The secret history of the Azores

With new direct flights to Terceira, Rupert Parker uncovers unexpected Jewish heritage


As I explore the small village of Porto Judeu on the south eastern coast of Terceira, I can’t help wondering about its name.

Locals tell me that in the 16th century a boat containing fugitive Jews was caught in a storm and they were allowed to settle here rather than in the island’s capital. Another story says that the first settlers who came here were afraid and told a Jewish man with them to jump first and this is where he landed.

Whatever the truth, there’s plenty to tempt modern-day visitors to jump to the Azores. The group of volcanic islands sit midway between Europe and the USA in the Atlantic, and Terceira was the third to be discovered in 1450.

Lush green farmland around the coast, dotted with houses painted in a variety of vivid pastel colours, contrasts with the dramatic black volcanic landscape in the interior’s “wild lands”. In summer, almost every road is lined with purple hydrangeas, and it’s easy to see why it’s known as the Lilac Island.

Angra do Heroísmo, the capital, is the oldest city in the Azores and grew quickly because of its strategic importance.

Sailing ships, blown by the prevailing trade winds, followed a route across the ocean that made the island an essential port of call. For more than a century, galleons laden with gold and silver from the New World, as well as spices and treasures from India, anchored in the port.

The wealth generated was invested in beautiful palaces, monasteries and churches.

To defend the harbour, the fortresses of São Sebastião and São João Baptista stand guard on either side of the bay, with some excellent views of the town if you take the circular trail leading up the forested slopes of the extinct volcano of Monte Brasil, and climb above the fort.

The houses mix the architecture of mainland Portugal with colonial Brazil and elaborate chapels dedicated to the Holy Spirit stand on street corners. It’s hard to believe that most of it was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1980 destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings. The city now has protected Unesco World Heritage Status.

Whichever story you believe about Porto Judeu, the first documented Jewish migration here came in the 19th century, when Jews fleeing persecution in Morocco settled in Angra in 1818.

The tax-free status of the island allowed them to import and sell to local businesses, and by 1820, a liberal revolution in Portugal brought in religious tolerance and more families arrived.
Land for a cemetery was purchased in 1832, just outside the city limits, known as Cemiterio Campo da Igualdade, or the Field of Equality.

Its 53 tombs are well tended and it’s easy to make out names like Abohbot, Benarus, Levy, Zagory and Bensabat.

Mimom Abohbot, born in Essaouira, Morocco in 1800, was the leader of the fledgling Jewish community and he set up a synagogue on the second floor of his house in the centre of Angra. There was no rabbi, but he led the congregation using his Moroccan Torah and hand copied five books of prayer for use by Jewish families.

One of these still survives and I’m privileged to examine it in the Museu de Angra do Heroísmo in the old Convent of São Francisco, once the headquarters of the Franciscan Order of the Azores. On the gilt edged leather cover, I see Mimom Abohbot’s name (pictured, left); inside are pages of handwritten prayers. His certificate of marriage on display here, recording his union with Elisabeth Davis in London in 1835.

There’s more of a holiday vibe in Praia da Vitória, Terceira’s second-largest town, whose sheltered bay is home to a marina and long sandy beach, as well as cafes and restaurants lining the prom. The pedestrianised streets leading off the main square, Praça Francisco Ornelas da Câmara, make for rewarding shopping, with the 19th-century market hall good for local produce and wines.

But for the best view of the island, it’s worth driving up to the Miradouro da Serra do Cume: at 545m high, it sits on the remnants of a volcanic crater rim.

In one direction, endless pastures stretch out in an intricate, intense green patchwork, bordered by black stone walls and purple hydrangeas.

Looking west, across the rugged Terra Brava or ‘Wild Land’, is the dormant volcano of Santa Bárbara, the island’s highest peak rising up to 1,021m and often covered in cloud.

There are another three volcanoes on the island, the oldest being Cinco Picos which covers much of the southeast. Its collapsed caldera is the largest in the Azores, over four miles across, and was formed some 300,000 years ago. All is now quiet although there were a couple of eruptions in 1761 and more recent activity in 1998, thankfully under the sea six miles west of Terceira.

You’ll need a car to get around the island’s narrow roads but the best way of exploring the wild and hilly interior is on foot. There are a handful of circular short trails and a newly opened 23-mile long-distance route, which covers the western part of the island.

For a memorably unusual experience you can even walk inside the volcano of Algar do Carvão: a giant lava tube, around 100m long, was created by an eruption more than 2,000 years ago.

After entering via a vertical chimney, a series of steps lead down to the Cathedral, an immense cave covered with milky-white stalactites and stalagmites. Descending deeper into the earth, the walls dramatically change colour until you reach a crystal clear underground lake.

Equally extraordinary are the sulphur springs of Furnas do Enxofre, nearby, where a raised wooden walkway leads you through steamy smelly gases spewing out of the ground.

Apart from the large beach in Praia and a small cove in Angra, bathing is limited to rock pools, both natural and man-made, scattered around the coast. The shallow pools at Biscoitos, in the north, are among the most beautiful on the island, with Atlantic rollers crashing on the rocks outside and covering the calm waters with their salty spray.

In the heart of the nearby vineyards, save time for a stop at the Museu do Vinho dos Biscoitos. Wine has been made here for over 100 years and there are small demonstration vineyards and free tastings.

The island is also particularly good for whale watching as the Azores are on the main whale and dolphin migration route and the ocean gets deep a short way from the coast here. A total of 28 species of whales, around a third of the world’s cetaceans, are regularly sighted — you might even spot blue whales from land as they swim between Terceira and São Jorge.

Sadly one thing you won’t find is a Jewish community on the island: there are no Jewish families left in Terceira and the synagogue in the middle of Angra is now a private house. Yet their presence over many centuries has left its mark.

In 2004, a genetic study found that 13.4 per cent of the Y chromosome of Azoreans is of Jewish origin, compared with just 6.8 per cent in mainland Portugal.

There may be some truth about the story of 16th-century settlers in Porto Judeu after all.

Getting There

Direct flights from Heathrow to Terceira cost from £146 with BA.

For more info go to

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