The plane flies to the south coast of Santa Maria, Azores, to align with the beginning of the runway, which occupies a good portion of the eastern end of the island. We share the oval window and follow the maneuver and the opening views.
The predominant earthy brown surprises us. In the eight neighbors of the archipelago, the monopolistic tone had proven itself to green with deviations of yellowish.
Soft Landing in the Azorean Algarve
Everything indicated that the last southern and eastern stronghold of the Azores sheltered the exception. Santa Maria is the Azorean Algarve, some natives assure us. “We have the best climate and the best beaches but also the Azores more conventional. Just wait until you go to Pico Alto, which you will see. We don't take long to do it.
Before that, already installed on the outskirts of Vila do Porto, we reversed the usual sense of things and went down to Anjos. We found the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Nª Senhora with closed doors.
For a short time. Seeing us hanging around the door, a lady at the window of a one-story house next door began to investigate whether the Holy Trinity would grant us a visit to what is believed to have been the first church built by Infante Dom Henrique in the Azores, in 1439, in its original wood and hay version, a few years later replaced by the current one.
The Troubled Visit of Christopher Columbus
Apparently the guardian approved of it, or at least it took only a few minutes before she appeared to us with the key in her hand and a single, simple prayer: "Then, please come back to close it and return it to me." A Cristovão Colombo in a magnified bronze statue contemplates the horizon of the Atlantic but seems to accompany our movements from the sidelines. As soon as we leave the simple but peculiar interior of the temple, we are the ones to relive it and the story of its ephemeral passage through the island.
It didn't take long after the beginning of settlement until the island was attacked by pirates and Berber corsairs. Columbus himself was a victim of these attacks, albeit by default. In early 1493, he was returning from his journey to discover America. The caravel Santa Maria had already sunk in the Caribbean.
In the middle of the Atlantic, Niña and Pinta got lost. Colombo led Niña to the island of Santa Maria. When he arrived, he began to receive food from three of the less than one hundred inhabitants of that time. The following day, he sent a boat with ten men destined for the Hermitage of the Angels in search of a priest who would say a mass of thanks for the good fortune of the trip.
The embassy started to go wrong. Afraid that they were pirates, the residents, led by Lieutenant Captain João de Castanheira, imprisoned five of these men. The rest fled to the ship. Three days later, Castanheira checked Colombo's credentials and welcomed him.
The Almost Tragic Return of Santa Maria to Europe. Via Lisbon
The navigator only left Santa Maria six days after having docked, with the ship repaired and supplied. He headed for Lisbon where he arrived under a terrible storm. The population that accompanied the ship hit by the huge waves rejoiced with their luck.
Colombo spent nine days in Lisbon and surroundings. In this period that remains shrouded in controversy and in which he conferred with D. João II, he and the crew will have been received like heroes and rewarded with large gifts.
One of the most persistent historical theories argues that, after discussing the diplomatic strategy to follow, the Portuguese king made it clear that Spain should concentrate on the new Indies discovered by Columbus and not interfere with Africa and the path to India via Cape of Good Hope.
Barreiro da Faneca: a strange clayey Santa Maria
We reversed path. We soon hit the dirt road to Barreiro da Faneca. At the entrance to this vast, arid, clayey and undulating open plains with torrents of rainwater, surrounded by verdant arboreal vegetation, we share the feeling of having landed on Mars.
From there, we went to Pico Alto (587 m), the highest point of that Terran patch.
Once the last steps have been passed, we are already over this forested zenith and we can see the island all around, the same drier section to the south that we had seen from the plane. And the more southern, the more weedy and wet the landscape.
The Air Tragedy of Pico Alto
On February 8, 1989, pilots aboard the Boeing 707-301 of the Independent Air coming from Bergamo and destined for Punta Cana, they saw little or nothing around before the occurrence of what became the air crash in Portuguese territory with the most victims.
A double failure in the communication between the command tower and the pilots and, above all, the poor preparation and performance of the pilots made the plane's approaching altitude fail and the plane crashed into Pico Alto.
This is despite the fact that the runway at Santa Maria Airport – built by the North Americans in World War II to reinforce their war effort – received, at that time, frequent Concordes on stopovers on their transatlantic trips, as did the equally supersonic Antonov 2 .
Over the decades, the autonomy of new aircraft increased. Santa Maria Airport has lost much of its old traffic.
Towards Santa Bárbara, with no sign of thunder
From the measured heights of Pico Alto, we descend, without a hitch, towards Santa Bárbara. In this town, the architectural beauty surprises us. The houses are white with blue corners and frames.
Large cylindrical chimneys project from them, which the natives called “steam chimneys” while repudiating the authors of all the conclusions brought by pioneer settlers from the Algarve.
Its true inspiration may have been the steamboats on which Azorean emigrants departed for the Americas and returned from them. Today, jet engine travel is propelled, but it is still rare for Mariens without, at least, relatives in Canada or in the USA.
We found two of them working on their property at the entrance to Santa Barbara. Artur and Vítor are brothers, surnamed Luís. A Chinese tractor calls them to tasks.
We do everything to lead them astray for a few moments of conversation. Shy at first, they try to send us away. We insist with the utmost courtesy and humor possible.
Artur and Vitor Luís, Brothers from the Field with Some Time for Conversation
Finally, they silence the tractor, postpone the tasks and dedicate themselves only to these compatriots from the continent. Unlike what happened with other farmers with whom we had contacted in São Miguel (Azores), his accent was noticeable to us. As we all let go, socializing is as fun as it is stimulating.
Vítor Luís is the talker. Arthur remains in reserve. Complete, with additions, the speech of the brother. As they tell us, their mother has about twenty brothers and they don't even know half of it. “Some live in America, others in Canada. Yeah, right. That's why we work with caps from these teams over there!” (on American football teams from San Francisco and Seattle).
“Vítor still confesses to us, without any embarrassment: “my wife has a twin sister but it's rare for me to live with her family.” When we dare to understand why, it takes refuge in the joke. “It's better anyway. See if I'm mistaken later." Twenty minutes later, we leave them to their business.
We point to the center of Santa Bárbara that we find arranged around the homonymous church. We entered a café-grocery store, rested and regained strength. We then proceeded towards the east coast of Santa Maria.
From the heights of São Lourenço to Santo Espírito
When we reach the Espigão viewpoint, at the top of the slope that hides São Lourenço, sunlight intermittently falls on the corrals, on the vineyards they protect, on the houses sunk in the half crater and at the mercy of the Atlantic onwards. Clouds filter this light.
They make the town and its long beach even more mystical than the extreme location already provided.
We return along the same zigzag road above and look for Poço da Pedreira, a large pink wall made of a stone from Marian masonry that has, at its base, a lake carpeted with lush grass.
Shortly after we hit it, it started to rain hard, so we bet on the meteorological clemency of Santo Espírito, the civil parish because it passed the island's road axis. In the early days of colonization, its dispersed communities of settlers gathered heather from the high cliffs of the Malbusca region along the sea.
They did it in baskets that descended to the height of the cliff where they could see the fungi. And they would hoist up again when they finished filling the baskets. The heather thus gathered was exported to Flanders where local artisans used it for coloring fabrics and others.
This parish received its name because it was there that mass was said, for the first time after the colonization of the island, before moving to Santana.
Towards the eastern ends of the Azores
Nowadays, the religious core of the current Santo Espírito resides in the church of Nossa Senhora da Purificação, built in the XNUMXth century, baroque in basalt stone semi-painted in white to form a mosaic and with its frontispiece added in the century XVIII, cut into rounded shapes against the sky. It's time for work and not even at the bar-band Recreio Espiritense is the village lively.
In any case, there are still a few kilometers to the last Azorean corner to the east, the closest to the Portuguese mainland which is 1436 km away.
From Santo Espírito to the east, the road descends without parsimony and offers magnificent views over the coastal scenery below, such as the Vigia da Baleia viewpoint from where the old sentries patrolled the Atlantic in search of cetaceans.
We don't see any sign of whales, but the panorama of the Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse halfway up the slopes and the steps beyond that lead to a bunch of cactuses keep us entertained for a long time.
In Search of the Giant's Causeway Evasion
We left the island's main road for good, with the aim of returning to Vila do Porto along the south coast of Santa Maria. We bet on finding the Ribeira dos Maloás. In the village of Malbusca, we look for someone to look for the way.
Instead of people, we come across a waddling sow who descends a steep path and stops to sniff at our car, curious about the hot obstacle that had stopped her evasion.
After half an hour, we find the geological monument there. It lay at the end of a path flanked by cactuses, on the edge of an abyss that overlooked a rough but crystalline Atlantic, with seductive tones.
With the sea imminent, at a certain point, the Ribeira de Maloás falls into a waterfall measuring about 20 meters. There, hides the impressive Calçada dos Gigantes de Santa Maria, a prehistoric geological sculpture that groups together basalt columns.
Knowing what we know today, we would only regret ignoring such a place. In the last hours of light, we complete the journey to Vila do Porto. With a brief strategic stopover in Praia Formosa that precedes it.
THIS REPORT WAS DONE WITH THE SUPPORT OF: