“Run, young lady! You shouldn’t be there!” a voice screamed behind me. I didn’t understand; I had no idea why the crowd had gathered in one spot in between jagged streets at the hour of twilight. Suddenly two legions ran in opposite directions, as if escaping from an explosion. I instinctively followed. It was then that I spotted a giant black bull on a loose rope.
I climbed out of harm’s way onto a wall, feeling frankly more intimidated by the concerned looks of the men running with the bull than the bull itself, so distressed were they at seeing a woman tossed into the middle of the action. This was ‘Tourada a Corda’, a tradition exclusive to the Azores, and particularly practised on Terceira. Bulls are set running down the street, held on a rope by two groups of five strong men each.
It’s an ancient tradition that dates back to the Spanish invasion, when the people of Angra do Heroismo scared the invaders away by setting angry bulls upon them. It’s not a spectacle widely shared with tourists, as the place and time for each bull run is passed by word of mouth between locals. Most chose to stay safely behind improvised barricades watching the event with beer and bifana (Portuguese pork sandwiches).
There is one universal rule: the bull cannot be physically harmed (and nor should the men who run with it). Unlike Spanish bullfights, the bull is not killed after the event: rather, it is kept in the best possible physical shape and well-rested for future runs. The Tourada a Corda is an adrenaline-driven sport to test behavioural skills. Whether you consider it humane or not, it is one of the most ancient traditions of this historic island group and was a real introduction to the true Azores.
Even as my partner, Paul, and I made safe landfall at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island last summer, after logging some 1,100 miles from southern Portugal – mostly against westerly winds – we knew we wouldn’t be staying there long. We wanted to explore further into the nine islands that make up the archipelago. Around 90% of visitors to the Azores stop at the main island of São Miguel, while Horta is more convenient for sailors seeking rest en route from the Caribbean or US. Much of the island group is largely unspoilt.
Paul had crossed the Atlantic many times before I met him, both the north and south, including co-skippering expedition yachts in Antarctica and taking part in three ARC rallies. I spent years working with sled dogs in the Arctic wilderness and never imagined I’d become a sailor until I found myself sailing with Paul on his 15m expedition sloop Malaika from Gdansk, in the Baltic Sea, to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
I fell in love with offshore sailing and we’ve since spent three summers cruising the Azores, and sailed the tricky Atlantic waters between the islands and Europe six times. Arriving at the islands by sea is like voyaging into Middle Earth. After a long Atlantic passage, which can be rather monotonous, you make landfall on islands that are pulsating with vibrant life. Theirs is a completely different form of beauty, the woods seem full of mysteries, myths and folklore: it’s often believed the islands are the peaks of the mountains of a submerged Atlantis.
Cruising between the islands is a rewarding experience. Distances are small, the scenery is varied and each island has its own distinct personality. The pilot book Atlantic Islands by Anne Hammick was our best friend, along with routing and meteo application Squid.
‘Arriving at the islands is like voyaging to Middle Earth
Sailing between the islands’ high cliffs and mountains brings very unstable and unpredictable winds, together with fogs, showers and local currents. There are few reliable spots to drop anchor, and the area’s unpredictable weather means you cannot leave a boat at anchor unattended for longer stays. Marinas are, however, very friendly and well organised.
After leaving the capital on São Miguel we sailed the 100 miles north-west to the island of Terceira, home of the bull run. Leaving Malaika in Marina Angra do Heroismo we headed inland to Algar do Carvão, one of only two volcanoes on earth that can be explored inside by foot. This one is thick with lush vegetation and filled with the background sounds of dripping water as rain seeps down the ancient lava tube.
The verdant hues all across the Azores are an intense, oversaturated green. However, the ocean is a deep slate blue by daylight, the shoreline marked by dark volcanic sands. Those who seek a paradise of pristine beaches under sunny skies will be disappointed. There can be endless days of foggy drizzle – not even rain, but a seeping damp that gets in everywhere. The weather is changeable but, where there’s rain and sun simultaneously, there are many rainbows.
‘Horta is a portfull of original personalities’
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