Located roughly two-thirds of the way to Europe from the United States, and just over 900 miles west of mainland Portugal, the Azores archipelago is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. The oldest of the nine volcanic islands, geologically speaking, is Santa Maria. I had an amazing opportunity a couple years ago to visit the island with my father, who was born and raised there until he emigrated to the United States when he was eleven years old.
Santa Maria is known as Ilha Amarela (“Yellow Island”) because of its diverse landscape and arid, Mediterranean climate. Roughly two-thirds of the island is flat and relatively barren and it’s the only Azorean island with white, sandy beaches. On the eastern side of the island, verdant mountains give way to rolling pastures dotted with grazing livestock and gleaming whitewashed houses.
In the fifteenth century, the first settlers brought their traditional architecture to the island from the Alentejo and Algarve regions of mainland Portugal. Most of the homes are single-story and have hipped roofs marked by distinctive cylindrical chimneys topped with cone-shaped lids. I’m not sure of the reason—maybe pride or for a sense of community—but each of the island’s five parishes customarily has its chimney tops painted the same color. Santa Bárbara is blue, Santo Espírito is green, São Pedro is yellow, Almagreira is red and the main municipality, Vila do Porto, terra cotta. I also came across some that were painted black, mostly on the more modern homes. It was such a charming tradition that I felt compelled to share it.
Here are some facts and figures about the different parishes of Santa Maria island:
|▪ Vila do Porto – Besides being the island’s only municipality, the parish of the same name is mostly flat and dry and constitutes roughly one-third of the island. This is where the island’s airport is located.
▪ São Pedro – The northern parish, it includes the communities of Fátima, Paul and Pilar. Christopher Columbus landed here on his return from the New World.
▪ Almagreira – The southern dry zone that includes popular Praia Formosa and parts of the mountainous areas of Monteiro and Bom Despacho.
▪ Santo Espírito – The eastern corner covering Maia, Glória, Azenha and Fontinhas. The Church of Nossa Senhorha da Purificação is located here.
▪ Santa Bárbara – The northern and eastern parish that includes Lagoínhas, Norte and the spectacular bay of São Lourenço.
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Here are a few more photos of Santa Maria Island: