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Ponta Delgada – Azores

Ponta Delgada is the capital town of the island of Sao Miguel, the largest of the 9 Azorean islands. Discovered and claimed in the 15th Century by Portugese mariners and explorers, the islands have never been fought over or changed hands, and have enjoyed a peaceful history. The main employments are dairy farming, government admin (including hospitals and teaching), and fishing. Tourism comes fourth.

However…..

However, our cruise visited on the day of the “Festa do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres”.

This is the second biggest religious festival in “Portugal”, the other being on the mainland; our guide explained the population of Ponta Delgado would “triplicate” for the day, with people coming from all over the island to watch the festival. This consists of the parading through the streets of a Statue of Christ of the Miracles, from the convent where it is usually kept, in a procession that can apparently last up to 5 hours.

On Saturday, we had a special Captain’s Announcement, in which he very much regretted that, despite it being this major Festival Day, he would need to stick to the “back on board” time of 5pm, as any delay might make us late back into Southampton in 4 days’ time. This becomes important later on.

In the morning of our visit, we were whisked away from town in a coach for a tour of some of the more standard, “anytime” tourist sights around the island – a beautiful Botanical Garden, once a private Merchant’s Garden and now belonging to the town; a Pineapple Farm (sadly no samples); and a drive out to view the Volcanic Lakes.

When we returned about 1.30pm and walked up into the town, there was very little evidence that anything special was happening in town today – except, along the centre of what was evidently a major road through town, there was a carpet of decoration. Anyone who has seen Derbyshire Well-dressing will understand the way the picture or pattern is put together – in this case, heaps, dots or streaks of coloured wood-shavings or in some cases flower heads, on a border of evergreen needles or laurel leaves. The pattern changes every fifty yards or so, presumably as different people or groups had been responsible for decorating it their own way, but the width was as consistent as if it had all been done at once. This carpet we followed along the street for about half a mile to the Square, from outside which we had been led to believe the Procession might start. Balconies were decorated, flowers hung everywhere, all shops firmly closed.

Reaching the Square, oh look, a handy bar - open ! with nice outside tables……and beer……A few people had already sat down on the church steps, but the due time was still 2 hours off, so we settled to a beer (and some free wi-fi) first.

With about an hour to go, we left the bar and found ourselves a spot on the steps, which had now filled up considerably. The hour passed amazingly quickly, watching what I think is called the “milling throng”, and the Scouts selling boxes to fold up and sit on, and bottled water. The Church remained firmly closed, although its bell tolled merrily, and it became clear that the Procession was not starting from here, but was to pass by along the road.

Finally, finally, in the distance was heard the expected sound, and the body language of those in that direction was alerted. It was now about 4.10pm. The head of the Procession came in sight – a large red banner, then a long Procession of men all wearing bright red tabards or waistcoats, walking 3 or 4 abreast along the carpet of flowers.

Now, we realised two things. One was that we had failed to do some basic arithmetic.

I said that the Procession is reputed to take up to 5 hours. Ponta Delgada is an attractive little town, with the emphasis on the “little”. The entire route of the Procession is carpeted with flowers, so is not going to be very lengthy. It is probably in fact not much more than 2 miles. Divide the distance by the time taken and you will reach an approximate speed….very, very slow. And we had assumed a brief passage of a Statue and half a dozen dignitaries, not a mile-long snake of shuffling attendants.

I said the Red Tabard men were walking – well, they were – slowly, The head of the Procession having come abreast of us, in front of the Church, it stopped, with the tail of Red Tabards disappearing round the corner. After a pause of 5 minutes or so, they moved on…..about 100 yards, then came to a stop again. Again they went on and a band appeared round the corner, playing merrily but still moving at a snail’s pace….we looked at our watches – and this was when we realised we had committed a strategic error.

It was now 4.30pm. The ship is under 15 minutes’ walk away – and we are due back by 5pm. Problem? Between us and the sea-front route to the ship lies a Procession of which we can now see neither the beginning nor the end, and a route lined on both sides at least 3 or 4 deep by shoulder-to-shoulder spectators……

We tried going along a side road and back road, to try and cut across the end of the procession, but this took us 5 minutes the wrong way, and when we re-joined the route, the end of the procession was still not in sight and the crowd was even thicker, it was even more difficult to find a way through. In the end we backtracked to our original Square, and choosing a moment when the line of Red Tabards was just re-starting and had left a small gap in the ranks, we had to “dodge” through and dive hastily down a side street on the other side of the road, apologising to anyone in earshot as we passed. Then it was hot-foot to the quayside, and finally the queue of about 50 others at the gangway who had obviously also been caught up similarly. My card was checked back in again at 4.58pm. Phew ! And the ship did indeed leave at 5.15pm, with the town bells ringing merrily behind us.

It is a shame that we could not have stayed even one extra hour to see the whole procession, including the Statue, the point of the Festival, go by – but I am sure that, reunited with Youtube, we can see what that was like. And we did have the experience of “being there”, brief but unique as it was.

We sat for a long time back on board watching the coastline of Sao Miguel as we sailed round the south-eastern side of the Island, and then north-east towards Home.



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