The year of the Portuguese discovery of this island is uncertain. It is believed that it was spotted some time between 1449 and 1451, after the discovery of the island of Terceira, in a similar fashion to the other islands that make up the central group.
The official and continud settlement of the island started in approximately 1470. At that time, or even before that, Vasco Gil Sodré was one of the first settlers of Carapacho, which was the very first place to be populated. However, to this day, it is still uncertain the role that he played on the administration of the island. In those days, the Donatory Captains, for a part or the totality of the island, were Duarte Barreto do Couto and Pedro Correia da Cunha.
The development of the island received a new impetus with the arrival of new settlers from mainland Portugal and from Flanders. From the south to the north, the fertile soil planes of the interior were consecutively occupied. New settlements were built, such as that of Santa Cruz, which rapidly received a town charter from the king in 1486.
In 1546, the locality of Praia, also known as São Mateus, was also upgraded to town. The local economy was based on agriculture. Wheat and barley, the last one almost exceptional within the archipelago, were the main productions of the 16th century.
Besides the harvest of orchil, wine production was also very important, and the locally produced wines and spirits were appreciated and consumed inside and outside the island. Trade was limited to the island of Terceira, which was then the central harbour of the Archipelago. And, just as its neighbouring island, the island of Graciosa was also attacked and pillaged by pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Graciosa has suffered from drought and natural disasters throughout its history, which have caused a generalised impoverishment. As it happened on other islands, during the 19th century, the number of vineyards was remarkably reduced given the spread of oidium and phylloxera, grapevine pests that affected most production.
Between the 1950s and 70s, the large number of emigrants that left the island for the United States substantially reduced the island’s social and economic activities. The farmers joined forces to create a cooperative in order to partly recover the local wine tradition, with the Demarcated Region of Graciosa being established in 1994.
Currently, the most important activities for the economy of the island are the dairy and meat productions. The minutely divided fields also give shelter to corn, vegetables and fruit trees.
During the 1980s, the construction of the airport and of the harbour of Praia opened new business opportunities, thus placing Graciosa on route to a sustainable tourism.
The size of Graciosa, with 12.5 km in length and 7 km at its maximum width, provides the island with an elongated shape from the Northwest to Southeast. There are 4,391 habitants (2011 data) living on the island’s surface of 60.66 sq. It is the northernmost island from the five that make up the Central Group of the Azores Archipelago, with São Jorge, 37 km away, being the closest island. At an altitude of 405 metres, this island’s highest point is located in Caldeira at 39°01’17’’ latitude north and 27°57’59’’ longitude west.
FOOD AND DRINKS
Fresh fish captured in the generous sea of the Azores is traditionally served roasted or stewed. The garlic and the rockmelon of Graciosa attained a gourmet status and are basic ingredients for various recipes.
However, if there is a typical product of this island, it is the pastry that adopted the namesake of the island: Queijadas da Graciosa (Graciosa Custards) inspired by the centuries-old recipe of milk tumblers. The vast and tasty local pastry also includes other delicacies which go by the name of cavacas, escomilhas, capuchas, pastéis de arroz [rice cakes] or encharcadas de ovos [egg-based custard].
The wine of Graciosa, made from the original verdelho grapes, survived the spread of phylloxera. Now, given that there are other types of grapes, the locally produced white wines complement the regional cuisine. Spirits and aperitif wines also complement the range of local beverages.
The festive season of Graciosa is filled with popular dances, brass band concerts, celebrations of the patron saints of the different parishes and the famous Carnival Balls. Dancing and popular mannerisms are kept alive by the people’s passion for music, which spreads throughout the whole year, under the auspices of the local Music Academy. During the week of Carnival, various groups organise parades with properly dressed dancers, wearing masks and original costumes.
The festivities honouring the Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Lord Christ of Miracles) take place in August and add other type of events to the religious component. There are musical shows and folk dancing that enliven the historical streets of Santa Cruz. Similarly to the rest of the archipelago, the Holy Ghost Festivals are also traditionally rooted on this island, taking place from May to September.