hidden europe 66

A tale of two hearts: emigration and the Azorean spirit

by Paul Scraton

Picture above: Recent volcanic episodes have shaped the Azorean landscape, seen here in São Miguel, the most populous of the islands of the archipelago (photo © Katrin Schönig).


Azorean society has been shaped by emigration. Generations have left the mid-Atlantic islands, motivated by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and poverty to seek new lives on the European mainland or in the Americas. Paul Scraton reports from an archipelago that is not quite Europe.

From the village of Ribeirinha, tucked away beside a stream in a fold in the land, the road crosses a narrow bridge before heading up into the forest. Tarmac soon gives way to volcanic gravel, rutted and strewn with the debris of recent storms. At the crest of the hill the track emerges from the trees and the view opens out: the last fields of Faial island, a patchwork of deep green divided by black stone walls and dotted with cows. Beyond the headland, white crests on distant waves break the surface of the Atlantic between Faial and neighbouring islands. São Jorge is away to the north-east, and Pico is just visible in the clouds off to the east. At the centre of the scene is a dramatic ruin, the fractured shell of a lighthouse — the Farol da Ribeirinha.

Apart from a farmer forking hay from the back of his tractor and his collection of cows, we have the headland with its ruined lighthouse all to ourselves. The Farol da Ribeirinha is hollowed out and patched up, with fragile-looking walls that attest to earthquake damage. The lighthouse has that haunting beauty of abandoned buildings the world over, but it speaks to the specific story of these islands — in particular the tectonic circumstances which created the Azores archipelago and have shaped life here since the first settlers arrived in the fifteenth century.

It was July 1998, almost eighty years after the light house was commissioned, that the earthquake struck. The epicentre was just a few miles offshore. Along with the lighthouse, the church in Ri beirinha was damaged beyond repair, and many other churches, houses and farm buildings across the north of Faial were destroyed. Ten people died and a hundred were injured, with nearly 3,000 left homeless. Across the island as a whole, a third of all buildings suffered some kind of damage.

Loss and resilience

The legacy remains. We follow the road from Ribeirinha across the north of Faial, wending our way through Salão to Cedros and beyond. In each village, the effects of the earthquake are still evident. There are ruins a plenty, but evidence too of the massive rebuilding job that followed the earth quake. All the bridges crossing myriad streams running north from the island’s mountainous interior down to the coast are marked with their date of construction: 1999.

Related article

Editorial hidden europe 66

In hidden europe 66 we explore the Drin Valley in Albania, the Vipava Valley in Slovenia, reflect on sustainable tourism and check out the boats in Port Grimaud. We also celebrate a special anniversary with a an article on fifty years of Interrail.