Suppose you are a fisherman in something something B.C., in the quite far western Mediterranean, and a gale blows up which pulls your reed boat out into those great Atlantic swells. You hunker down in the bottom, near the fish you’ve caught, hang on for dear life for a couple days, surviving on fish-scale-tasting rainwater, until you scrape up on porous rock, a thousand miles from your village on the mainland. You’ve discovered the Azores.
Not so, says a Portugese government commission appointed to determine who discovered those islands to the west of Portugal, which they own, which they got to first, which belong to them and no one else, mine, mine, mine. Still, archaeologists have persisted in trying to determine who got to the Azores first, and that’s one of the mysteries we encountered in our first week after crossing the Atlantic. Who were the first people on the Azores, and where did they go? How might you own half the world? If an earthquake and tidal wave were to level your city, how would you get past it? And, lastly, is it possible to have too much chocolate?
To answer these questions, we visited Ponta Delgado on São Miguel, Lisbon, and Bruges.
Rediscovering a Possible Atlantis
The evidence about the first inhabitants of the Azores is sketchy. Rock carvings, common to burial mounds from thousands of years ago, have been found on Corvo, Santa Maria, and Terceira by Portugese archaeologist Nuno Ribero. He published his findings as recently as 2010, positing that prehistoric people lived there, also creating rock art a little too sophisticated for bird droppings. Some historians have used his ideas to rekindle an old assertion, that a trade route existed between the Phoenicians and the New World long before Columbus. Even back in the days of Thor Heyerdahl, scholars had noted the similarities in reed boats between the Egyptians and the Columbians, which is why Heyerdahl traveled in one of the Ra Expeditions across the Atlantic to prove it could be done.
An expert commission was created to evaluate the findings, a Portugese commission, run by people in offices with a flag that dates back to Henry the Navigator. They disputed the findings because, after all, Henry discovered everything and as far as records indicate, those islands were just plumb empty when the Portugese got there. There are records in Portugal that suggest islands were found without inhabitants, back in the 1430s. Though, as is often the case, the Azores were already marked on maps at the time, so how did that happen, if they hadn’t been found yet?
Meanwhile, Antomera Costa, another Portugese historian continues to study what she says could be Stone Age calendars on the island. She and others wonder if this could have been one of the original ideas for Atlantis, islands once a paradise but at least by the early 15th century, devoid of people. Remember folks, history is based on what fossils you find; find more rock carvings and some sharpened flint, and you might end up with a civilization. Stay tuned.
Land O’Two Lakes
If there were people there, what might have caused the islands to lose their population? They are rather volcanic and that could account for a lot. The Southwestern United States were covered for centuries with small civilizations of Anasazi cliff dwellers, but they died out in a manner of decades, from drought and a few other calamities. It wouldn’t need to have be a mass explosion, like a Pompeii, to wipe out a population. It could have been just an outpouring of ash, or a change in the acidity of the soil or the waters.
São Miguel, where we visited, has multiple volcanic craters. The archipelago of the Azores–nine islands–sits right “on an active triple juncion between three of the world’s large tectonic plates.” (wikipedia) Even since that first recorded history in the 15th century, there have been 28 registered eruptions. This has resulted in networks of lava tubes and fields, as well as sheer pointed cliffs that surround crater-made lakes.
I had a chance to bike partly around the famous blue and green lakes, Lagoa das Sete Cidades. The wind was whipping along the water pretty fiercely, causing whitecaps, so distinct colors were hard to see. As our patient guide Leo explained, the blue side is deeper, which allows it to reflect the sky. The green side is clearer in the summer, when it tends to reflect the green hillsides, as well as being full of more algae, in part due to runoff from deforestation. Leo also said the colors were the stuff of legend, an Azorean story about a star-crossed pair of lovers, a princess and a farmhand, who cried tears of green and blue when they were forbidden to marry.
An equally interesting stuff of legend was the five-star hotel built in the 1980s which ultimately never held more than 10 or 15 guests at a time–apparently, they relied on getting a casino license that was never granted. When the building was abandoned, local residents “helped” with the deconstruction by walking away with mattresses, lamps, and curtains. Supposedly a Chinese business has again purchased the property and will rebuild it as…another five star hotel.
Such tourism in the Azores has tripled in the past few years, thanks to stories like one in the NY Times, which called it the “Caribbean of the Mediterranean.” Guide Leo got his degree in Multi-media, but couldn’t find work on the islands, so he now has another degree in Tourism, ready for the onslaught. But even he’s getting tired of the traffic jams and trash, even as he works all year with visitors rappeling in the hills or pedaling round the lakes. His dad still tells him to just join the army or become a fisherman like everyone else. Just like parents everywhere.
Own Half the World
Henry the Navigator’s dad also had plans for him. This was King John I of Portugal, who had the savvy to marry the sister of Lancastrian Henry IV, which cemented something of an alliance with England that lasted for centuries. Henry was the third surviving son, which meant he wasn’t groomed for the throne or to lead armies–often extra sons went into the priesthood. He seemed to be good at sailing so he did lead the family in taking Morocco from the Moors and that led to a lifelong thirst to explore, particularly the coast of Africa.
Henry did help drive the development of the caravel ships, mentioned widely in my previous essays. As our second stop was in Lisbon, we coincidentally went first to the Maritime Museum which featured a giant statue of Henry and dozens of ship replicas, starting with–ta-da! the caravel. This gorgeous museum is situated in the Monastery of St. Jerome (Jeroñimos) and behind Henry was a very important map, indeed.
By the time the end of the 15th century rolled around, Portugal had found trade routes to India, thanks to Vasco de Gama, while “Spain” (Columbus) had found routes across the Atlantic and down to South America, with Portual nipping at their heels. Ferdinand, Isabella, John II, and Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia one) all decided it was good to clarify things, so they stuck a line right down in the middle of the globe and called it the Treaty of Tordesillas. You take your half, Portugal, over towards Africa/India side and the Spanish and Catholics took the half in the New World. Though, Portugal, shrewd as ever, used a longitude line that went also gave them Brazil.
Another beauty in the Maritime Museum was a warehouse full of royal barges, including ones that Elizabeth and Henry VIII likely used when they visited and wanted to float around on the River Tagus. Very sophisticated, which is par for the course for a city that makes masterpieces with custard, bread loaves the length of your arm, and these true gems called “rice cakes” at one of the oldest bakeries in Lisbon, the Confeitaria Nacional. They need all the sweets because their other favorite dish is salted cod, a whole ‘nother story since cod is a cold water fish so there isn’t any in Portugal–they get it from Norway.
Starting from Scratch
But Lisbon is a city that doesn’t mind making it up as they go along. More than one person told me that the Portugese are shyer than the Spanish, more reticent. I think they just know how to roll with the punches. You want to block my land route to India? Fine! I’ll go by boat. You want that side of the world? I’ll take this side. You want to destroy my city with an earthquake? Great! We’ll just rebuild it and be a little more organized. They even have a national musical style, “fado,” compared to the blues, which helps them roll with the punches.
One big punch happened in 1755, which made Lisbon a twin to my own San Francisco. Just as my city burnt to the ground from the earthquake in April 1906, Lisbon woke up on November 1, 1755 to a 9.0 tremor (did I mention the tectonic plates?) which shook half the stone buildings to the ground That was followed by a 20-foot tsunami that took out the rest, and 85% of the city was destroyed.
King Joseph at the time, who was a bit of ‘fraidy cat–not my words,that’s what Elisabet, the Portugese guide said–decided to hole up in his temporary palace. He left all the rest of the decisions to his key minister, the Marquis of Pombal, who rebuilt using principles from his Age of Enlightenment. The churches needed to be smaller to be more efficient, and new buildings would be the first to use earthquake-proof buildings, based on economic and scientific survey data. The result is elegant, logical, and a delight to walk around. Mosaics built into the promenade sidewalks; Moorish lattice designs on the building walls. He allotted King Joseph a big statue in the plaza, and the rest of Lisbon kept perfecting the pasteis de nata: the tarts.
Another Big Dog Port of the Renaissance
After Lisbon, we continued rounding the bits and pieces that stick out of the western side of Europe, eventually meandering past France to the northern coasts, up to Belgium. There were two minor hiccups; we had to scratch the stop at Bilbao because of a category 3 storm, and divert to Spain quickly for a midnight emergency evacuation by helicopter–get off the open decks, people! But then we went on towards Belgium: Brussells, Bruges, Antwerp, the other heavy hitters during the travel times of the Renaissance. One of my favorite historical fiction series is by Scottish Dorothy Dunnett, who wrote of a Flemish dyer’s apprentice who becomes a shipping magnate for Venice (along with adventures in Turkey, Africa, Scotland, and Cyprus). Dunnett includes several chapters about the Flanders galleys who travelled from Arabia to Venice and Genoa, then around the coast to arrive in majestic order via the English Channel. It was kind of a big deal, a cross between the Super Bowl and the new iPhone being released.
Our stop in Belgium was the medieval town of Bruges, a short jaunt from the busy seaport of Zeebrugge, a drive which gave enough time for our ancient guide to get us all on the same page. Boris was no nonsense, in contrast to those friendly, shy Portugese. By the time we bordered the bus, he had already laid out out headsets and earphones, an emergency phone number card, and pre-highlighted map showing where we must reconnoiter. At 2:00 sharp! Before leaving, we even synchronized our watches.
Boris explained that the Flemish, the Belgians, and especially those in Bruges, tended to be far very conservative. This was why many of the buildings were still from the 13th century. Don’t like change. Don’t like taxes. Ruling bodies kept trying to find ways to tax the rich–at one point, taxing the windows or the balconies. No problem–if you had an extra bit of brick, you’d just brick over the windows. Just take out the balcony and use it to build a higher facade than your neighbors. One other sign of wealth was mud scrapers, small foot-level protuberances right near the steps; if you were rich, you had two.
Streets in Bruges were often curved, but that, too, was practical. If an invader made it beyond their multiple levels of walls and rivers, they could be ambushed around a corner. The massive bell tower reflected the importance of the church, yet was functional, too. The bells rang the hours, but also let heralds announce the news of the day or a change in laws. Eventually, they added carillons to ring musical phrases as well, including the occasional “God Bless America” to honor the Americans who liberated the town in WWII.
The town is full of narrow streets, gates, and bridges. Statues of the Madonna puncutate a number of street corners and building faces, just as gargoyles do in London. The Madonnas have colorful names–the Coca-Cola Madonna (the one near the Coke sign) or the Madonna of the Restless Child. There were at one point 75 convents in town, or at least 75 places where women abjured the society of men–early feminists? You pass constant doorways, and some of them open into marvelous courtyards. Boris tells us that from above, Bruges is 60% green with gardens, though many hide to conserve their beauty. Ultimately, that seemed the way conservative came across to me: Bruges is a place which conserves its history carefully.
One other part of Belgian history is the development of jaw-droppingly marvelous chocolate. We visited a small museum to watch a demonstration of how chocolate is transformed from raw pod to finished candies. Twenty different types of beans; five key ingredients. Surely, chocolate deserves its own separate blog, so I will just say that I certainly found it ironic that the mixes we tasted were of beans from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Vietnam, all farflung places that Henry the Navigator might have visited.
There are rules in Belgium of what can be called Belgian chocolate: it must include cocoa powder. If it has palm oil, said Boris, it probably wasn’t made in Belgium. Plus, just as “lite” can be plopped on a label aimed at dieters but mean absolutely nothing healthy, so can confections get away with being called “chocolate fantasy” when they have little to no chocolate.
What was clear was that a little milk added to 45% Venezuelan dark beans would make your eyes roll back in your head. And that the store with the cute little painted flower chocolates had nothing over the store where the sample was so smooth that you had to grab the counter to keep from swooning. Where the white-haired gentleman on the other side met your eyes and simply nodded, in smug satisfaction. While you started gathering purchases and wondering exactly how much room there was in the suitcase.
Because, no, of course not. There is no such thing as too much chocolate.