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Culture Azores

The culture of the Azores is unique in many ways.  Its strongest influence came from the original settlers—colonists brought in sailing ships from southern continental Portugal to populate the islands beginning with Santa Maria in 1439.  By 1493, the major city Vila do Porto received a visit from Christopher Columbus on his way back from his first transatlantic voyage where he was mistaken for a pirate, arrested and interrogated.

By 1444, settlements on a second island, São Miguel were populated by colonists from continental Portugal, as well as from France.  These colonists were farmers and settled in the fertile agricultural areas of the islands.  Export of wheat, oranges, sugar cane and dyes provided the main economic force in the islands.

festival music festival

Throughout the next two centuries, agricultural pursuits continued. The French influence came into the island along with the troops to fight off the pirate attacks.  A third major industry, in addition to the agricultural and military provisioning aspects of Azores culture, was added with the blossoming of whale hunting.  The seaports were busy places, with the unique components of sailors and whalers being added to the mix of agricultural and military culture.  A fourth major industry came with the importation of wine grapes into the islands.

So, the culture today is an interesting mix of agricultural, whaling, military and wine growing peoples, mostly of Roman Catholic faith.  The festivals are mainly religious, with parades of saints’ images and of the Christ.  Museums display exhibits based on the seafaring days and the whale hunting days.

read more about Azorean festivals

The best known whaling museum which commemorates the artistic talent of the Basque whaling crews who carved intricately beautiful pieces of scrimshaw from the teeth and bones of sperm whales and the baleen of other whales as well as from walrus tusks is “Peter” Scrimshaw Museum located on the island of Faial.  Two other world class whaling museums are found on the island of Pico.

Given the isolation of the islands, their long history and the significant hardships involved in battling earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and pirate invasions, it is not surprising that the people of the Azores have a unique culture. While the people of the Azores enjoy their culture and lifestyle, they share it in smaller doses than the more defiantly tourist attraction destinations.  The hotels and lodging for tourists for example might be built into a centuries old monastery or palace, rather than a high-rise beach condominium. The culture reflects the lifestyle where it was necessary to be independent, yet to learn to band together just in order to survive.

Architecture is consistent with the raw materials on the island, mostly black lava rock and limestone, whitewashed and decorated with glazed tiles from both Flemish and Moorish influence. 

Music and dance of the Azoreans culture is enjoyed by both men and women.  Many of the men play the most common musical instrument, the viola, singing verses created on the spot.  These verses sometimes are treated as a form of musical contest.  The lyrical character of the people is reflected in the works of several well-known Azorean poets. Azorean writers are widely read in Portugal and by way of translation to the English speaking world as well.

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Traditional pastry from the Azores islands

There is a large variety of local cheeses, mostly made from cow's milk. Some cheeses are famous throughout Europe. Worthy of a special mention is the “Queijo da Ilha” from São Jorge. Try them on any of the many local breads or the muffins.

Pineapple greenhouses are unique to the Azores. The island of São Miguel has more than 6,000 greenhouses. The local pineapple is different from any other. It has a small crown, an intense flavour and is grown year-round.

© Azoresweb 2006