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The Azores: An isolated crossroads

By Greg Botelho
CNN New York Bureau

The U.S. has maintained a military air base on Terceira, the site of Sunday's summit, since 1951.

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(CNN) -- For most people, they are specks on the map, stray islands set flush in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But Sunday, the world's eyes will focus on the Azores archipelago as a possible staging area for an attack on Iraq.

President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar will convene a one-day emergency summit on the idyllic and isolated isles, hosted by Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. The meeting, officially to examine prospects for a U.N. resolution on Iraq, will occur on the island of Terceira, home since 1951 to a U.S. air base at Lajes Field.

The tense wartime atmosphere will sharply contrast with life in the Azores, where high-stakes diplomacy takes a back seat to simpler pursuits such as fishing, farming, family and faith.

The archipelago's nine major islands surge from the Atlantic in haste, their steep, typically volcanic peaks reaching as high as 7,713 feet (2,351 meters). Azaleas, hydrangeas and a host of other flowers cover the landscape.

Except for a few cities like Ponte Delgada, community life revolves around dozens of tight-knit villages with whitewashed houses and churches, some tracing back to the days soon after Portuguese navigators discovered the islands unoccupied in 1427.

The Azores boast a subtropical climate, with temperatures hovering year-round between 57 and 71 degrees. The U.S. State Department notes no reports of organized crime or gang activity, and calls pickpocketing and other such crimes rare.

With a handful of tourists flocking to the Azores annually, the islands remain largely defined by their serenity and seclusion -- likely factors in their selection as a summit location.

For one, the isolation makes it highly unlikely the leaders will face anti-war protests prevalent in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Terceira is even remote by Azorean standards, set far from the archipelago's largest island of Sao Miguel and without other major isles nearby.

The site also serves as a geopolitical compromise, lying about 900 miles from Europe and 2,300 miles from the United States. Although Bush will travel farthest, the proximity of Lajes Field makes him a co-host, of sorts, with Barroso.

The tranquil environs are matched by the Azores' rich history as a political, economic and military crossroads.

The Azores are known for their steep mountains, picturesque lakes and quaint villages.

The archipelago, featuring the lone ports in its part of the Atlantic, served as a key base for Portuguese and Spanish explorers and fortune-seekers coming to and from the Americas and India in the 15th and 16th centuries. This strategic importance later made the islands a critical and heated naval battleground in 17th century clashes between England, Spain and Portugal.

The islands are also a symbol of unity, particularly between Portugal, England and the United States.

Although Portugal technically remained neutral in World War II, it granted U.K. and U.S. forces access to its Azorean airfields and ports. After the war, Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar granted permission for the United States, where tens of thousands of Azoreans had emigrated, to build and operate its air base on Terceira.

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