SAUDADE OF THE AZORES
Deciding to go on a trip, one needs only a little spirit of adventure, a love of nature and curiosity. 9 islands and more than 1,700 volcanoes make up this archipelago located in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, a paradise of biodiversity. Come with me to the Azores, to discover the beauty between Terceira and Sao Miguel.
IMPRESSIONS: FROM TERCEIRA TO SAO MIGUEL
Tap Portugal flight 1827, 2 hours and 30 minutes from Lisbon, landing in Terceira, the first stage of my trip to the Azores. Known by many only for it’s anticyclone phenomenon namesake that is generated here (many people can’t even find these islands on a map), the Azores is one of the most beautiful places in our continent, if not the planet itself,
9 volcanic islands that seem to appear as if by magic from the Ocean, wrapped in the legend of Atlantis and traditions that are struggling to live on, caught between the sea and mountains. Portuguese territory since their discovery (punctuated only by a few “invasions” by the Flemish, English and Spanish), the Azores islands are distant, yet close to the mainland and embody the dream of the solitary traveler, adventurer and lover of the furthest reaches.
One comes this far mainly for a love nature and tranquility but also to experience whale watching, hiking, surfing, swimming with dolphins and to breathe in authenticity of a very special place.
The Azores name, according to some comes simply from “azures” (plural of blue), because it is the dominant color here. The ideal way to see the Azores would be to visit calmly, allowing oneself a few weeks to do some ‘zapping between the islands, boat tours and rides. 9 islands, 9 identities, 9 characters, as if they were 9 sisters who look alike but not too much.
I focused on the larger and closer islands, knowing that missing out on the truely remote places would be a sin, but also conscious of the fact that the time available to me for this trip was very short but that one day I would be back here again…
My journey begins from Terceira, the third island to be discovered by the Portuguese.
Contained in size, sleepy and almost reserved, Terceira is actually an island that is worth visiting, even in passing, if only to admire the beautiful Angra do Heroismo, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO , and its caves, just waiting to be discovered. The town of Angra runs from the port winding up and down the hill beyond. It is dominated by the Monte do Brasil, and is characterized by cobbled streets and buildings of soft tones and pastel finishes, in perfect colonial style. Here you will find the beautiful little church of Sao Goncalo (dating from 1542), with it’s tiles on the walls depict the “flight into Egypt”. A must visit are the Algar Caves. A volcanic cone that leads to a cave formed also by the eruption of a volcano and covered with vegetation, right up to where the light comes in.
From the island of Terceira, I travel by turbulent ferry to the island’s largest – the island of Sao Miguel ( I use the term “turbulent” as it was a tiring journey which brought about stomach pains). After four hours of sailing, we finally touch the ground in the marina of Ponta Delgada, thank God, I felt quite wrecked.
It is in Sao Miguel that you really start to understand this place. As much as one can be prepared for the Azores it is in fact hardly possible to understand the charm of an island like this: the walk around Sete Cidades, where the craters have given way to big lakes, the heat of the natural hot springs in Furnas, the cliffs adorned with some lighthouses (such as at Nordeste), the black volcanic beaches such as those of Ribeira Grande, the exotic forests with lots of tree ferns, flowers, tea plantations, pineapple and the sea, so much sea.
I add new flags on my map on these two dots scattered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and even if I have not yet convinced you, I suggest that you read a bit of the list of “Islands to visit” compiled by National Geographic http://traveler.nationalgeographic.com/2007/11/nd07placesratedislands.pdf. The Azores are awarded a deserved second place, with a note of merit for sustainable tourism. Have a nice trip!
MEETINGS: SMILES AND CURIOSITIES
João approaches me with a smile and welcomes me to the Hotel Marina Atlantico of which he is director. His look is flawless, reflecting how the hotel operates. A live pianist accompanies us with sweet notes and escorts us to one of the finely prepared tables in the restaurant. He decided to spend the whole evening with me to reveal and talk about his land. He speaks Italian without hesitation, the conversation is enhanced by hints and life stories experienced firsthand. I bombard him with questions, taking advantage of this opportunity.
I find out that in the Azores there are as many cows as there are inhabitants, that weather forecasts are not considered reliable because of climate variability, that islanders are Açorian but they also feel the Portuguese in effect. Not only that, it seems that the waves of immigration of the last century have decreased so that even the youngest population find employment and choose not abandon their homeland (mainly engaging in the dairy sector, fishing and tourism).
Another piece of curiosity? The Açorian adore the web and live literally attached to the Internet: they are so isolated, and they want to find a “bridge” with the rest of the world. Last and not least their passion for picnics! There are tables and barbecues in all the parks and in all the ravines of the islands, even at the roadside (so that the packed lunch is always a good solution, except in case of rain).
And the Italians? Do Italians come to the Azores? “The answer is a resounding” No. I am a rare occurrence. “Too bad,” I say. Fortunately some journalists and curious adventurers have come up to these distant islands and also reported their findings in stories, guides and novels. There are some who fall in love and then it’s hard to get away from the memory of this place … “But what makes a trip to the Azores so special?” “First, the warm welcome given to the visitor, the varaity and explosion of nature, the variety of scenery, excellent cuisine and genuinity, “says João. All too true. “You Italians are too busy with the tourist influx,” he continues “So much so that at times you can no longer have time to be nice.” True again unfortunately …
COOKING: MILK AND FISH
Dairy production and cattle farming are very important to the Azores. The cow to inhabitant quota fact is shocking and it is amazing to think that for all of these animals there is a private corner of the land for them to graze outdoors. So you can only imagine the unspeakable goodness of milk and dairy products.
The milk cake I tried one morning in the Pousada Forte Sao Sebastiao was incredible. A simple but hearty sweet, the taste of which takes me back to my home, where my mother bakes bostrengo.
The bostrengo or bustreng is one of the most famous sweets of Romagna (although it is also widespread in the Marche) and every family jealously hands down the recipe. Beyond the basic ingredients, they are many variants. Some use chestnut flour, some corn, who enriches it with figs, almonds or pine nuts
I love the simple version: 1 litre of milk, 7 tablespoons of flour, 5 tablespoons sugar, 2 eggs, half a pound of butter and grated zest of one lemon
Just boil the milk, let it cool and add the rest a bit at a time. Mix everything well, pour the batter into a well greased baking sheet and cook for about 50 minutes at 180 degrees. Then take out the oven and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
However you cannot say that you have experienced a culinary experience in the Azores without experiencing the fruits of the sea. If you love fish then set aside space for a dinner in the small village of Ribeira Quente in the Restaurant Ponta do Garajau (http://restaurantepontadogarajau.com/en/) a charming fish only or almost only trattoria open from April to October. The restaurant offers delicious fresh fish dishes, with a menu that reflects rightly the availability of fish. Prompt and courteous service, affordable prices and a friendly and romantic setting just 6 km from Furnas. Start with the tasty lapas, molluscs typical of the Azores to open the dance, and finish with an amazing grilled fish. My advise? Listen without hesitation to what the restaurant owners suggest.
TRAVEL GUIDE : FLIGHTS, HOTEL, CAR AND TRIPS
You can improvise your travels and live your holiday adventure day by day. But there is always one thing that you can not fail to do before leaving: purchase your air ticket. With this trip it was easy, because I flew with Tap Portugal, this air company is receiving an increasingly important place in the international scene.
TAP Portugal flies daily, directly from Lisbon to Terceira and Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) with departures from Rome, Milan, Bologna and Venice (www.flytap.it). Tariffs from about 250 € all inclusive, including meals on board, checked baggage up to 23 kg + max 8 kg in hand. Online check-in and mobile check-in from 72 hours to 90 minutes before flight departure, with boarding pass to print or show from your mobile device. Free app for information on flight and destination chosen and, new, automatic e-mail and text messages on flights purchased. More info in the call center or travel agency TAP tel. 02.69682334.
It is also a good idea to book your hotels before leaving, not because it is difficult to find a place here ( don’t believe those who say that by June or September will not find place because it is high season), the Azores do not know the flows of tourism that we find normally in European locations.
Lista of hotels tested and recommended
A Terceira: a braccetto con la storia nella Pousada Forte Angra do Heroismo (http://www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pousada-angra)
The curtains flutter uncontrollably in the wind, accompanied by the cry of gulls and the roar of the sea breaking over rocks. We are at Forte de Sao Sebastiao, a structure built by none other than an Italian engineer, Tommaso Benedetto, at the behest of the Portuguese crown in the sixteenth century to defend Angra de Heroismo which it dominates. It now houses a hotel – a level structure, with all amenities, just steps from the harbor and the city.
In Sao Miguel: between the port of Ponta Delgada at Marina Atlantico (http://www.bensaude.pt/hotelmarinaatlantico/en/) and Park Terra Nostra of Furnas (http://www.bensaude.pt/terranostragardenhotel/en/).
The choice may be difficult between the two locations. When in doubt, go for both. The first is the comfortable hotel by definition: the location right on the harbor, the services offered, the parking and the modern style which is vaguely marine. As for the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, it would need a chapter of its own. However just think that it is considered the best hotel in the Azores and has received the Certificate of Excellence Tripadvisor this year. What else? From inside there is direct access to the Terra Nostra Park, with its thermal pool, one of the most famous “attractions”of the island.
To be as independent as possible on the islands, be sure to reserve a rental car, better to do it before leaving home to shorten the time: https://www.ilhaverde.com. Ilha Verde is now the local car rental, reliable and easy to find (between ports, airports, and locations of interest). The base vehicles cost from 45 € per day.
After my personal experience of the Ferry I would not recommend taking it (it wasn’t just a coincidence that the tickets were on special discount when I bought them!). Not to be missed however is a session of whale watching which is a wonderful oceanic experience. Picos de Aventura http://picosdeaventura.com organizes tours from 3 hours up to everyone: whale watching (there are as many as 27 species in these waters), swimming with dolphins and exploring the places of interest along the coast with packages up to 9 hour tours. Among these is included the one leading to Vila Franca do Campo, with its spectacular island where you can dip in the waters of an extinct volcano.
WHAT TO PACK
One needs to take critical care whilst preparing the suitcase for a trip like this, where the weather is constantly changing and it’S natural fluctuating rhythm. Fundamental if you do not want to spend days closed in shopping malls to buy the necessities (there is also a Decatlon in Ponta Delgada). You can not forget to pack: a poncho or waterproof jacket, a sweatshirt, sports shorts, hiking shoes and a backpack with a waterproof cover.
Instead to take home with you? Tea and little else unfortunately as the fish and milk you will have to leave behind, willingly or not.
BOOKS AND FILMS: NOVELS AND TALES
There are two books that are worth carefully reading if you intend to draw inspiration or simply feed your curiosity for this little known group of islands.
The first, “The woman of the Azores” by Romana Petri published in 2001 ( unfortunately out of print in bookstores) and “The Lady of Porto Pim” by Antonio Tabucchi (1983). Two very different books, but their titles link them in a twist of fate.
This piece of text by A.Tabucchi describes the islands, before his book goes on to talk about shipwrecks and whaling:
“Having sailed for many days and many nights, I realized that the West did not end but continues to move with us, and we can follow it at will without ever reaching it. So it is the unknown sea that lies beyond the Pillars, endless and always the same, from which emerge, as if the little backbone of a vanished giant, small ridges of is
lands, knots of rock lost in the blue”
He continues talking about Sao Miguel:
“The first island you meet viewed from the sea is an expanse of green and in the middle of it fruits shine like gems, and sometimes strange purple feathered birds mingle with them.” Moreover, as explained in another of his works: “It’s never just ‘that’ place: that place is also a bit of us. And one day, by chance, we arrived there.”