Letter from Europe

A Tale of Two Lakes

Issue no. 2019/9

Picture above: The caldera of Sete Cidades on the Azorean island of São Miguel (photo © Lukasz Janyst).


Last year, the Azorean authorities reminded residents of the hazards of living in an archipelago where three great tectonic plates meet. This is where Eurasia meets Africa and the Americas. We recall a royal visit to the volcanic caldera of Sete Cidades on the island of São Miguel.

Dear fellow travellers

Where royalty travel others follow. Towards the western end of the island of São Miguel in the Azores, there is a celebrated view point where in 1901 King Carlos of Portugal and his wife Amélie gazed north into the lush volcanic caldera of Sete Cidades (which means Seven Cities). No one could fail to be impressed by the gorgeous view north over the Lagoa Verde (Green Lake) to the larger Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake) beyond. It is a picture of serenity, a scene which looked as though it might not have changed over millennia.

During their visit, the king and queen were told the story of forbidden love between a princess and a shepherd boy. They both lived in the great depression of Sete Cidades, the girl enjoying a life of privilege and security and the young man living in humble simplicity. The princess' father had grander aspirations for his daughter and forbad the romance, merely permitting one final meeting between the lovers. Naturally, there was much weeping as the princess and the shepherd boy parted for the last time. The lad shed green tears, creating the southern and smaller lake. Royal tears are azure of course (we all know that), and the princess' tears filled the northern lake. In true romantic style, the tears still mingle in the little waterway which connects the two lakes.

Those who understand volcanic landforms take a less poetic view of how these two lakes were created, suggesting that following a series of explosive eruptions, a great volcano effectively collapsed in on itself, leaving a massive cauldron-like hollow. The Azorean archipelago has many such features - no surprise for a scatter of islands which lie so close to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Geothermal pools on several of the islands are a reminder that there's some deep-seated volcanic energy still shaping the Azorean landscape. Even around Sete Cicades, there are cinder cones which show that minor volcanic activity has continued long after the formation of the great caldera. Those cones are covered in grass and look rather like the prehistoric tumuli (burial mounds) of northern Europe.

"Is it safe?" asked King Carlos as he gazed down towards the lakes at Sete Cicades. "How do we know that there won't be another eruption today?"

The answer of course is that we don't. São Miguel was devastated by an earthquake in 1522, which all but destroyed the then capital of the island at Vila Franca do Campo. Many thousands of islanders perished. In the following five years, many more inhabitants of São Miguel died of the plague. Then followed decades of famines, earthquakes and great volcanic eruptions which all took their toll on São Miguel.

Last year, the Azorean authorities reminded residents of the hazards of living in an archipelago where three great tectonic plates meet. This is where Eurasia meets Africa and the Americas. This month has seen a couple of small earthquakes in the ocean crust just west of São Miguel, although the main area of seismic activity in recent weeks has been well away in the westernmost part of the islands between Faial and Flores.

These days the viewpoint visited by King Carlos and Queen Amélie is a popular spot for visitors to São Miguel, many of whom then hike down into the lush caldera to visit the lakes and the village of Sete Cidades. "Why Seven Cities?" asked the Portuguese monarch. "I can only see one settlement down there."

"But once there were seven," explained the king's retainers.

It’s a reminder that nothing is permanent in the ever-changing landscape of the Azores.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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