The nine islands that make up the Azores Archipelago, are the European Unions remotest outpost, and are spread over 600km2 of ocean. The islands are situated between latitudes 36 - 39 N and Longitudes 25 - 31W. There are three groups of islands, the eastern group of São Miguel and Santa Maria, the central group of Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial and the western group of Flores and Corvo.
The nine islands are located on the Mid Atlantic ridge and are formed from the upper sections of old volcanoes.
The islands were untouched until the 15th century; there were no indigenous peoples, and no one had ever settled there. They were known to exist, for in the Medici Atlas of 1351 the seven islands of the central and eastern groups are shown. Less than a century later the Portuguese 'Age of Discoveries' began and they made the first recorded landfalls on the Azores (c1427).
It is not known for certain who discovered the islands for the Portuguese, nor the exact dates; numerous stories abound from which to take your choice. One story is that a caravel came upon them by chance when sailing homewards from the west coast of Africa using the trade winds. Another is that Prince Henry ordered one Gonçalo Velho Cabral to sail westwards to find the islands he thought must exist. Cabral found only the Formigas rocks, the Ants, and went back home. Sent out again the following year, and sailing 15 miles distant from the Ants, a much better prospect came into view. Since it was August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, he called the island Santa Maria and was later appointed Governor.
São Miguel was supposedly discovered when an escaped slave clambered up a hill and saw a much larger island in the distance; this was settled in 1444. By chance some unknown mariners spotted a third island, and with a stroke of originality called it Terceira , Third Island . Another version is that Prince Henry sent out caravels, date unknown, to find the islands and they discovered five, later named Santa Maria, São Miguel, Terceira, Faial and Pico. Flores and Corvo were certainly added last. Settlers came from mainland Portugal, particularly the Algarve and Alentejo, and from Madeira . Portugal's population was only 1 & 1/2 million, so immigration from Flanders was encouraged and for a time the Azores were known as the Flemish Islands because so many settled there
From the early days of subsistence agriculture and the development of the first cash crops these have changed through the centuries as fortune has favoured wine on Pico, or oranges on São Miguel, then tea and pineapples, tobacco, chicory, sugar beet, even a hectare or two of African marigolds.
Now, more than ever before, all the islands produce grass, their most important crop, and milk and cattle are the most important farm enterprises. The main dairy products are cheese, butter and milk powder, with the surplus exported to mainland Portugal and the USA. Fishing, especially tuna, has also played an important role in the economy and there are several fleets and canning factories.
The Azores, although so distant from the Portuguese mainland, nevertheless have often played an important part in Portuguese history. They contributed to the conquest, defence and supply of the Portuguese strongholds on the North African coast, caravels stopped in the Azores on their return from India, they supported the ships sailing to the Americas, and they strongly resisted Spanish domination between 1580 and 1640.
Two centuries later the islands featured in the Liberals' struggle with the Absolutists; two presidents in the First Republic came from the Azores and, most recently, the islands provided important bases for the allies in the two Great Wars, and in the Gulf War.
The current population of the Azores is 243,000 people. The language is Portuguese, but there are strong island dialects. In the towns many people speak English, as it is a standard subject in Azorean schools. The Catholic Church has been the predominant religion on the islands since it was settled. The protestant churches were built much later mainly in response to the English merchants who came to live on the island and manage the orange trade.
The ARC Europe fleet will make landfall in Horta on the island of Faial. They will then cruise around the islands for 10 days until they arrive at Vila do Porto on Santa Maria, where the rally will restart on Sunday 9 June and the majority of the fleet will head for Lagos, Portugal and the rest head to other Northern European ports.
Abridged from Azores: The Bradt Travel Guide. Copyright © 2006 David Sayers. Reproduced with permission from 'Azores: The Bradt Travel Guide'.