Vila Franca do Campo was the first capital of São Miguel and is currently one of the principal tourist centres of the Azorean Archipelago.
Vila Franca do Campo was formed prior to 1472, and until 1499 the power of the village extended throughout the island. In this prosperous village-port resided the areas governor, landed nobles, well to do farmers and businessmen.
On this fertile land the settlers grew wheat in abundance along with two industrial plants: pastel and sugar cane. These products and the populace’s skilful hand, were the basis of an active trade with many distant countries.
At the beginning of the 16th century Vila Franca was São Miguel’s most important commercial port. The Custom House also operated in Vila Franca until 1518. It was also in this affluent 500 year old village that the Governor’s Palace , a beautiful temple dedicated to Saint Michael Archangel, a chapel and convent dedicated to Saint Francis were erected. The earthquake of October 22,1522 destroyed and buried this village and it was only through the great efforts of the survivors that Vila Franca was rebuilt and extended to the west.
During the following centuries the areas residents introduced and developed many different agricultural crops. This included the sweet potatoes (16th century), corn (17th century), oranges and pineapples (in greenhouses) for export (19-20th century), grapes, bananas and cattle (20th century).
A diligent group of fishermen also lived in Vila Franca in the area near the Tagarete docks which also benefited from an active commercial shipping industry until the 1950’s.
The arts and industry also grew in the coastal areas of Vila Franca: ship building (17th-20th centuries), pottery (16th century-20th centuries), lime ovens (19th century), roasting chicory (20th centuries) and fish cannery (1918).
Along the principal rivers and streams mills were built and, on the Ribeira da Praia (Beach River), Engineer José Cordeiro built the Azores first hydroelectric generating plant (1900). Later two more stations were built, one of which remains as a museum and is open to the public.
Today the municipality of Vila Franca do Campo occupies half the south central part of São Miguel and, thanks to the creativity of its habitants holds a rich and diversified cultural heritage.
In the centre of the town, adjacent to the public gardens, you will encounter the Municipal Buildings (18th and 19th centuries), the statues of Gonçalo Vaz Botelho, the sculptor Canto da Maia (1954), the beautiful Igreja Matriz de São Miguel Arcanjo (central church) (16th century), with its’ gothic appearance and the Igreja de Santa Casa da Misericórdia (18th century) with its’ baroque carvings. In this last church you will find a rich exhibit of a collection of capes embroidered with the image of senhor Bom Jesus da Pedra.
A statue in honour of the celebrated missionary Bento de Góis is located in a square of the same name. The square is dominated by the Convento de Santo André (Convent of St. Andrew), which was founded by the nuns of Santa Clara. The convent’s church (18th century) has a recently added colonnade (1940’s). Near the marketplace the Count Botelho built a manor house (19th century), with an elevated tower and it is considered Vila Franca’s most important example of civil architecture. In front of the manor house is the Museum of Vila Franca do Campo. The museum has a variety of sections dedicated to the popular culture of São Miguel.
'Senhora da Paz'
In the coastal area the Tagarete dock highlight the remains of the fort’s walls that once defended Vila Franca from pirates. Today they protect the multicoloured fishing boats. Following the coastal avenue Vasco da Silveira (1877) you will see the Chapel of StªCatarina, the villages oldest, a statue of Infante Henrique, the sculptor Simões de Almeida (1932), and an elegant building which seconds as the local fish market (1903). A little further ahead the Castelo das Taipas (castle), the first to be built dominates the Praia Corpo Santo (beach). This is one of the municipalities five beaches flying Europe’s Blue Flag.
The parish of São Pedro grew under the care of the Convento dos Frades de São Francisco (Monastery), and with a church dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary) The convent is now a “pousada”, a high quality cultural tourist accommodation.
In front of the church you will find the lovely garden of Dr. António da Silva Cabral (1901) and just below the parochial church of São Pedro (18th century).
The Vila Nova (new village), extends to the ocean and is an area that is known for its pottery traditions. It is still possible to buy clay dishware in three locations. Also visit two museums: the pottery house of the maestro António Batata and the collective pottery ovens.
Above Vila, rests the Marian sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Paz (our Lady of Peace). A monumental staircase opens onto one of São Miguel’s most beautiful landscapes which includes a view of the marvellous Ilhéu.
The “Ilheu” of “Vila Franca”, presently protected as a Natural Reserve, is approximately 1 km from the coastline. The horseshoe swimming and picnic area may be reached by boat which runs at regular intervals especially in the summer. This is a favourite outing for the young people of São Miguel.
The “Vinha da Areia” beach, offers good conditions for a swim and now offers an exciting waterpark.
In the rural parishes and in addition to the wonderful examples of civil architecture you should visit the parochial church of São Lázaro (Água d’Alto), the Chapel of São João (Ribeira Seca), the churches of Bom Jesus Menino (Ribeira das Taínhas), Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Our Lady of Piety) and the chapel of Nossa Senhora das Mercês (Our Lady of Mercy) (Ponta Garça).
In this parish the manor house “Solar dos Botelhos da Nossa Senhora da Vida” harbours a rich artistic heritage and may be visited if you arrange permission in advance. Finally visit the Lighthouse also in Ponta Garça where you will enjoy one of the islands most interesting views of the ocean.
On the way to “Furnas”, the Forest Park “Cerrado dos Bezerros”, is a beautiful place to stop and picnic. Tables, benches, barbecues and a recreational area for children are provided. A great place to enjoy as you make your way to Furnas.