Vila Franca is born.
Founded in the mid-15th century, the peaceful town of Vila Franca do Campo sits on the south coast of Sao Miguel. With it’s relatively sheltered harbour and central location, Vila quickly became the island’s main sea trading port – and the seat of government when Rui Goncalves da Camara became Sao Miguel’s governing Donatary Captain in 1474. Rui was the second son of Joao Goncalves Zarco – one of the Infante Henrique’s fleet commanders who first settled the islands of Porto Santo and Madeira.
Vila’s location was ideal for expansion – the naturally-protected harbour was easy to locate, thanks to the distinctive Ilheu de Vila Franca: an extinct volcano just offshore, which acted as a easily identifiable navigational landmark for trade ships. Also, Vila was situated on a relatively flat coastal plain which would allow easy expansion to the west, and a readily available supply of fresh water was close by, courtesy of the Ribeira de Agua de Alto and the Ribeira Seca.
However, the quality of the building materials and techniques used by the early settlers was severely lacking. Lime was non-existent on the island, and only the wealthiest households could afford to import mortar (from Porto Santo, a 1000km away). Most buildings were constructed using drystone methods with double-faced, thick walls packed with gravel. The tough basaltic rock was almost impossible to work with the rudimentary tools available to the settlers at the time. The majority of found-stone was rounded and couldn’t be squared, compromising the strength of the masonry. Local clay was also in short supply – again, only the richest settlers and the church could afford tiled floors and tiled roofs, leaving the majority of the buildings roofed with wheat thatch.
Subversao de Vila Franca.
Despite these limitations, Vila flourished as a trading community with no inkling of the tragedy which was to befall the town. In the early hours of 22nd October 1522, a devastating earthquake destroyed Vila utterly – collapsing buildings and burying the town and harbour under a pyroclastic landslide. The only contemporary account this tragic event is called ‘O romance de Vila Franca’ – written by Azorean priest and historian Gaspar Frutuoso.
Born in the year of the earthquake itself (in Ponta Delgada), Frutuoso was an Azorean priest, historian and the writer of the Saudades da Terra: a six volume encyclopedia recording the history, geography, genealogy and day-to-day life of the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde islands in the 16th century. For reasons unknown, he wasn’t able to publish the Saudades da Terra during his lifetime and the manuscript remained in storage in Ponta Delgada for almost three-hundred years before it’s publication in the late 1800s. It’s now considered one of Portugal’s most-important historical documents. As priest, Frutuoso’s church was Nossa Senhora da Estrela in the north coast town of Ribeira Grande – his final resting place following his death in 1591. A statue at the foot of the church’s steps now commemorates his life and work.
In O romance de Vila Franca, Frutuoso describes nightfall on 21st October as being calm and clear: ‘…Era uma quarta-feira…Quarta-feira triste dia…a em a noite mais serena, nada d’ele se sentia…não corre bafo de vento…estrelado estava o céu…nuvem não o escurecia…’.
‘… It was a Wednesday…Wednesday sad day…in the most serene night, nothing of it was felt…no breath of wind…starry was the sky…cloud did not darken it…’.
The calm would be short-lived – at around two o’clock in the morning, ‘… a huge and frightening earthquake was felt throughout the island…in which it seemed that the elements, fire, air and water fought in the centre of it.. like the waves of a furious sea, appearing to all the inhabitants of the island…which turned it’s centre upwards and the sky fell…during the dawn and until noon on the fateful 22nd of October, the replies were many and hard…’.
Recent geological studies place the epicentre of the earthquake North/Northeast of Vila Franca, close to modern-day Monte Escuro. It’s also estimated that the maximum intensity of the quake was an X on the Macroseismic Scale – ‘X’ is defined as ‘Very Destructive – most current constructions and buildings collapse completely’, with only ‘XI – Devastating’ and ‘XII – Completely Devastating’ higher on the scale.
As the initial quake subsided, and unbeknownst to the residents of Vila Franca, an immense landslide had been triggered. Deposits in and around modern-day Vila Franca indicate that the debris originated close to the source of the Ribeira da Mãe d’Água, where heavy rains in the preceding days had softened the low-density, pyroclastic deposits that formed the peak of Monte Rabacal (close to present-day Pico da Cruz). Rabacal collapsed completely, sending an estimated 6.75 million cubic meters water-saturated debris down the Mae d’Agua river valley at a speed of three metres per second, reaching the centre of Vila Franca in a matter of minutes: ‘…from the stream to the east…everything was devastated and the residents were all almost dead…some houses escaped, most of them collapsed…where up to 70 people were left alive… calling for God and others for the blessed Virgin Mary…’.
The consequences were tragic: it’s estimated that up to 5,000 people were killed in the town alone, buried under a thick layer of pumice or dragged into the sea by the landslide. The mud mass buried the port and entered the sea, generating a tsunami which destroyed the ships which were at anchor at the Ilheu, drowning the crews and passengers awaiting passage to Lisbon.
‘…there were four or five ships in the port, sheltered on the islet to leave for Portugal, which caused more people to die…where people gathered from all over the island to make that voyage…and when it was already daylight…some people who lived in the mountains and on the farms and those who remained alive in the outskirts…all astonished by the great tremors and roars they heard…and seeing the village in the state it was in, they were amazed…
‘…Many people from all over the island who had their homes there, relatives, friends and acquaintances sent each one to dig wherever they liked…some to remove the bodies of the dead, others to see if they could find money and implements they had in their homes, others to do the same to the bodies and possessions of their relatives and acquaintances…and so they dug up in many parts of the village, and some found dead in the streets and others in their houses and beds, among which they found some alive…
‘…In one tragic night, many lives were ended and everything became covered…of which no noble had houses, nor high buildings, nor sumptuous temples, nor nobles or simple people throughout the morning appeared…becoming everything flat and ground, without a sign or sight of where the town had been.…’.
The tragedy had a profound effect on the social and geographic development of Sao Miguel. Initially out of necessity, the political and economic governance of the island shifted along the coast to Ponta Delgada, which suffered far less damage during the earthquake. As it became apparent that the damage to Vila Franca was so extensive, the relocation of power became permanent and Ponta Delgada was officially elevated to City status in 1546. It would be another three hundred and seventy years before Ponta Delgada officially became the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores in 1976.
The ‘Subversao de Vila Franca’, as the earthquake became known, is one of Portugal’s worst natural disasters, second only to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. 22nd October 2022 will be the 500th anniversary – the day is to be marked with a series of seminars in Vila Franca on natural disasters in history through the lens of natural sciences, evidence of catastrophic events in the archaeologic record, and the impact of natural disasters on social, economic and political dynamics.
We specialise in tailor-made holidays to the nine islands of the Azores. Our experienced team of specialists are ready to put together your personalised trip; just give them a call on 017687 721020.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing,
This is a long email, so you might want to go grab yourself a cuppa before you start reading.
We just wanted to send you an email to say thank you so much for everything.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing, it was far beyond our dreams and expectations, and that is certainly because of you and all your plans in putting this together for us. We just loved every second (apart from me and canyoning, we do not get along, but the boys absolutely loved it!) we just can’t believe all the things that we have seen, and done, and learned about! What an incredible place!
We have certainly been bitten by the Azorean bug and we can’t wait to get back there to explore the other islands. They’re very special places, each of them for their own right.
We felt as though we were treated like royalty from the minute we arrived in Sao Miguel, even the weather was kind to us (largely) we seemed to miss the adverse weather, either arriving somewhere that had had storms the day before, or leaving just before they arrived. We did have one morning of heavy rain when we went to the tropical gardens at Furnas, but we did manage to see some of the gardens before we gave up and went back to Caloura, where there was glorious sunshine, so we spent the afternoon at the pool and made the most of the Especial and fresh lemonade from the snack bar.
Every single person that we met, we were struck by how hard they work, and how happy they all are. Many of them never leaving the island they were born on, because, why would they want to?!
We love the Azorean people and their love and pride for their islands. Their sustainable way of living also struck deep with us. It’s the way we try very hard to live ourselves. Dave’s business is retrofit insulation, preparing old housing stock to a better more eco friendly way of conserving energy, so the way they live and respect their land, was of great interest to us.
For us all, Flores is a very special place. We went to the restaurant maresia while we were there and met the owner and his son. Although the restaurant itself is eclectic to say the least, after chatting to Vincent, we understood his dads way of living and the food was outstanding! We can’t wait to visit again.
All of our guides were amazing! Their knowledge and passion is admirable.
We just loved every second and can’t thank you enough for making our trip so smooth and completely stress free.
I will spend today writing reviews online for all the companies and guides that helped us on our trip.
A million thanks to you all Jake.
The Cole family
Personal service and efficient!
You really listened to what type of holiday we wanted and tailored our week accordingly. You understood what we were looking for and were so helpful and knowledgeable. Very personal service and efficient!
Linda from Norfolk
Professional and personal service!
Everything you do, you seem to do it professionally. I know I’m not your only client, but you make me feel like I am.
Bryan from Stoke
Azores Choice provided a prompt, helpful service. they found us the perfect accommodation for our needs and provided superb, expert advice on how to spend our week walking on San Miguel. I would certainly use them again.
Joan from Durham
Recommended small travel company!
Great little company with friendly staff. Organisation of flights & accommodation very efficient. When problems arise they are helpful and very reasonable in their efforts to resolve them. We would definitely use them again for a return trip.
Really great! Would use again!
Very efficient, friendly, helpful. Excellent local knowledge. Everything ran very smoothly, from supplying the tickets to airport pick ups and hotel bookings. Lovely accommodation selected. No complaints!
A wonderful break in a beautiful environment!
Everything was excellent. The information and organisation, the hotel and the island itself all exceeded our expectations. Whale watching and other trips out, fantastic. We will book again!
Great honeymoon package and experience!
They provided a great package at a good price. We found them to be helpful and a quality service was provided.
Nicola and Christopher – Winchester
Top notch service. Highly recommended!
Excellent service throughout. Very informative, with lots of literature, maps and the like. Attended their offices in Ponta Delgada – very impressed with Olivia, friendly and helpful. Paul was first class.
Lynne in Welton-by-Lincoln
Great company for first time Azores visit!
Really great company, will be recommending them. We had never visited the Azores before but this company helped us decided which islands to visit.