Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Azorean society has been shaped by emigration. Generations have left the mid-Atlantic islands, motivated by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and poverty to seek new lives on the European mainland or in the Americas. Paul Scraton reports from an archipelago that is not quite Europe.

article summary —

From the village of Ribeirinha, tucked away beside a stream in a fold in the land, the road crosses a narrow bridge before heading up into the forest. Tarmac soon gives way to volcanic gravel, rutted and strewn with the debris of recent storms. At the crest of the hill the track emerges from the trees and the view opens out: the last fields of Faial island, a patchwork of deep green divided by black stone walls and dotted with cows. Beyond the headland, white crests on distant waves break the surface of the Atlantic between Faial and neighbouring islands. São Jorge is away to the north-east, and Pico is just visible in the clouds off to the east. At the centre of the scene is a dramatic ruin, the fractured shell of a lighthouse — the Farol da Ribeirinha.

Apart from a farmer forking hay from the back of his tractor and his collection of cows, we have the headland with its ruined lighthouse all to ourselves. The Farol da Ribeirinha is hollowed out and patched up, with fragile-looking walls that attest to earthquake damage. The lighthouse has that haunting beauty of abandoned buildings the world over, but it speaks to the specific story of these islands — in particular the tectonic circumstances which created the Azores archipelago and have shaped life here since the first settlers arrived in the fifteenth century.

It was July 1998, almost eighty years after the light house was commissioned, that the earthquake struck. The epicentre was just a few miles offshore. Along with the lighthouse, the church in Ri beirinha was damaged beyond repair, and many other churches, houses and farm buildings across the north of Faial were destroyed. Ten people died and a hundred were injured, with nearly 3,000 left homeless. Across the island as a whole, a third of all buildings suffered some kind of damage.

Loss and resilience

The legacy remains. We follow the road from Ribeirinha across the north of Faial, wending our way through Salão to Cedros and beyond. In each village, the effects of the earthquake are still evident. There are ruins a plenty, but evidence too of the massive rebuilding job that followed the earth quake. All the bridges crossing myriad streams running north from the island’s mountainous interior down to the coast are marked with their date of construction: 1999.

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Paul Scraton was born in Lancashire and has lived in Berlin since 2001. A writer with a particular interest in landscape, memory and place, he is the editor-in-chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. He is the author of a number of books including The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin (Readux, 2015) and Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany's Baltic coast (Influx, 2017). His debut novel Built on Sand was published by Influx in 2019. Find out more about Paul on his website.

This article was published in hidden europe 66.