i believe in the angels that walk the world
i believe in the Goddess with diamond eyes
i believe in lunar loves with a piano in the background
i believe in legends, fairies, Atlanteans…
i believe in the amazing, the amazing things
in the occupation of the world by roses,
i believe that Love has wings of gold.
– Natalia Correia, Azorean poet.
In Greek mythology sung by Homer and Horace, thousands of miles from Western Europe and North America lies an archipelago known as the Fortunate and Blessed Isles…
They must have been writing about the Azores, a winterless paradise with calderas and volcanos, picturesque falls and sulphur springs, rolling hills and green tea fields, ancient paths and flower-lined roads, villages centuries-old with World Heritage vineyards along the coast, magical lava pools, world class ports, and five-star trails where bellflowers bloom and goldfinches croon…
Here, the volcanic soil is so rich that anything and everything grows, and birds happily chirp in rows. Fables say the islands are reserved for those who are pure to enter the Elysian Fields of aromatic wines and sour cheese wheels, sweet meadows and verdant hues…
Welcome to the legendary Azores’ shades of green!
The green of the hillside
cast itself on the blue sea.
It was impossible to know
where the land ended
and the sea began. And that
made the inhabitants happy.
– Luciano Barcelos, Sobre Pedras/Over Rocks.
Each of the nine volcanic islands is associated with a colour: lushy green Sao Miguel, bright yellow Santa Maria, hydrangea blue Faial, volcanic gray Pico, cliffside brown Sao Jorge, soft lilac Terceira, pure white Graciosa, flashy pink Flores, and pitch black Corvo. God’s palette!
I arrive in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island, the capital of the archipelago, at the tail end of a storm, a baptismal initiation into true Atlantic form. After a week of rigorous geothermal activity, soaking in bubbling springs and finding my new bearings, I fly out to the middle Golden Triangle – Faial, Pico, and Sao Jorge – to stroll along picturesque vineyards and enjoy some fine cheese tasting. With a heavy heart I part with the pretty medieval city, Angra, on the island of Terceira. Three weeks of utter bliss, nourished by spectacular nature and serendipitous encounters, in a state of Azorean rapture!
“Smoke and Mirrors”: Sao Miguel
The largest, greenest, and most spectacular in the archipelago, São Miguel deserves all superlatives. A geothermal spot with near-Mediterranean temperatures, this gem of an island has so much to offer: geysers and hot springs, crater lakes and natural pools, quaint coastal towns and well worn trails, waterfalls and pristine beaches…
I begin my three-week stay in the mountain village of Furnas whose atmospheric sulfur pits and therapeutic mud pools are world famous. The early morning light drifting over the fumaroles gives an ethereal feel to this high energy field. I wander around the blooming gardens before stopping to try the Queijo do Vale famed for its acidic flavour due to the volcanic mineral water. All cheesed up, I linger around Lagoa das Furnas before indulging in the iron-rich springs. What a warm Azorean welcome!
One day is hardly enough to soak my sore traveller’s muscles after fifteen months on the road. I heard there’s a wondrous thermal spot in a tiny little town called Ferraria where volcanic steam mixes with seawater to produce a natural happy corner. Bikini-clad, I start my second day feeling like a princess, gliding downhill towards the inlet, only to find a roaring surf, vestige of a powerful storm that wiped out much of the turf. It’s high tide and not the time to take a dip on the wild side! Consolation, consolation: an hour away, in picturesque Mosteiros, there’s an equally spectacular pool where I take a plunge after a gastronomic lunch. The roasted octopus goes down particularly well in a whirl!
In the center of the island sits the legendary Lagoa de Fogo that loves to play peekaboo with tourist fools. On her last day in the Azores, Flore, an adventurous French traveller, decides to go for a final run. Irina, a Romanian expat in Lisbon, and I tag along the scenic drive, up Pico do Barrosa and down the miradouro. Oh, c’est beau! c’est beau! Lo and behold, the Lake of Fire graces us with her cameo entrance before its rapid disappearance. A quick detour to pretty Ponta do Cintrão and Lagoa de Fogo is now hiding in the clouds. But look what we find as we head back to town: a spectacular sundown with Azores’ shades of green and brown!
The morning after: a surprise rainbow! What an enchanting archipelago! Legend has it that a toxically jealous widower king forbade his daughter to flex her happiness wings. She shed green tears of pain next to the shepherd boy’s blue sobs in vain, bequeathing us the iconic twin lakes famous for the Azorean heartache in Sete Cidades. A hike on top of the crater’s edge is a sensual delight: the changing light and colours, with hues of green so bright, the flowers in bloom and birds in flight… If grief gives birth to such beauty, we can all feel a little less sorry!
Locals say their favourite spot is Nordeste, the oldest part of Sao Miguel, with tiny towns connected through ancient roads. I stroll around Edenic Lomba da Fazenda and Achadinha, soaking in picturesque falls and the gorgeous colours of Azores!
Happiness is simple à la Faialense
The hour-long flight from Ponta Delgada to Horta is spectacular, with panoramic views of Sete Cidades and the entire island chain in the middle cluster, from Teiceira to Sao Jorge, Pico to Faial before descending into the pretty port city of Horta. I plan a grand long weekend, hiking up gentle Mt. Guia overlooking the historic harbor and admiring the murals of sailors from far flung corners. We’ve been here! they all paint. Life’s so short, time to undo the figure eight knots!
I have come to Faial to meet a legendary fellow, Vulcao dos Capelinhos. In 1957, the volcano erupted for thirteen long months, hurling ash for kilometres and sending locals to as far as Canada. The volcanic strata and hardened lava tell such a powerful story, I stand mesmerized by their constantly shifting colours, with black hues, grey tones, and shades of brown, the best reflections in a Faialense sundown…
From there, a 20-km Dez Vulcões track takes one through ten volcanos and twenty cones to scenic Caldeira, a perfect challenge for nimble trail runners. I’m happy to cheer, feeling so awe-inspired to plod along a tad bit faster!
The best views of handsome Pico are often from its next door neighbour. Like Cezanne in Mount Victoire and Monet in Gare St. Lazare, or Hokusai sketching his ukiyo-e, I try to capture Pico in all light and weather. “We are sentimental about Pico!” confess the locals. “If we don’t see him for a few days, we’re grumpy like a jealous lover!” Happiness is simple à la Faialense: a morning view of Pico, a culinary lunch in Horta, a scenic drive up Caldeira, and a perfect Azorean sunset in Vulcao dos Capelinhos!
Pico, Pico, Where did You Go?
A depression sets in and for days Pico refuses to meet and greet. With pounding rain and howling wind, a vertical ascension is not an option. Plan B would be a short stroll from Madalena to Paisagem da Cultura da Vinha, amidst five-hundred-year old vineyards protected by stone walls against salty seawater and lined with volcanic rocks that warm the grapes like a heater. On the other side of the island, from Santana to Lajido, via Arcos and Cabrito, I hike some more to photograph traditional houses and wine cellars. Settling comfortably in Sao Roque, once a vibrant whaling town, I enjoy ocean sprays in mineral-filled lava pools while gazing longingly at Pico, the moody fellow. It’s obvious he is sulking still; get close at your own peril!
Say Cheese, Sao Jorge
Pico’s neighbour has a totally different flavour. Sao Jorge is famous for faja, “a tongue of land stuck between the sea and mountain, a place with faces and stories.” From quiet Calheta, I take a long walk through undulating hills to arrive at tiny patches of coffee fields. Some 200 years ago, Mario’s family brought back coffee beans from Brazil to Faja do Vimes. When his parents’ friends came over, they all said, Wow, your coffee’s such a wonder! Soon the word spread that the only coffee plants in Europe could be found in Sao Jorge’s slopes. Protected by a micro-climate and ripened naturally by lava energy, this ain’t no Arabica typica, but one with a light Azorean fruity flavour. Mario’s mom and aunt also make beautiful embroidery. Legend has it that grandma didn’t think it’s right for women to make a living and burned all the looms in one big boom. Thankfully, her feminist son rebuilt the looms one by one, by salvaging wood from a burned house in the neighbourhood, keeping colourful quilt weaving as part of Sao Jorgean traditional living.
In Faja do Ouvidor, there’s an impressive natural lava pool set in basalt columns next to raging torrents. The rain keeps falling and I go on exploring. The road down to Faja dos Cubres is so scenic, the miradouro of the spectacular coastline irresistibly photogenic. There’s light in the background with menacing clouds hovering, and the green lagoons of Faja dos Cubres and Faja do Santo Cristo down in the bottom, beckoning… Suddenly a few blackbirds enter my viewfinder and accompany me in this fiesta of vistas! For the rest of my stay in those rainy autumnal days, I help myself with generous servings of Queijo São Jorge. What a marvellous strong clean bouquet!
Farewell My Angra!
I arrive in Angra on the last island of Terceira at the end of October when autumnal weather quickly gathers. Taking advantage of a sunny spell, I set out early for a coastal trail from Ponta das Contendas to Porto Martins, passing through bucolic pastures and fort ruins. I couldn’t resist yet another dip in a gorgeous natural pool, feeling already nostalgic for such a wondrous simple luxury.
On my last day, I brave the rain to ride to Biscoitos, meander through the vines that produce the famous Verdelho sweet wine before plunging one last time in a stupendous lava pool set in a raging Atlantic. Covid might have stopped the bullfighting and carnaval, Holy Ghost and wine festival, Angrajazz and Rock shows, and the unique Terceiran musical tradition of challenging verse recitals. But the cultural energy of Angra is palpable. Come back next summer, urge the locals. You know I will. I still have to try Verdelho served with a sweet orange pie! Adeus minha Angra and my beloved archipelago!
For three weeks, I awoke to birds singing and Gorreana tea brewing, the smell of sea and homemade jams of berries. On sweet mornings, my day began with pineapple liqueur, followed by a trail with gorgeous vistas, always with a palette of Azorean light and colours. I enjoyed roaming in the cities, with murals and gardens and pavilions, chatting up locals about their happy corners…
But it’s Azores’ unparalleled nature – and their legendary shades of green – that completely won my heart over. The summer crowds had thinned; often there were just the sea, the trail, and me. And the endless wonder of life’s bountiful energy!
After Cape Verde, Canaries, and Madeira, the Azores are the last instalment of my 3-month island-hopping tetralogy to celebrate the end of an adventurous year traveling in Africa during the pandemic. Twenty-two wonder islands and infinite memories!
It will be hard to return to real life! my friends have been warning me. Is it right? But this is my real life, walking the earth between the sun and the sea, trying to capture fleeting moments. What priceless freedom that I’m so happy to share with you!
Walk?! It costs me nothing!…
I’m not afraid of the night
Not afraid to get tired…
I only know that, in this destination
I go after what I don’t know.
– Natalia Correia, Azorean poet.