Monday, December 17, 2007

Azores - A Walkers Wild Paradise - Fauna, Flora, History, Churches and Gastronomy

Located right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America, the Azores are a widely separated group of nine islands in the Atlantic, west of Portugal. The islands are mountainous in the interior and forested, leading down to long beaches and fishing harbors.

Each endowed with their own special landscapes and charm. Each is enveloped in shades of fertile green, flowers, phenomenal volcanoes, marvelous lakes located at the bottom of craters and other mysterious caves and caverns. Pico has its very own majestic mountain which is a sight to behold. The landscap suits over 55 native vascular plants which transform the Azores into a fascinating botanical Garden for plant lovers. Cedar trees, Heather, ling, mountain grapes, white wood, ginger, dogwood and the "tamujo" bush, to name but a few of the local species.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the birds are the most attractive fauna of the region, in particular the priolo, a native species, the hawk, blackbird, "cagarro", wood-pigeon are common and red garajau. The sea off the Azores is home to hundreds of species of fish and shellfish as well as imposing mammals such as sperm whales, making it a truly living aquarium. The Azores' commitment to the preservation of nature and environmental protection led the European Union to award the Azores an honorable mention in 1995 as part of the European Awards for Tourism and the Environment.

The islands' churches provide the only remaining traces of the settlement period. The 15th to the 18th centuries saw intense building work on the islands resulting in interesting examples of civil and religious art, especially baroque. The art and ethnographic museums and the popular architecture of each islands give credence to the cultural heritage of the region and allow us to delve deeper into the history and life of Azoreans over the centuries.

The Azoreans are a deeply religious people and this finds no better expression than at their festivals, which carry on the traditions of pious devotion The Festivals of Espirito Santo, rooted in medieval traditions, (May and September). The Festivals of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres in Ponta Delgada (São Miguel); the Festivals of Sanjoaninas in Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira island); the Semana do Mar in Horta (Faial island); the festival of the whalers on the islands of Pico and Mare in August on Santa Maria island; and the merry carnival of the island of Graciosa constitute the high points of the festival calendar which lasts all year round.

The many traditional recipes of Azorean cuisine are a culinary delight for the gastronome, particularly those with a penchant for sumptuous, fresh fish who will find their own personal heaven in the Azores. For dessert, there are a wide variety of puddings as well as excellent cheeses (the prime example coming from the island of São Jorge), sweet and juicy pineapples, the tropical passion fruit and herb tea grown on the island of São Miguel, White and red wines, brandy from the island of Craciosa, verdelho from the island of Pico and Biscoitos (Terceira island) are all a "must for those making a gastronomic tour of the Azores.

Historically, the Portuguese came onto the scene in 1427 with the discovery of the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel. Due to its strategic geographic position, the archipelago was to become one of the axes of navigation between Europe, the Orient and America during the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. This period saw the occurrence of major naval battles off the Azores when the islands were set upon by pirates. Today the Azores is an autonomous region endowed with its own parliament and government.

Visiting the Azores means entering a world where nature's luxuriant beauty is on show and the presence of man becomes a distant memory as you are swept away to a primordial universe.

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