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The new allure of the Azores

Just four hours from Boston lies a bit of Old World Europe that Americans have yet to discover. In the Azores, you can find crater lakes, ancient walking paths and renovated stone houses. What you won’t find (yet) are crowds.
Town Surrounded by Green Fields
A town surrounded by green fields, Azores Islands, Portugal.Rob Howard / © Rob Howard/CORBIS file
/ Source: Islands Magazine

Just four hours from Boston lies a bit of Old World Europe that Americans have yet to discover. In the Azores, you can find crater lakes, ancient walking paths and renovated stone houses. What you won’t find (yet) are crowds.

The jet engine revs on the single, sunbaked runway. It is, at this moment, the loudest sound in the town of Santa Cruz on Flores, nearly drowNing out what the woman behind the ticket counter — Neatly combed hair, red lipstick, ironed blue uniform — is saying to me.

“Oh, it’s a pity,” she starts calmly, in such a way that you know she doesn’t really think it’s a pity at all. “That’s your plane. You should have been here an hour ago. Your flight was rescheduled.”

On cue, the plane’s buzz swells overhead, fades to the east, and then … silence, that particular kind of silence that always seems to follow a monumental gaffe. Like missing a plane when you are standing on a speck of land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For Flores, part of Portugal’s Azores chain, is only served by one airline and that carrier makes just one flight per day here … at least midweek in May.

In fact, when the plane zoomed across the blue sky about an hour and a half ago, Silvio Medina, my guide, was driving me through the island’s green interior, and he registered the event as peculiar. His exact words might have been, “Hmmm, the plane. It’s early.” Maybe we should have rushed to the airport then. But I had been busy counting waterfalls. They rush and trickle down cliff faces so frequently that it’s like the island is springing leaks. Now, with 30 hours before the next flight out, according to the woman behind the counter, I can, I think merrily, continue my counting game. A quiet day at the edge of the Old World. Perfect. I call Silvio on his mobile.

I’d come to the Azores, a chain of nine islands strung across 400 miles in the Atlantic Ocean, drawn to its seafaring history and wine-and-cheese culture. These islands have figured prominently on navigational charts for centuries, and they have old stone farmhouses, beautiful hikes, world famous cheeses and lava wine. Also, there are almost no tourists. While doing my pretrip research, I had come across a description of the tiny island of Flores, the westernmost point of Europe. One inn’s Web site claimed that the island was so tranquil that “you can almost hear the sound of the sun falling against the horizon.” This silent world, it had turned out, was only a four-hour flight from Boston. I hadn’t known, however, that it would be so difficult to leave Flores.

Silvio meets me and we forge our way across the island. Rocks are blanketed in liverwort and moss. Ferns grow wild. Forests of Japanese cedars carpet hillsides. The air smells green. In the deep summer, though, Flores is a puff of blue. That’s when the hydrangeas bloom and frame the mountain roads. Flores has two seasons, it seems: green and blue. Silvio tells me that Flores, however, is not named after the prolific hydrangea, but after a yellow flower, the cubre. Neither is native: Both are “I was here” gestures scattered by late 15th-century explorers who stopped in on their way from the Old World to the New. Japanese cedars, Brazilian lantana, Asian camellias and African dragon trees, pieces of the entire world germinate here.

Silvio and I, with nothing but time before us, stop at the many miradouros, or viewpoints. I like the Flores style of sightseeing: Silvio applies the brakes, puts the car in park, and turns off the engine in the middle of the road. We walk over to a cliff — it seems we’re always looking at the sea or a church tower from at least 600 feet in the air — and I snap a shot on my Olympus. No one ever comes to beep his horn. We climb back in, slam the doors, drive a half-mile, then brake.

This routine continues as we stop at the seven volcanic lakes. We scramble to a viewpoint — careful not to slip in the grass — that overlooks caldeiras Comprida and Negra. Strangely the first is a deep black, and the other Negra, meaning black, is a murky green.  
Thirsty, Silvio suggests a stop in Fajãzinha. It is a typical Flores hamlet, with a narrow road, a few whitewashed houses built close to this road, a simple church made of basalt, and beyond the church, a maze of lava stone walls dividing Ireland-green pastures. Calla lilies sprout. Poppies bloom. There are cows, and a simple tabac with a gas-powered espresso machine. The sea is nearby, and, in the other direction, toward the interior, is an old watermill, where a miller still grinds corn into flour. Fajãzinha is, simply put, one of those European villages where a hard-working American can really lose herself in that fantasy of buying an ancient stone house, aging cheese, and passing days on a bench underneath platano trees. A busy day, I imagine, would be comprised of nothing more than greeting the rare tourist who, having missed the one plane of the day, stops in for a coffee.

I sit outdoors at a table looking at the church, and the owner appears with my café galão.
“How many people live here? A hundred?” I guess.

“No.” He delivers the glass of espresso cut with steamed milk, two packets of sugar on the side. “Eighty-eight.” He’s serious. I don’t even know how many people live on my block. Perhaps at one time it would not have been possible to count a village. But as on other islands in the Azores, Flores’ population has decreased. In the last century or two, as Portugal’s economy worsened, many emigrated to the United States and Canada. First, there was a decline in orange exports; then the end of whaling as a viable enterprise; then a Fascist government (eventually toppled in a revolution in 1974). There were also natural disasters, including the many days when the earth moved and damaged towns, and the December morning in 1957 when the sea began to boil off the island of Faial. That volcanic eruption lasted a year and buried the village of Capelinhos.

“We feel a stronger tie to America than to Portugal,” Silvio explains. “Today, probably 85 percent of the older generations of Azoreans have been to America, and only 10 percent have gone to the mainland [Portugal].”

Entire sections of villages were deserted during this exodus; but Azoreans have been returning home and, in some cases, turning these ancient stone structures into hotels, some modest, some elegant. Carlos and Teotónia Silva, who are from the islands, bought 14 basalt stone cottages in the ghost town of Aldeia da Cuada and turned them into guest quarters, with kitchens, fireplaces and large bedrooms. The cobbled walkways are not kind to roll luggage — and there are no motorized vehicles on these walkways, cows only — but, staying here is an escape to another time.

That night, the car swims through a thick fog. “Prato do dia. That’s what we call this,” Silvio says, plate of the day, so common it is during the off-season months.

We drive to Lajes das Flores, a former whaling post at the southern tip of the island, and meet no other car on the road. The night is damp and salty and … quiet. Three sailboats sway in the Lajes harbor, but there is no laughter of sailors, not a whisper of a wave. The lights are on at a small bar called Paula’s Place. Inside, the TV glows; a Brazilian soap opera is on and three local men are glued to it, as is Paula Andrade, an Angola-born Portuguese woman with Flores roots who spent enough years in Massachusetts that, when she speaks English, her accent is very much like Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, from “Car Talk.”

In 1999, she and her husband, Ermelindo, opened O Beira Mar and this separate, one room bar, with a few tables and chairs and hung flags from other nations on the wall.

I solve the mystery of one of the boats in the harbor when four Spanish sailors, having finished dinner next door, walk into the bar. The boat’s owner, Javier, bought a house on Flores for “its tranquility” he tells me.

The three Spanish sailors and one crew member who is Austrian (but lives in Culebra), one Angola-born Portuguese, five Floresians, and an American is a diverse gathering. As the fog thickens outside, we buy rounds. I drink Terras de Lava, a Pico wine, and the men drink Especial, the local draft. We are, for an hour, all strange flora in the middle of nowhere; or, maybe, as I am beginning to think, we are at the center of the world.

Twenty-fifth of May, the pilot illuminates the seatbelt sign. Bing. This is good. After two days grounded (on top of the 30 hours) because of prato do dia, I am finally going to land in Faial, an island that, along with Pico and São Jorge, forms a triangle. Pico is 20 minutes by ferry from Faial, and São Jorge, another hour north. I decided to visit these islands not just because of their proximity, but Pico for its wine; São Jorge for its famous cheese; and Faial, because I had heard about its legendary marina.

I was beginning to see this archipelago from the point of view of a seafarer — as being in the middle of everywhere, little resting pillows close to three continents: 1,000 miles from Europe; 1,000 miles from Africa; and 2,000 miles from North America. In the late 1400s, Portuguese and Spanish explorers tied down here and filled their holds, before pushing off to the New World. Pirates lurked near shore. These islands were the heart of transatlantic navigation.

Today, yachties from all over still drop anchor in Faial’s marina. It ranks fourth in the world for the number of boats in it. Splashed on marina walls are murals painted by crews, a Hollywood Boulevard for sailors. And just beyond the hundreds of masts and clanging halyards, across the channel, is Pico Mountain, the highest peak in Portugal, at 7,713 feet. And I have a perfect view of it from this side of the channel, in Faial’s main town of Horta, at Pousada Santa Cruz.

The two-story luxury hotel is housed in a 16th-century fortress that was originally built to protect the island from Moorish pirates. From my balcony, I watch new boats sail into the Horta marina. Cannons still point toward the sea, only now, below them, ironically, is an invitation: a swimming pool.

The sun shines, and I wander the gray and white basalt sidewalks, decorated with fanciful motifs. Flower boxes hang from iron balconies. I turn in and out of side streets, up hills, passing not the typical Portuguese whitewashed or stone houses with red roofed tiles (although those are there, too), but art deco quirk, like the sea-foam-green International Bar. Inside, mirrors are etched with 1920s art: flappers. A building called “Amor da Patria” has pretty blue and white hydrangea carvings decorating its cornice.

I trek uphill to the cable houses. In these buildings in the 1920s and until World War II, Britain, the United States and Germany set up operations to transmit cables overseas. The Azores was the hub for flights, too. In 1939, Pan American Airways stopped to refuel its sea planes in Horta on its new routes from the East Coast to Europe.

“We are a small town, a small place in the middle of the ocean,” says José Henrique Gonçalves Azevedo. “But we are connected because of our situation.” José’s grandfather opened Peter Café Sport on Christmas Day 1918. It is the watering hole of the yachtie world. José and I walk upstairs, away from the noise of the smoky café and bar, and into the Scrimshaw Museum with its many glass cases.

Accomplished sailors such as Sir Francis Chichester, Joshua Slocum, Eric Tabarly and Bernard Moitessier have stopped in, José tells me, pointing to their likenesses painted on whales’ teeth. Even Jacques Cous-teau has come.

“When Chichester was asked what he thought about when he was solo at sea, he said, ‘my wife, my son and my good friend Peter on Faial,’” explains José of his father whose nickname was Peter. Peter Café isn’t just a bar, or even a place to rent a bike or kayak (which they do), explains José, who now runs the place. It’s a symbol, a welcome mat for those making the transatlantic crossing.

The next morning I take a little boat journey of my own. I motor off in a high-speed catamaran ferry to São Jorge, with about 30 other passengers and 20 surfboards — all of which are loaded onto the second deck of the boat with a casualness that only happens in places without too many lawyers. As the surfboards twirl in mid-air, held by a shoelace, we tourists run for cover, sleep still in our eyes.

In two hours, the harbor town of Velas comes into focus. It’s on the south coast of the skinny, 5-mile-wide and 35-mile-long São Jorge. António Pedroso, who owns Casa do António, a B&B that fronts the harbor in Old Velas, also happens to be an island guide. He meets me at the ferry terminal. We walk to the pedestrian boulevard of Alameda Francisco Lacerda, named after a well-known Azorean composer, and sit at a table at Suspiro. I order panike de chila, a croissant filled with a pumpkin jam, and take my regular, a café galão.

The ratio of cows to people on the island is 2 to 1. “20,000 cows, 10,000 people,” says António in such a proud way that I don’t think he’s ever considered the potential of mutiny.

The island centers around its natural resource: the cow. That’s why the interior is open green pastures (for grazing). That’s why there are nine cheese factories (for mixing the original recipes of unpasteurized full-cream milk, rennet and salt). And that’s why one evening while I’m enjoying wedges of the nutty, tangy São Jorge specialty, with its grassy aroma, in Restaurante Velense, I hear a ruckus: A French sailor who doesn’t speak Portuguese but desperately wants to communicate.

Fromage, he says. The whole restaurant understands that he wants cheese, the famous 10-kilogram wheel from São Jorge. But it’s Friday night, and he wants it before he sets sail at the first itch of sunlight on Saturday. The story soon comes to a fabulous conclusion: A waitress’ father works in a cheese factory, and she’ll have it delivered to his boat.

Sao Jorge and Flores are known for their scenic hikes. Before many roads were built around the 1960s, these footpaths were how villagers traveled. I had missed the walks on Flores due to prato do dia. São Jorge was my last chance. So on Saturday morning, my destination is the trailhead at Serra do Topo. António detours to the windmills of Urzelina, and we pass dirt fields being tilled by horses. In the neat-as-a-pin village of Manadas is the Santa Barbara church. A note hangs on the door informing visitors who want to tour it that they must walk to town hall to get the key. We do. It’s cozy, like a house, except for the gild and art. António points to the ceiling: “There weren’t really church builders on São Jorge, only boatbuilders.” The ceiling looks like an overturned hull.

Finally, he drops me off at Serra do Topo, and I start my seven-mile walk to a fishing village that is not accessible by car, Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. I plunge down a footpath from a height of 2,310 feet. I am rewarded with views of Graciosa and Terceira, islands to the north, and Pico and Faial to the south. It is a Hansel-and-Gretel walk of abandoned stone houses, tunnels of trees, waterfalls, gates made of twigs and grass-carpeted bridges. And cows; one section I’ll politely refer to as “cow pie alley.” Three hours later, I reach the fishing village and its sea lagoons. From here, though, I must continue to Fajã dos Cubres: my rendezvous point with António, where he can pick me up in his taxi. The path between the two villages goes up and down and up and down, meandering along the coast and along cliffs. I am exhausted, and in some cruel twist, the footpath ends about a half-mile shy of the village. I pass donkeys, cows, a church, before ending at a snack bar, where three German hikers are gulping down water. I join them.

I fall in love with São Jorge the night I sit in Velas’ garden square. It is the best square in the Azores, because it is small and tranquil and tidy. The only thing on the ground is the odd branch or leaf that has yellowed and fallen from a manicured tree. The few benches are painted fire-engine red. So are the four lanterns that sur-round the white-gingerbread gazebo, which has the same color red roof.

At 7 on Saturday night, it is still light, and the only sound is from the rustle of feathers and the mad chirps of the restless birds. I wander to a stone house in the square, which turns out to be an aviary of vivid blue and lime green parakeets. Happy nonnatives, like me. I slowly walk away from the square, along the waterfront to my hotel, Hotel São Jorge, located in the newer section of Velas in a 1980s building. Despite its unappealing exterior, it has nice balconies that overlook the sea and Pico.

Tomorrow is Esp´prito Santo, the Holy Ghost festival, and tonight is a celebration. Down a side street, colored flags strung across poles flap in the warm breeze. Booths are set up where soups and breads will be handed out.

Since I’m tired from my hike, I don’t linger, but that night from my balcony, I watch the fireworks explode in celebration. Then I hear an unusual utterance: like a child laughing but flying by me in the darkness.

I remember what a woman I met told me about cagarro. “Eechew, ee- ee-,” she uttered in imitation, something that sounded like a giggle of a sugar-high child. Many think, she had said, that the cagarro is the first sign of summer.

Calonectris diomedea borealis, aka cagarro. The seabird is here now, flying by my balcony, after wintering in South America. It would seem, according to the cagarro, that the Azores is not in the middle of nowhere nor even the heart of the world. It’s simply a place to rest one’s feathers and mingle with the other species of the world.

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