Before I spent Holy Week in the Azores seven years ago, what little I knew about the islands and their people was based on my husband’s tales of having been stationed there as a lieutenant in the Portuguese Navy. I had my own later experience of the Azorean community in California, and its festival of the Holy Spirit.
That traditional celebration begins on Pentecost and continues for weeks. It includes special foods and religious processions that date back to the fourteenth century. Though it originated in Portugal, its observance has largely died out there. It continues today in the Azores, and in Azorean communities in the United States, Brazil, and Africa. So I knew there was something different about the islands, even before I set foot there.
Spending Holy Week in the Azores was a geographic happenstance. The islands seemed a convenient place for me and my husband (who was spending a sabbatical in Portugal) to meet for a much-needed reunion. I flew from the United States, arriving in a driving rain. When my plane landed in São Miguel, the largest island in an archipelago of nine volcanic outcrops in the northern Atlantic, it was like falling into a time warp.
Eight hundred miles west of Lisbon and at roughly the same latitude as Baltimore, each island has its own character. São Miguel is known for its verdant fields, dairy cows, and hydrangeas. Pico’s bleak lava-rock landscape produces a...