Terceira: History, and Holes in the Rock

Before arriving in the Azores, we had of course read about the islands and talked with other sailors who had already made the trip. A common theme throughout those discussions was that each island really has a different feel to it. And whether it was the sailing community and sailing history in Horta on Faial, the towering volcano and intricate walled vineyards of Pico, or the sheer oceanside cliffs and fajãs (and delicious cheese) of São Jorge, each island has certainly provided some distinctive memories. When you round the peninsula of Monte Brasil and sail into the main harbour of Angra do Heroismo (or just “Angra”), it’s the political history of the Azores that makes a lasting impression. With forts dominating the protected harbour, it’s clear that Angra, the oldest city in the Azores, has seen some more turbulent times.

The 50 nm sail to Angra from Velas on São Jorge took most of a day – hard to believe it was only our second sail in several weeks. We were off the dock at 8 a.m. sharp (as soon as the harbourmaster arrived to help with lines), and pulled into Angra at around 5:00 p.m. Dropping the mainsail out front of the harbour, we discovered some wear and tear in the webbing that attaches the sail to the slides that run up the track in the mast, and one completely chafed through – another minor repair to add to the job list!

We made it to the dock and checked in right before the harbourmaster was due to sign off for the day. The visitor’s dock we were on was a bit more exposed to swell rolling in from the ocean, and it took us a little while – and a few extra dock lines – to get Innisfree in a stable spot. We were glad to have a slip, though, as the marina filled up quickly, first with boats from the Grand Large Yachting World Odyssey 500, and then a few days later with boats arriving ahead of the Sanjoaninas Festival that started June 21. Unfortunately, plans for the festival meant we would lose our marina slip on the 19th… win some, lose some.

First settled in the early 15th century by Portuguese and Flemish colonists, Terceira (getting it’s name from being the third island in the Azores to be discovered) became a nexus for ships travelling to or returning from the Americas and India (following the route around Africa pioneered by Vasco da Gama). The flow of wealth through the islands in the 15th and 16th centuries attracted the attention of pirates and corsairs. This led the Portuguese to construct defenses around Angra, such as the Forte São Sebastião, which was in use by 1576.

Terceira has featured importantly in some major clashes in Portuguese history. In the late 16th century, when a crisis over succession to the Portuguese throne led to the conquest of Portugal by Phillip II of Spain, the Azores, and especially Terceira, remained a bastion loyal to the Portuguese pretender, Dom Antonio. The first attempt by the Spanish to invade Terceira ended in failure at the battle of Salga in 1581, when the Portuguese drove their cattle to stampede into the invading forces. Two years later, however, the Spanish arrived with a much larger, 96 ship armada and landed over 15,000 troops on Terceira, conquering the island. The second major fort in Angra is the (larger) Fortaleza de São João Batista (Fortress of Saint John the Baptist), constructed on Monte Brazil by the Spanish. Parts of it are still used by the Portuguese military today, but you can walk around some of the old battlements and up and around the top of the old volcanic crater rim.

In the 19th century, Terceira again featured prominently in Portuguese history. Another contested succession encompassed Portugal, amplified by a wave of liberalism on the heels of the American and French revolutions. Violent conflict erupted between forces in favour of a constitutional monarchy and those supporting an absolutist monarchy (the “Liberal Wars”). Terceira became a stronghold of support for Pedro IV (Emperor of Brazil) and his young daughter Maria’s claim to the throne, along with their constitutional charter. After abdicating in Brazil, Pedro came to Angra to establish a government in exile, supported by British, French, Belgian, and Spanish soldiers. After fighting off an absolutist blockade and attempted invasion in Praia Bay, Pedro was able to use foreign support and his base in Terceira to launch a military expedition to the Portuguese mainland near Porto, and eventually emerge victorious over the absolutists by 1834.

We spent a couple of days walking through Angra, checking out Forte São Sebastião (which is also now a form of government-owned hotel), spending a few hours in the amazing museum located in one of the older convents, tracking down the local yarn store (of course), and climbing up and all over Monte Brasil. While the modern-day influences of tourism are much more noticeable in Angra than the other islands, the old downtown is beautiful and oozes history.

We also rented a car one day to get out and explore the rest of Terceira. Here, our focus changed to natural history. As with the other Azorean islands, Terceira has a history of volcanism that has left behind some impressive sights. Our first stop was almost accidental – driving through the village of Salga (famous for the battle), we noticed a cave marked on the map: the Gruta das Agulhas. Curious, we stopped the car and walked down some concrete steps to the rocky beach and before long we were looking into what looked like a fairly deep sea cave. Scrambling up and into the cave, we realized that a short ways in it turned a corner and disappeared into the hillside. Cellphone flashlights in hand, we explored deeper into what we now realized was a lava tube, eventually penetrating a few hundred meters. Well out of sight of the entrance (and in complete darkness were it not for our cell phones), we reached a narrowing in the tunnel and turned around. But what an incredible feeling to find this tunnel leading so far into the darkness.

There are apparently around seventy of these lava tubes scattered around Terceira. We visited another, larger one (the Gruta do Natal) later in the day as well. The Gruta do Natal is set up for people to view, with lighting throughout, but it is still in its natural state with the floors and walls featuring the distinctive ripples, ribs, and ledges made by the lava as it cooled.

Volcanism being the theme of the day, we also visited the Algar do Carvão, which is a huge cavern formed as the lava chamber in an old volcano emptied (really, pictures don’t do justice to the size of this space!), and the Furnas do Enxofre, an area where steam vents from the ground, superheated by the underlying hot rocks. One gets the feeling that you could wander around the whole island through subterranean passages!