Pico the Mountain Island!
Its majestic Pico Alto, with 2,352 m the highest peak in all of Portugal, makes Pico Island stand out from all the other islands of the archipelago. Also famous for its whaling tradition, Pico is the second largest island of the archipelago, covering a surface of about 448 sq. km (about 46 km long and 15 km wide). The distances to the other islands of the central group, of which Pico is the most southern, are about 8 km to Faial, 15 km to São Jorge, 80 km to Graciosa and 100 km to Terceira.
While the colossal Pico Alto with its surrounding high plateau takes in most of the western part of the island, another high plateau, the Planalto da Achada, featuring several dozens of volcanic cones, several crater lakes, pastures and forests, stretches along most of the eastern part, also reaching heights of over 1000 m. The slopes of the highlands roll gently down to the island’s low, but mostly steep and rugged black coastline, often featuring bizarre rock formations, with especially impressive ones on the north coast where many arches, caves, rifts and tunnels can be found. One outstanding example is the Arcos do Cachorro, a peculiarly shaped rock formation, perforated by numerous tunnels and grottoes, located in the bay of the same name on the northwest coast.
Pico offers a good network of roads, on which it is possible to drive all around the coasts and visit the interior of the island, offering magnificent views across landscapes of an outstanding, savage beauty, with the all-dominating Pico to be seen from everywhere, as well as the deep-blue Atlantic and the neighbouring islands.
With its birth from volcanic explosions only happening estimated 300,000 years ago, Pico is the youngest island of the archipelago, which explains the relatively thin layer of humus on the volcanic rock that the first settlers in the beginning of the second half of the 15th century found when they started cultivating the island. These conditions made the growing of fruit and vines very hard work… and it is still today! Other witnesses of the island’s volcanic past only during the last 500 years, the Pico Volcano erupted four times, the last time in 1718 are many lava fields (called ‘mistérios’ by the islanders as it was ‘mysterious’ to them why this bad luck struck them) and black lava rocks lying about everywhere. To recover precious agricultural land, these lava rocks were piled up to small pyramids, the so-called ‘maroiças’, which add an interesting aspect to Pico’s landscape.
Yet, there is also a positive side to the island’s volcanic heritage because the black lava stone has from the very beginning up to date been used in the construction of the typical black stone houses, and walls, the latter protecting the vineyards from the strong sea winds.
Living mostly all around the edges of the island where the interior volcanic massifs left them some space, the today’s round about 15,000 inhabitants exploit restricted areas on terraced fields nearby the coasts, mainly concentrating on the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and vines. The slopes towards the volcanic massifs are mostly covered with dense vegetation, with tree-heather, laurel and juniper prevailing. The highlands, where still the ancient laurissilva forest that used to cover wide parts of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands has survived, can hardly be exploited agriculturally. The northern coast is densely forested and less populated, while the south coast is populated up to higher levels and cultivated to a maximum.
Pico’s history is closely linked with that of Faial because it has been dependant from its neighbour for a long time and still today its administration is conducted by Faial this explains also why the town of Madalena is only considered the island’s main town but not its capital. Pico was discovered round about the same time as Faial and shortly after the settlement of the island had set off initially mainly in the area around the village of São Roque on the north coast the Verdelho vine was brought to the island from Madeira by the clergyman Frei Pedro Gigante. This was the base for the island’s long wine-growing tradition, which, however, only set off on a larger scale after the volcanic eruptions in 1718 and 1720, because the remaining lava fields only allowed the cultivation of vines in arduous work and ingenuity. During the heydays of the island’s viticulture, its excellent wine was appreciated all over the world and exported to many royal courts, even as far as Russia, and European noble houses. Up to the second half of the 19th century, Pico’s wine and fishing industries constituted the main income sources for its inhabitants, even if it was Horta Faial’s capital that made the big money with the wine, as it was exported from here in barrels labelled ‘Vinho do Faial’ (Faial Wine). In the last quarter of the 19th century, after the phylloxera had devastated the vines to a large extent, the viticulture industry declined and the whaling industry became an important mainstay of the island’s economy. When whaling stopped on the island in 1983 before it was even completely forbidden in 1989 as it had become unprofitable, it was replaced by the tuna fishing and processing industry, which up to date provides a main income source to the islanders.