“São Jorge, the Steep Island,” by Victor Rui Dores
Translated into English by Katharine F. Baker and Bobby J. Chamberlain, Ph.D.
The Jorgense Francisco Lacerda (1869-1934), a composer and conductor of international renown who was born in the village of Ribeira Seca, wrote in a letter to his father in 1921, “Either Paris or Fragueira.” And Fragueira, the tiny fajã very near his birthplace, was the musician’s refuge for vacationing on the island.
The several dozen fajãs are the visual symbol of the island of São Jorge. These tongues of land – flat surfaces that reach up through the sea and are the result of collapsed cliffs – run along both sides of the island. Access to them is by land or by sea, and those who go there realize that they are in some sort of paradise.
Indeed, the fajãs’ tranquility and spectacular beauty are a constant appeal to travelers and tourists. I speak for myself as a traveler, not a tourist. And as such, if I had to select the three most fantastic places in the Azores, I would say the Furna do Enxofre [Sulfur Cavern] on Graciosa, the Poço da Alagoinha waterfall on Flores, and the Caldeira de Santo Cristo on São Jorge. Incidentally, I once wrote a poem in which I said that to visit the aforementioned fajã (which is now a Nature Reserve and Special Ecological Area) was to be closer to God.
Subjectivity aside, the fact is that the fajãs provide a haven for important species of flora and fauna, and are unique and magical places with special characteristics. For example, Fajã dos Vimes is the only place in the Azores with a coffee plantation; the lagoon at the Caldeira de Santo Cristo is the only place in the archipelago where clams are raised. I have always recommended that anyone visiting the Azores approach the islands by sea. In the case of São Jorge it is truly worthwhile, if only to see the waterfalls that tumble from the top of the coast and rush to the sea or onto its mythical fajãs.
A long, narrow island, quite rugged due to the natural magnificence of its mountainsides formed by abrupt cliffs – a ridge runs down São Jorge’s spine that at Pico da Esperança reaches a maximum elevation of 3,455 feet.
The vegetation is lush and the scenery striking. From São Jorge we see Pico, Faial, Graciosa and Terceira. I recall that it was in the context of his impressions of Pico along with São Jorge that the writer Raul Brandão produced in 1924 the famous phrase that is now widely quoted, “I have come to realize that the most beautiful thing the islands possess, and which completes them, is the view of the island across the way.” The towns of Velas and Calheta are the seats of their respective concelhos [counties], with their somber houses and manors, many with basalt stonework. Clean, well-lit streets. The solemnity of their churches. The nobility of their official concelho edifices. Attractive porticoes. Cafés overlooking the sea. An invitation to stillness and repose.
But we must not be deceived by this placidness. Jorgense history consists of resistance and struggle for survival: the island has endured everything from pillaging by pirates and corsairs to the violent earthquakes of 1580, 1757, 1964 and 1980, to food crises in years of lean harvests, to the volcanic eruptions of April 28, 1780 (Queimada), and May 1, 1808 (Urzelina). The top of Urzelina’s old bell tower still stands, constituting the last remaining unscathed symbol of the earlier church that was completely buried by the lava stream flowing from the mountain down to the sea.
I travel the length of the island, which is as steep as my emotions. As I drive I am listening to “Tributo,” a Jorgense musical group of undisputable quality. Incidentally, São Jorge is one of the most musical islands in the Azores. Suffice it to say there are 16 filarmónicas [marching bands] here for a population of barely 9,000 inhabitants.
Equally impressive is the number of churches and chapels, and the wealth of their religious heritage. I visit what I consider the most beautiful church in the Azores: that of Santa Bárbara in Manadas, where we can enjoy the Baroque in all its splendor. Going from village to village I meet people with surnames like Silveira, Soares, Teixeira, Brasil and Bettencourt, among others. Forged by the isolation and harshness of their island, Jorgenses are people of extreme kindness who speak with the archaic accent of open vowels. I notice that the women of São Jorge are truly beautiful, many of them displaying features of the long-ago Flemish influence. In fact, one of the island’s first settlers was Willem van der Haagen – a Fleming whose name would be rendered into Portuguese as Guilherme da Silveira – who in the 15th century settled in Topo, there fostering a Flemish community, joined by families from Terceira and various parts of the Portuguese mainland. Van der Haagen cultivated the land, distributed cattle, cleared pastures and introduced cheese-making.
More than five centuries later, São Jorge continues to produce its famous “island cheese,” unquestionably a product of the highest quality, judging by the national and international awards it has received. It is an artisanal cheese manufactured from raw whole cows’ milk, clotted with animal rennet and aged for a minimum of three months – a technique whose origin points directly to a Flemish influence.
Another ex-libris, or hallmark, of São Jorge is its famous and gorgeous counterpane bedspreads, woven laboriously on wooden looms using ancestral techniques. For me, one of these spreads will always be a hand-embroidered poem.
As far as festivities go, São Jorge is the only Azorean island that features in its pageants on Sundays of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity the age-old figure of the Knight of the Holy Spirit, bedecked with showy insignias and wielding in his hand a vara [rod], whose function is to distribute on behalf of the Brotherhood of the Divine platters of sweets, just as their ancestors did.
Travel literature has a history of giving unique names to São Jorge: “Tragic Island” (Raul Brandão), “Huge Sea Dragon” (Vitorino Nemésio), “Sleeping Lizard” (João de Melo), “Sleeping Beauty” (Onésimo Teotónio Almeida), etc.
To me São Jorge is, now and forever, the poetry of its fajãs and the rugged beauty of its mountains and cliffs
Image from http://www.azores.dk/Esao_jorge.htm