The Portuguese discovery of the islands that form the western group probably took place sometime in 1452. It is believed that Diogo de Teive was the navigator responsible for the finding of this “far away” land. The name Flores (Flowers) is believed to be associated to the abundance of natural flowers that the island showcased as soon as the 1470s. It was not an easy task to try and populated the island. Actually, the geographical uniqueness of the Western Group is mirrored in its political structure, because unlike the other islands, Flores and Corvo constituted a single fiefdom that King Afonso V handed in 1453 to his uncle D. Afonso, Duke of Bragança and Count of Barcelos.
The first efforts to settle Flores were also carried out by the Flemish, namely by Willem van der Haghen, who had initially settled on the island of São Jorge and then tried to settle on a land located further to the west around 1480. Whether it was the disappointment with the island’s economic potential or its isolation from the rest of the archipelago, the truth is that the experience failed and the Flemish returned to São Jorge. The island of Flores was abandoned for many years, and there is only evidence of a successful settlement in 1508 thanks to the efforts of the Fonseca family. Despite the late settlement, there was a sustained demographic growth. Lajes das Flores was granted a town charter in 1515, with Santa Cruz das Flores obtaining it in 1548. From the late 16th century, the activity of the Mascarenhas will further boost the demographic development of Flores.
In a similar fashion to the rest of the archipelago, the economy was based on cereals for about two centuries, as well as on sheep breeding, the production of cloth and fishing.
During the 16th and the 17th centuries, the island lived in tranquillity and isolation, a condition that was threatened by the frequent and unwelcomed visits of privateers. As Europe’s westernmost point, Flores had a highly relevant tactical position and functioned as a strategic location for the logistic support that the Crown provided to ships arriving from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Consequently the island was closely watched by privateers and pirates, whilst they quietly awaited the passing of Spanish galleons filled with precious metals from the Americas and Portuguese carracks from the East.
In the 19th century, Lord Alfred Tennyson perpetuated in the poem The Revenge this bygone time of sea adventures and pillages. “At Flores in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay” opens the description of the heroic defeat, at the hands of the Spanish fleet, of the ship captained by Sir Richard Grenville, an English privateer. By the mid 18th century, Flores became a safe harbour for the English and North-American whaling fleets, looking for supplies and sailors. This external influence required the construction of bases for the hunting of sperm whales at Lajes das Flores and Santa Cruz das Flores. There are still vestiges of these premises, which were then built for the extraction of oil from the whales.
The opening of the airport in 1972 and the construction of modern ports led to a greater integration of the Western Group in the Azores Archipelago. The services sector now supports the island’s economy, employing about 60% of the local workforce, with tourism playing an increasingly larger role.
The island of Flores is 16.6 km long and has 12.2 km at its maximum width, which translates into a surface of 141.4 sq. km. Together with the island of Corvo, which is 17.9 km away, it forms the Western Group of the Azores Archipelago. The European Continent has its westernmost point on this piece of land where 3 793 people live (2011 data). At an altitude of 911 metres, the Morro Alto is the island’s highest point and is located at 39°27’48’’ latitude north and 31°13’13’’ west.
FOOD AND DRINKS
The islands of the western group remained isolated for centuries, given their distance to the other islands of the archipelago and the inclement weather that sometimes hit them. As such, the inhabitants learned to rely on the local production for their staple diet.
During the winter months, when the fishing boats could not go fishing in the abundant sea, a lot of pork was eaten. Pork dishes remain as witnesses of those times. The salted pork meat is cooked and served with potatoes and cabbage. Taro root with sausage and water-cress soup can also be included in the most traditional recipes of Flores. The dried cheese produced on the island features a soft paste with a firm texture.
The surrounding sea is generous and stimulates the food imagination of the local people. The tarts tortas de erva patinha bring together the concept of an omelette served with algae that grows on the shores. Fish is part of the cuisine heritage of the island and is served in recipes such as roasted tuna and stewed conger eel.
In some localities, the microclimate favours the growth of exotic fruits. From the guava tree, yellow, red and purple fruits are picked to make a local dessert. The honey is imbibed with the aroma of the thousands of flowers that embellish this island.
The Festival of the Emigrant is celebrated to pay homage to those who left the island looking for a better life, but who come back to their homeland every year. The popular festivities and the meetings of old friends are the tune played during the month of July. In the previous month, on the 24 June, the locals also celebrate the São João Festival. The devotion to this patron saint goes back to the time of the settlers who came from the island of Terceira, and it has been kept alive and strong throughout the centuries. In a similar fashion to the rest of the archipelago, the Holy Ghost Festivals take place from May to September. This cult is especially and colourfully celebrated at Santa Cruz given the arches of flowers that decorate the streets.