Sao Jorge Sojourn

by Mike Geniella
(Mendocino County, California, US)

Picture from Sao Jorge

Picture from Sao Jorge

SAO JORGE - It’s a warm and gray morning. A blanket of clouds covers the Azores, casting a blue-gray shadow across the Atlantic.

Some clouds creep slowly across the flanks of the towering volcano on the nearby island of Pico. A few appear anchored to the mountain’s peak. Clouds partially obscure the coastline of Faial, the other nearby island visible from the front porch of my cousin Paula’s holiday house near the village of Urzelina on the coast of Sao Jorge island.

My desk this morning is an old lava grist wheel placed horizontally on a steel post at the porch’s edge. The laptop’s clock is based on California time, and shows 1:45 a.m. But my mind and body after 10 days know it’s seven hours later here in the Azores, a nine-island archipelago 900 miles off the coast of Portugal.

What I write this morning comes haltingly, my thoughts as uncertain as the day about to unfold. It is the eve of our final weekend in this timeless place.

The past is everywhere. My grandfather’s family has lived on Sao Jorge since the 1500s. Our ancestors were among the “First Settlers,” a hardy group of Portuguese and Flemish people who carved out new lives on a cluster of previously unpopulated islands.

The settlers built houses from lava stones, and cleared land to grow yams, grapes, wheat and potatoes in a temperate maritime climate. On Sao Jorge, the earliest settlers harvested native plants for dyes to be used in Flemish tapestries. Over time the settlers experimented with a variety of agricultural pursuits until largely settling on producing milk from dairy cows to make a tangy Sao Jorge cheese that is now the dominant export.

Airports and greatly improved harbors in the last 50 years have ended centuries of isolation for the Azores, a self-governing island group under the Portuguese flag.

Still the islands remain rooted in their traditions, and a culture linked to the Portuguese mainland but uniquely its own.
Change comes slow. A fledgling eco-tourist movement focusing on spectacular hiking trails, whale and porpoise watching, and underwater exploration in the deep Atlantic is stalled by global economic uncertainty. The visitor count is off 15 percent this year, according to recent government figures.

Those who come discover what Azoreans have always cherished – quaint towns, incredibly beautiful landscapes, and dramatic coastlines caressed by the deep blue Atlantic. National Geographic magazine two years ago ranked the Azores the second most unblemished chain of islands in the world.

Sons Luke and Sam this year joined me for a return visit, and since late June we’ve roamed familiar places on Sao Jorge we saw on our first visit last year. We are awed now as then.

At dusk Thursday we drove down a narrow dirt road to the very northern tip of Sao Jorge and an abandoned lighthouse at Ponta dos Rosais. The road slices through lush pastureland crisscrossed by miles of lava stone walls and hedges of blooming blue and white hydrangeas. The pastoral beauty is overwhelming. Besides the occasional herd of dairy cows it is all ours.

At Ponta dos Rosais, the island narrows into a ragged point resembling an arrow head. A sweeping view of the Atlantic underscores how Sao Jorge and the other islands are lonely volcanic outposts, the last between here and the North American continent.

A narrow band of light from the setting sun glistens on the horizon, and separates the calm ocean surface from dark, brooding clouds gathering above. Unexpectedly a golden shaft of light breaks through the cloud cover, illuminating a small patch of the ocean surface. It is truly one of nature’s great moments.
On our return drive to the port town of Velas, we marvel at the island’s beauty, its warm and welcoming people and a pace of life we find so appealing.

Mendocino County is my home, but I’m more aware then ever of the strong pull my Sao Jorge heritage has on my soul. I’m at peace here in ways that are difficult to explain.

We’re still five days from departure but those mysterious feelings the Portuguese call “saudade” are stirring. Saudade is something described as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist…a turning towards the past or towards the future.”
My grandfather left this island for America more than a century ago, and he never returned. My father was a native Californian. So am I. My wife Terese and our sons too.

Still, I ask: How can I feel such longing for a life I’ve never lived?

Rob's Reply

Thank you for that wonderful note! Beautifully written. You truly understand the Azores experience.

Please write again any time you like
Rob Belchior

Comments for Sao Jorge Sojourn

Average Rating starstarstarstarstar

Click here to add your own comments

Apr 25, 2013
by: Mike Geniella

Moved to see your comments after a passing of time. We return to Sao Jorge in June!

Apr 25, 2013
We are Azoreans
by: George

I became very emotional reading your feelings of the island. My great grandather emigrated from Sao Miguel to Hawaii in the late 1800's. For several years now I have had a yearning to make a trip to the Azores. There is a strong pull to do so and if all goes well I will do so sometime the latter part of the year.

I do not speak Portuguese nor understand the language,yet when you mentioned Saudade," a turning point towards the past or towards the future...." my emotions surfaced sufficient to bring tears to my eyes.

Your words...." How can I feel such longing for a life I never had?" You felt it then. I feel it now. All within the realm of possibility for we are Azoreans.

Thank you so much for your post.

Feb 04, 2011
by: Lucio

I am from the Azores (Terceira) live in Taunton Ma for 30 years. Last time i went back was 15 yearsd ago.
I have tears in my eyes reading what you wrote.
I was with you as you were descibing your trip.
I will bring my children to the Azores so they can see how beatiful they are and what a brag aboout to them.
simply WOW!
thank you,
e parabens

Dec 12, 2010
Beautiful Island
by: Pat Belchior

Your comments on the island of Sao Jorge bring back many pleasant memories. It has been years since my husband and I visited the island. The people were very friendly and welcoming. We stayed in the town of Velas but traveled country roads. Thank you for the wonderful words you have written. If you have more pictures to share with Rob, I would love to see them. I am not Portuguese but I fell in love with the islands when we first visited in 1988. We travel to the Azores every year and always find something new.

Sep 13, 2010
More Pictures please!
by: Rob B

Hi Mike
If you would like to post more pictures, we'd love to see them. Might I recommend doing so here:


Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Share your Azores Islands Experience.

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Azores Islands Vacations