Azores (Região Autónoma dos Açores)

“Thus life, too, shall pass

As just passed Azorean    

                                                    Islands by”


  Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Shallow Musings over Deep Waters”

Craving Cravos on Terceira

The voice of João Luciano Costa Mendonça Silva was thick with emotion. “Grândola, vila morena,” he sang. “Terra da fraternidade,” I joined in. For a few more lines we kept our duet. For Senhor Silva it brought back memories of 37 years ago. With a name like that, one might be excused for thinking he was a duke or at least a count.  But on the 25th of April, 1974, he was a soldier in the second year of service with the Exército Português – Portuguese Army. That was the day chosen by a group of young Portuguese officers to stage a coup against the dictatorial regime of Estado Novo. According to the Reading Book for the 3d Grade (Livro de Leitura da 3ª Classe), “with the Estado Novo began an epoch of prosperity and greatness comparable to the most brilliant eras of Portuguese history.” But then this book contains a bronzed profile of António Salazar calling him President of the Council [of Ministers] thus dating it before 1968 – the year the long-time authoritarian ruler became incapacitated.  As every half-decent dictator knows, teaching children about his own greatness is the key to a successful term in office without the annoying limits imposed by pesky plots or revolutions.

Salazar’s successors continued his unpopular war to preserve Portugal’s African colonies and most importantly got on the wrong foot with the professional military in an attempt to introduce new war-time personnel policies. That’s why, at 12:20 am on April 25th, “Grândola, Vila Morena,” a banned song by an anti-regime bard Zeca Afonso, was broadcast on Rádio Renascença as an agreed upon signal for a military coup. The plotters were lucky. Immediate popular support was overwhelming. People on the streets would stick red carnations into the barrels of the guns of any soldier in sight. A bloodless Carnation Revolution (Revolução dos Cravos) was accomplished in one day. It was the first flower revolution on record long predating those of the following millennium.

Luciano got his fill of carnations too. Memories of that first day of freedom stayed with him. He stuck with the army for a couple more years. Now, in the year 2011, he was a taxi driver on the Azorean island of Terceira in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. (Not everything always went smoothly for Portugal after the revolution. There were disappointments – see the footnote *)

My flight from Ponta Delgada, capital of the archipelago located on the island of São Miguel, landed at Lajes Airport on the north shore of Terceira. Wily Salazar, while staying neutral during WWII, let the Allies use this landing strip as well as artillery positions on Mount Brasil at the southern tip of the island. Unlike his neighbor Franco, he deftly played both sides of the conflict.

On this weekday afternoon I was apparently the only arrival with no local connections. Even an English-speaking group on the plane from Dundas, Ontario, turned out to be Forcados Amadores do Canada! They wore t-shirts picturing a bull and a man in a strange menuet-like position. A young member of the group explained to me that they indeed dance with bulls. Their task is a bit like that of the bull-runners of Pamplona, except forcados run to the bull, not from it. Normally, they would practice their art after a matador or a cavaleiro tires a bull somewhat. Then a group of forcados swarms the bull with the goal of jumping on it and grabbing its horns and tail. Thus they are also the opposite of American rodeo bull riders who start already on the bull with the unachievable goal of not being thrown off. Amazingly, the forcados’ quest has a fighting chance of success. This particular group, however, had not dealt with real bulls yet. They trained in their town near Toronto and were going to take part in a real Tourada, Portuguese style bullfight, the next day on Terceira. I was going to return to Ponta Delgada the same day and regrettably miss their debut, but I wholeheartedly wished them boa sorte. Incidentally, the bull is not killed or even injured in a Portuguese bullfight, but he is not obliged to return the favor to forcados. At the airport souvenir shop, waiting for my flight back in the evening, I watched a never-ending video of Touradas e Marradas (Bullfights and Gorings) that appeared to be the hottest item on sale.

[Comment 10 years later. I did not buy a video at the time, but of course you can find anything online now – see some samples  here and here. No riding the bulls in the ones I have found, however, but getting a bull by the horns – yes!]

A welcoming van was greeting the brave Torontonians outside the airport door. As a result, I faced no competition for the services of a lonely line of three cabs waiting for fares. Luciano was the first in line, and that’s how I met him.

I had to get to the south shore to see the fabled town of Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was also ready to try my Portuguese on someone not fluent in English. Luciano was eager to talk. He confirmed that it was possible to get me all the way to the farthest point of my itinerary, the top of Monte Brasil overlooking the town and the harbor. I could then descend to the town on foot and meet him at the main square in the evening for a ride back to the airport. He was very curious to know where I was from. On learning of my American and Russian roots, he was excited and congratulated me on adding a third language, Portuguese, to my list. I did not dispute his count. But Zeca Afonso was more on my mind for this trip than anything else. Unlike some younger people from the island of São Miguel, Luciano knew Zeca’s songs well. It was a romantic memory of his youth.

As the car climbed the road to the summit, I started pulling my wallet from the pocket, but Luciano stopped me. No need to pay now, he said. I would pay for the whole roundtrip when we would get back to the airport in the evening. What? I insisted a bit, but he was firm. I had no way of finding out whether this was typical indigenous ways of a small remote island, particular liking to me because of our shared Zeca fandom, or a clever way to make sure that I would definitely go back with him by instilling in me the guilt of being unable to pay what I owed if I picked another taxi. (The last interpretation, as I was to see in the evening, would have been unlikely: there were no taxis around in the town.) So, why Zeca? 

Desperately seeking Zeca

I had wanted to go to the Azores for some time. It was very tempting to just do a 4-hour non-stop air hop and find yourself on a volcanic archipelago with 600 years of European history and a language I had not used yet. Plus, it was one of the possible locations of Atlantis. When the opportunity finally arose, I started monitoring the local press of the islands, as I usually do to check the pulse of a place I am travelling to. That’s when I discovered that our first Monday in Ponta Delgada would fall on a national holiday – Dia da Liberdade, April 25th. According to the local newspaper Açoriano Oriental, a highly educational lecture entitled A Música Tradicional na Obra de José Afonso (Traditional Music in the Works of José Afonso) was to take place on that holiday afternoon. A concert would follow. The event would be held at Teatro Micaelense, the main performance venue of the island. I certainly could not miss an opportunity to do an ethnographic exploration, although I had not the slightest idea who José Afonso was. Luckily, in the age of the internet, such ignorance could be cured in the blink of an eye, or rather in a click of a mouse.

José Afonso, better known as Zeca, was born in 1929. He started writing songs already in high school. Like his contemporaries, the Russian bards of the 50’s and 60’s, he was steadily gaining popularity. Unlike the Russians who had to rely on the clandestine “magnitizdat” and could not travel freely, he released a number of records, while also traveling and performing all over Europe and at distant Portuguese colonies. This he was able to do in spite of his open anti-regime activities. He also wrote his university thesis on philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and collaborated with the Portuguese Communist Party, although for reasons not clearly explained on either English or Portuguese wiki page he never joined the party. Yet, mild as the Salazar regime was by the standards of the most advanced dictatorships of the century, some of Zeca’s songs were banned by the censors.  More often than not banned art is helped by the ban. It made Zeca into an icon and his songs into revolutionary anthems. I think his “Grândola” was attractive to the military not simply as a call to fraternity and equality, and not even just for its shock value when broadcast openly. I am guessing they liked it as a march, and a pretty stern one as marches go. More Horst Wessel Lied than Stars and Stripes Forever. (Judge for yourself here and especially here). Most Zeca’s songs, however, have lilting melodies and rhythms with a distinct Portuguese folk flavor. This includes his other iconic song “Filhos da Madrugada” (Children of the Dawn). You have surely guessed by now that they are well represented on YouTube. That’s how I was able to keep up my side of a Zeca sing-along with a former revolutionary soldier.

Teatro Micaelense, a contemporary building, was built in the local São Miguel style: whitewashed walls were accented with dark-grey trim of volcanic material abundant on the island. The second floor auditorium intended for more intimate chamber performances was almost full. Many people around were my age – a Portuguese version of the 60’s crowd. To see witnesses and fans of Zeca’s heyday was not surprising. Yet, quite a few younger people and even a number of children were also in the audience. In the best traditions of a socialist House of Culture which Teatro Micaelense undoubtedly is, the program began with a lecture. Moderator, a bespectacled young woman, introduced the learned lecturer Inês Igrejas, a recent graduate in ethnomusicology from Lisbon.  

It was a PowerPoint presentation – good for me to help parse the speech (this was my first lecture in Portuguese) – but a little dry for the subject. Senhora Igrejas started by listing various roles of music in a dictatorship as bullet items. They included:

  • music and propaganda
  • music as propaganda
  • suppression of music
  • music and resistance

Fair enough. Likewise, stages of Zeca’s musical development (guitar period, accordion, percussion, ensemble) were bulletized. The role of stylization and the influence of French chanson and African music followed. And, of course, traditional, i.e. folkloric Portuguese music was examined. All in all, an authentic House of Culture presentation of which a staff speaker from the All-Soviet-Union Society “Knowledge” would have been proud (if you forget for a minute that those types could not have imagined what PowerPoint was in their wildest dreams). The good part was audio clips of folk songs followed by Zeca’s reinterpretation of them. One of the more famous songs, As sete mulheres do Minho, was about a group of 19th century peasant women who misunderstood some board of health churchyard burial-related regulations and by marching against the authorities sparked a whole civil war. This song made them heroes of the socialist resistance.

With the lecture out of the way, Orquestra Quadrivium together with Coro Quadrivium, a local youth music group, took the stage. The orchestra consisted entirely of strings, but for that same “Seven wives of Minho” violins and cellos stepped in as drums and tambourines, I must admit to a striking effect.

Up and down Monte Brasil

Back on Terceira we have reached the top or rather one of the four tops of Monte Brasil, a former volcano with a caldera in the center surrounded by those peaks. This one is called Pico das Cruzinhas (little crosses). There is indeed a column with a cross on top, a traditional Portuguese one, such as the one on the national flag, and it’s not particularly small. It was erected in 1932 in commemoration of 500 years since the discovery of the island in 1432 (it was the third one discovered in the archipelago, hence Terceira). Behind the monument – a wide panorama of the town and the rest of the island.

I begin my descent passing, incongruously, by cages of exotically colored pheasants from the Far East, one named after Lady Amherst (a British naturalist married into the clan of those famous or infamous Amhersts). The caldera opens below, and through the saddle between two other peaks peeks the foggy ocean. The intensely green meadow seems empty but on a closer look the emptiness is deceptive. There are people in camouflage fatigues and a row of shooting targets right across the middle of the field.  There are also soldiers on the edge of the road looking down into the caldera. The former volcano is a training and proving ground for Forças Armadas, Portuguese Armed Forces.

Further down the road the views on both sides of the isthmus connecting the mount to the “mainland” compete for grandeur: the pastel town on the right against the rugged island coast on the left. At the base of the headlands sits a military base. It’s RG1 – Regimento de Guarnição 1 (Garrison Regiment 1). These grunts don’t have to go far for their drills. But they are far from the first to be stationed in this neighborhood. A few turns of the road below the barracks of RG1  Fortaleza de São João Baptista is located. It is a fortress constructed in 1583, when Portugal was under the Spanish yoke of Philip II, to guard against such evil British privateers as Sir Francis Drake. In the following centuries it had a role in too many bloody conflicts to mention, but it is empty, quiet and grimly picturesque today.

The harbor (that is what “Angra” means, approximately) and the town center are the opposite of grim. On the first street going down from the mointain, an icecream shop gives a preview of what’s ahead: the flavors on its menu poster have a variety of hues to match the town palette. Butterscotch, dark chocolate, light coffee, very dark strawberry, even ube. That’s the color of one of the most prominent landmarks, Igreja da Misericórdia, the centerpiece of Cais (quai) da Alfândega on the harbor. Another one, Sé Catedral (the seat of the Bishop of all the Azores) is very light coffee.

Portuguese Civil War happened yesterday

There is another height (alta) rising from the center of the town, Praça Velha (Old Square). Unlike the more somber green of Monte Brasil, this slope is a lush subtropical garden from top to bottom – Jardim Duque da Terceira. Also from top to bottom it’s a memorial to the Portuguese Civil War between the Liberals, who stood for the constitutional monarchy, and the Absolutists. Indeed, the Duke of Terceira, 1st of the title (António José de Sousa Manuel de Meneses Severim de Noronha) was a hero of that war, which took place between 1828 and 1834. But to go back in history, the older son of King João VI, had become the Emperor of Brazil under the name of Pedro I. He was instrumental in obtaining Brazilian independence from Portugal, enacting liberal reforms and turning it into a constitutional monarchy. When his father died in 1826, Pedro, the legitimate heir, abdicated the throne of Portugal after a brief period as King Pedro IV, in favor of his little daughter Maria to prevent joining the two countries under the same rule again. His younger brother Miguel usurped the throne, however, in 1828, initiating the war as the leader of the Absolutistas.

At some point, only the Azores remained loyal to the Liberal cause and both Pedro and Maria found refuge on Terceira, while the Duke was heading the loyal troops protecting the islands. He later led the Liberalist army to the final victory in 1834. Hence, on the top of the hill, stands Alto da Memória, an elaborate mustard and white colored pyramid honoring Dom Pedro IV, the Liberator, in the garden named after his military leader. The pyramid is the vista point (“miradouro” in the local parlance) used in all travel guides and brochures about the Azores. The Bay of Angra (Baía de Angra) from Monte Brasil and Fortaleza de São João Baptista to Forte de São Sebastião, with the icecream town in the middle, form a panoramic “mediterranean” strip – in the middle of the Atlantic.

A third important character has a stella dedicated to him at the bottom of the garden. It is Almeida Garrett, a romantic poet and a statesman also dedicated to the liberal cause. As a boy, he spent several years on Terceira to escape the French envaders and considered Angra his adopted patria. It was he, who proposed to by then Queen Maria II, the daughter of Pedro, to grant Angra the honorary title of Heroismo (which also included awarding it the exalted Grã-cruz da Ordem da Torre e Espada, do Valor, Lealdade e Mérito, a high royal decoration). Carved on the stella are his poetic words directed to Terceira, extolling his “adoptive native land,” its great deeds for the country, its lush and grassy terrain, its restful shade of beeches and orange trees.

At the midpoint of the garden slope rises a basalt sculpture depicting a Brazilian black wearing a typical hat of a Brazilian Indian. As they say in such cases, it represents the views of the times in which such art was created. (It’s not clear from the Portuguese wiki page when exactly the sculpture was erected, but it was seemingly sometime in the middle of the 20th century). It stands on the edge of a pool providing water for the garden and the monastery below. The whole ensemble is called Tanque do Preto, Pool of the Black.

From Praça Velha to Ponta Delgada

I am again down on Praça Velha, the central plaza of Angra, where I had agreed to meet with my charioteer. It’s the parade face of the city. The buildings surrounding it are grander and more elaborate than in the rest of the town, anchored by the one variously known as Paços do Concelho de Angra do Heroísmo or Câmara Municipal, i.e., the city hall. I have not seen many people during my ramble, besides the soldiers at the top of Monte Brasil and the guard at the gate of the military base. The Praça, too, is empty. Also no moving cars, much less taxis are in sight. It’s getting dusky. But Luciano does show up a few minutes later at the appointed time. We ride past the Byzantian looking towers of Praça de Toiros, the stage of tomorrow’s bull show anxiously awaited by my Canadian forcados friends. (I don’t know why it’s “toiros” rather than “touros” as in the rest of Portugal, possibly a local dialect?). Formalities are quick at the small aeroport building and that’s when I get to watch the endless loops of “touradas” videos, while waiting for the departure. Seconds after the takeoff the silhouette of the whole eastern part of the island, from Praia da Vitória to Angra do Heroismo, lies under the wing. Monte Brasil and Ilhéus das Cabras (Goat Islets) appear like two small pebbles on the horizon. The next patch of land underneath is Ponta Delgada and Aeroporto João Paulo II.



*In 2011 when the Portuguese Republic went bankrupt and requested international financial assistance, Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, one of the chief captains who coordinated and organized the April 1974 military coup – the Carnation Revolution, stated that he wouldn’t have made the revolution if he had known what the country would become after it.

Grândola song monument in Grândola

Dia da Liberdade events