In what truly seems like the middle of nowhere, three tectonic plates come together, in a triple junction in the Atlantic Ocean. Over millions of years, the North American, Eurasian and African Plates have interacted in a dance that resulted in the formation of a tiny chain of nine islands along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. This archipelago is called the Azores.
The region is seismically active and susceptible to volcanism, but don’t let that keep you from seeing these beautiful islands! The last significant volcanic eruption occurred in 1957, but the islands are chockfull of reminders of its tumultuous past. The Azores’ volcano-built geomorphology includes hot springs, caves, subterranean lava tubes, coastal lava fields, and the remnants of currently-inactive cones. There are numerous eco-tours or guides that can be hired to help you explore these amazing natural sites. The geology varies somewhat from island to island.
Volcanic and seismic activity have not only shaped the morphology of the islands themselves but also the culture. An autonomous region of Portugal, the residents are predominantly Roman Catholic and there are numerous historic churches and convents.
A major festival of the Lord Holy Christ of Miracles (Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres) is held annually in Ponta Delgada on the fifth Sunday after Easter. Like several other Festivals in the Azores, this ritual includes a procession in the streets. The centerpiece is a carving/artifact of Jesus Christ, gifted by a Pope in the 1500s.
The carving was subsequently placed in a niche and kept in a convent. Veneration of the religious object began in the 17th century by a nun in the convent, the Venerable Mother Teresa da Anunciada, who was able to build a chapel for the image. The devotion to the image and what it represented increased and she began accepting donations from the faithful around the city. Donations of jewelry, precious metals and stones were accepted to adorn the image.
In 1700, following days of earthquakes in the Azores, the council and nobles of the city, influenced by the nun, took the image on its first procession in the streets of Ponta Delgada. Their belief was that God would calm the tremors that had seized their island home. The sister was instrumental in establishing rituals in that first procession; rituals that have now been continued for hundreds of years.
On 17 December 1713, local leaders held a procession, hoping that it would calm the seismic activity and the riverbeds that had erupted with sulfurous gases. But on leaving the Church of the Jesuit College, the image suddenly and unexpectedly fell to the ground and, to the amazement of everyone present, all seismic activity immediately ceased! This was perceived as divine intervention and the Festival was forever sealed in the hearts of the faithful. The Festival and procession continue to this day, with people making donations of jewelry, precious stones or money in thanksgiving for blessings received or for prayer requests (typically for healing or forgiveness). The jewelry and precious stones are used to further adorn the image and its niche.
In preparation for the Festival, lights are hung in the trees in the Campo de São Francisco square and on the facade of the Convent of Our Lady of Hope, the sanctuary of the Lord Holy Christ of Miracles. Even before the Festival, some of the faithful can be seen praying on their knees on the cobble stones, making their way along the path that the image will follow. People wait in line to present their offering and prayer before the Festival.
You can view the image in the chapel of the Convent. It is visible behind glass and an iron gate, opposite the main alter. It was an amazing site to see the layers of encrusted jewels and gold that have been affixed to the image and niche over that last 300+ years.
Downtown Ponta Delgada has numerous historic churches and structures; the white facades with dark timbers and basalt are so reminiscent of mainland Portugal. Many of the streets and walking areas are not only historic, but works of art.
Local shopkeepers are very welcoming and will gladly point out local points of interest and share their island’s history. There’s a green market where you can enjoy fresh fruit smoothies and other local delicacies. Portuguese is the local language, but you will find that most people also speak English.
Ahhh, and what about the weather? The Azores, located approximately 1,360 km (850 mi) west of continental Portugal, are very mild for their latitude. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, daytime temperatures typically range between 16° C (61° F) and 25° C (77° F), depending on the season. You should find the weather to be quite agreeable. And where else can you see beautiful hydrangeas, with heads the size of basketballs, growing naturally along the roadway?
Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes for all of those cobblestones and be mindful of vehicles on the very narrow streets.
If you are there during the Festival, it will be very crowded, as many people travel from mainland Portugal for the Festival. Be sure to book your accommodations in advance. The architecture, charm and geology of the islands combine for a very enjoyable visit.
Cover image credit: Abspires40 of Cape Town, South Africa https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Azores_-_Sao_Miguel_Island_(7684737940).jpg