Portugal – POINTS OF INTEREST – Resorts – Azores Islands

Azores Islands

The Azores (Portuguese: Açores) are an archipelago of Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 1,500 km from Lisbon and about 3,900 km from the east coast of North America.The nine Azorean Islands extend for more than 600 km, and lie in a northwest-southeast direction. The vast extension of the islands defines an immense exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 1.1 million km². The westernmost point of this area is 3,380 km from the North American continent. All of the islands have volcanic origins, though Santa Maria also has some reef contribution. The mountain of Pico on Pico Island, at 2,351 m in altitude, is the highest in all of Portugal. The Azores are actually the tops of some of the tallest mountains on the planet as measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean. The islands are an autonomous region of Portugal.

Though it is commonly said that the archipelago is named after the goshawk (Açor in Portuguese), because it was supposed to be a common bird at the time of the discovery, it actually never existed in the islands. Some historians indicate the archaic portuguese word “azures” (the plural of blue) because of the colour of the islands when seen from afar. Most, however, insist that the name is derived from birds, pointing to a local subspecies of the buzzard (Buteo buteo) as the animal the first explorers erroneously identified as goshawks.

Flag of Azores

Shaded relief map of the Azores from 1975

In 1427, one of the captains sailing for Henry the Navigator discovered the Azores, possibly Gonçalo Velho, but this is not certain. The colonization of the then-unoccupied islands started in 1439 with people mainly from the continental provinces of Algarve and Alentejo, in the following centuries settlers from other European countries arrived. In 1583 Philip II of Spain as king of Portugal sent his combined Iberian fleet to clear the French traders from the Azores, decisively hanging his prisoners-of-war from the yardarms and contributing to the “Black Legend”. The Azores were the last part of Portugal to resist Philip’s reign over Portugal.The 1820 civil war in Portugal, had strong repercussion in the Azores. In 1829, in Vila da Praia, the liberals won over the absolutists, making Terceira Island, the main headquarters of the new Portuguese regime, and where the Counsil of Regency (Conselho de Regência) of Mary II of Portugal was established.Beginning in 1868, Portugal issued its stamps overprinted with “AÇORES” for use in the islands. Between 1892 and 1906, it also issued separate stamps for the three administrative districts of the time.Angra consisted of Terceira, São Jorge, and Graciosa, with the capital at Angra do Heroismo on Terceira.Horta consisted of Pico, Faial, Flores, and Corvo, with the capital at Horta on Faial.Ponta Delgada consisted of São Miguel and Santa Maria, with the capital at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.From 1938 to 1978, the archipelago was divided into three districts, quite equivalent (except in area) to those in the Portuguese mainland. The division was quite arbitrary, and didn’t follow the natural island groups, rather reflecting the location of each district capital on the three main cities (neither of each on the western group).

In 1976 the Azores became an Autonomous Region (Região Autónoma dos Açores) and the Azorean districts (Angra, Horta, Ponta Delgada) were suppressed.

Old map of Azores Islands