The first time we flew over the Azorean Central Group, sitting by the window, we noticed two attributes.
The conical mountain of the Pico, roof of Portugal, far above the median plane on which the insular triangle rests. On the other side of the longest of the channels, a long island, craggy like no other, a gigantic and verdant Earth ship anchored there, 54 km long and 7 km wide. Several of the fajãs of São Jorge still stand out.
That was not the case, but whenever São Jorge is the final destination, when approaching the runway, the plane moves towards two of them, Queimada and Santo Amaro.
The first time we disembarked in São Jorge, we left the ferry from São Roque, destined for the wharf of Vila das Velas, the capital, also at the bottom of a huge slope.
We spent several days on the island under this geological dictatorship, between the heights of the island and its additions, whether generated by slope collapses or ancestral lava flows.
The Uncertain Times of Discovery and Colonization
Despite the challenging configuration of São Jorge at first sight, Vila de Velas proves the success of the local colonization, with more than half a millennium.
It was inaugurated thirty years after the discovery of the island, which is believed to have taken place around 1439, even though it is not known for sure when the first sighting took place and who was the author of the seaman.
The nearly two thousand residents of Velas inhabit a prolific houses that, over time, occupied the largest of the flat areas of the island, in the extension of a generous inlet, favorable to anchoring.
From 1470 onwards, the ships never stopped arriving and set sail, soon, charged with carrying wine, corn, yams, pastel-dos-dyers and heather, destined for mainland Portugal and northern Europe.
Similar to what happened on the neighboring islands of Pico and the Faial, part of the colonists of São Jorge arrived from Flanders. Of these, the nobleman Willem van der Haegen stood out, whose name was so complex that he was called Portuguese for Guilherme da Silveira.
Velas das Naus, and Vila das Velas
The sails of such vessels have, with great probability, inspired the popular baptism of Vila de Velas, although several other hypotheses coexist.
Some are the distortion of “beautiful”, the simple adaptation of the name of a land on the Portuguese mainland or even the origin of an expression derived from the “velar” synonymous with watching, either the passing of whales or the volcanic activity that, as we will see later, it turned out to be a serious obstacle to the constancy and peace of the settlement.
We walk through the streets of Velas, from its Porta do Mar upwards.
We admire the Azorean elegance of the village, blessed as it is supposed to be, by a worthy temple of the Lord, in this case, its Parish Church.
The slope of the land little or nothing hindered the harmony of the houses, spaced out, polished, in certain points even resplendent in color, as around the Jardim da Praça da República, with a heart in its scarlet bandstand.
We would return to Velas day after day.
With all of São Jorge to be unraveled, we set out on the road and the winding slope that rises from the edge of the village to the heights of the island.
In the time that had elapsed since the crossing of Pico, such a barbaric storm was affecting the Continent. As we saw it, either it was another that intensified on us, or it arrived with such a level of barbarity that it tormented the Azores at the same time.
The more we ascend the island and lose the protection of its south, the more we feel the force of the wind. Curiosity grew in us about the northern slope of São Jorge.
A wintry French toast and unpredictable downpours would not be enough to intimidate us.
Barred by the passage of an extensive herd of Frisian cows, we left the N1 road.
We enter another one that, lost in pastures and walled agricultural rectangles, intersects the island.
Fajã do Ouvidor's Dazzling Vision
In an almost winding diagonal, we skirt the area full of caldera of Pico da Boa Esperança (1053 m, the highest elevation on the island) and continue to Norte Grande. On the northern edge of this North, we find the top and the viewpoint we were looking for, Fajã do Ouvidor.
Ahead, but about 400 meters below, an addendum to the island stood out. The name of the fajã comes from its owner Valério Lopes de Azevedo, the Ombudsman of the Captain Donatário at that time.
Despite a dense cover of agricultural grass, the black lava and furrows uncovered on the edge of the sea, seemed to prove an origin in lava flows. Once solidified and eroded, several natural marine pools were molded in it at that time, invaded and beaten by waves increased by the wind.
The bathing factor of fajã do Ouvidor makes it one of the busiest on the island in the summer months. The most modern houses threaten to outnumber the traditionally built ones.
On the other hand, despite being used almost all year round by farmers in the area, with the Estio, dozens of families come on vacation.
The Café, the restaurant and, if necessary, even the disco are open.
The Ouvidor gains another life.
The Dazzling Sequence of Fajãs from the North Coast
From the top of the Miradouro, looking east, we could also glimpse the contours of the nearest fajã, Ribeira da Areia. Therefore, less obvious, those of Mero, Penedia, and Pontas.
Further afield, over the Atlantic, in the shape of a flattened volcano, we could still distinguish that of the Cubres, owner of a fascinating lagoon of brackish water, vulnerable to the highest tides and the strong waves of the storms.
Fajã dos Cubres is also the starting point for a stunning walk to the neighboring Fajã da Caldeira do Santo Cristo, to which we will dedicate our own article. Until then, let's return to the top lands of São Jorge.
We cross again to the south coast where we descend to Calheta, the neighbor of Velas.
As a village, it continued to contribute to the colonization and development of the island, which did not prevent a progressive decline in population.
Calheta: for centuries in the Calha da Vila de Velas
After the second half of the 8400th century, Calheta, in particular, had almost 2011 inhabitants. In 3773, it had XNUMX.
As you would expect, the village went through the same ordeals as Velas. Attacks by pirates and corsairs, earthquakes – especially the “Mandado de Deus” of 1757 – landslides and flooding tidal waves such as the one in October 1945.
Today, Calheta do Atlântico is protected by the rough end of a prehistoric lava torrent and a wall that the municipality added to it as an extra boundary of the marginal.
We arrived at the eastern edge of its cove and harbor. We take a look at the former Marie d'Anjou cannery, recently transformed into the Island Museum.
We feel the pulse of the day-to-day life of the village, after which we ascend the Jorge slope again.
Back to the Top, Towards the East End of São Jorge
We returned to the east of the island, always attentive to the map, in search of the fajãs at its base. Along the way, we delight in the succession of centuries-old fountains on the island, all marked with the initials OP (public works), and the year of their construction.
One of them, made of volcanic stone gilded with time, seemed to want to distract us from the natural work of art that lay behind it: the green and abrupt rest of the island, unfolded in three large sections of southern cliffs.
A meander of the road takes us to the base of a hillside resplendent, green and dotted with stones from an old water mill. A few kilometers ahead, a new viewpoint reveals a new fajã, Vimes.
The Prodigious Café of Fajã de Vimes
We zigzagged in favor of gravity, until we ended up on its humanized coastline. Even if the day was still windy and cool, the scenery above had an almost tropical feel. In such a way that in vegetable and rural terms, the star product of Fajã de Vimes is coffee.
We took a stony path up. Soon, between walls and an almost Azorean jungle, we identified its berries, at that time, yellowish and green. We were still trying to understand the chaotic configuration of the plantation, when the leaden sky released a deluge above us. We ran to the seaside.
Soon, we detour to an establishment. Already soaked, but in good time, we took refuge in Café Nunes. At the counter, Mr. Nunes, himself, welcomes us. “But they could have gotten in the car and brought him here to the door.”
We thank you for your attention, we ordered two coffees and cheeses to accompany. "And what about? It's special, isn't it?” We express our agreement to Mr. Nunes.
He retorts with justified concerns about the future of his business. “I have less and less health to take care of the plantation and I cannot pay to maintain it. The bush, there, grows back in a few days. My son is an architect, my daughter works in tourism. Little time is left for them. Even so, last year we managed to harvest a good ton of coffee, Arabica and the best!”
The conversation lasts much longer than the rain. Warmed by the warmth of the welcome, we say goodbye.
In Search of the Top of São Jorge
We return to the main road at the top of the cliff. From which, we descend to the Fajã de São João, where, for some time, the terrace of the picturesque Águeda tavern serves as a landing place.
Then, we aim at the extreme southeast of São Jorge, a point that its islets call Topo, and a village that is the lady of an empire of Espírito Santo, one of the most elegant yellow-red ones we have found across the lands of the Azores.
Everything, on these sides, is connoted with the apogee. We detour to the Ponta do Topo lighthouse.
arrived at finisterre Below, we are left to admire the fury with which the Atlantic punished the surrounding coast and, off to the sea, the eccentric Ilhéu do Topo.
We reverted to the itinerary.
After 40km opposite the EN2 from São Jorge, we reach lands of Urzelina.
We find what is left of the old local church, its bell tower.
From the Unexpected Volcanic Event of Urzelina to the Vastness of Ponta dos Rosais
In 1808, an unexpected eruption of the Urzelina volcano razed much of the village, but not only that. Its lava flowed down the slope. It only stopped after adding a wide-open lava V at the foot of the island.
The eruption caused residents to flee in panic.
In the most reliable narrative of the event, the Father João Ignácio da Silveira, says that the nuns of Velas took refuge in the church of Rosais. We follow in your footsteps.
We cross the dismal, wet cedar forest of Sete Fontes.
On the opposite side, we face the point of São Jorge opposite to Topo and an immensity of agricultural patches still buffeted by the gale.
The abandoned lighthouse at Rosais and the Vigia da Baleia that also looks out over its ruins was as much as we could explore from the intriguing western end of São Jorge.
We left many of the island's fajãs undiscovered.
And an unavoidable pretext for us to return.