Explore São Miguel

Explore

São Miguel

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Photographs Brent Herrig
Explore São Miguel

It’s five thirty in the morning and a group of Romeiros – men on their first of a seven-day pilgrimage around the Azorean island of São Miguel – leave their home church at a clipped pace. They sing rounds of the Hail Mary through the dark and empty streets, like a coarse fisherman’s play on a monastic chant. At the next church they stop. Huddled, their heads covered in scarves to mute the spray of the Atlantic chill, they pray. Then they continue up the mountains that make the terrain of the volcanic island.

The Romeria is a tradition unique to São Miguel, the largest of nine islands in the Azorean archipelago belonging to Portugal. Its origins date back to the mid-sixteenth century, when a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions inspired penitent Catholics to petition God for safety. Today, each village collects their own group of Romeiros; volunteer men and boys who call each other irmãos–brothers–as they walk. During that time, their jobs, family lives, and personal backgrounds will not matter. As is tradition, they begin mid-spring at the start of the Lenten season, forty days before Easter. They carry no food and very little money. They eat what is arranged for them: bananas that hang heavy on trees, hunks of pungent cheese and bread made on the island, and steaming coffee in the morning. At night, villagers meet them at church and welcome some into their homes, their presence considered a blessing on the house. When not enough homes, the remaining sleep on the church floor.

 

When not praying together, the Romeiros walk in silence. Some walk in thanks for blessings on their family. Others walk to petition for the health of loved ones. The young, especially, petition for growth in education, jobs, and an economic future for a country that has seen great struggle. For those with no religion, the time encourages inner exploration, soul-searching, and a chance to maybe meet God.

And they have plenty of time.

Isolated, with a population just under 140,000, the Romeiros can walk for miles with very little distraction. São Miguel is exhilarating to maneuver in an automobile, but torturous on foot. Roads wind in sharp curves, the heavy air of March dampens clothing, and lush fauna grows wild, scratching ankles until aggressively cut back. A sulfuric smell wafts from open hot springs in the still-volcanic earth. Cows whip flies away with their tails, and the occasional horse pulls a cart in timeless fashion. The mountains teem with a lush variety of birds, which flock to the Azores for rest during long migratory travels.  Around every bend, the ocean is vast and relentless.

Explore São Miguel

Explore São Miguel

Bodies aching, voices sore, and humbled by the relentless up and down, they push beyond limit. By the end of the week, they will have walked close to three hundred and fifty kilometers and prayed at every church on the island.

After, they’ll tell stories of their blistered feet and sore muscles, yes. But more, of the silence they find inside. Of the humble homes they enter, and the grace shown there. And of how walking together, a group of rough island men link to thousands before them who have done the same, in both silence and song.

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