Madeira and the Azores

by Timothy Lutts, CEO Cabot Wealth Network

Maderia- Madeira and the AzoresSome years ago, while casting about for a destination for a late January vacation with my wife, a respite from the usual mid-winter cold and snow of New England, I decided on Madeira and the Azores … Portuguese islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, 600 miles and 900 miles respectively from the capital city, Lisbon.

We had stopped briefly in Ponta Delgada, the biggest city in the Azores, five years ago on the way to Porto, Portugal, and loved our glimpse of the city as well as the four days in Porto that followed, so this time the plan was to spend three days in Madeira, and then a whole week on São Miguel, the main island of the Azores.

It was wonderful … but it was different.  And it’s not for everybody.

Madeira is a volcanic island, 35 miles long and 14 miles wide at its extremes, but it’s seen no volcanic activity for 6,000 years.  What it has seen is holiday-makers, primarily from England, who over-run the island in the summer.

The benefit of visiting in January, when temperatures averaged about 60 degrees F, was the absence of any crowds; we didn’t meet any Americans on the whole trip. Furthermore, prices were more reasonable than in most of Europe. We stayed in the capital of Funchal, rented a car, and got a view of most parts of the island in our few days there.

Church- Igreja do ColegioOne highlight was a visit to the Igreja do Colegio (Church of the College) in Funchal.  Churches, to us, are like art museums, except entry is free … and sometimes they’re closed.  Luckily, Igreja do Colegio was open when we wandered by, and its plain exterior belied the magnificence of the splendors inside.

This church has it all!

Carved statues, oil paintings with gilded frames, trompe l’oeil murals on walls and ceiling, traditional Portuguese blue and white tiles, marble fonts and more gilding.

The Jesuit church was begun in 1629 and completed in 1647 … but the Jesuits were expelled from the island in 1760, after which the church was closed for many years. Eventually the Catholic church took over, and today the church is a national monument. Outstanding!

But we found the island of São Miguel in the Azores even more enjoyable, mainly because tourism represents a smaller part of its economy, while agriculture and fishing represent more. Also volcanic in origin, it’s 39 miles long and 10 miles wide at the extreme. But it’s much younger than Madeira, geologically; the last major eruption occurred in 1652. Today there are places where you can bathe in thermal pools, and the island gets roughly half its electricity from geothermal power.

We stayed in the village of Caloura, about five miles outside the capitol of Ponta Delgada, and got to know the island pretty well in a week of driving around, eating fresh-caught fish at least once a day and enjoying Portuguese wines.

And the highlight here also involved a church.

It was Thursday, January 26, about 5PM, when we drove into the city of Povoacao, noticed the open door at the Igreja de Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus (Church of Our Lady the Mother of God) and went inside. It was nearly empty, and also dark, so dark we really couldn’t take pictures.  So we walked down to the supermarket, loaded up on groceries for dinner, and when we returned to the car–and the church–the lights were on! As I was putting the groceries in the car and my wife was climbing the steps to the church, she was met by a man who asked, “Are you coming to mass?”

Now, this was unusual. Until then, we had found the people of these islands rather shy. But this fellow, who happened to be the priest, was positively animated. The scent of cigarettes and wine lingered on his breath. He asked where we were from and he asked my name. When I answered, “Timothy,” he gestured with the paper in his hand and exclaimed, “Today is your day! I will say a mass for you!”

Sure enough, January 26 is the feast day of Saint Timothy.

And the Boston connection was important, too, as many Azorean people feel a stronger connection to Massachusetts than they do to Portugal, thanks to the numerous Azoreans who’ve immigrated to our state (the population of the Azores has fallen from 327,400 in 1960 to 246,700 today; that’s a drop of 25%.)

So we headed in for mass, choosing a pew somewhere in the middle, while the priest, Father Medeiros, went to complete his preparations.

And at 6PM, there we were, with roughly 20 parishioners. A dozen were concentrated in the first few pews, a few were near us, a half dozen were behind us. Most were women, and a few wore the habits of nuns.

But we were the new arrivals, a break from the norm, and therefore the stars of the show. The service was in Portuguese, but Father Medeiros several times during the half-hour service mentioned the presence of “Mr. Timothy and his wife from Boston.”

He thanked us for visiting, for our spirit, and for the reminder of all their friends and family in the Boston area.

We sang a song, and I got most of the Alleluias right.

And then it came time for communion.

I’m not Catholic, but at that point, I thought it would have been disrespectful to Father Medeiros to abstain.

So up we went, and while the people on our side of the church headed for the woman serving on our side, we headed for Father Medeiros, received the host, and then filed back to our pew.

The host was dry, nearly tasteless, and there was no wine (or grape juice), as in Protestant services.

But it was a lovely, memorable experience.

And then it was over.

But the adventures of the day were not!

Because just twenty minutes later, as we were driving back to Caloura on the only road that connects the two, in the very dark night, we smelled sulfur.

And then we saw steam rising into the air, and realized we were in Furnas, famed for its bubbling hot springs.  There was absolutely no one around, so we pulled into the parking lot where tourists normally park and strolled among the stinking calderas and geysers, remarking that if one were looking for an earthly parallel to Heaven and Hell, our experiences that evening had provided a worthy contender.