The islands seemed to rise straight up out of the ocean. It appeared through the tiny windows of the propeller plane like a long green dragon resting in the turbulent waters. Conical peaks were strung out along the central ridge and the cliffs seemed to fall vertically down into the Atlantic. We circled one end of the island to get the right angle for which to make the approach to land. In all the time we’d been flying above and around São Jorge we hadn’t seen a single flat patch of land. We can’t have been the first to sit in that plane and wonder where on earth they could have found the space to build a runway.
São Jorge is a long and slim island, unlike any of the others in the Azores archipelago. We had chosen it because it was said to be a little wilder than the others, where only eight thousand people lived and very few tourists ever visited. Especially not in December. But the plane was full as Christmas approached, with family members waiting by the single luggage belt in the small terminal building to pick up those who – judging by the bags under their eyes – had a lot of recent air miles logged to their accounts.
We would later discover that the plane was busy not only because of the holidays approaching, but also because the planes and the ferry had been disrupted for days due to high winds and high seas. These weather conditions would remain for the rest of our stay, leaving us stranded for a while and turning a five-day visit into nine as we explored the island in a continual shifting mix of bright sunshine and heavy showers, dense fog and powerful winds.
On that first day we travelled across the spine of the island to the north coast, where we had seen the cliffs fall into the water from the plane. But what we had also noticed from above were the little semi-circles of land at the bottom of some of the cliffs, each containing a collection of houses and perhaps a small lagoon or harbour, sitting hundreds of metres below the island plateau with its villages, fields and the roads that linked them.
For hundreds of years, these fajãs – as they are known – were accessible only by boat or the precarious switch-back paths that clung to the steep hillsides. Made from volcanic debris that had gathered at the foot of the cliffs, the fajãs were worth the efforts that were made to settle them, even though the winter seas would often leave them isolated from the rest of an already isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic.
The fajãs were settled because, thanks to their unique location and surroundings, they not only possessed extremely fertile soil but special microclimates that allowed for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, and even tropical crops like bananas and coffee. In good times, the fajãs and their crops brought some wealth to the island. In bad times, people climbed up the cliffs and travelled on, to America or Brazil, although always with a mind to return to their island home.
Today, some of the fajãs are linked to the rest of the island by an often steep but well-maintained road, and the houses look in good condition despite their location facing the elements of wind and salt water, and the fact that the little fields protected by dark volcanic walls have mostly been left fallow. Indeed, during our time on the island we saw very few people in the fajãs, and most of the houses were shuttered and closed up for the winter.
People on the island told us that most of the houses on the fajãs are still in local hands, but used more as weekend or holiday cottages, and occasionally rented out to tourists. We had gone to watch the waves roll in, high and wild after nights of storms, and aside from a couple of other wave-watchers, it felt like we were the only souls around.
On Christmas Day we drove across the island again, this time to the Fajã dos Cubres, where we parked by the lagoon and spent a while watching the birds that seemed to be the only other living species down there on Christmas morning. Our aim was the Fajã da Caldeira, popular with surfers in the summer months but accessible only by following a red dirt track along the bottom of the cliffs. No cars can drive there, but we saw the line-up of quad bikes at the end of the track that allowed locals to reach their houses without the four-kilometre walk we were about to undertake.
It was a strange feeling, to walk between the ocean and cliffs, feeling the sheer size and power of both as the track climbed and fell depending on the lay of the land. We passed through a small fajã that contained a single farmhouse that was in the process of being renovated, and tried to imagine what it was like to live there. It seemed impossible that people had made homes and livings in these surroundings, but they had, settling here so many thousands of miles from the place they’d originally called home.
Today their descendents now rent out their properties to adventurers of a different kind, coming to São Jorge for the swell and the surf, hiking the trails or heading out to spot the whales that would once have been hunted in these waters. In the summer they get brought to their lodgings on those quad bikes, their luggage and surfboards presumably strapped to the back. It was also hard to imagine.
We reached Fajã da Caldeira at the moment most people were sitting down for their Christmas lunch. If there was anyone in the village, they were keeping a low profile. We ate our sandwiches on the low wall of the churchyard, and looked out across the lagoon where clams are cultivated and gulls bobbed on wind-whipped waters. We felt a long way from anywhere, and anybody.
On the walk back, retracing our footsteps because that was where we’d left the car and the alternative was a muddy track up the cliffs on the other side of the village, we met a couple coming in the other direction. They were from São Miguel, the most populous island of the Azores, and had come here for the holiday.
‘Can I take your picture,’ the woman said, her English spoken with the American accent of many on the islands. ‘It’s just that, our kids thought we were crazy to come here today. To walk here. And I wanted to show them that we can’t be that crazy. That there are others who like it too!’
We posed for a picture with her suitably nonplussed husband, wished them a Merry Christmas, and then set off on our way. The fajãs of São Jorge are special places, unlike anywhere else we’ve seen or been to on our travels. And if you time it right, you can – near enough – have them all to yourself.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton