The Azores

Jo’s Monday walk : Ponta Delgada

Off to a flying start in the clouds last week, today we’ll have our feet much more firmly on the ground.  I’m taking you back to the beginning of our Azores adventure, and arriving in a rather dull, grey Ponta Delgada.  Quite a contrast to the sunny Algarve we left behind, but I was full of optimism and happy to finally be there.  It was mid-afternoon when we landed.  A 10 minute taxi ride from the airport, check-in, and we were out on the streets.  I needed a flavour of Sáo Miguel’s main city, and capital of the islands, because I would not be returning.  The following day we were flying onwards, to the island of Sáo Jorge.

My initial impression of Ponta Delgada was not kind.  Much of it looked neglected and unloved, the architecture reminiscent of an outdated Madeira.  But first impressions are not always fair, and my judgment was clouded by the heavy skies.  Nevertheless, the display at the airport should have alerted me that something special was happening here.  The billboards in the street were a definite clue.

The penny still not quite dropping, I wandered on.  The doors stood open on the church in the main square, and I ventured up the steps.

Sáo Sebastiáo, the Igreja Matriz or Mother Church, was magnificent.  I said a quick thank you for my safe deliverance and continued, drawn towards the waterfront.  I peered at the distant hills, willing the cloud to clear.  Down in the marina I was surprised to see paintings along the quay.  I associated these messages of goodwill with Horta, on the island of Faial, but the tradition must have spread to other islands.

So often my wanderings are defined by boats and churches, and this was to be no different.  I lingered hopefully, for just a patch of blue in the sky.  It was still warm enough for frolics in the outdoor pool, but I crossed the road to mount the hill to Sáo Pedro.

When I came out of the church, my husband was chatting to a mischievous looking small boy and his older, more sensible, sister.  They were giggling over their 4 or 5 words of English, while he manfully practised his Portuguese.  All were delighted with the situation.  We parted ways, in need of a coffee, and were amused to then find them sitting at the bus stop opposite our café.  They waved cheerfully as they waited for their bus home, and we ate our first Azorean pastries.

Our spirits lifted along with the clouds, and we strolled on along the waterfront.  By the Fort of Sáo Brás a bustling market was in full swing.  Across the Campo of Sáo Francisco, past the fountains and beyond the bandstand, a wonderful sight met our eyes.

The Church of Sáo Francisco was adorned with flowers.  Curious, we went inside.  Living in Portugal, as we now do, we are well used to splendid panels of azulejos.  Still we gawped at the walls and ceiling before us.  Yet these were not the main attraction.  A throng of people were gathered at the end of the church opposite to the beautiful altar, with their backs turned to it.  Slowly we edged forward to find a gap.  Behind a glass panel, this is what we saw.  We had inadvertently arrived on the island for the Festival of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres.

This link contains a video which you do not need to watch all of to understand the significance of this.  We had missed the parade but could still revel in the beauty of the flowers and decorated streets.  And our first hydrangea!

After supper we returned for a look at the illuminated streets.  The City Gate looked far more imposing with its wash of blue.

And Sáo Francisco?  Well, judge for yourself.  A bit of a dazzler!

The night time shots have too much glare, but I think you can feel the atmosphere.  Perhaps I misjudged Ponta Delgada.

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I’m back in the Algarve now, but still marveling at the many sights I saw in the Azores.  Join me for more here on Jo’s Monday walk next week.  And many thanks for all your wonderful contributions.

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Starting out with Ann-Christine’s beautiful homeland and a tribute to a remarkable man :

Thursday Thoughts – A Life’s Work

Then a little test for your fitness, with Suzanne :

Hiking the Henderson Tramline Loop

Something cool and soothing next, from Xenia :

A Walk at Leitir Easaidh

Not so hot in Toronto, either, but quite interesting.  Thanks, Indra!

Toronto Summer – Don River Valley

Some street art can be disturbing, but that’s part of its function, isn’t it, Ulli?

Urban Art Hall, Berlin

By contrast, lush growth and planting, from Jude.  I’ll make it to Cornwall yet!

Tremenheere Trees

Carol’s been in the wars lately, but she’s a real trooper :

More than a Battlefield

You can have such fun with photographs!  Sometimes I forget to play.  Thanks for reminding me, Lynn :

Local Walks : Wind in the Garden

The first of a series of walks by the Murrumbidgee River in Australia, in the company of a Wombat :

Molongo River Track (Crossing) – By way of Shepherd’s Lookout

While Cathy soldiers on, taking the good with the bad :

(Camino day 22) Castrojeriz to Boadilla del Camino

And Drake… well, he’s always off somewhere interesting.  Giverny is a favourite of mine :

Didn’t promise a rose garden

Breathing space

The following morning we saw just a little more of Ponta Delgada.  I’ll share it with you during the week.  Have a good one!

Jo’s Monday walk : Serra do Topo to Fajá dos Cubros

Me again!  A little bit of explanation is probably necessary before we start our next walk.  One half of this couple was not all that keen to go to the Azores.  For one thing, he doesn’t like airports or flying.  There were 6 flights involved in this holiday.  Secondly, only one of us drives, and the other is, shall we say ‘inconsistent’, with navigating.  Yes, even with Google Maps.  It has led to the odd fracas on previous jaunts.  In the interests of harmony, we had agreed that on this holiday we would use taxis or public transport, and that he would not hire a car unless absolutely necessary.

As it happens, public transport is extremely limited on the islands, and taxi hire a perfectly reasonable and accepted alternative to driving on some of the more tricky roads.  So it was that a lovely lady named Zélia, with bright orange finger nails and a dazzling smile, was driving us to the top of the island of Sáo Jorge.  Think ‘very steep’.  We left our base in Velas on a beautiful sunny morning, but were dismayed to find that high up on the mountain the mists were swirling damply.  Zélia informed us, with a cheery smile, that this was often the case, but that it would be fine further down.  Then she drove off, promising to pick us up again at 5.30pm at our destination, leaving us looking at each other in dismay.  Neither of us were clothed for wet weather, but at least I had on sensible shoes.

Which I needed!  Peering ahead and hoping that the going would not get too hard, we edged gingerly into the mists.  It was a little slippery under foot and concentration was needed, but I felt elated to be up there.  We started out at a height of 700 metres, and dropped relentlessly to ground level.  Tough on the knees, but I have to say that I’ve never done a more spectacular walk.  As the cloud swirled around us, occasionally we would catch an encouraging glimpse of the sea, far below.

What fascinated though was the appearance of the shrubs and trees.  Living their lives shrouded in moisture, many were clad in a thick fungal moss.

As the mist cleared a little, we stopped to munch on a couple of biscuits and restore our equilibrium.  Nothing was familiar, from the rickety, roped-together gates, to the trees, sprouting unexpectedly.  And then I spotted my first hydrangea.

We had thought that we were alone on the trail, but voices alerted us to the fact that we were being followed.  And then, ahead of us on the path, Ma and Pa, and two calves.  All of us showed the parents the greatest respect, but they seemed very placid and not at all alarmed at human presence.  The calves were a little more skittish and took avoidance action.

We exchanged pleasantries with the couple, who we were to meet again, picnicking by a waterfall.  Hopefully the worst of the descent was behind us, and we could look forward to a first glimpse of Caldeira de Santo Cristo.  Meanwhile we could enjoy nature’s playground, marveling at the ginger lilies and an abundance of tiny pink pom-poms.

And then suddenly, there it was in the distance, and I was challenged as to which view was better, the one ahead, or behind.  What a landscape!

It must be at about this stage that my husband’s knee began to play up.  Timing, huh?  The impact of all that downhill.  We took it as slowly as we could, which wasn’t hard because the views were stunning, but you still needed to concentrate on your footing.

Just in time we reached the sanctuary of Santo Cristo.  The church wall was the ideal place to sit and admire the Fajá (low ground) and salt water lake, and munch another couple of biscuits.  Looking at the map, we realised that we had only completed half the walk, and our final destination was nowhere in sight.  We had lived with worse views!

Luckily we had plenty of time, but the remainder of the walk was not as flat as we could have hoped and I could feel my husband wince at every downward step, let alone the ups.  Fajá dos Cubros still seemed a long way off.

Fortunately there were distractions.  In places workmen were repairing the track, and at one point gestured for us to walk forward through a trench of what looked like newly poured concrete.  Naturally we proceeded with caution.  Elsewhere there were signs of slippage and a new bridge was under construction.  Winter storms had taken their usual toll.  Slowly and painfully we covered the last of the ground, and I don’t know which of us was more relieved to see the spire of Nossa Senhora de Lourdes.

I do know that it was wonderful to sit beneath the vines in that serene and lovely spot.  And who should be there but our nice French couple, eating icecream.  Seemed like a good idea, but first I had a glass of wine, while I listened to their story.

But I couldn’t leave it there!  With Mick sitting peacefully, I had to look at the lagoon at Fajá dos Cubros.  The stillness of the place was remarkable.  I don’t know when I have experienced anything like it.  Lava bridges separated the pools, and the light was starting to fade a little.  I was all alone, with this haunting, eery beauty.

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Just minutes later, Zélia collected us, full of apologies.  She runs a little cleaning business in addition to taxi-driving.  A cleaner had phoned in sick, and she’d had to cover for her, making her slightly late.  She more than compensated as she swept us back over the majestic mountain, chattering merrily, and stopping to let us look back down at the view.  What a day!  Should you be tempted, the 10km walk was PR01 SJO.

I don’t know if you’ll agree, but I think this is possibly the most beautiful walk I have ever undertaken.  I had half written the post when I came upon Ann-Christine’s Lens-Artists challenge for this week.  I know that she loves these islands as much as I do, and would like to dedicate this walk to her.  I think that there are just enough Trees.

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Sorry if this is a bit long-winded, (and no cake, Brian!) but it is such a powerful memory for me.  I’ve attempted to keep track of all the walks in my absence, but if I’ve missed anyone, I’m sorry.  Just give me a nudge.  Normal service resumed on Jo’s Monday walk.

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You know when Debbie says casual amble, that it won’t be.  Anything but!  Another place that I love!

Casual amble around Cascais

It’s a beautiful part of the world, and even better with great weather.  Thanks, Margaret!

Moors and hills and rugged coast : walking Northumberland

Chihuly and Kew in the same sentence, with a little bit of whimsy from Geoff :

Forming a Disorderly Kew #Kewgardens #Dalechihuly

Janet takes us wandering in France.  You never know what you might find…

Monday walk…in Saint-Bresson

Monday walk…La Chapelle de Beauregard

There are still some places that I’m cross with myself for not seeing.  Natalie shares a few, here :

Croatia: Delightful Dalmation Coast

Sounds like a sitcom, but life with Jude is never that.  It’s more about sharing beauty :

The Lanes in May

If you go down to the woods today… you might well find Susanne  🙂

Walking Midst the Tallest Trees on Earth

Or for something more exotic, try Drake’s place :

Brightening eyes

A grey reminder of England, in a city I know to be lovely.  Thanks, Rosemay!

York – A Walk Round the Old City Walls

An unusual one from Tammy :

Photography Challenge Neon Signs

Days 18-21 on Cathy’s road.  Some good, some bad, but with a happy ending :

(Camino day 18) Atapuerca to Burgos

(Camino day 21) Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz & Ruminations

‘Get your kicks on Route 84’ just doesn’t sound right somehow, now does it?

Haibun : Casa Grande

Rupali shares the beauty of the Land of the Midnight Sun :

Weekend 82 : Midnight walk

Ending with a display of the military that made me smile, from Carol.  Read why over in her comments :

Feel the Beat

Have a great week, everybody!  I’ve heard that Summer is about to begin in Britain.  Good news, hey?

Six word Saturday

Azores?  Impossible in just six words!

See the cone shape in the background?  That’s Pico, a volcanic island with the highest mountain in Portugal.  We could see it from our bedroom.

Hard to say which was my favourite island.  Probably Pico or Sáo Jorge, but we had another great bedroom view from Horta, on Faial.

Just the tip of the iceberg.  Come to think of it, that’s a great Six Words! (or maybe, the volcano?)  The captions will help.  Happy Saturday!

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A Call to place : the Azores

I can’t remember where it was that I first read about the Azores, but it goes back many years.  Açores, they say, here in Portugal, a softer sound; with a kind of reverence, and a far away look in their eyes.  A chain of nine islands, adrift on the North Atlantic, and just loosely tethered to the mainland, their volcanic origins creating dramatic scenery, soothed by the Gulf Stream.  That’s enough to stir the imagination, isn’t it?

I was born on an island, and have always loved the sea.  That azure colour, glinting in the sunlight, sits permanently in the back of my mind, though many’s the time I’ve seen it leaden grey.  I loved Portuguese Madeira and the volcanic aspects of the Spanish Canary Islands.  I felt impelled to know more.  Where exactly were they, and how could I get there?

850 miles west of mainland Portugal, and over a thousand miles south east of Newfoundland, Canada.  An autonomous part of Portugal, they are divided, for convenience, into 3 groups : Grupo Oriental, to the east, with the largest of the islands, São Miguel, and much smaller, Santa Maria; Grupo Central comprises the ‘happy’ island of Terceira, Graciosa,  São Jorge, Pico, with its volcanic cone- the highest mountain in Portugal, and Faial, with its port Horta, known for Peter’s Sport Cafe, the sailing capital of the Azores; and the most mysterious and far away, Grupo Ocidental, to the west, Flores and tiny Corvo.  It was obvious, from the very beginning, that visiting all of the islands would be expensive, and time consuming.  So, which ones, and when?

Whenever I read of the islands there would be reference to volcanic lakes, surrounded by hedges of hortensia, or Hydrangeas, as I know them.  A ‘Granny’ plant, I always thought of them, filling the front gardens of old ladies’ houses.  But the pictorial evidence showed lakes of blue and green, in Spring and Summer wrapped around with foaming, creamy blue mopheads, like nothing Granny had ever imagined.  For years I brooded on these.  Not given to extravagant holidays, whenever I caught sight of an offer I would avidly read the small print, wondering if this might be the one.  But the timing was never right.  Finally I suggested to my husband that it would make a brilliant 70th birthday present, but could ignite little interest from him.  He was focused completely on our intended move to the Algarve.  I knew that I could fly directly to the islands from Lisbon, so it made sense to be patient.

Meanwhile, I talked to everybody I could who might know anything of these islands.  One of our Algarve walking friends had made a solo visit one winter, and been so enchanted with São Jorge that he planned to organise a group visit.  It never happened.  I joined the Seniors Club in Tavira, only to find that the 5 day Azores trip they were offering clashed with my son’s visit.  I enthused so much that 2 other of our walking friends organised a celebratory visit to São Miguel for their daughter’s graduation present.  Despite mixed weather in February, they loved it.  Still others remembered swimming in thermal pools there, more than 15 years ago.  Was I the only person never to have been?  Whenever the subject was mentioned, eyes would light up, and memories be triggered.

I turned to the world of blogging and to Instagram to broaden my knowledge of where to go, and what there was to see.  I was considering an organised walking holiday with Inntravel, or a cruise with Artisan, but I couldn’t quite get the balance right (or the price!)  In the end I booked it all myself, using SATA, the Azores airline.  Roughly following the Inntravel itinerary, I booked ferries and chose hotels with much deliberation.  13 nights, 4 islands, 6 flights, 2 ferries and 6 hotels.  The date was chosen to coincide with the flowers being at their peak.  It never even entered my head that I would be missing the French Open, and an amazing 12th title at Roland Garros for Rafa Nadal.

All a little daunting, I was desperate for it to come together seamlessly.  Or with a minimum of hiccups.  🙂   Much information on the islands and their history is available on Wikipedia.  For me, this is the beginning of a memorable journey.  Thanks to Cathy at Wander.essence for the opportunity to share it.  Read of the determination that took her to a Call to place: the Sultanate of Oman.