Guitars are everywhere on Terceira, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores.
In the town square of Angra do Herosismo, a temporary stage hosts guitarists nearly every night during the Christmas season. At the Taberna do Fado up the hill, waiters and bartenders make sure everybody is well served when they shut the front door and play guitar-accompanied, soul-baring songs that don’t require you to know Portuguese.
Even in a roadside cafe on the far-western sea coast, where men drink away their Sunday afternoons while their wives are down the road in church, a guitar sits ready in the corner.
Having just climbed down a nearby mountain, I am drinking coffee at the cafe and longing to play the guitar.
But my hands are swollen from the barbed vegetation I hung onto along the way. At the top, I had been enveloped in thick fog, and if you can’t see the sea, you don’t know in what direction you’re headed. Panic set in. After I descended via a creek bed with 60 percent inclines, the fog lifted, and I had to catch my breath. I was in a greener-than-green cow pasture lined with stone fences, the ocean far below, with waves crashing up against dramatic cliffs.
The volcanic scenery suggests Ireland on acid. The congenial atmosphere suggests the hometown I always wished I’d had. Despite waiting outside the roadside cafe, I felt the bus back to Angra was not showing up, so I hitchhiked, and in minutes, a car full of twentysomethings stopped. Yes, they were going my way. “But we’re stopping off at a cheese factory. Want to come?” Sure!
Where has this island been all my life? Was I really here?
A routine email that had sailed into my in-box from something called Azores Getaways announced round-trip airfare from Boston and a weeklong hotel stay on Terceira — one of the three largest islands —for $658. Great. But not even my bank knew what the Azores were when I arranged for my cards to work there. The islands are part of Portugal, more than 700 miles southwest of Lisbon, the capital.
Some of the Azores are so far apart each island has its own identity. The main destinations are Terceira and Sâo Miguel, separated by a six-hour seasonal ferry ride. Commuter airlines are expensive. Some guide books have top 10 lists of sights in the Azores — as though you could hire a helicopter for the 300 nautical miles and tailor the experience to your interests. So you take what each island gives you.
The Azores have idiosyncratic habitation. No squirrels, but giant jack rabbits, which seem to levitate when they run. The people are mostly 19th-century size. I’m only 5-foot-5, but I was taller than most. (Nice for a change.)
Underwater pyramids discovered in the islands have created speculation — and Photoshopped images — that the Azores are what is left of the lost continent of Atlantis. Let’s not go there, except to say that the idea of a large land mass being swallowed up by the sea is plausible to those who lived through the 1980 earthquake that destroyed 80 percent of Terceira. Many families were so ruined they emigrated to North America. Some raised children and moved back. That was the story with my English-speaking friends at the cheese factory. Now, the 150-square-mile island has a population of 58,000.
Guitars became the undercurrent of my week. In the Azores, they distinctively have a pair of heart-shaped resonance holes and elaborate designs embedded in their surfaces. The world is full of 12-string guitars. But 15 strings?
I heard one in the village square one night, with rich bass tones thanks to three strings where typical guitars have only one. Called violaos, they’re created by the island’s last guitar-maker, a fellow named Antonio, who, folks say, looks at a tree and sees the guitar he could make from it.
But how to find him? Go to the coastal village of Santa Barbara and ask around at the restaurants. I don’t speak Portuguese, so that seemed like a lost cause. But that glimpsed 15-string instrument became, in my mind, the Moby-Dick of guitars. I would find it eventually, though that’s not why I was there. Thanks to the gulf stream, early December was a perfectly nice hiking month, with weather in the 60s.
After arriving, I walked down from Angra’s foggy village square to see what I’d gotten myself into. Passing cars on the cobblestone streets create a gentle rumble. Sidewalks are decorated with geometric designs. At the street’s end, there was the Atlantic Ocean.
Up the mountain was Forte Sâo Sebastiao, built shortly after Spain took over the island in the 1580s. (Do not say “Gracias” anywhere; the Spanish are still discussed disparagingly.) The fort is a fascinating, walled compound with a stray cat colony and a sizable crater where you dare not go because that’s where the still-extant Portuguese Army holds target practice.
Next day, an all-day bus tour was crucial. Algar do Carvao, an extinct volcano, was discovered only in recent years when farm animals were falling through a hole and into the volcano. Now, people can climb in and explore — but only during a narrow afternoon window of time. Finding it on your own is possible but not easy. The tour also went to wineries and seafood restaurants — places this vegetarian non-drinker didn’t care much about. Some cheese was like watered-down yogurt, though the factory I visited, Queijo Vaquinha, had far heartier cheese, no doubt from the cows I passed on any number of hiking trails.
During an all-day rain, I took a street bus out to the southeast edge of the island on a day when the waves were easily 20 feet. “This is nothing,” said the bus driver. Cliffs jutted out into ocean looking like the true end of the earth. Too dangerous to be accessible? No. Virtually every cliff had a trail that led as far you could go without falling in. One ruined fort after another — the island is said to have 30 — overlooked the sea. At times, the wind was so intense I could hardly hold my camera. My maps were in tatters. My boots and raincoat were covered in red mud. I loved it.
Another day, I found myself in the Angra do Heroismo Museum, in what used to be the Convento of Sâo Francisco, which dates from 1525 — a particularly grand and harmonious meeting of about every church architecture trope on the island, including blue-and-white porcelain murals and an increasing concentration of gold the closer you get to the tabernacle. Organ music was playing on what was clearly a restored instrument with a clear focused tone and an authoritative, decisive mind behind it.
That turned out to be a Dutch fellow named Gustaaf van Manen, who had come to Terceira partly to found a conservatory. I struck up a conversation and asked him about Antonio the guitar-maker. He knew of him and, importantly, spoke Portuguese. So we gassed up his car and headed for the coast. Tavern visits yielded little. By chance, we ran into the parish priest, who pointed us straight to Antonio’s workshop. But Antonio wasn’t home.
A few days later, Gustaaf made some phone calls, somehow tracked him down, and made a date for that night. “Antonio really does exist!” I thought. But the guitar gods didn’t make it easy. In the darkness, we couldn’t find his house. But I had a photo of his front door, so we correctly identified it by the Christmas wreath.
His full name is Antonio Mota, and he learned guitar-making from his grandfather. Antonio was no fossil but a vibrant 38-year-old who makes six or seven guitars a year, plus elaborate birdhouses to sell to tourists. Some of Mota’s decorative guitars go for $1,000; less fancy versions are half that. The finger boards are surprisingly short. Why is that? “I don’t know,” he said. “But it is a fact.”
Antonio quietly declined to play. (I learned he had lost a finger during Angra’s summer bullfighting season. His job was to attach blunt metal tips to the bulls' horns to make them less dangerous, but an animal bucked and smashed his finger against a wall.) So to demonstrate his violao, he called over a neighbor, Jerry Sousa, an exceptional guitarist. Every tone was bolstered by multiple strings with a fuller sound you’d never expect from a medium-size guitar.
Was anything on Terceira what I expected? At Taberna do Fado, lead vocalist Fabio Ourique was among the best fado singers I’ve ever heard.
Is there something in the water here?
From Philadelphia, flights to the Azores seem a connection nightmare. However, traveling from Newark and JFK can mean only one transfer in Europe for a short flight to one of the islands.
General information: visitazores.com/en
David Patrick Stearns is a retired Inquirer classical music critic. Contact him at Davidpatrickstearns@yahoo.com