My ancestry hunt led me to paradise on Earth (and got me an EU passport)

·15-min read
ancestry tourism, history, travel, holiday, reunited holidays, azores travel, azores tourism
ancestry tourism, history, travel, holiday, reunited holidays, azores travel, azores tourism

I was standing on the high ridge of a volcanic caldera, looking out over a vast lake ringed by steep cloud forest. Lagoa do Fogo, it’s called. Lake of Fire. Bees danced in the humid air infused with juniper and ginger lily. It is hard to truly drink in a view like this at the best of times. But it is even harder to grasp that such a vision of paradise is, in some way, home.

My journey to the Azores did not start on a plane, but on a boat, navigating the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean two centuries ago. On this boat was a 28-year-old man who was leaving behind his home in Rabat, Morocco. When he first caught sight of the Azores, emerging on the horizon like the spine of a great leviathan, he must have known that his life was about to change forever. What he probably didn’t know is that after his arrival, the history of the Azores would change forever, too.

Long lost ancestors

Until recently, I knew little about the finer details of my genealogy. One thing I do know is that, while abroad, I am often mistaken for a local thanks to my mop of black hair, structurally sound nose and tendency to tan rather than burn. These are traits I share with most of my mum’s side of the family. But the roots of our swarthiness have somehow got lost in the ambient noise of family folklore. I grew up with a sense of having blood from “somewhere else”. Portugal perhaps? Or was it France? They were Jewish, I think. That was it.

It was only now, in my early 30s and expecting a descendent of my own, that I stopped to ask: who actually were these long lost ancestors? And by extension, who am I? I never imagined that my search for an answer to these questions would lead me to a remote archipelago, halfway between Lisbon and New York. And perhaps most surprising of all, that I would return home with application forms for a Portuguese passport.

The first step of my ancestry hunt took me to Terceira Island, the third biggest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. By the time my plane touched down I had assembled a fair ream of documents on my family tree, the highest branches of which all led to a Sephardic Jewish man named Abraham Bensaúde: that young man on the boat, who left North Africa for the Azores in 1818 along with his brother and cousin, seeking a better life.

José Bensaúde (top right) and his family
José Bensaúde (top right) and his family

Despite arriving with very little, the Bensaúdes were a resourceful bunch who lived long and successful lives, most notably in the case of Abraham’s son, José Bensaúde, who was born on the island of Sao Miguel in 1835. An intellectual and a poet, but without the finances to go to university, José turned his hand to business, working in the orange trade (mostly to export to marmalade-loving Victorian Britons) and on the construction of the harbour in Ponta Delgada. He was a man who knew how to plant a seed and make things grow. Clearly he was an important figure on the island – he has a Wikipedia page and everything – but I wanted to dig deeper, to get to the volcanic core of the man. What was his personality like? How did his family live? And what was this distant land that he called home really like? There was only one way to find out. I had to go.

Lay of the land

My first aim was to get a lay of the land, a first impression like my forefathers would have gained two hundred years ago. Terceira Island was undulating, verdant, quintessentially Azorean. At least, I think it was. Like many other places in the world, locals here chuckle as they tell you that the islands of the Azores have “four seasons in a day”. In Terceira I experienced just three: the seasons of fog, wind and rain. You are in the middle of the ocean here, after all.

Fortunately, the island’s extraordinary landscape is not all outdoors. The Algar do Carvao is a volcanic chimney, one of the only magma chambers on Earth that you can enter without being cooked alive. The walls form a hypnotic fresco of terracotta and black lava formations, through which droplets of water fall onto the heads of poncho-wearing visitors like myself, before trickling down to a pool of water at the bottom. “It’s cool in there,” my guide told me, reflecting on the days when this was a place known only by locals, who would climb down for a swim.

Azores holidays, Portugal travel - iStock, Karol Kozlowski/robertharding.com
Azores holidays, Portugal travel - iStock, Karol Kozlowski/robertharding.com

The hunt begins

In Terceira’s Unesco-listed capital of Angra do Heroismo, I tested the waters of my ancestry hunt. I was new to this, so I decided a good starting point was to tell anyone who would listen that my ancestors were from the Azores. People listened politely, but I detected they were feigning interest. And this is because, as it turns out, there are more than a million people of Azorean heritage living overseas, four times the population of the islands. Tom Hanks, no less, is of Azorean descent.

The old town, Angra do Heroismo, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Island of Terceira, Azores, Portugal, Atlantic, Europe - robertharding.com
The old town, Angra do Heroismo, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Island of Terceira, Azores, Portugal, Atlantic, Europe - robertharding.com

But whenever I said the name of my great, great, great, great grandfather, “José Bensaúde”, it would be met with wide eyes and a knowing nod.

“Ahh, Bensaúde?” (pronounced “Ben-sa-ood”), they would say. “His family is very famous here.” I knew the family business had a stake in many industries on the island, but I didn’t realise they were the equivalent of the Hiltons or the Bransons of the Azores. One waiter got particularly excited, suggesting that I might be able to get Portuguese citizenship. “Look into it,” he said, but I shrugged it off as surely implausible.

To delve a bit deeper into the family’s story, I visited the Angra city archives with the island’s chief historian, one Francisco dos Reis Maduro-Dias, who showed me old handwritten Hebrew books and recited stories from centuries ago as if they happened this morning. But it was clear that I was doing the equivalent of visiting the Isle of Wight to walk in the footsteps of somebody from Shetland. If I wanted to find out who José Bensaúde really was, I would have to go to the island he called home: Sao Miguel, a hundred miles southeast. Only here would the fog of my family story finally lift.

 Angra city archives, Angra do Heroismo
Angra city archives, Angra do Heroismo

The island he called home

My first stop on Sao Miguel was Furnas Valley, which is in fact not really a valley but a giant volcanic crater, and one of the most thermally active places on the planet. In the crater bed sits a picturesque village, Furnas, where fumaroles chuff out sulphuric clouds from the bubbling mud.

I was here because the crater is home to the Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens (00 351 296 549 090; parqueterranostra.com), a labyrinth of skyscraper palms, azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns and camellias, exported from faraway lands and made all the more special by the park’s hot springs which feed into a large, orange natural bathing pool. But amid the horticultural wizardry, my attention was caught by something else: the bust of a man who had a familiar surname.

Europa, Portugal, Azoren, Sao Miguel, heisse Quellen von Furnas Europe, Portugal, Azores, Sao Miguel, hot springs in Furnas - Christian Kerber/laif/CAMERA PRESS
Europa, Portugal, Azoren, Sao Miguel, heisse Quellen von Furnas Europe, Portugal, Azores, Sao Miguel, hot springs in Furnas - Christian Kerber/laif/CAMERA PRESS

“This is Vasco Bensaúde,” gardener Carina Costa, said. “He bought these gardens in the 1930s. And you know that avenue of Ginkgo trees you just walked down? He planted those.”

Gazing into the eyes of a long lost uncle

First contact. I was looking into the eyes of a long lost uncle, one of José’s grandsons, who fell in love with an increasingly destitute botanical garden to bring it back to life. Another man of seeds and growth. He built a high-end hotel here, too, so people could come to enjoy it, and in the decades that followed the family went on to build many of the top hotels in the islands. Apparently when the statue was unveiled, his daughter Patricia was amused. It was a fair likeness, she said, but they had made one mistake. He was a kind man, but he never really used to smile.

Greg face to face with long lost uncle Vasco Bensaúde
Greg face to face with long lost uncle Vasco Bensaúde

The success of these spectacular gardens is partly down to Vasco, but it wouldn’t be possible without the fertile volcanic soil. José Bensaúde was involved in the cultivation of many plants, including tobacco, and the factory he built in Ponta Delgada still exists today. In its central building, a large yellow-washed house, a member of staff showed me black and white photographs of the family. José was a champion of women’s rights, he said, employing many women to help them accrue a dowry so they could marry, as was the custom at the time. He was also “a bit of a nerd”, fixated on the development of machinery and new technologies in farming.

This was all new information, but there was something else I had somehow overlooked in my research. This yellow office building, with its wooden floors, high ceilings and a smart red-carpeted staircase, was the family home. I assumed he must have lived nearby, but I didn’t realise that I was actually inside Casa de Bensaúde. José had even planted the magnolia tree in front of the house, from a seed on his wedding day into this spectacular organism that stands today.

Casa de Bensaude, Azores
Casa de Bensaude, Azores

It was a lot to compute. Bensaúde’s home was surrounded by his tobacco factory, suggesting he may have been a man with little boundaries between work and pleasure. But he was a principled man with concern for women’s rights, it seemed, which gave me a pang of pride. Perhaps he was also a romantic, since he planted that magnolia tree for his wife, Raquel.

Dipping into the city archives

The final stop of my personal episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue, where I was greeted like royalty. The reason, I soon found out, is that Abraham Bensaúde, José’s father on that boat from Morocco, founded this synagogue. It was the first I had ever entered, and also the first time I had ever donned a kippah. I had so many questions, and astonishingly the archivist Dr José de Almeida Mello had all the answers, connecting the dots in a family dynasty that increasingly read like the Azores’ version of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Greg at the synagogue in Ponta Delgada
Greg at the synagogue in Ponta Delgada

That afternoon I finally got to meet some of the protagonists. We drove out of town to Ponta Delgada’s padlocked Jewish cemetery, which contains the graves of my ancestors, including José, who I spotted was born on March 4, my own birthday.

I placed a small stone (actually, a volcanic rock) on the corner of his grave, as is Jewish tradition, and I did the same on the graves of his father, Abraham, and wife, Raquel. The graveyard felt humble, hushed, locked away behind a high wall on a busy out-of-town road. Symbolic of the privacy of the Jewish community, I suppose, but also, in my interpretation, a physical reminder of how Sephardic Jews have been marginalised through the centuries. Indeed, while in Sao Miguel I had asked questions about the story of their historic persecution in Portugal, and discovered that in 2015 the Portuguese government passed a law allowing descendants of exiled Sephardic Jews to apply for a Portuguese passport. That was a project for another day, though.

First encounter with a distant relative

My ancestry hunt was coming to an end. I had lapped this Jurassic Park of an island, twice, I had gazed down on turquoise volcanic lakes and trawled through archives, but it felt like there was a missing piece of the puzzle: I had not (knowingly) met a fellow descendent of José Bensaúde. During my final day in Sao Miguel I asked around if anyone knew somebody I could meet, just for five minutes. And then, on the drive back from the cemetery, a phone call. A member of the family had heard whispers in the wind of my request (it is a small island), and he was coming to meet me at my hotel at six o’clock.

Jewish cemetery, Ponta Delgada
Jewish cemetery, Ponta Delgada

I waited, more nervous than I expected, and I wondered what you are supposed to say to a long lost relative. It turned half-past six, then seven o’clock, and then a man turned up. Simão. He was tall, imposing and bearded, like José. We shook hands, businesslike, and sat in the lobby. He felt important, I felt like Cousin Greg from Succession. But we warmed into it. He had kind eyes and a sense of humour, although he seemed to stifle his smile, a trait inherited from his great grandfather Vasco, perhaps.

We skimmed the surface of two hundred years of family history over a beer. It turns out his family wasn’t Jewish by faith, either, and he and his siblings were born in Paris before he moved to Ponta Delgada to work for the family business. His sister even lived in London, and was expecting a baby. We had more similarities than I expected.

Ancestry travel
Ancestry travel

When it was time to say goodbye, Simão gave me his email address and we had a photograph taken. He said I must come back, next time with my family, to meet his wife and children.

Throughout the trip I thought my mission was archaeological, to brush the soil off new pieces of information about my ancestors. But I would travel home with something even more profound: a connection with another descendant of José Bensaúde. A seed, from which something new could grow.

The details

Greg stayed as a guest of Bensaude Hotels, who own nine hotels across the Azores, including the Terceira Mar Hotel in Angra, the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas and the Grand Hotel Acores Atlantico in Ponta Delgada (00 351 296 301 880; bensaudehotels.com)

Getting there

British Airways (0344 493 0787; britishairways.com) launches new direct flights from Heathrow to the Ponta Delgada and Terceira in July 2022. Azores Airlines (00 351 296 209 720; azoresairlines.pt) operates short flights between the islands. More information visitazores.com

Sao Miguel Island, Azores - plainpicture.com/Wolfgang WeinhÃupl
Sao Miguel Island, Azores - plainpicture.com/Wolfgang WeinhÃupl

Map your own itinerary in the Azores

People call it the “Galapagos of the Atlantic” or “Europe’s Hawaii”, but the Azores archipelago is entirely unique. Sitting between three tectonic plates and born from an underground volcanic eruption millions of years ago, these are some of the most geologically fascinating islands on the planet, with lakes, volcanoes and caves to explore. As a stop-off point on some of the first transcontinental voyages of the 15th century, the islands have a long, rich cultural heritage and a tradition of welcoming new visitors like old friends. Don’t expect sandy beaches. Do expect to do things at the Azorean pace of life. You’ll wish your stay was twice the length.

Volcanic vineyards

Improbably, when you consider the salty oceanic surroundings and windy weather, there are vineyards in parts of the Azores – most notably on the island of Pico and in Biscoitos, Terceira. The vineyards are a sight to behold, arranged in small square plots lined by porous walls of black volcanic rock (called curraletas), to absorb the heat but let air through. If you are in a restaurant and want to go traditional, try wines described as arinto dos acores, verdelho or terrantez do Pico.

Santa Maria, Azores islands, Portugal - Mauricio Abreu
Santa Maria, Azores islands, Portugal - Mauricio Abreu

The world’s best whale-watching

Surprisingly, the Azores is not the wildlife watcher’s paradise you might expect. There are no endemic mammals here (except for the Azores noctule bat) and there are no full bird species that cannot be viewed closer to Europe. However, this is perhaps the best place in Europe to see whales and dolphins. The sperm whale, the largest of all toothed whales, is most common, although in recent decades the number of great whale spottings has risen. The blue whale, the largest mammal ever to have lived on Earth, can be spotted in spring and early summer. Picos de Aventura runs whale-watching adventures (00 351 296 283 288; picosdeaventura.com).

Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal - Getty
Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal - Getty

Food cooked in the earth

Old food traditions run deep in the Azores. Menus are dominated by beef, goat’s cheese, sweet circular muffins (bolos levedos) and seafood, and perhaps the most traditional dish of them all is the cozido das Furnas, a meat stew buried underground and cooked over several hours using the heat of the earth (there is a salt cod version, too). For nouveau cuisine and the finest wines, try the Oficina da Esquina (00 351 295 101 522; theshipyardangra.com) in Angra or À Terra Fornaria in Ponta Delgada (00 351 296 249 900; azorhotel.com).

Traditional cooking at Lake Furnas
Traditional cooking at Lake Furnas

See the smaller isles

Unless you have several weeks to spare, it is unlikely that you will be able to tick off all nine of the Azores islands in a single visit. If you do venture beyond the principal hubs of Terceira and Sao Miguel, you will find islands with distinct personalities. There’s Santa Maria, the “sun island” with abundant sunshine and warmer sea temperatures. Graciosa, perhaps the most relaxed of the nine. Sao Jorge, which is very proud of its strong, cheddar-like cheese. Faial, the “blue island”, famed for its abundant hydrangeas. Pico, located on a remarkable 7,715ft conical volcano. Corvo, one of the most remote places in Europe. And Flores, a rugged land of waterfalls and precipitous cliffs.

Have you travelled to trace your family history? Please share your stories in the comments section below

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