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Passing Time in Ponta Delgada

Half day of city sightseeing on my final day in the Azores

sunny 59 °F

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The narrow, hilly streets of Sao Miguel’s largest town, Ponta Delgada

Prior to arriving in the Azores, I had done some quick research on things to see in Ponta Delgada, the main town of the archipelago and where I would be staying. I typed a half dozen of them into my IPhone’s Notes app. It would be good if I ended up with a rainy day, which thankfully never really happened. My fifth day in the Azores dawned bright and sunny. Four out of five days of sunshine in early Soring is great luck for this Atlantic Ocean island chain. I packed my suitcase so I could return and go quickly, looked up the sights I had researched and plotted them on the city map the tourist board had given me. With that, I was out the door for a few final hours of sightseeing.

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The black and white tiled main square, with frame of the original town gates

My first stop was just down the street - Igreja Sao Sebastiao - the original parish church for the town. Built in 1533, it gleams with whitewash and dark wood accents, evoking the coloring of English Tudor type dwellings. Outside the main doors, a crowd was gathered. A group of 30 or so romeros, pilgrims, clutched their wooden staffs and sang a slow hymn. I whipped out my iPhone and recorded their song, which faded away as the pilgrims laid down their staffs on the church steps and entered the church. I followed and their deep drone echoed off the walls of the more than 400 year old church. It was a pleasant bonus to my visit, and I stayed and watched as they went up to the altar in single file, bowed, sank to one knee, crossed themselves, then returned to their pew. When all were done, they struck up another hymn and filed out. I smiled at them as they went by - young, middle aged, and old, carrying on a tradition their ancestors had passed down to them.

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A large group of Romeros - Azorean pilgrims - pray outside Igreja Sao Sebastian

The next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most. Those who know me, and have read my previous entries may have been scratching their heads: “What? Are there no forts or castles in the Azores?” Why yes, I had saved Forte De S. Brás for the final day. A star shaped fort from the days of gunpowder, it also housed the Azores Military Museum. It is maintained by the Portuguese military, and some sections are off limits to visitors because of its current use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had an extensive exhibit on Portugal’s 20th century insurgency warfare in Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Portugal’s military dictators decided to ignore the trend of granting self-rule to its African colonies. It fought bitter wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.

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Fort de S. Bras guards the harbor in Ponta Delgada

The exhibit began by reminding visitors that the Azores - a Portuguese possession - answered the call when the wars began. Around 15,000 Azorean men were among those who lost their lives in the failed attempt to hold onto its status as a colonial power. The exhibit glorified neither side in the conflicts, but presented artifacts of those 20th century battles. One of my favorite time periods to study is 20th century Africa, and I have read quite a bit about those wars. For many Portuguese, it was their Vietnam War. Although professionally fought by many of its soldiers, the wars were also unpopular at home, too. The difference between America and Portugal is we were a democracy, and our leaders eventually sensed our nation’s opposition to the casualties our people were incurring half a world away. Our leadership made the decision to withdraw, even though some felt the war could be won. Portugal was a dictatorship, and the military refused to give in. Finally, officers of the Portuguese military launched a successful coup and overthrew their government. The new junta then granted almost immediate independence to its former foes. It was fascinating for me to see and (almost) be able to touch uniforms, weapons, and equipment that was there in those sad days.

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Uniform of a Portuguese soldier who participated in the counter-Insurgency wars in Africa

After touring the exhibit, I walked the stone and earth walls for awhile. I recognized the Portuguese style, tiny, domed guard houses on each star’s point. I always enjoy getting a chance to clamber around on the walls of a fort or castle. Although there were not a lot of artifacts from when this fort was built and manned to guard against invasion, it was still a thrill. There were nice views of Ponta Delgada from the walls.

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The whitewashed houses and sloping, cobblestoned streets are a feature of the Azores

Next, it was back down into the town’s squares to check out several more churches. Like any Catholic colonial possession, there seemed to be a wealth of them in town. Although many were from the 1500s and 1600s, they all looked more modern. Perhaps fires had caused many to be rebuilt. There seemed to be a common style - whitewashed, with a square, almost castle-like tower. They were often trimmed in dark wood, and bells hung in the windows of the towers. The altars and chapels were bedecked in guilded, golden glory, with details, statues, and rich decoration overwhelming the eyes. Some had wall panels of the beautiful, blue-painted tiles that Portugal is famous for - azulejos.

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Many of the churches in Ponta Delgada have the same features - square bell towers and almost Tudor like architecture

My final hour or so was spent simply wandering the narrow, hilly streets of Ponta Delgada. I had been walking or driving along them since arriving, but had not really had a chance to photograph them. This was definitely a slice of Old Town Europe planted down among the volcanic islands in the Atlantic. Cafes tables crept out onto most of the side roads, and it was an interesting sight to see cars and trucks slowly winding their way among them - sometimes just inches away from jostling a diner’s elbow. I noticed smoke free dining has not arrived in the Azores. Some traditions die hard, apparently! In fact, I saw a higher percentage of smokers to nonsmokers here In these islands than I have anywhere else in my recent travels. Most men are seen with a cigarette dangling from their lips, and many women smoke, as well. This is not a criticism, but instead just another way that Portugal’s past seems to live on here on these islands thousands of miles away from the shores of Europe and North America.

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Blue-painted azulejo tiles are seen on the interiors and walls of many older buildings in the Azores

I enjoyed my four and a half days seeing the Azores’ incredible sights. My research was proven true. It is an amazing place to hike and enjoy nature - only four hours by plane from the East coast of the U.S.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:06 Archived in Portugal

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