurately named “sunset” in Portuguese). You can’t say this island doesn’t do its best to call for your attention. Every time I see photographs of Ireland, I can’t help to think how alike they look.
The island’s population extends far beyond the 16.71 Km length and 12.26 Km width — most of our families live in the United States, and I have always been closer to the American culture than the European. Growing up with brands like Crayola, and Fisher Price and M&M’s, and Barbie dolls, and Cabbage Patch Kids was quite common, unlike most of the other mainland Portuguese in the 1980’s. Culturally, Massachusetts is a lot closer to us than Lisbon. People say my English accent is a mix of regional variants with a pinch of Canadian, something I have never been able to tweak (and I’m not sure what to work on in the first place).
An abandoned village called Aldeia da Cuada was close to a ghost town, left in the 1960’s by people who immigrated until a couple of locals bought the houses and turned it into a rural tourism village. Apart from the necessary interior renovations, the facades and essence of these stone houses were kept. Each house is named after its previous owner, and there is careful attention to details of local culture: in the wool quilts, in the old iron beds.
Each one of the seven lagoons is an extinct volcano, and it’s their untouchability that makes them so appealing. A kind of quietness and beauty that you can only appreciate from afar.
Life is peaceful, but isolation of this sort comes with a price — a stronger storm means a cut off on supplies (groceries, mail, communications); a hospital that isn’t adequately equipped means an evacuation for something as familiar as appendicitis; a demand higher than the supply makes the pricing of essential goods feel like a bad joke.
I can’t tell you all the secrets when you have a whole island to explore, but I can assure you it’s worth the flight (and all the stops and mini layovers that can happen in between), it’s worth the jet lag (I don’t think you’ll even have the option of feeling jet-lagged), it’s worth the tight grip of your hand on the plane seat armrest (chill, these pilots have been landing here for years, they can do this!).
Have you been to the island of Flores in the Azores? What were your favorite spots?