“Graciosa, the Gracious Island,” by Victor Rui Dores.
Translated into English by Katharine F. Baker and Bobby J. Chamberlain, Ph.D.
So from the outset I declare my interest: I am a Graciosan, filled with great pride and saudades.
Graciosa forms a part of my earliest memories and fondest images. It was on this island that I awoke to life, to the world and to the knowledge of things. One day I left Graciosa, but Graciosa did not leave me – it is my lodestar, and I carry it within me. Thus I truly feel the right and duty to claim as my own what in discussion forums and elsewhere I have come to call Graciosanness, a concept I created based on Vitorino Nemésio’s notion of Azoreanness. And my Graciosanness is in fact my attachment and unconditional love for the island of Graciosa; it is my brand name and my identification with Graciosa’s space.
Graciosa, comprising 23 square miles and 4,390 inhabitants, is the least hilly and least muggy of all the islands in the Azores. It is called the “White Island” due to the abundance of trachyte, the rock that seen from a distance in the eyes of our first settlers must have given the impression of being white. Hence such island place names as Barro Branco, Pedras Brancas, Serra Branca.
This island entices visitors with its scenery of flat land, rolling hills covered with trees, vineyards surrounded by black stone walls, fields under cultivation, and the constant presence of the sea. The concept of unspoiled Nature applies here a thousand times over. Endowed with one of the world’s richest ecosystems, Graciosa has since 2007 been recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Should the reader wish to make a “journey to the center of the earth,” do not settle for Jules Verne; instead, go visit the disquieting beauty of Furna do Enxofre, one of the world’s rare volcanically and geologically unique phenomena. It consists of a depression in the subsoil of the Caldeira (crater of an ancient volcano), where one can see a phenomenon of sulfurous gases emanating from a fluid mass in a constant boiling state, located in the cave’s innermost reaches. It connects with the outside world through two openings, and in 1939 a sweeping spiral access staircase was built in the larger one by a master mason under the supervision of Lt. Manuel Severo dos Reis – using stone masonry identified today as a felicitous example of environmental engineering. Until its construction, anyone wanting to see Furna had to climb down with a rope tied around the waist. The naturalist Fouqué, in 1873, and Prince Albert of Monaco, starting in 1879, were the first to study Furna, drawing the attention of the international scientific community to the interest and originality of the site.
Descending the 184 steps of the aforementioned stairway, we come across a deep tunnel about 330 feet down. At the bottom is a huge cave with vaults some 260 feet tall covered with stalactites, containing an underground lake about 430 feet in diameter and 50 feet at maximum depth of cold sulfurous water. What a marvel! “A cathedral of impassable lavas,”Vitorino Nemésio called this wonder. (“A volcanic vulva,” I termed it in a poem). And if Raul Brandão, on his journey through the Azores in 1924, had landed on Graciosa, I have the impression that his book As Ilhas Desconhecidas [The Unknown Islands] would have contained an additional chapter.
Surrounded by scenic windmills, Santa Cruz, located on the north coast and seat of the concelho [county], is a picturesque village with unobstructed streets and beautiful examples of majestic construction – superb mansions that belonged to people who grew wealthy in the 19th century from the island’s two major outputs: wine and grains. The layout of the city’s grid is harmonious, reflecting a well-thought-out, unchaotic development. In the town center sit two walled ponds (i.e., tanks) built for collecting rainwater, which in the past were used as water reservoirs for cattle. Up ahead is a large square – Rossio – with a stand of pines, elms and bottlebrush trees that afford beauty and cooling shade. What is now called Fontes Pereira de Melo Plaza serves as the village visitors’ center, a welcoming venue for leisure and socializing, duly appreciated for the stone artistry of its pedestrian walkway. And then there is the façade of the Matriz (parish church) with its baroque motifs adorned by thick basaltic rock. The church contains famous 16th-century panels, possibly done by Cristóvão de Figueiredo, that constitute valuable artworks with national and international renown. Despite its small size, Graciosa currently has ten churches and 22 chapels, which represent an important religious patrimony.
South of Santa Cruz is São Mateus da Praia, located in a flat, sheltered area extending from a secondary road that constitutes the axis of a small urban cluster. On the street across from the beach is a well-organized line of buildings in pale colors with simple façades, giving an air of homogeneity to the whole. Praia hosts the port for Graciosa’s ferry passengers and cargo shipments, and its off-shore islet is of special importance as habitat for ocean-going seabirds.
The villages of Guadalupe and Luz are typical rural settlements, with white houses surrounded by cultivated fields. In Luz are found the famous hot springs at Carapacho, discovered in 1750, whose waters (chlorinated, saline, sulphated and bicarbonated) are recommended for treatment of neuralgia, rheumatism and skin ailments. The hydrotherapy here is par excellence.
On their island Graciosans observe the seasonal cycles and ancestral rites – straddling the subtle boundary that separates the sacred from the profane. And, endowed with a zest for life, they maintain their folk traditions: a special appetite for festas, revelry and music, with a very special taste for highly animated ballroom dances, most notably a typical old dance, the baile mandado [with moves dictated by a caller]. But the island has other distinct differences: a terminology all its own, and a strong tradition of piano-playing. Its Carnaval (with a distinct Brazilian influence) is unique in Portugal in that it lasts for three months, not three days.
Further, there are two genuinely Graciosan popular songs: “José” and “Terceira.” The cuisine is of the highest quality and the sweets have no equal: queijadas [egg-rich tarts], pastéis de arroz [rice pastries], to say nothing of the sweetest cantaloupe and honeydew meloas. Graciosa once had more wine than water. Thus today we continue to enjoy its whites and verdelhos, as well as brandies aged 14 years in oak casks. And one should note Graciosa’s andaia, a homemade distilled digestif that has its origins in Brazil and was brought to Graciosa in the 19th century by Graciosan emigrants.
In truth, a small island like this struggles to be different. Just three more examples: Graciosa is today the underwater-photography capital of the Azores; the municipality of Santa Cruz ranks high nationalwide for its collection and separation of paper and cardboard; and, the island is taking decisive steps in the field of renewable energy.
Graciosans, in their peaceful and orderly lifestyle, are affable, cheerful, hospitable and communicative, always enjoying food and drink. And this is without doubt a way to be happy.