The Municipality of Vila do Porto, with a total surface area of 97.42 km2, is the only one existing in Santa Maria Island. Together with its neighbouring island of São Miguel, Santa Maria is part of the Oriental Group of the Azores Archipelago.
This archipelago lies in the Atlantic Ocean – between Europe and North America (760 nautical miles from Lisbon and 2,110 nautical miles from New York) – and it comprises as well the islands of Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Faial, Flores and Corvo.
Vila do Porto was the first Azorean settlement to be granted a town charter. This event occurred in the 15th century, shortly after the discovery of the island itself – somewhere between the years 1427 and 1432, the latter being usually regarded as the most likely. Its first inhabitants were Portuguese people from Algarve, Alentejo and Beiras, who made land here under command of Gonçalo Velho Cabral. In 1493, Christopher Columbus touched the island on his return trip from the Americas, and his crewmen attended Mass at the Chapel of Our Lady of Anjos, in fulfilment of a vow made at sea.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the economy of the island and of its municipality was largely based on the cultivation and trade of wheat, pastel and orchil, the former being exported to the Portuguese strongholds in North Africa and the two latter to the dyeing industries in Flanders.
In those two centuries, Vila do Porto and other places in the island were also frequently attacked by privateers and pirates who, despite the existing strongholds, managed to wreck bloody havoc, sacking and taking the islanders as slaves and hostages.
The 18th and 19th centuries passed along without much trouble, agriculture being the main occupation of Vila do Porto’s inhabitants – cultivating wheat, maize, vine and citrus fruits. This tranquility was only interrupted by the Civil War (1829-32), which opposed Absolutists and Liberals – some of the islanders participated in the Mindelo disembarkment and in the siege of Oporto, events which led to the defeat of the Absolutist party. In the early 20th century, more precisely in 1901, Vila do Porto hosted the royal visit of King Charles I of Portugal and Queen Amelia.
In the year 1908, while the monarchic regime was still in place in Portugal, the Republican party elected, in Vila do Porto, the first Azorean Municipality.
Santa Maria Airport, inaugurated in 1944, played an important strategic role in the final period of World War II, becoming thereafter a regular stopover for the transatlantic air routes and bringing a new dynamics to the economy of the Municipality.
Nowadays, and despite the strong decrease in the number of airport operations, Vila do Porto still hopes for a better future, mostly relying on the increasing investment in new technologies and communications.
The county of Vila do Porto offers a varied landscape, from a rather hilly area comprising the parishes of Santa Bárbara and Santo Espírito, to a much flatter one where the parishes of São Pedro, Almagreira and Vila do Porto itself are located.
Pico Alto constitutes its highest elevation, at 591 metres. Vila do Porto is the only municipality in the Azores whose soils include formations of sedimentary origin, where a considerable variety of fossils of molluscs and other species can be found.
The coast of the island is quite jagged, with several bays and small coves, some of them sheltering beautiful sand beaches – the most known being São Lourenço and Praia Formosa.
The county’s landscape is almost entirely explored by man, be it for agriculture or for cattle breeding purposes.
Around Picos, the hilly area right in the centre of the island, some endemic plant species can be found, such as the green heather (Erica azorica), the laurel (Laurus azorica), the mountain blueberry (Vaccinium cylindraceum) and the holly (Ilex azorica).
The climate is temperate maritime and known for being the driest and mildest of all the Azores. With short thermal amplitudes, average annual temperatures range between 12°C (54°F) in winter and 25°C (77°F) in summer.
The Municipality of Vila do Porto has its seat in the town of the same name and comprises five parishes: Vila do Porto itself, Almagreira, Santo Espírito, Santa Bárbara and São Pedro. According to the data gathered in the last population census (2011), the municipality records a total of 5,547 inhabitants, distributed as follows:
Vila do Porto (Matriz)
The county’s handicraft is particularly diverse. The abundance of clay turned the island into a land of potters and an important supplier of earthenware and other clay objects to the other islands of the Azores. Little by little, however, the art of pottery has been abandoned. Today, of this activity, only the memories of past times remain.
The island sheep provide the basic material from which warm sweaters and typical wool berets are made, all by hand. Colourful patchwork quilts and delicate linen clothes come regularly out of the island’s looms.
Skilful hands transform straw into typical hats and wicker into baskets of various shapes and sizes.
The activity of Santa Maria’s Handicraft Cooperative (Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria) is quite worth mentioning, as it spreads through several areas, namely baking, confectionery and weaving, strongly contributing to preserve ancestral traditions and customs.
Despite being no longer used in day to day life, the cloak and hood ensemble still constitutes the county’s most typical attire – it is mostly worn in folklore events and performances.
Only the wool cap made it through until today – a sort of cone-shaped beret, usually white and black or brown, topped by a puff. It was commonly used in the past by local farmers.
We definitely recommend our visitors to experience the richness of the local gastronomy, full of unique flavours mastered during centuries. Highlights are the “Sopas do Espírito Santo” (meat and bread soup), “Caldo de Nabos” (turnip broth with pork), “Bolo da Panela” (pork broth with flour cakes), “Caçoila” (stewed marinated beef), “Polvo Guisado em Vinho de Cheiro” (wine-stewed octopus) or the celebrated “Molhos” (large rice and pork sausages, sliced).
Confectionery in Sunny Island also appears to be a not-to-be-missed experience; names like “Bolinhos de Consoada”, “Melindres”, “Brindeirinhos”, “Biscoitos de Aguardente”, “Biscoitos Estalados”, “Tigelada”, “Biscoitos de Orelha” and the celebrated “Cavacas” refer to sweet delicacies you will certainly have to taste when visiting Santa Maria.
And to round up a perfect meal, nothing like our “Vinho de Cheiro”, also known as “Morangueiro” or “American Wine”. Other spirits to enjoy are the “Aguardente da Terra” (local brandy), the “Abafado” and “Bastardinho” wines and many other handcrafted traditional types of liquor.