as tourism expands further and further and with the local airline’s monopoly
on international flights fading away, numbers are steadily increasing:
come here for the pristine volcanic landscape, the cleanest seas in Europe
– home to dolphins and whales, with all the advantages of staying in the
EU – reliable power and telecommunications, European-standard services,
and a familiar currency.
more Germans and Britons are buying second or retirement homes on the islands,
and many Azoreans who have made it in the US and Canada – or their children
– are coming back to retire or build a summer house. (This also makes it
easy here if you don’t speak Portuguese, as many people speak good English.)
All this has
driven property prices up dramatically, as there is precious little space
to parcel. As of today a simple, modern home with nothing special to it,
in a village away from the island’s capital, can easily cost €125,000
(US$160,000). And as more foreigners pour in even these prices continue
to rise. It’s still possible to buy a ruined cottage for €30,000 (US$38,000)
– little more than a patch of land and a right to rebuild it, but for a
pretty house with a view, or a prime building site, you can expect to shell
out ten times as much.
old timers are not happy about this. Our neighbor pays a monthly rent of
80 dollars with what is called an “Azorean contract” – one that the tenant
can pass on to future generations and the landlord can never rescind.
He’s unhappy about the new housing boom, the rising prices, and the supermarkets,
and makes a point of buying his groceries in the darkest, dingiest, least-stocked
shop in the village, saying that “this has been here since I moved here”,
in the late ‘70s.
in fact to be two parallel islands of São Miguel. Every morning
happy cows are herded through the country roads or milked in the fields
with portable machines, and the milk hauled to the central on a horse-drawn
cart or across the back of a donkey, under the weary eyes of shawl-covered
old ladies peering from their windows. In the regional capital Ponta
Delgada, in the meanwhile, Smart cars jostle for parking spots on the back
and white mosaic pavements and in Parque Atlántico, the American-style
mall complete with international franchises.
not just quaint – with an average worker’s wage well under $10,000 a year,
many locals are all but excluded by the “new” Azorean economy.
For those nostalgic
of the simple country living of yesteryear Säo Miguel truly is paradise.
Because imports are expensive, local farmers haven’t been driven out of
business and fruits and vegetables still have the “real” taste that has
been forgotten in the rest of the developed world – no iceberg lettuce
here! The delicious local cheeses are proudly displayed and discussed in
specialist shops. On Saturday, the main market in Ponta Delgada is crawling
with live chickens and rabbits peering out of their cages to the delighted
shrieks of small children. Also on display are the local pineapples,
pride of the island – although local bananas and limões gallegos
are just as delicious.
modern conveniences are also there: supermarkets open long hours, credit
cards are accepted in most larger shops and restaurants, and the mail and
banks work like you’d expect.)
incomplete transition from an agricultural and isolated society to one
devoted to tourism in a globalized world reminds us of Italy in the ‘70s
or Ireland in the ‘80s – depending on whether you ask me or Deirdre. It
also has its drawbacks, as many small things city dwellers take for granted
are missing: there is no way to find international foodstuffs, celery,
fennels, or English-language books; outside of the protected nature areas,
litter is ubiquitous and abundant; entertainment is limited, especially
off season; and everyone seems to smoke everywhere – although the Açoreano
Oriental, the local newspaper, recently warned that “Scientists reveal
link between smoking and lung cancer”.
not immediately open with strangers, although they are always friendly
and polite. The smiles are small, windows are usually kept closed, and
people won’t just start chatting to you as soon as you enter the local
bar, nor invite you into their homes for a party just because you happen
to walk past.
They are also
religious in a way that has been forgotten in most of Europe. As part of
Portugal, they still don’t have legal abortion. It’s quite common to
run into processions – traditionally composed of little girls dressed like
angels, a shoulder-born statue of the Saint, local notables, and the local
marching band. And men atone for their sins by spending Lent walking
all around the island on foot – rain or shine – while reciting the rosary
with colorful scarves draped over their heads.
Miguel is not for everyone: it’s a small island thousands of miles from
anywhere else, which in the winter is linked to the others only via an
expensive air service (ferries only run in the summer). As such it can
get pretty claustrophobic after a while. The fertile soil, frequent rain,
and mild climate are a joy for gardening enthusiasts, but together with
glorious wild camellias and azaleas, they also foster the growth of mould,
which can easily overrun an empty house. And while the sea air is a
delight to smell, it accelerates the effect of rust to an astonishing degree.
is easily forgotten, though, when you can drive up from the coast for 20
minutes to a mountain from which you can see the island from three sides,
with a breathtaking vertical view you’d think was possible only from an
airplane; when you sink into a naturally hot pool complete with waterfall,
or into a small inlet in which seawater is heated by an underwater volcanic
vent to a spectacular 40 degrees; when you step into the crater of the
Lagoa do Fogo and in one minute lose all sense of human presence.
Of all the
places I have been in my life, São Miguel is easily the one with
the highest concentration of views per square mile. Every valley, every
lake, is amazingly dramatic. The locals know that and have dotted the
landscape with miradouros, or lookout points.
As the time
comes for us to leave São Miguel for the island of Faial, we have
experienced the Azorean winter and look forward to the Azorean spring.
We were very happy to be here – for the clean air, the mountain walks,
and the thermal baths. If your idea of an island is one of tropical
heat, eternal sunshine, and serviceable locals in skimpy clothing, then
we urge you not to come here (especially not off season!). But if you like
the clean breeze sweeping from the sea, dramatic landscapes, black cliffs,
and hot springs, then you should come and enjoy this last undiscovered
outpost of Europe.
Giovanni Click Here
The nine islands
of the Azores – from http://www.destinazores.com
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