Sometime between 1427 and 1431, the Portuguese navigators discovered the island of São Miguel, right after the island of Santa Maria. The initial settlement, dating from 1440 with the arrival of Gonçalo Velho Cabral, was carried out by people who came from the Portuguese regions of Estremadura, Algarve and Alentejo. Later, other communities made up of Moors, Jews and foreigners, namely French, also settled on the island. The fertile soils and the existence of some safe bays quickly transformed the island into a trading post. The economic growth was sustained mainly by the production and export of wheat and woad which boosted the island’s settlement.
Until the devastation left by the earthquake of 1522, the capital of the island was the town of Vila Franca do Campo. Then, Ponta Delgada started to play the most important role and became the capital in 1546. The end of the 16th century was marked by the attacks of privateers, and São Miguel was occupied by the Spanish army in 1582 during the Azorean resistance to the military forces of the new King of Portugal, Filipe II of Spain. After the Restoration of the Portuguese throne in 1640, the commercial development was given a new life by its connection with Brazil.
Throughout the 18th century and mid 19th century, the export of oranges, mainly to Great Britain, became the main source of wealth. Most churches, decorated with rich woodcarvings, and manor houses, built with refined stoneworks that are the delight of visitors, date from this period. From 1870 onwards, the orange groves were attacked by infectious diseases, and given the drastic reduction in production, many locals emigrated to Brazil and to the United States.
The introduction of new cultures – pineapple, tea, tobacco, hemp– contributed to the economic development of the 19th century following the turbulent Liberal Wars. The economy of the island kept growing during the 20th century given the expansion of agriculture and cattle breeding, which supplied part of the dairy industry. However, since the 1980s, the progress of the services sector has been increasingly noticeable, and it now employs most of the local population. Part of this sector, tourism is the latest investment of São Miguel, the island where the seat of the Presidency of the Regional Government of the Azores is located.
São Miguel is the biggest island of the archipelago, with 62.1 km in length and 15.8 km at its maximum width. More than half of the Azorean population (137.856 inhabitants in 2011) occupies an area of 744.7 sq. km. Together with Santa Maria, located 81 km away, São Miguel is part of the Eastern Group of the Azores Archipelago. With an altitude of 1,105 m, Pico da Vara is the island’s highest point located at 37°48’34’’ latitude north and 25°12’40’’ longitude west.
FOOD AND DRINKS
From the various cultures introduced in the Azores the highlight goes to tea. The plantations of Gorreana and Porto Formoso, appearing in the horizon as a sea of green leaves, are unique in the Europe. During visits to the museum-factories, one learns the history and evolution of the machinery, before a well deserved cup of Azorean tea.
In Furnas, the pots containing meat and vegetables for a typical boiled/steamed dish are put into a sac and buried in the geothermal soil. The food cooks for approximately five hours. Before tasting the singular taste of a dish made in the natural heat of the earth, it will be worth waiting to see the lifting of the pot, with strong arms pulling the ropes that had been attached to the heavy pots.
On São Miguel Island there is a tradition for cultivating exotic fruits such as pineapple, annona, guavas and passion fruit, which are eaten raw or used to make liqueurs. The pineapple green houses, spread throughout Fajã de Baixo, Lagoa and Vila Franca do Campo, preserve age-old practices which can be discovered in a guided visit.
The cuisine of São Miguel is filled with fish dishes, always with a common factor: freshness. There are also various types of sea food, and delicacies like the barnacle, a crustacean boiled in sea water. The meat comes from the cattle bred in pastures, and it is soft and tasty. As for appetizers, there are the famous local red, mashed peppers served with fresh cheese. But these local red peppers are also used in various recipes. The bolo lêvedo from Furnas is a cake that is well known and may be served during any meal. As for sweets, the most famous are the Queijadas de Vila Franca do Campo (Vila Franca do Campo Custards). And to top another day in the vacation, smokers may even finish their meal with a locally manufactured cigar or cigarillo.
São Miguel Island has many interesting cultural activities that you can enjoy during your holidays. the Holy Ghost Festivals represent an Azorean religious tradition, which is celebrated on all the islands. They take place around chapels called Impérios (Empires) from May to September. Intrinsically linked to São Miguel, the age-old Festa do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Lord Holy Christ of Miracles Festival) venerates the statue of Christ kept at the Esperança Chapel in Ponta Delgada. The festivities last for three days and take place around the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday. The Romeiros (Pilgrims) of São Miguel are groups of men who walk the island on foot during Lent, praying and visiting churches and chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Starting in the parish of Ribeira Seca, municipality of Ribeira Grande, the Cavalhadas de São Pedro (Saint Peter’s Horse Riders) take place on 29 June and are a parade of horse riders dressed in colourful outfits – symbolising a king, knights, lancers, stewards and horn players or trumpeters, riding equally adorned horses. Carnival is lively enjoyed in Ponta Delgada. The Batalha das Limas (Water Battle) is a tradition that persists, with groups confronting each other on the streets of the city throwing at each other various types of “weapons” filled with water. The festive season also includes various gala balls with merry-makers dressed in evening suits. There are various carnival parades in different localities which attract many participants and enthusiasts.
Dancing and brass band concerts are frequent throughout the various parishes of the island, especially during the festivities in honour of each locality’s patron saint. New Year’s Eve attains a new dimension at the Portas do Mar in Ponta Delgada, with its marina and cruise-ship terminal providing a new stage for music shows and exhibitions, with restaurants and bars animating the evening in the city.