An inside look at the Azores' culture
A Bit of History of the Azores
Portuguese navigator Diogo de Silves is believed to have been the first to discover the Azores around 1427, initially landing on the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel. The archipelago remained largely uninhabited until 1439 when settlers began coming over from mainland Portugal. Over the next decade, São Miguel attracted Portuguese and French families who recognized the fertility of the Atlantic island and began to produce wheat, sugar cane and oranges which sparked both economic and population growth. By the turn of the 17th century, São Miguel had become a major hotspot for battling European pirates before it eventually fell into the hands of Spanish troops. By 1640, the Azores had returned to Portuguese rule and its economic hub, Ponta Delgada, had been named the capital due to its strategic location on the coast.
Following the restoration of the Portuguese crown, the islands went through a slow period of development and continued to function as a significant agricultural and economic hub. After the outbreak of the Portuguese Civil War in 1820, Terceira, the third island to be colonized, became the main headquarters of the new Portuguese regime led by Maria I, with Angra do Heroísmo named the new constitutional capital of Portugal.
During WWII, the Azores served as a base for the Allied forces for a significant time during the Battle of the Atlantic. Recognizing the importance of having a strategic base located between Continental Europe and North America, the American Navy constructed an air base on Santa Maria, which was later relocated to its current home on Terceira, Lajes Field.
Over the years, the volcanic archipelago’s culture has been crafted from Portuguese traditions and its own proud regional identity. Religion remains at the heart of the Azores island culture, with festivals and celebrations dominating the calendar, in addition to retaining traditional cooking techniques and celebrations of their whaling and agricultural past. Azoreans proudly celebrate their individual style of cuisine, music, and politics as well as the unique influences of the many people and cultures that have passed through these islands throughout history.
Additionally, the Azores are home to 2 beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites, quite distinctive from one another. Click here to read about the city of Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira Island capital, and about the landscape of Pico vineyards in Pico Island.
Main Festivals and Celebrations of the Azores
The Azorean people have a very religious nature, and this is reflected in the celebrations that they organize throughout the year, in order to pay homage to the divinity. On these occasions, many Azorean descendants as well as tourists flock to the islands in order to take part in the feasts.
One of the largest celebrations of this kind is the Feast of Santo Cristo, on the Island of São Miguel, which takes place each year on the 5th Sunday after Easter, in Ponta Delgada. The main event of the feast consists in a procession through the streets of the city, in which the people of faith follow the statue of Jesus Christ and make promises to the Lord for the year to come. The cult of the Christ is also celebrated on the Island of Graciosa, in August, with equal devotion, and in the various towns and villages of São Miguel, in smaller by equally important measure.
Other religious celebrations include the Divino Espírito Santo feasts, organized in all the islands of the archipelago, the Sanjoaninas on the Island of Terceira, as well as the pilgrimages on the Island of São Jorge, the Nossa Senhora de Lourdes devotion and the festivals of Santa Maria Madalena and Bom Jesus on Pico Island. On Faial, they organize the feast of Nossa Senhora das Angústias and the festival of São João, among others.
There are also non-religious events on the islands, such as the Maré de Agosto music festival from Santa Maria and the Festas da Praia from Terceira, when you get the chance to see "Touradas à corda", a unique event in the world, when bulls are released onto the streets, and guided with ropes through the city. Another tradition in the Azores is the celebration of Carnival, when masked balls are organized throughout the Archipelago.
5 Emblematic Things of the Azores Culture
Pottery and Ceramic
There are still a few artisans who keep this ancient tradition alive. Once in the Azores, it is impossible not to notice the beautiful blue mosaic tiles and pottery pieces alike. You can visit the Cerâmiva Vieira factory in Lagoa, São Miguel Island for a change to see up close how this tradition is being held, or book your cultural tour while in Terceira Island to get to know the work of some local and talented artisans. Nevertheless to say that all the pieces are handmade!
Another handmade craft is the embroidery of the Azores, beautiful pieces that are actual art works. The highlight goes to the embroidery of Terceira Island, where you can still visit a traditional shop and see the “bordadeiras” working.
Priglimages and other religious celebrations
Back in the days, natural catastrophes were thought to be a punishment of God to men for its actions. Priglimages started in Vila Franca do Campo in São Miguel Island, after a disastrous earthquake in 1522 buried half of the village population. The survivors decided to build a church and every Wednesday (day of the week when the earthquake happened), the population started visiting that church in priglimages. This practice quickly spread throughout the other villages of São Miguel Island until nowadays, where the priglimages last a whole week and men walk all around the island. Aside from this practice, every other popular festivitie of the Azores has - very likely - religious origins.
The Azores are the land of the “happy cows” who graze freely in green fields facing the Atlantic ocean throughout the year. As a matter of fact, farming is still one of the main economic activities of the archipelago and the Azores cows are responsible for producing 50% of the country cheese!
Touradas à Corda
The touradas à corda is the most famous event of Terceira Island and it attracts visitors from all over the world. The bulls are simply released into the streets and guided with ropes throughout the village streets, and people have fun watching the brave men who’re courageous enough to face the bull. This practice is NON harmful to both animals and people and it sure is an animation in Terceira Island.