To write about home in a travel blog feels misplaced. I have written about Lisbon before, but I’ve always considered Lisbon more of a base – a homey base, perhaps? – than a home. Home is the Azores – Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo, the places I grew up in. Let me dwell on Ponta Delgada for a bit.
In Ponta Delgada, life comes in low tides. Most of the people who live and work in the city have grown familiar to the faces they see everyday. If they don’t know someone, they know someone who does.
I didn’t write the city’s life came in low tides just for poetic effect. The elements have played a huge role in shaping the character of the city and the island; in many ways, they still do. Earthquakes and volcanoes have shaped the Azores and the Azoreans. Ponta Delgada is a small city – you can walk it end to end in roughly one hour. The city centre gets deserted after 8 pm for most of the year. And let’s be frank, the weather doesn’t really help, for the most part. You might get beautiful, happy days of sun and warmth, but they will be the exception to a rule of greyish white skies and the ever-constant drizzle.
For long, Ponta Delgada used to be a departure point of ideas, people and goods. That trend started long ago; I’m not sure it ever stopped. It would be difficult to imagine any other fate for a group of islands lost in mid-Atlantic and for from anything else. Mass emigration waves, produce exports and cultural output were repeatedly over the years shipped somewhere else. At first sight, then, you might think that Ponta Delgada is a small dull city with not that much to offer at all and where nothing really happens.
You’d be wrong. Beneath that vanishing surface, Ponta Delgada is waking up. It’s true that the city has for long been asleep. But despite the isolation and the low tides, a discreet cultural transformation has been changing the face of the city for a decade or so. The rough character of the city has been taken over.
The faces of that transformation are expressed in events like the Walk&Talk Public Art Festival, happening each July since 2011, or Tremor music festival, happening around each Spring since 2014. Walk&Talk borrows from the lukewarm character of the island and gives it an unique centre of light and colour in the form of a month-long cultural injection; Tremor, named after one of Portuguese words for earthquake, undertakes the same mission but across soundwaves. In something that runs parallel to both events, local and international blend in seamlessly and give each other a renewed meaning. It’s not by accident that both Walk&Talk and Tremor have attracted international recognition from the likes of TimeOut, Billboard or Pitchfork.
W&T and Tremor, however, are just the forefront of something that runs much deeper than two events a year. It’s difficult to pinpoint where that revolution started. Perhaps Rotas, PDL Cafe and Arco 8? Unfortunately, PDL closed doors in 2011, but you can – and should – still go to Rotas and Arco 8. Rotas is the first, one of the very few and hands-down the best vegetarian place in Ponta Delgada. Arco 8 is, roughly, an art gallery-turned-bar at night.
Unlike other cities, however, the new blends in the old – Mané Cigano, which The Guardian described as a “salty, no-frills joint that serves mounds of spanking fried mackerel” has been around for generations, but in its new-found popularity it is as much the face of a renewed Ponta Delgada as places like A Tasca (a place usually as crowded as the wonderful dishes coming out of its kitchen) or, say, Cais da Sardinha. Quarteirão is a project aiming to materialise wishful-thinking – essentially, it confines a number of fashion designers, ateliers like Pele e Osso, impromptu art studios like Miolo and the numerous cafés, eateries, B&B and hostels in one thriving block right at the heart of the city.
The economy, as in most cases, helps explaining this surge. The Azores have undergone significant economic development since 1974, but particularly so over the past 20 years. If it is true Ponta Delgada always kept its simple, small, functional provincial city role, the city has long started showing signs of waking up – particularly as its best-educated generation ever started coming back from their studies abroad and others moved and settled in the city. That created on the part of those newly (re)arrived a need to stay in touch with the outside world. And, of course, the recent arrival of low-cost carriers to the Azores gave – and is still giving – the tourism sector an unprecedented boom. This will hopefully strip life in Ponta Delgada of its acute seasonal overtones: a lot of (sometimes simultaneous) activity in the summer and depressingly little to do in the winter.
But what gives Ponta Delgada its special touch – and justifies the title of this rather blabber-ish post – is the sense of purpose underlying it all. People know what they are doing, but more importantly they know why they are doing it. They – we? I’m an Azorean after all – wish they were there already. The new ateliers, bars, cafés, restaurants, festivals, you-name-it, they all have an acute sense of purpose that underlines them and unites them all. That makes them truly charismatic – and all the more beautiful because of that.