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June 13, 2008

Meals and the Travelling Scholar: Jeremy Black visits the Azores

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black recommends visiting the Azores before they are ruined by EU development grants.

This is the first of what will I hope be an occasional series about a particular form of theme tourism, that of the lecturer. Confronting the wearying piles of scripts at this season of the year, it is all-too-easy to imagine that there are no perks in being an academic, but that is not the case. One of the greatest is meeting interesting people as you travel, to give lectures, do research or examine. All too often the settings are less interesting: the third floor of a peeling concrete block looks pretty similar the world over.

Well there is no point my writing about such places. If they constitute the majority of destinations, my intention is to focus on a more interesting minority. If that amounts to an illusion then so be it. I start with the Azores, which I arrived at at the close of a series of lectures on the History of the Atlantic given on a boat crossing said ocean. Let us start with one of the perennial questions for a tourist: individual travel or going on a tour?

I tried both on the Azores. On the island of Faial, I shared a taxi with an Irish couple I met on the quay. On Săo Miguel I paid to go on a tour the first day and took a cab the second. The cab rides proved the best. On Faial, we went round the island, visiting the new land created by a recent volcanic explosion. Not having visited the Moon, I'm not sure if "lunar landscape" is misleading, as well as a cliché, but I suspect so because already there were flowers amidst the cold lava, while the sparkling Atlantic backdrop is scarcely lunar.

Food was provided back at the port-capital, Horta, by means of the stalls surrounding a Sunday afternoon music festival. There was a stall of local cakes - excellent - and of Azores wine - strong - and, standing in the sun drinking rough wine for less than a Euro, it was possible to imagine that problems were many miles distant. The wine was followed by food - in the shape of large chunks of pork, plenty of spicy chicken, and black pudding. Little fish is eaten on the Azores, despite the islands being in the middle of the Atlantic. The locals comment on how they prefer meat and export fish.

Horta on a Sunday afternoon is not a port of esplanades and cafés but the Peter Café Sport is well known as a lively yachting bar (its coffee is also pretty good and there are tables outside) and has a Scrimshaw Museum displaying the art of carving onto whales' teeth. In the centre of the island is a prominent crater, but it was shrouded in mist the day I was there.

To Săo Miguel, the biggest of the islands, next day. Based on the main town, Ponta Delgada, I took a tour on the Monday, the Sete Cadades trip offered by Panazorica Tours. This was both a success and a failure, the latter because low cloud shrouded the twin lakes of Sete Cidades in the north-west of the island. The plus was lunch served in a private manor house, a lunch based on traditional recipes. The plentiful Azorean wine was excellent, but the food was more impressive. A lot of spareribs and black pudding, as well as pork stew.

Later that day, there was a visit to a pineapple plantation on the outskirts of Ponta Delgada. The pineapple liquor was less impressive, being rather sweet. Other tours offered include to the Furnas valley. Lunch is cooked in the earth there near the hot springs, and is cooked for at least five hours, ensuring that the meat is very tender. Another food link is that the tourists are taken to a tea plantation and factory, the Azores providing European tea.

For dinner, the restaurants offer the superb beef of the island. The rich grassland provides excellent grazing, there are reputed to be more cattle than people on the island, and beef is classically served after being cooked with copious quantities of garlic. I also tried fish that were a cross between herring and whitebait, eaten whole, including the heads.

Ponta Delgada is unusual in that volcanic rock is the basic building material, which gives the town a black and white look that lacks the softer colours of the Mediterranean. The lakes in the great crater to the north-west of the island are best explored on foot, which I did on my last day. Coaches cannot reach the smaller ones, and nor can taxis. Within Ponta Delgada, the José do Canto garden is the most impressive sight, with its wonderful nineteenth-century planting of now massive tropical trees an expression of links between Brazil and the Azores.

EU money in the cause of development is about to ruin both town and island, as the new harbour will have not only a large marina for yachts but also the ability to moor three great cruise liners at once. I like the Azores, but I recommend going there soon or sticking to islands that do not have such anchorages. You can then rely on the boats and aircraft that move the Azoreans between their islands so long lost in the midst of the Atlantic.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade, A Short History of Britain, The Holocaust, and The Curse of History.

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