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Santa Maria is a very popular tourist destination in the Azores. It has a population of just over 2,000 residents and spreads out in five districts: Cidade (City), Achada (Village), Terra Nova (New Farmland), Terreiro da Lagoa (Fisherman’s Terrace) and Castelo Branco. The main attraction are its natural gardens, which comprise 85% of the city’s area.
The Azores were discovered by Portuguese navigators in the 15th century. At that time, the land was inhabited by Guinee captives, who were brought to the archipelago to work in the guano industry; these people are known as Luso-Africanos. In 1514, Fernão de Ataíde, a Portuguese sailor and explorer set foot on Santa Maria’s shore. In honour of this event, which was marked with festivities and speeches at the modern Castelo Branco Square nowadays, they officially called it a Nova Esperança (New Hope). However, this name was abandoned for “Santa Maria”, a tribute to Saint Mary Magdalene (the islanders believing she had sailed there).
The first settlers established their homes in the village of Achada, because it was the most fertile area on Santa Maria. In 1662, by Queen Luísa’s initiative, they constructed a church and a square on the northern coast. Other settlements quickly followed like Cidade (1672), Terra Nova (1674) and Terreiro da Lagoa (1700).
Santa Maria is surrounded by volcanic crater walls (which are around 600–800 m high), which makes it almost impossible for boats to dock. The only natural harbour is situated in the bay of Achada, where ships had to be anchored and unloaded by smaller boats called pateras.
The streets of Santa Maria are made of volcanic tuff, a rock formed from tiny pieces of lava, this makes the streets very dark.
In 1757 almost the entire municipality was burned. The only buildings to survive were the church in Achada (1706), the one in Cidade (1690), and the castle.
Another huge fire happened in July 1794. During the French invasion, two members of British forces were hanged after being captured by locals – they had hitched a ride with a merchant ship but were discovered at night time by Santa Marians. The British soldiers were shot in the castle and two Santa Marians were subsequently hanged for the “crime”.
In 1836, the city of Santa Maria was officially recognized by Queen D. Maria I, despite the fact that there was already a town council. In 1855, it became an independent parish (administered by a civil administrator), with its own mayor. Its first mayor was Pedro Cícero Ramalho Monteiro Costa – he was responsible for initiating and funding various public works projects during his term. After his term, he became a Senator and got elected to represent Santa Maria in Parliament. He died in 1863 before being able to finish out his term in Parliament.
During the reign of King Dom Carlos I (1889–1908), he was impressed by the Azorean independence activists who visited Lisbon and decided to standardize a flag for each island. In 1890, Santa Maria was given its green and white flag with three blue stars above it.
In 1895, Santa Maria had a population of 11,000 people; it is located along the northern coast of São Miguel Island and has a fertile soil for farming. The main district are Cidade (City), Achada (Village), Terra Nova (New Farmland) and Terreiro da Lagoa (Fisherman’s Terrace).
In 1940, the airfield was constructed. Currently it is used for commercial aviation and it is part of Lajes Air Base.
Santa Maria is one of the regions with a relatively high amount of natural beauty. The central forest in Cidade District covers an area of more than 66 hectares with beech and oak trees. Most visitor attractions are also located in this district, like Achada Park, Terreiro da Lagoa (Fisherman’s Terrace) or Terra Nova (New Farmland). Nearby Cidade District also has a small beach, where many visitors gather during summer time to play beach volleyball, water sports and sunbathe.
Terreiro da Lagoa (Fisherman’s Terrace) has a small beach, which is used for the traditional fishing “pescaria”. There are some small kiosks in this district which sell typical Azorean delicacies like manjericão, limoncello and lubina. The best thing to do in Cidade District is visiting the old town and its churches and medieval monuments. The streets of Cidade District are very narrow, most of them have no decoration except for some street signs or arcades.
The Castle was built by Fernão de Ataíde during his stay back in 1514; it had several different faces and purposes. In the first phase, it was a fortification, then it became a religious convent and in the 19th century, it was used as an airfield. Nowadays, the castle is used for cultural purposes and it has a permanent exhibition called “Memories of Santa Maria – The Historic Route”.
The church and the convent were constructed by Fernão de Ataíde himself – he used to stay here with his family because several of his children were born here. It is located in Achada (Village) District along the northern coast. This church was built from 1515 to 1541, its main and most important religious architectural features were constructed in 1579. The last major reconstruction of the church took place between 1723 and 1770.
The Our Lady of the Assumption Convent was built from 1606 to 1612 and it is the only Azorean convent that managed to survive the British invasion. This convent is located in Achada (Village) District along the northern coast, it is a religious monument with important architectural features like doorways, cornices, caissons and ceilings designed by carvings artist Moraes da Câmara. It is also the most important religious monument in the Farol (The Lighthouse) District, a small district that used to be a fishing area and only existed from 1892 to 1978.
This is the oldest church in Cidade District, it was built by Fernão de Ataíde between 1515 and 1541. It is located in Achada (Village) District along the northern coast.
The church has an old cemetery and it’s one of the most historic buildings in Cidade District.
The church and the cloister were constructed by the Jesuits between 1724 and 1770. The church is located in Achada (Village) District along the northern coast. The cloister was built in the Manueline-style.
The Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda (Chapel of Our Lady of Help) is located in Achada (Village) District along the northern coast, it was built by a local priest named Francisco Ferreira de Carvalho and it was completed in 1875. It has a triangular shape with two bell towers and it is one of the most important monuments in Cidade District. The facade was built in the Manueline-style.
The lighthouse was built by the French engineer François Eugène Robert de La Rocque in 1891, it is the most important lighthouse in Salamanca District. It houses a museum that displays a collection of old tools, instruments and clothes used by sailors in the Atlantic Ocean.
Along the northern coast of Cidade District there are four small beaches.
There is no public transport available in Cidade District except for small vans that run between Porto Campanhã, Carrazedo de Baixo and Porto Arcozelo along with Cortiços to Carrazedo and Cortiços to Póvoa do Varzim-São Martinho.
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