Ponta Delgada & Horta, Azores, Portugal
Early on May 8, after two days at sea, we limped into the harbor of Ponta Delgada. Why limped? Well, during dinner a couple of days earlier we suddenly heard a loud noise coming from the engines (located below the restaurant). One of our tablemates said “that doesn’t sound good,” and indeed she was correct. It turned out that something had broken (we seem to recall a stabilizer, but I’m not sure that’s right) which necessitated turning off one of the two engines. Fortunately the other engine kept going, but the Captain sounded quite nervous about it. They arranged for someone to meet the ship in Ponta Delgada with a replacement part that they spent the day installing. After a successful test we were able to leave that evening only a few hours late. It’s a good thing this didn’t happen after we left the Azores when we had 4 days of open ocean to travel before a port where repairs could be made! On the positive side, during the evening before we reached Ponta Delgada we had an amazing sunset off the starboard bow that made it look like the whole ocean was on fire.
Ponta Delgada is the capital and largest city (about 45,000 people) in the Azores, a group of islands about 800 miles west of mainland Portugal. It is located on the island of Sao Miguel, the largest of the group. These are volcanic islands that are the tips of the highest mountains in the world (measured from their bases on the ocean floor). When discovered by Portuguese sailors in the early 15th century the Azores were uninhabited (by humans), but that didn’t last very long. Given their location it isn’t too surprising that the Azores became an important stop in American trade; at one point Ponta Delgada was the 4th largest city in Portugal. In the 19th Century it was a center of the American whaling industry. Today it is a convenient stop for cruise ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
Prinsendam was docked on the inside of the sea wall across from the town waterfront, and a shuttle bus was provided to take us into town. This is supposed to be a beautiful island, with lots of green hills & lakes in old volcano calderas & picturesque fishing villages, and a lot of passengers took tours of the island. But it was a drizzly day & we were pretty worn out of bus touring, so we decided just to walk around the town & see whatever was there. The shuttle bus drove along the sea wall, which was covered with very interesting graffiti (at least I think it was graffiti rather than commissioned art) and dropped us on the waterfront promenade. Some of the graffiti looked like Hieronymus Bosch figures. The seafront promenade was paved with mosaics of black & white volcanic stones, of which we would see a lot more.
Our first stop was Forte de Sao Bras, a 16th century fortress right on the waterfront. It was originally built to defend the town from pirates. There was a museum inside, but everything was in Portuguese so we didn’t get much out of it. On the battlements were some guns that looked like WWII vintage, and there were good views of our docked ship and of the town. The side of the fort facing the town has a memorial to Portuguese sailors in WWI. There were some fairly creepy looking trees not yet in bloom that could have come from a Dr. Seuss book & also some flowering succulents.
We walked over to the large nearby square called Campo São Francisco (I think), which is sort of a festival ground. It is covered with mosaics. Sidewalk and street mosaics seem to be a Portuguese specialty (we saw a lot in Madeira and last year in Brazil) and Ponta Delgada is chock full of them in many varieties. Those of you who have followed this blog will know that we never tire of these, so you will be seeing a lot of them in this episode. Standing with your back to the water & the fort, on your left is the Igreja Sao Jose (Church of St. Joseph) and in front to the right is the Convento de Esperanca attached to the Igreja de Santo Christo. These two churches are good examples of the distinctive architecture here, with detailed decoration of dark lava stone on white background walls that look like stucco.
The biggest religious festival of the year in Ponta Delgada is the “Festa do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres” (Feast of Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles). This is a multi-day festival highlighted by a procession carrying an image of Jesus around to all the churches in town through streets full of flowers followed by a large fireworks display over the fort. The image was presented by the Pope to the first convent established on Sao Miguel in the 16th century and the first procession was in 1700 when the island was hit by earthquakes. The tremors abated and the tradition was established. Unfortunately, we missed this spectacle by three days, but the festival lighting was still in place on the church, in the plaza and over some of the streets. The image of Santo Cristo dos Milagres is in the Church of Santo Cristo, where we saw it in a large room full of flower displays behind a gate. On the other side of the church was an area of gilded walls and vaulted ceiling with an altar that looked like a Christmas tree from a distance. The walls of the center section of the church, near the entrance, were partly covered with murals made of blue and white tiles that made an interesting contrast to the richly polished wood appurtenances.
I don’t know if this is only associated with the festival or if it is normal, but walking around town we saw a lot of houses with beautiful displays of flowers, mostly under windows or on balconies.
We walked on toward the center of town over several interesting mosaic patterned sidewalks. We came to the city hall, sporting a 17th century bell tower. In front is a fountain in a long pool leading up to a statue of the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of the island of Sao Miguel.
Continuing on, we came to the old gates to the city, built in 1783, on a huge plaza facing the water. Before the seawall was built this was where ships docked. At that time the water came much closer and this was the gate in the city wall. On the right of the plaza (facing away from the water) is the clock tower of the Church of Sao Sebastio & well to the left is the city hall behind its fountain. In the front of the plaza facing the water is a statue of Goncalo Velho Cabral, the first governor of Sao Miguel and the sea captain credited with discovering it. The plaza is named after him.
We walked over to visit the 15th century Iglesa de Sao Sebastiao just beyond the plaza. We passed sidewalk mosaics that were pictures of fruit & vegetables, as well as a plaza of mosaic stars by the church. This church has a great deal of interesting carved wood & stone at the entrances and inside. It also has a nice pipe organ on a balcony and some very old music on display.
So we moved on up the hill, looking for what is always one of our prime objectives: the library. Needless to say, we saw more sidewalk mosaics, all different from what we had already seen. The library must be important to these folks since they have a special street sign giving directions. The library didn’t look very interesting from the front, but inside we found a nice garden, a brilliantly tiled stairway & a wall with a variety of languages carved into it. Just down the hill from the library was the 16th century Colegio convent (although I’m not sure whether it is still used for that).
Further up the hill from the library were the beautiful Palacio de Sant’Ana Jardim (Gardens of the Sant’Ana Palace). On the way up we encountered some tiny frogs in a pond in someone’s front yard. The Sant’Ana Palace is a large 19th century reddish colored building with statuary embedded in its walls. Our favorite was a statue of a woman with a sword wearing what looks like a Greek helmet. But what was special was the bird sitting on the helmet. We have seen quite a few outdoor statues with birds sitting on top, but this is the only one in which the bird is actually part of the statue. Maybe it landed here and was turned to stone! The palace is the headquarters of the Presidency of the Azores & the gardens surrounding the palace are quite beautiful, with flora from different parts of the world set out in their own areas. It was pretty quiet when we were there.
We returned to the ship just ahead of the rain. That night, after the refurbished engine passed its tests, we sailed on to our next scheduled port: Horta, on the island of Faial in the western part of the Azores. Unfortunately, this was a tender port & the Captain decided that the water was too rough to disembark (boo!). So here are some photos of Horta, taken from the ship. You can see that the weather was not very nice & there was some turbulence in the water (although it doesn’t look all that bad). The hill on the left is an old volcano caldera.
On the opposite side of the ship from Horta was the nearby island of Pico. At its center is the largest mountain in Portugal, an extinct volcano, which looked particularly dramatic among the clouds on this day.
So we set off a little early toward Hamilton, Bermuda, our last stop before returning to Florida. This would be four days at sea, a welcome respite for tired travellers. I will close this episode by catching up on pictures of some pretty creative food art, a couple of brightly colored ice sculptures & several towel animals (some of which are similar to ones we have seen previously; I guess 64 days exceeds the towel animal repertory of our artistic room stewards).