Day Twenty Four…Friday 13th April
Tavira – the Algarve
We woke at Quinta do Caracol, our quirky but delightful B&B to much improved weather.
The “Quinta do Caracol”, Portuguese for farm of the snail, or Snail Farm had been in the family for generations and dated back to 1680. Originally the farm produced olives and almonds but as the town of Tavira spread to encompass the farm, it’d been converted into a characterful bed and breakfast, surrounded by traditional gardens including a swimming pool, ponds, a playground and gravel paths. All very peaceful and soothing.
The painters were at work, applying the annual gloss to the white walls, normally this would have been done earlier in the year but a late Spring and unseasonable rains had delayed the work.
After yesterday’s dramas, Andrew was feeling fairly shattered but after taking a powerful cocktail of drugs seemed to be on the mend. He requested a slow start and another night in Tavira to speed up his recovery. So, we wandered off to the breakfast room, in an enclosed area in the garden.
Inside, warmed by a roaring fire where Kerrie enjoyed an amazing buffet of freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, a huge range of cereals, bread, cakes and buns with a choice of tomato and pumpkin jam, and cooked eggs of her choice, made to order. Andrew had herbal tea and dried toast. We met a very jolly German and his wife who were astounded we were from as far away as New Zealand.
Sadly, we were unable to stay in our two bedroom apartment as it was booked for the night but at least they did have another room available. By the time we had packed and moved to our tastefully furnished one bedroom whitewashed studio room, (one of seven houses joined together – originally farm buildings), it was 12 noon. With the sun continuing to shine we opted for a drive along the Algarve, Portugal’s famed southern coastal area, aiming for the Iberian peninsula’s most south-westerly point. We had hoped the road would hug the coast offering views of glorious beaches but instead it was a commuter route through a string of towns, light industrial areas, shops and services and had nothing much to recommend it.
The only time we turned off the main road and drove to the seafront, we saw block after block of flats, and one very big resort hotel but the waterfront was almost like a port with a few paths through grassy areas and not worth even getting out of the car to take a photo.
The one highlight of the drive where we did stop was when we spotted a collection of huge nests, perched on top of heavily pruned tree trunks.
These were storks’ nests and despite the late arrival of spring, that hadn’t slowed down the storks ( amusingly, since they are in traditional fairy tales associated with the delivery of babies!).
They were busy feeding their young.
We pressed on, finally reaching Sagres, the last town before the Portuguese equivalent of Lands End, the southwestern-most part of the country.
We were in search of a historic fort we’d read about but weren’t sure exactly what it would look like.
What greeted us was an imposing walled fort that looked slightly surreal, almost like a film set from a spaghetti western. It has in fact a distinguished history, tracing back to Henry the Navigator who established a fort and maritime/navigational training school here back in the 15th century. At that time, this was regarded as quite literally, the ends of the Earth. Before Columbus no-one in Europe knew about the New World beyond the ocean – they believed the Earth was flat and this was where the world ended. Henry’s aim was to broaden knowledge through maritime exploration and to do so, he wished to produce a cadre of smart sailors who would venture into the unknown world across the ocean and bring renown and riches to Portugal.
It was 3 o’clock by the time we arrived but the weather was fine and we decided to go in and see what there was to see. Which turned out to be quite a lot.
Most of the original fort was destroyed in the cataclysmic earthquake that shattered Portugal in 1755. What remains is this one small section.
Most of what we can see now is a later structure dating to the 18th century, but still with stupendous views of the cliffs on either side of the peninsula.
The fort has a fantastic vantage point, guarding Cape Sagres and there was a well made and signposted walk around the rocky, windswept point, following the cliff edge for about two kilometres.
The point was home to rare plant species, some seen nowhere else, sea birds, stunning views up and down the coastline, a mixture of rugged cliffs and beaches where Atlantic rollers pounded in fury….
..battering themselves against the cliffs.
Apparently, this is a surfer’s paradise! We walked around the circular pathway taking in the stunning views.
Curiosities were hollowed clefts with views down to the ocean…
..and an enclosed blow-hole. Cleverly constructed as a maze of concentric concrete walls that create an amplifying echo chamber – you walk around and around and at the centre is a chamber where you sit by the vent, waiting for the rush of air and powerfully reverberating roar of the sea rushing into the caves below.
Quite strange and eerie – although Kerrie wasn’t sure it improved her hairstyle!
Signs around the walk informed you about the wildlife, plant life and the history.
As well as the dangers of walking outside the fence.
But as we’ve discovered elsewhere, there are always some people who blithely ignore the perils of getting too close to the cliff edge in search of that special selfie!
At the end of the circuit we went up the ramparts for a wider view – to find that one end was dedicated to Santa Barbara, Saint Barbara.
After a couple of hours, we took our selfie from the safety of the carpark,
climbed into our car and headed back to Tavira, this time taking the motorway, not just faster, but unusually, more scenic as well!
We got back around 7pm and decided to head downtown for a wander to get a taste of Tavira and find a place to eat (Andrew’s digestive system now being recovered!).
Tavira, it turns out is quite charming – with cobbled streets and a historic centre, as well as a Roman bridge crossing the river.
Some of the house and streets look a little tired and in need of a touch up but overall, very pleasant. We found the restaurant recommended by Nunu, the charming and helpful night manager at the Quinta do Caracol, which turned out to be a gem, a family-owned and run place where the mother cooked the recipes handed down by the grandmother and the man charmingly spoke much more English than he let on. The place was crowded so we were sat right beside a Norwegian couple – regular visitors for the past eight years.
There were several ‘platos do dia’ to choose from (Andrew chanced his luck with octopus in tomato and rice, filling and very good). We chatted to the Norwegians about their country, the social welfare system and immigration. All very interesting. Like other countries in Europe, they’re struggling with the issue of how to accommodate refugees from other parts of the world and assimilate them into their culture.
Day Twenty Five … Saturday 14th April
Tavira to Évora
Our first priority was to book ourselves somewhere to stay in Évora – our next destination. We checked our Lonely Planet guide and found a hotel in the centre of the old town which had a room available – with a warning about difficult parking. We booked it and crossed our fingers it would work out. Évora is known as a museum-city, whose roots go back to Roman times, having been occupied continuously since the second century AD. It reached its golden age in the 15th century, when it became the residence of the Portuguese kings.
We had a 250km drive north of Tavira ahead of us so we decided to take a secondary road both to avoid paying the hefty tolls for using the motorways in Portugal and to enjoy a leisurely drive through the countryside.
The landscape was mostly forested/wooded countryside, undulating with a sense of rural remoteness and scarcely any signs of humans.
It was delightful but somewhat surprising compared with other European countries, but then we discovered that Portugal has the highest proportion of forest area in Europe (38% ), larger than the area dedicated to agriculture (33 % ).
Here in the south the trees are largely evergreen and there were masses of what turned out to be Maritime Pines and Stone Pines, grown mostly for timber, and some cork trees – a sight we were to become very familiar with.
With their strangely denuded trunks and branches, often numbered to show which farmer owned them.
The woodlands were covered in one particularly distinctive looking wildflower, the Gum Cistus, a member of the Rockrose family. They were everywhere, so much so we wondered if they were harvested or used for anything. Possibly, since the sticky, scented substance which comes from the leaves of the plant is used in the perfume industry.
We thought we’d stop for lunch in the town of Beja – but after going round and round about three times without spotting anywhere to eat and frankly feeling it was a rather unattractive town, we gave up, filled up with petrol and pressed on to Évora.
We arrived mid-afternoon and punching the hotel’s address into the GPS (Carmen), entered the “labyrinth”. Finding our way through this old fortified town with incredibly narrow cobbled streets, one-way systems and tight corners was nerve wracking but with ‘Carmen’s’ help we reached our destination, a small square outside the entrance to the town’s medieval cathedral. After parking in a resident’s spot we were advised by a Tuktuk tour driver to find another asap as we’d get a hefty fine. Luckily, a public car space came free and Andrew waited while Kerrie set off to find the hotel down a cobbled street.
Kerrie returned with good news – she’d found the hotel! We dragged our bags down the street past a lot of tourist shops selling cork souvenirs, to the Hotel Riviera.
We checked in – the staff were very pleasant and helpful, even hauling our large bags up the narrow stairs to our room on the third floor. We wondered why they didn’t have a lift, Kerrie asked and the duty manager pointed to a glassed in space by the stairs and said that was where they’d planned to install a lift but in the process had discovered Roman ruins – which put paid to that!
Our room was small but clean with a decoratively tiled bathroom. We got some advice about where to go to see some sights and get something to eat and wandered down to the old town centre. We found the Estrella café, and were served by a colourful character who told us we should have a proper Évoran toasted sandwich with local bread (none of that childish baguette nonsense!). It was enormous – so big, we couldn’t finish it, one between us would have been ample!
Having got some directions, we walked down to the Chapel of Bones, a somewhat ghoulish but popular place for tourists. Andrew was keen – Kerrie not so much, so she opted to stay outside and soak up the sun in the square. The chapel is a bizarre and Gothic reminder of how life and death were viewed back in the 16th century. Part of the Royal Church of St Francis, the chapel walls and interior were constructed using the bones of 5000 bodies recovered from an old cemetery by Franciscan monks.
Apparently, the cemeteries were overcrowded and space was needed for expansion of the town. The creative solution the Franciscan monks came up with to ensure the bones remained on consecrated land and to remind the wealthy of Évora that life is transitory and to keep their minds focused on heavenly rather than earthly matters – was to use the human bones as building blocks and design features.
The cheery reminder of mortality was emphasised by the words carved above the chapel entrance, which translated say: “We bones that are here, are waiting for yours.”
Gruesome yet fascinating, top marks for creative use of human remains!
On the way back we caught a sports festival happening in the main plaza with young gymnasts, music, people out drinking coffee and beer. From there we went back up to the medieval cathedral. The Sé Cathedral of Évora is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. First constructed in the 12th century and restored in a Gothic style in 13th and 14th centuries, the fortified cathedral was originally built to confirm the Christian Crusaders’ conquest over the North African Moors.
Andrew paid 4 euros to go in but since it involved going up lots of steep steps, Kerrie’s knees declined the opportunity.
There were 135 steps up a narrow spiral staircase, with little or no room for passing; but they gave you remarkable access to the entire roof of the cathedral, with a paved rooftop.
There were magnificent 360 views of the town and surrounding countryside.
Descending via another set of narrow steps, you arrive in the famed Gothic style cloisters surrounding a peaceful courtyard.
Kerrie was waiting patiently outside and we walked the short distance to the famous Roman ruins – often referred to as the Temple of Diana, although there’s no textual or historical evidence to support that.
It was built around the 1st century AD and later adopted by a cult that venerated the Emperor Augustus. The reason for its existence here is that Ebora, as it was then known, was a Roman military headquarters under a commander named Quintus Sertorious.
Erected at the highest point of the town, the temple has survived remarkably intact, twelve stone Corinthian columns and the connecting architraves still standing.
The reason is that it was forgotten for a thousand years after which the structure was incorporated into the walls of Évora castle, and subsequently used as a storage area and butcher’s shop.
The temple was clearly a major attraction with several tour groups walking around….and us too! Caption: here are some more Roman ruins!
From the adjacent Gardens of Diana, there were views of another of the town’s historic marvels, a centuries old aqueduct.
Évora flourished once more in the 15th century, and in 1537, they restored the old Roman aqueduct. The Aqueduct of Silver Water was celebrated for bringing pure, crystal clear water to the town.
By now we’d worked up an appetite and went down back to the square and found the Fábrica dos Pastéis, a traditional bakery and tea shop which we’d been told about at the hotel where they make the famous ‘pastel de nata’, Portuguese custard tarts. Our Portuguese friend back in Wanaka, Pedro had told us we should have a custard tart in every town. An old Portuguese gastronomic tradition apparently.
We tried the tarts with a pot of tea but weren’t convinced. The almond tarts looked better.
But at least we could tell Pedro we’d tried them!
On our way back down the narrow lane where the pastry factory is, we noticed sections of old wall visible through plate glass. We could just make out that these were old Roman walls. Turns out they are the remains of a Roman house, attached to the original Roman city walls, built in the 3rd century AD. It is open to the public but unfortunately they had closed by the time we saw them.
We returned to our hotel, went online to check messages. Big moment! We logged on to K9 B&B kennels where our dog George was staying and found a post by Doug of the small to medium dogs – AND THERE WAS GEORGE!!! Looking very well and fit and happy. We could hear Doug talking to George and telling him to say hi to Mum and Dad. Very funny and very reassuring, we were so happy to see George looking well and cared for. We went for a wander downtown, to the now empty and quiet plaza, where we looked at a huge marble fountain, got some money out and then back up to see the illuminated Roman temple.
Back in our room, we found it was very noisy outside – students most likely, as Évora is noted for having the country’s second oldest university. Shutting the window firmly was the only way to get some sleep.
Day Twenty Six … Sunday 15th April
Évora, Megalithic sites – to Lisbon
We started the day having a big breakfast in the second floor breakfast room (fruit and eggs – Kerrie’s favourite food) before packing up the car and heading out into the nearby countryside to visit three megalithic sites. Évora and the Alentejo region is considered the megalithic capital of Iberia with more than ten megalithic sites dating back to between five and a half and seven and a half thousand years old (two thousand years older than Stonehenge).
The weather was atrocious. The forecast rain had arrived overnight and it was very wet, foggy and misty, raining heavily at times and despite Carmen’s best efforts we had huge difficulty finding the right road to take, doubling back on our tracks a number of times, before coming across the road side car park and the sign to the first site. The access was on foot down a very narrow, dirt, and in parts very muddy track, cut through a working farm. We followed along behind others making the same pilgrimage to the ancient sacred site.
After walking about three hundred metres we emerged into a clearing and in the centre was the menhir of Almendres.
Dating from the early-middle Neolithic period (Early Neolithic: 5500-4500 BC), it was a single huge upright rock, shaped like an elongated egg and had a crook engraved in bas-relief on the top. This is a common motif apparently, associated with the agricultural culture of the Neolithic peoples. It’s alignment appears to be related to another megalithic structure which we were going to visit next.
There were no fences or barriers restricting access to the stone which meant you could touch the stone and allow your imagination to take you back to a time when neolithic humans gathered there.
No one knows why they did but as this is the only region where the river basins of the most important rivers in the south of Portugal come together: Tagus, Sado and Guadiana, perhaps the Alentejo plains were ideal for the agro-pastoral life of these people.
On the drive to the next site we passed a French man and his wife striding purposefully along in the rain wearing flimsy raincoat ponchos and makeshift wet weather gear so we offered them a ride. They were very appreciative and jumped in chatting away to Andrew in French saying they had been reluctant to drive their motor home on the wet country roads for fear of getting bogged so had parked it in a nearby village and walked.
The next site was the Almendres Cromelech (Cromeleque dos Almendres), or Almendres Megalithic Site, the largest megalithic monument on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the oldest in the whole world.
The site is composed of 95 granite monoliths of various heights arranged in a semi-elliptical pattern along an east-west axis, installed between the 6th and the 4th millennia BC.
Most of the monoliths were of an almond shape, some were as high as two and a half metres, and a few had engraved symbols and markings on them but the effects of erosion had taken their toll and they were hard to see.
The site was shrouded in a light mist, giving it an atmosphere of mystery and allowing the imagination to conjure up scenes from the past.
What is so extraordinary is the Almendres stone circle was only discovered in 1964 when the Portuguese archaeologist Henrique Leonor de Pina was conducting a geological survey to map and identify important archaeological sites and found most of the monoliths were lying on the ground. It took a team coordinated by Portuguese archaeologist Mário Varela Gomes to identify and restore them to their original positions. Sadly, we discovered that de Pina died in May 2018, the month after we visited this incredible monument.
Once more, there were no restrictions or barriers and there was only a handful of other visitors so it was easy to imagine some sort of worship or pagan ceremony occurring there.
Archaeologists note that the location on a gentle slope looking towards the eastern horizon as well as the alignment with the equinox, strongly suggest an intentional relationship with the cycles of the sun and the moon. This would have been a sacred place, where groups of Neolithic peoples came together to celebrate the great cycles of nature.
Immersed in the atmosphere of this ancient place, we stayed for some time walking alone or together between and around the rocks.
The third site we visited was The Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro, also discovered by Henrique Leonor de Pina. Built between the 4th and mid-3rd millennia BC, this massive funerary monument is the largest dolmen in Europe. Now on a privately owned farm, to get there we had to drive on a very rutted dirt farm road (hoping our rented car would cope) until we could drive no further and there appeared to be a makeshift car park. From there we crossed a small bridge and followed a track across a field to a gate and beyond the gate stood the huge stone structure underneath a sheet metal protective shelter and with a group of cows sitting under the shade of the cork trees behind it.
The structure of this dolmen was immense, with 6 metre tall rocks positioned to form a huge burial chamber five metres in diameter.
The entrance signposted by a massive menhir, now lying on its side.
Originally, an immense circular capstone covered the burial chamber, but this had been removed by archaeologists to give them access. It now lies on the ground above the dolmen.
Their excavations revealed evidence confirming the dolmen was a major burial site, used for over 1500 years. Inside, they discovered pottery, arrows, axes, schist plates and other artefacts. The quality of these grave goods suggested those buried there were highborn or distinguished individuals. Most of the site’s relics are now in the Museu do Évora.
The entire structure was impressive and once more we wondered at the engineering and human effort it took to erect and position these massive rocks into their complex configuration some 6000 years ago – way before Stonehenge.
The Zambujeiro Dolmen was identified and excavated between 1964 and 1968, and classified as a National Monument in 1974. In the 1980s, due to degradation, some conservation work and archaeological research were carried out, hopefully preserving this extraordinary insight into our neolithic ancestors and their sophisticated beliefs and burial practices.
We noticed other giant boulders in the surrounding fields on our way back to the car, one in an upright position that didn’t look as if Mother Nature had put it there, and wondered if there were other sacred sites waiting to be discovered.
By now, time was getting on and we needed to eat before we hit the motorway so we drove back to the tiny village of Guadualupe where we found a restaurant serving genuine country fare. It was Sunday so many of the locals were enjoying a meal in the dining room and by the looks we got it was obvious they didn’t get many tourists.
Andrew had mackerel in tomato rice and Kerrie had rich Hunter’s rabbit which she enjoyed until a certain person took great delight in pointing out the rabbit’s head with teeth intact, heavily disguised in gravy on the plate.
After a misunderstanding about dessert and some extra potatoes was resolved, it was time to set off for Lisbon.
Annoyingly Carmen seemed unwilling to recognise the address for the airport hotel where we were booked for the night, but we set off anyway and Kerrie finally cracked the code (it was Aeroporto do Lisboa) and Carmen switched into gear directing us to Lisbon airport, us hoping we’d spot the hotel as we got close. We drove through rain and millions more cork trees – as Kerrie remarked, Portugal’s economy might be better with more intensive agriculture. No dramas on the way except that we had to pay another toll for the highway and another 6 euros to cross the bridge into Lisbon which seemed extortionate until we actually crossed the bridge which went on and on for about 7-8 kilometres, comprising two bridges plus a causeway and was such an engineering feat we wished we’d had time to do it again.
We reached the airport and Kerrie spotted our hotel, the Hotel Star Inn, right beside the main terminals. We checked in, then went to drop off the car in the long-term carpark, which was fine except we weren’t sure if we were supposed to scan the barcoded invoice we’d paid in advance, on the way in as well as on the way out. Confusing! We got a ticket anyway and decided we’d sort it when we get back. We had tea in the hotel bar/lounge, looked after by a super-casual but pleasant waiter who defined Portuguese “chill”, who brought us complimentary custard tarts.
We worked on the blog, had a drink and with a super early start tomorrow, ordered a take-away breakfast, packed and prepped before an early night.
Day Twenty Seven … Monday 16th April
Lisbon to The Azores
Up at 3:50am!!!!
Surprisingly, our wake-up call from the hotel turned out to be very personal, a soft knock on the door by the hotel night manager – who knocks on a door at 4am? – we didn’t need it as Kerrie had been awake since 2:30am anyway!
Half an hour later we checked out, grabbed our take-away breakfast and caught the 4:40 shuttle to the terminal, a three minute drive away, for our flight to Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores which lie 1500kms west of mainland Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
In something of a daze, we cruised through check-in and had an uneventful flight, both dozing off. Slightly dotty with weariness, Kerrie prepared for her nap.
After two hours, we could see the two islands that make up what is known as the eastern group of the Azores islands: São Miguel (the largest of the nine), and Santa Maria. This was an exciting moment – something we’d been really looking forward to – as neither of us really knew very much about the Azores except that we had been told they were stunningly beautiful, unlike anything we would see on the mainland and a great place to see marine wildlife.
We arrived at Ponta Delgada at 7:40am, local time where we were met by our driver from Futurismo, the local tour operator looking after us. Although Ponta Delgada is the commercial centre of the Azores, we were to find it had an old world charm and none of the hustle and bustle of other western cities. The rustic charm started on our drive into town from the airport through green rolling hills and with views of the ocean. The driver was very chatty, giving us a bit of history and background about the Azores and pointing out important buildings on the way to our accommodation for the next four nights, the four star São Miguel Park Hotel.. There was a howling wind outside which kept banging and battering the glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows as we waited for the receptionist to organise our room keys, so much so that we could hardly hear ourselves speak. When we commented on it to the receptionist she said high winds were very common in the Azores (not surprising when you consider they are nine volcanic peaks sticking up out of the ocean) and that you got used to it. Thankfully our room was available straight away, it was on the top floor with a balcony and excellent views out over town to the sea and the airport on the edge of town – we were to spend time watching aircraft trying to keep a straight line in high winds as they came in to land and take off over the next few days.
We were thrilled to bits with the views and the comfortable room – as the photo testifies!
Having not had access to a laundry for several days, our first priority was to find one – Andrew in particular was running out of essentials! We checked out the hotel laundry but at 2-5 euros per item it would have been ridiculously expensive so we packed all our dirty laundry into a day pack and went out in search of a launderette. After a couple of false leads, searching through a local shopping centre uphill from the hotel, we headed downtown where the gale force wind was blowing even harder and huge waves pounded the harbour walls.
Our other priority was to check in at the main Futurismo office and get our vouchers validated for the tours we’d booked. We wandered through a series of narrow paved streets with many buildings constructed using local basalt, a volcanic rock.
We continued down to a broad boulevarde where by now the winds were so strong you literally had to lean in, put your shoulder down and fight your way along.
We found there was a Futurismo office on the harbourside pavement but it was only for promoting their tours. The man inside directed us further along the boulevarde and down a ramp to the harbour front where there were a group of marine tour offices including the main Futurismo office and their boats.
Unfortunately, the Futurismo staff informed us there’d be no whale watching tours for 2-3 days, no boats were going to sea as the forecast was for 5 metre high waves. Luckily we were able to swap around our scheduled expeditions so we could do a walking tour the next day, Tuesday, and our two whale watching outings on Thursday when the weather was supposed to improve. Phew!
However, they did give us directions to a launderette not far away where we were able to leave our backpack-full of clothing to be washed and dried. Meanwhile, we had a much needed coffee and treaties – a selection of Portuguese tarts which were delicious. We had two hours to kill before our laundry would be done so we went for a wander back across to the seafront and up some steps to a purpose built platform overlooking the harbour and a large Club Med 2 cruise ship. Up here, even with a protective wall, the winds literally threatened to blow you over.
From there, it was a short walk to a historic fort built on a promontory which forms one end of the harbour, and is one of Ponta Delgada’s popular tourist attractions.
We’re not usually that taken with military exhibitions or museums but this turned out to be a wee gem, both for the history and an extraordinary collection of armaments, weapons, military memorabilia including medical and musical instruments.
Forte de São Brás is described as a typical Renaissance fortress built in 1552 to defend the area against pirate raids and it was an integral part of the strategic plan of Portugal’s King John III to control the northern Atlantic routes.
The fort underwent changes and additions during the 18th century following the Seven Years War and more additions and strengthening in the 19th century following the Peninsular War. It grew in importance at the end of the 19th century when Great Britain saw its naval supremacy threatened by other powers, in particular Germany. With the technical advancement of steam navigation and new communication systems such as the telegraph and radio, there was a need for places to provision coal and supplies and to lay cable and install radio antennas, so Portuguese owned islands such as the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde acquired crucial strategic value.
In 1898 the Portugese crown guaranteed exclusive access by the British to the Azores and this was renewed in 1911 and 1913. From 1916 when the Germans began using submarines to attack merchant ships, civil carriers and war ships there was a fear that Ponta Delgada might be attacked and the military asked for more weapons and troops.
At dawn on 4th July in 1917 a German submarine launched about thirty shells over the outskirts of Ponta Delgada, having just one burst in the town. The attack was repelled by the artillery of the USS Orion, an American coal collier, and Orion became the chosen brand name for cigarettes, biscuits, beer, neckties, commercial venues and even some babies born during the summer of 1917. The fort soon evolved into a U.S. naval station with a radio station, hospital and barracks and the port became a repair dock and fuel deposit. The American presence in Ponta Delgada continued until the end of the war.
During the second world war the fort was used for the defense of the Port. Some embankments were reinforced, communication tunnels were created and ramparts were strengthened for heavy machinery guns and infantry shooters.
It was classified as a public interest monument in 1953 and today it is the headquarters of the military zone of the Azores and the Azores Military Museum headquarters.
We spent a good hour there, finding more and more tunnels leading to more and more rooms with exhibits including swords, guns, military uniforms and hats. We found the hospital room and the communications room which both looked like nothing had changed since the end of the war except for the addition of cobwebs. The larger military weaponry on display was in near perfect condition, obviously benefiting from a daily spit and polish from the officers stationed there.
After a final wander around the ramparts we returned to pick up our washing and have lunch in the same restaurant by the boulevarde – excellent salmon and salad tart. Andrew was in need of more sunscreen, particularly with boat trips coming up, so picked up some at a pharmacy (Eucerin – a brand we hadn’t heard of before but recommended by the pharmacist and which turned out to be really good) and returned to our hotel for a much-needed nap.
We had a quiet evening in the hotel bar working on our blog and had a light supper of omelette. We started off having the bar to ourselves but as the night wore on we were joined by some Brits who were obviously the worse for wear and sat right next to us. They proceeded to sing along loudly to the background music, and eventually we could stand it no longer and moved to a business room next door for guests to read, work on their computers, have access to wifi and escape the confines of their bedroom.
We had a minor crisis as we were selecting photos to go into the blog when it appeared that there was an entire sequence missing from Kerrie’s camera and from the back-up. Kerrie wondered if she had deleted them either by mistake or as part of her process of managing her storage. Eventually and with a huge sigh of relief we remembered that her camera battery had died that night in Seville and she had taken the Nikon to continue shooting while Andrew covered events on his iPhone. Phew!!!
Day Twenty Eight … Tuesday 17th April
São Miguel Island
Our package included breakfast and like so many on offer in a big hotel it was a sumptuous buffet with many local delicacies, here it was cheese. Dairying is a major industry in the Azores, in fact we were subsequently told by one of our guides that the Azores is referred to as the “New Zealand of the northern hemisphere”. As our first tour was not until the afternoon, and after our very early start yesterday, we enjoyed a slow and leisurely breakfast, which included a choice of local soft cheeses, and the views from the restaurant.
The weather had actually got worse, it was still blustery, but now overcast with intermittent lashings of driving rain. Perfect weather for catching up on the essential and overdue job of backing up photos from the three cameras (Sony, Nikon and Andrew’s iPhone) onto the laptop, which took most of the morning.
We didn’t need lunch so we continued to work on the blog in the foyer downstairs until it was time to be picked up by our tour guides for a walking tour of Sete Cidades, at the westernmost end of the island of São Miguel. Sete Cidades is the largest crater lake in the Azores and the most active volcano in recent geological times (5000 years). Corina our guide and Philip our driver arrived in a yellow land rover and it turned out we were the only ones, so we we had a private tour.
The drive to the crater was through green and pleasant rolling country, but when we arrived the heavens opened up and we had to don top to toe waterproofs. That meant visibility was reduced and we couldn’t initially see the classic view of the famous blue and the green lakes at the bottom of the crater.
Five to ten minutes into our seven km walk on a dirt farm track around the rim of the crater, the weather started to improve and as the clouds lifted we could get glimpses of the crater and the twin lakes 500 metres below.
And also get a sense of just how big the crater was – five kilometres across.
Corina provided a non-stop, chatty and very informative commentary.
Among the topics were an abandoned hotel, with a commanding position overlooking the green and blue lakes, built by an ambitious entrepreneur who failed to factor in the weather. At this height and in this terrain 90% of the time the building is shrouded in mist or cloud and there are no views. Eighteen years later no one or no company has taken over the site and it still sits there in gloomy dilapidation.
There was the remains of a Japanese Red Cedar plantation (one of thousands of introduced plant species to the Azores).
Apparently it was fast growing and produced excellent timber for packing cases for what was once a thriving orange growing industry until a bug arrived and killed all the orange trees!
Another pest Corina highlighted on the walk was the Ginger lily which like many introduced species outperforms and out-competes natives. It has taken over in many parts of the island, one possible solution being mooted is to use it as a substitute for plastic, making bags out of its fibre. To counter the invasive species and stabilise the edges along the trail, they’d planted endemic hydrangeas.
The track was muddy, also used by farmers – and to our total amazement had also been part of the route for a recent off-road car ralley! Corina pointed out a small enclosed cemetery away from the Sete Cidades village at the bottom of the crater, apparently superstitious locals spooked by the thermal activity and associating it with the underworld, preferred to have their dearly departed at a distance in case they returned to haunt them.
Turning around and looking outside the crater towards the sea, just off the coast there were imposing rock formations jutting out of the water.
These are called the Monastery rocks because of the connection to a local legend.
Corina told us the story of how a king had brought his daughter to the islands and she fell in love with a lowly shepherd. She was forbidden to see him after the king discovered their relationship and their tears of unrequited love created the two lakes, his the green lake and hers the blue lake – because women cry more! The monastery rocks are a symbol of their unconsummated love.
We passed lots of cows in lush grassy paddocks on the flanks of the crater and down below.
The islands produce their own milk as well as a variety of cheeses (all excellent), the milk being exported to Europe. Apparently they are all very happy cows as not only are they pasture fed but, unlike New Zealand, there is no morning and afternoon trek to the milking shed as the milking machines come to the cows. As do the bulls!
Up above in the sky we saw a large bird which Corina said was the most identifiable local bird, the Common Buzzard, the symbol of the Azores. It was supposed to give its name to the islands but someone made a mistake and so the Azores are actually named after another bird, the goshawk (Açor in Portuguese) even though the goshawk never actually existed on the islands. It’s thought the first explorers erroneously identified the buzzards as goshawks.
Corina also told us about the connection between the Azores and USA/Canada – after a major earthquake in 1957/8, 175,000 people left for a safer world – choosing North America – made easier for them by a special dispensation from President Kennedy.
At the end of our walk around one side of the crater, Phil was waiting for us in the Landrover and drove us down to the village we had seen from the ridge for a coffee and a treat. After our coffee and cake in what appeared to be the only shop and cafe in town (very quiet) we headed across a bridge between the blue and green lakes.
The difference in colour is all to do with reflection, the green lake is surrounded by closer hillsides covered in trees while the larger blue lake typically reflects the sky.
They took us back by a different route up through the mountains and we had a brief stop to enjoy views up the length of the island – learning that the island of São Miguel was created by two massive volcanoes, their lava flows joining them together.
As Corina and Phil drove us back to our hotel, we asked what it was like working in the Azores as both had returned from stints on the mainland. They loved the scenery and being away from the bustling crowds in major cities, but tourism is beginning to impact on locals’ lives here – both saying it was difficult and expensive to find accommodation. Interesting in light of what we know is also a major problem back in New Zealand’s top tourist locations.
They dropped us off at our hotel after what had been a wonderful half day outing.
We went downtown for dinner, having been given a recommendation by Corina, but just as we arrived the heavens opened (again) and this time it really bucketed down. We were unable to find the restaurant, despite walking around and around in the pouring rain and got saturated. Exasperated, Kerrie insisted we go back to one we had passed which had lots of people and we sat soggy and seething for while until we calmed down. It turned out to be exactly the kind of local fish restaurant we were looking for in the first place! We ordered limpets delivered on a sizzling hotplate and yellowfin tuna steaks, both specialties. We got talking to a Canadian couple at the table next door. Turns out their son had worked in Wanaka, at Kai Whaka Pai and they’d visited him there! Small world!
Day Twenty Nine … Wednesday 18th April
São Miguel Island
Today was an all day tour, starting at 9am when we were met in the foyer by Nunu (our driver/guide for the day). We were the first to be picked up in the mini van and along the way three others joined us, Canadian woman Lyn who was staying in a very large hotel on the main thoroughfare and a Brazilian couple who we picked up from the Futurismo office on the seafront. Since they only spoke Portuguese, that meant Nunu had to say everything twice all day, but at least it was only two languages unlike Itàlica!
We headed headed north from Ponta Delgada, across the spine of São Miguel to Vila Franca do Campo on the northern coast and then east. The first stop was to visit the family owned and operated Gorreana Tea factory which has been in continual operation since 1883.
It is now Europe’s oldest, and currently only, remaining tea plantation. The tea is grown on the 32 acre plantation without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, dyes or preservatives, and is harvested every April to September, producing about 33 tons per year.
We had no idea tea was grown on the Azores and found out it was introduced in 1820 using seeds brought from Rio de Janeiro. The decline in the orange trade in the 19th century prompted a growth in the number of tea plantations – tea production thrived in the Azores thanks to the island’s balmy climate, it rarely gets below 50°F or above 80°F, and its rich soils. The Sociedade Promotora Micaelense (São Miguel’s Marketing Society) was largely responsible for this shift in production and tea production reached its peak in the 1850’s with about 250 tons produced from 300 hectares. The first world war and policies that protected tea from Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, impacted São Miguel’s tea industry and by 1966 there remained only five of the original fourteen tea producers.
The tea plantation and factory where some of the machinery dates back to the 19th century was clearly a popular tourist stop with every tour company on São Miguel.
Another group followed hard on our heels from room to room. We weren’t originally that taken with the idea of the tea factory tour but in fact it turned out to be rather interesting. We learnt for example that different kinds of tea (black, green etc) all come from the same bushes – it just depends on which leaves are used, when they are picked and how they are treated during the drying process.
We were surprised the women packing the tea into the cartons weren’t a bit cheerier as there were signs up everywhere reminding them they were on show! We supposed they were fed up with the constant traffic going past them minute by minute, hour after hour, faces gawping at them only metres away, and still having to carry out their repetitive work. Signs of tourism fatigue perhaps?
In the cafe/shop it was too soon for tea or coffee so we bought a packet of pekoe tea bags and some ear rings made with volcanic rock (as you do!).
Back on the twisting, turning mountain roads through the incredibly lush, green countryside and thick temperate forests (which feel almost as if they are rainforests), it started to rain and shine simultaneously. Nunu said acording to an old Azorean saying that means there must be a witch’s wedding happening! Our next stop was for a panoramic view over the Furnas Valley…
featuring the crater of Furnas with the village in its centre and the lake off to one side.
Surprisingly the village was situated much lower than the lake!
Nunu pointed out the plumes of steam rising from the village which from where we were standing looked like smoke rising from buildings.
We drove down to the village where Nunu took us on a guided tour around the thermal pools.
Furnas reminded us very much of Rotorua, with the smell of sulphur in the air, bubbling pools of hot mud and steam rising everywhere.
Nuna explained that the Furnas Valley became popular towards the end of the 18th century, due to the growing interest in the use of mineral water to treat health problems, such as rheumatism and obesity. Furnas has hundreds of small springs and streams, all with different properties. He said in the early days, people were scared of the holes emitting strange sounds and smells, believing them to be a gateway to hell.
There were also taps in the centre of village, surrounded by houses, where people could get non-fizzy or fizzy water (natural soda water) straight from underground.
While we there we noticed some scientists taking water samples – this is done regularly by INOVA Azores, the Institute for Technological Innovation labs who monitor water quality regularly.
Amazingly, we had a reminder of home when we noticed mature New Zealand pohutukowa trees (they were some of the many species brought from around the world to the Azores). And they absolutely thrive here!
We drove on to the edge of the Caldeiras da Lagoa das Furnas (Furnas Lake Calderas), an extensive thermal area beside the large crater lake.
A recently constructed walkway allows visitors to walk safely around the site, getting up close to the bubbling pools and thermal vents. It takes you to a fenced-off area where you can watch a peculiar gastronomic ritual. Every day locals bring huge pots of food to be cooked underground.
What was traditionally a cost-effective way to cook their food has become a major tourist drawcard. The ground acts as a natural oven, the heat from the thermal springs below cooks the food. The stew, colzido das Furnas, cooks slowly – for about 5 hours – and the only liquids are the juices from the ingredients.
We arrived around midday and teams of men from different restaurants were on site. After scraping away mounds of earth, two of them hoisted the pots from the ground,
They carried them to the back of their van from where they drove it away to be served as lunch in the village restaurants.
And guess what? As part of our tour we were driven to a restaurant in pretty Furnas village.
There, our group was served the Colzido – a steaming plate of beef, chicken, pork ribs, blood sausage and taro and cabbage – quite Polynesian.
It was very filling but we managed to find space for dessert – a rich chocolate mousse!
After lunch we visited the Terra Nostra botanical garden, famous for its extraordinary collection of native plants from the Azores, as well as others from all over the world that have adapted to the local conditions.
Its history dates back to around 1775, when Thomas Hickling, a wealthy merchant from Boston, who became an Honorary American Consul in São Miguel, built a simple wooden summer house, which came to be known as Yankee Hall. In front of the house, there was a pool with an island in the centre, surrounded by trees that were brought in mainly from North America.
In 1848, the property was purchased by the Visconde da Praia, who built a new house where Yankee Hall stood. The Viscountess was a keen gardener, and together they enlarged the original two hectares, planting a beautiful garden with water, shady groves and parterres of flowers. In the last quarter of the century, the Marquis da Praia added water gardens, a serpentine canal, grottoes and an avenue lined with Australian King palm trees (Arcontophoenix cunninganmiana). Many new species were imported from North America, Australia, New Zealand, China and South Africa; some of these still exist, and dominate certain areas of the garden. As you enter the garden through the imposing iron gates,
one of the largest pohutukowa trees we have ever seen towers over you.
So ancient, its lower branches have to be supported.
In the 1930s, new owners completely renovated the gardens and grounds and converted the ornamental pool into a giant thermal bath.
Nunu took us directly to the iron-rich hot water swimming pool that has a temperature of 35-40ºC, an exquisite experience! Prepped to bring our swimmers and a towel, we had an hour and a quarter to soak up the atmosphere and the therapeutic powers of the murky looking water. The water is actually clean but the heavy iron content makes it look a muddy red colour. We changed and got in – Kerrie posing à la Esther Williams
with Andrew garbed in full sun protective gear.
We luxuriated in the bath temperature water, soaking up the serenity of the garden setting and chatted with one of our companions on the tour, the young Canadian named Lyn.
This was obviously Nunu’s time to relax and he sat on one of the many park benches surrounding the pond as did the Portuguese fellow who snoozed and didn’t move for the entire time. Nunu said the bottom of the pond had originally been painted and decorated at great expense in the expectation of the bottom being viewed by visitors, but you can’t see a thing due to the iron-rich colour of the water.
After a good 20 or 30 mins in the warm therapeutic water, amazing for Kerrie, not normally given to playing the bathing belle, she went off to take photos of the botanic gardens almost getting lost as they were so huge and there weren’t enough signs directing you back to the entrance!
They were truly magnificent.
Rested, recuperated and decidedly drowsy, we were driven back along the southern coast to Ponta Delgada and our hotel. The weather had improved significantly as the day progressed; by now there were clear blue skies and we could see Santa Maria island on the horizon, the closest and only one visible from São Miguel. Seas looking much calmer – a hopeful sign for whale watching tomorrow!
Day Thirty … Thursday 19th April
São Miguel Island
It was a relatively early start for us as we had to have breakfasted and be at the harbourside Futurismo office by 8.30am for a briefing for the first of our two whale watching boat trips, due to depart at 9am. We were there in plenty of time and seeing two large day trip vessels tied up at the harbour we tried to guess which one we were going on. However, when we checked in at the counter we were informed that only one catamaran would be going and that we were going on the 12 person zodiac. Interesting … Our first task was to watch a short film about the marine life of the Azores and what we might see on our boat trip.
One of the reasons we’d chosen to visit the Azores is because it’s a gathering spot and haven for marine mammals. There are resident whales and dolphins as well as a wide range of migratory visitors – including the largest whales on the planet. Whether we’d get to see any of them of course was a matter of luck and timing
Our second task was to find a wet weather jacket and trousers that fitted and put them on as well as a life jacket. Easier said than done, but after a bit of a struggle we both stood ready and waiting, looking and feeling very much like extras from Tellytubbies.
The zodiacs are not known for their comfort and they packed us in like sardines, sitting two to a row, straddling the seat with one leg on either side as if you were on a horse.
Although the weather and high seas had improved, there was still a swell and we were warned to sit in the back row if we had neck and back issues to avoid too much jolting.
We played cat and mouse with the catamaran at various times with both boats trying to get to the same locations after a land based spotter had radioed in to say he had seen something. Our zodiac driver was very good, and as the zodiac had more maneuverability and could get to places faster, we probably had a better trip than if we had been on the catamaran.
The boat company gave a guarantee that if you didn’t see any marine wildlife they would give you a free trip but almost as soon as we hit the open seas we were joined by dolphins which frolicked around the catamaran, riding the bow wave.
It was a good sign of things to come and it wasn’t long before the cry went out, “fin whale”. What an exciting moment, our first sighting of a huge baleen whale, the second largest whale in the oceans.
It’s always hard to judge their size from what you can see at the surface but fin whales can grow up to 27 metres long and are capable of travelling at great speed, hence their nickname, the “greyhound of the sea”. But this mother who had a calf with her was taking it slow and easy.
Which gave us time and opportunity to watch her move gracefully by. All the whale watching tour operators here abide by a strict rule of spending no more than 30 minutes with any wildlife, which was reassuring as there are many tales of unscrupulous operators in other parts of the world getting too close and harassing marine mammals which can stress them.
But our luck held and our encounter with Azores marine wildlife wasn’t over. Not long after we left the fin whale, we came on a pod of Risso dolphins. These are both large, growing up up to 3.5 metres and quite strange and unusual looking.
They start off life coloured gray, but over years of physical interaction with fellow Risso dolphins and possibly with their prey – squid – the outer layers of skin are worn away. Hence the more mature dolphins have scratch marks on their skin.
As they grow older many are almost white, giving them their name – ghost dolphins.
The trip started fairly smoothly but then got progressively choppier over the morning, marred somewhat by annoying types stood to get their shots getting in the way of others – especially one guy with a mega lens in the very front row. Kerrie was furious!
On the way back we saw a juvenile loggerhead turtle…
as well as some plastic floating in the water. The zodiac made a detour to pick it up – a company policy which impressed us. We also saw a fishing boat, not the most popular fellow vessels in this area as we were told they have a negative and antagonistic attitude towards marine wildlife, seeing them as competition – a common issue, one we are familiar with in New Zealand.
We returned via a marine/nature reserve near the shore, a volcanic island with steep cliffs and stunning rock formations.
The dramatic rocky outcrop had a salt water crater lake in the centre, a tidal lagoon which is a popular swimming place for locals and visitors in summer.
We sailed around the island, which has incredibly steep cliffs with a sheer 30 metre drop into the ocean – these are used by Red Bull for cliff diving events!
The island reserve is very close to shore, too close for the catamaran but no problems for the zodiac – so that was something extra! However, it was low tide which meant it was not deep enough for the zodiac to enter the lagoon.
It had been a fantastic trip, we were thrilled with what we’d seen, ably led by the friendly, enthusiastic guide and skipper.
We got back at 12, feeling pretty wobbly after three hours of being bounced and jolted around in the zodiak every time we hit a wave, and frequently having to stand up and squirm around to get that shot! We went back to the café we had visited on the Monday for lunch and had a rest. Our second ride was at 1.30pm, hence not enough time to go to the hotel and back.
Thankfully our second outing was on a catamaran, so no bouncing or jolting and no wet weather jacket and trousers. We managed to get good seats at the back until a bunch of young German women stood at the rail and blocked much of the view but as it turned out there wasn’t a lot to see. This was a much smoother ride, but less successful in terms of seeing wildlife – although we saw Risso dolphins again.
But despite the best efforts of the boat crew to try and find something else – eg whales , we were out of luck. We were too tired for dinner, so we caught up on our blog and packed for our flight to Horta on the island of Faial tomorrow morning. On reflection, we were both very happy with the Futurismo tours, boat trips and the quality of the guides and felt we had had a good first taste of the main island of the Azores.
Day Thirty One… Friday 20th April
Horta, Faial Island
Another relatively early start as we had to be packed, breakfasted and waiting in the foyer to be picked up at 8.30am for our flight to Horta at 10.30am. We did ask why it was necessary to be picked up that early but we didn’t really seem to get an answer, and as we expected we were almost the first to arrive at the airport and the first to arrive at our departure gate. So, we grabbed what we thought were the best seats and waited the 90 minutes until our flight. During that time we were joined by more and more passengers most of whom formed a queue at the check in counter. The line kept getting longer and longer and we were intrigued as to why they preferred to stand rather than sit and wait. We found out why when the boarding call was announced and we discovered there were no seat numbers on the tickets!
As a consequence we were the last on the plane and couldn’t get two seats together. Kerrie ended up sitting next to a TV reporter for Azores regional TV news who was born in Horta but worked in San Miguel and was going home for the weekend. She said one of her stories had made it on to the national news recently when she reported on snow falling on Pico during a recent cold spell of weather – Pico is the archipelago’s second largest island and the perfectly cone shaped volcano of the same name is Portugal’s’ highest mountain (7,713 feet or 2,351 metres). Pico we found out is known as the “black” island because of its volcanic rock and Faial is known as the “blue”island because of the many blue hydrangeas that grow on the island and the different colours of blue that decorate the houses. As we approached the western islands of Faial and Pico she pointed to Pico’s snow capped peak sitting above a layer of cloud. Stunning.
On arrival at Horta airport we were met by Fernando, our taxi driver, who was waiting in the arrivals area carrying a sign with our name on it. He was very chatty, and along the 10km drive from the airport to the harbour pointed out interesting aspects of the island such as the dark volcanic rocks and boulders along the coastline and talked about its history including the fact that in 1597 Sir Walter Raleigh burned and destroyed religious buildings.
As we drove past the 15th century fortress the streets became quite narrow and as we approached the marina we had to negotiate a one way system and a sharp hairpin U turn to get to our guest house, Casa da Baía, which was one street back from the harbour front. Fernando suggested we request a room away from the front of the building as former guests he had driven complained of traffic noise.
We checked in and then said we were a bit concerned about whether the day tour of the island tomorrow was confirmed or not so the woman on reception rang the phone number provided and within seconds Fred, our tour operator, appeared at the door. He looked to be in his 30s and came across as very genuine and friendly and was eager to answer any concerns or questions we might have. He said there was a possibility we would be joined by two others in which case we would travel in a jeep otherwise he would take us in his own personal car. We arranged to meet down the road at 9am where he could park.
We found our room up the stairs on the first floor in the centre, and it was directly above the narrow one-way street, the road out of town and always busy.
It was indeed very noisy but the window offered a harbour view, although partially obscured by a building connected to the ‘world-famous’ Pete’s café.
There were eight guest rooms as well as a shared kitchen, a shared lounge and an outdoor seating area on the roof. Each room was furnished in nordic pine and white decor with one wall featuring a colourful painting and description of the particular sea creature which identified the room rather than a number. We were in the sea turtle room. The room was bright and modern but quite narrow, sparsely furnished with only one chair, and had a very ‘compact’ bathroom. We were rather surprised given the money we had paid and having seen other bigger rooms and bathrooms on the Casa da Baía website.
We were feeling fairly shattered from our early morning start so we ventured up another set of stairs to the kitchen/breakfast room where we made a pot of tea and helped ourselves to the free cake provided. We took them up yet another set of stairs to the outdoor seating area where we enjoyed the sun and a view of the harbour activity and Pico island as a backdrop.
Fred and the taxi driver had said there was good shopping downtown so we headed down there by way of a wide footpath along harbourfront, although we were starting to find walking on rocky pavements and roads were very hard on our feet! We saw some interesting facades on former grand old buildings but many were now very run-down and in need of maintenance.
Walking around these streets you really had a sense of faded glory, colonial buildings that had once been the homes and businesses of a thriving commercial precinct but were now struggling to remain open and/or functioning, although one government building retained its architectural splendour. It was the former Jesuit College, now the Main church, Town Hall and Museum.
We had passed a few shops but only a very few tourist shops so we wondered if we were in the right place. In desperation we asked someone who looked as if they were from Horta and she said we had passed them. Really? She suggested we could go to the park in the centre of the town which was pretty and where there were markets now operating due to the renovation of the traditional market space. She was right, the park wasn’t very big but it had some magnificent old trees and had incorporated dark basalt rocks into much of the landscaping.
There were a few market stalls but selling mostly locally grown produce and garden nursery items. Heading away from the park, we walked past the old market under renovation and it looked like something out of the 19th century, dark and dingy, and we could see why it needed a makeover.
We eventually found the street that was supposed to have the great shopping but it seemed to have just one shop with quality souvenirs and products, many made with cork – we were amazed at what they managed to make using cork, in particular handbags, hats and cork shoes. We gave it a wide berth and walked back along the harbour front trying to find the café the taxi driver had recommended but we weren’t certain of the name so we opted for Café Sport or Pete’s café as it is now known.
Ferdinand said we had to try a Pete’s gin and tonic – a popular drink with the English sailors in the last century.
It opened in 1918, the café and bar has been in the same family for three generations and is referred to as the most famous historical sailor’s bar and the best bar in the world for yachtsmen. Over its history it served the sailors food and drink but it also provided support and shelter and a host of other goods and services such as the exchange of foreign currency and poste restante for mail for passing yachtsmen.
Since we both don’t drink alcohol we opted for juices and food instead. Sadly, like many places that have become tourist must-visits, the reputation far exceeded the service and quality of what was served!
The waitress was in a hurry to take our order for some unknown reason, it wasn’t crowded, and when the food arrived, it was appalling. Kerrie’s “fresh fish” was fresh out of a freezer and when she said so, the waitress insisted it was freshly caught but then said it was out of season at the moment – so what does that mean? Andrew’s vegie burger was bland and tasted of nothing. We both thought it was a great shame as the cafe/bar was jam packed with nautical memorabilia, old and new, quite characterful and with a museum upstairs featuring scrimshaw – the technique of carving designs on whale’s teeth. You could see why Pete’s cafe was a popular stop for yachts crossing the Atlantic. However, if they want to attract the non-yachtie tourist they are going to have to do something about the service and cuisine.
As we left the cafe, we could see several tall ships anchored in the harbour, glorious looking vessels, and wondered what they were doing here. We were to find out later one was a Norwegian outward bound style, school ship.
It was still only early afternoon so we headed in the opposite direction to the way we had gone in the morning. We walked up the narrow volcanic rocky road between houses and shops and on to a sheltered harbour where there was a group of restaurants facing a beach.
The old fortress was at one end of the harbour, and at the other end was the former Porto Pim’s Whaling Station, now a museum but currently closed for renovation.
This factory was built in 1941 and used steam-powered equipment which made for rapid processing of the whale carcasses. It began operations in 1942, during the Second World War, when whale oil export was at its peak.
As we walked along the sand we could see the entry tunnel through the wall where they dragged their catch up into the factory, it must have been such a grisly sight. To be fair, whaling had been an important industry in the Azores in the second half of the nineteen century and it only stopped in the 1980s. Since then whale hunting has been replaced by whale watching, thank goodness!
Next to the factory was the summer residence of the Dabney family who were important to the economic, social and cultural life of Faial Island for three generations during the 1800’s. In 1806, John Bass Dabney became the first U.S. Consul to the Azores. He was succeeded by his oldest son, Charles in 1826 and later by his grandson Samuel in 1872.
In business, the Dabney family built up the role and the importance of Horta’s harbour through the export of Pico wine, whale oil and other goods. They also provided ship repair services and coal supply, assuring connections between the Azores and the United States of America.
We had passed a number of buildings and warehouses on our morning stroll, with Dabney plaques on the outside, including one which held the company records and looked like a relic of the 19th century. We’d wondered at the time what its significance was – now we knew.
Towards the end of the harbour’s northern arm was the first whaling factory, built at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, it’s an aquarium connected to the university marine science faculty.
We passed a group of young 16 to 18 year olds on their way back from the aquarium and asked them if it was worth going into and they said not really. They had passed us before and Andrew had struck up a conversation with one of teenagers, a young student from Norway. He said they were all students sailing on the tall ship we’d seen from outside Pete’s Cafe.. Most of those on board were from Norway but there was also an international contingent and they were nearing the end of a nine-month journey. School was conducted on board as well as learning to sail and other practical, lifeskills activities. He said of the countries they had visited Cuba was his favourite – it sounded as if they were having an amazing time.
Behind the aquarium we had seen a track up to a viewing spot with a garden in the shape of a lyre so we headed up there and found that this had been created for and used by the Dabney children as somewhere to read and enjoy the sun. It did indeed offer stunning views of both the harbour and the town of Horta.
From there we walked back down to the road and followed it past the other side of the factory and across to the ocean side of the harbour where we passed a row of timber buildings associated with the first trans-Atlantic cable communication connecting the U.S. with Europe, Horta had been a strategic relay point.
Back around at the harbour front we saw some fishermen cleaning the day’s catch, looked like mackerel, a popular food in the Azores.
We noticed two or three very sleek and expensive looking cruisers in the harbour. Apparently, the Azores is a regular refuelling and repair stop between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
One was a huge grey catamaran kitted out like a luxury yacht. We later found out it was worth 10 million pounds and belonged to a wealthy British family who were more concerned with how it looked than how it performed. A crew takes it from place to place around the world and the family flies in for a week or two. What a life!
We learnt later that the captains of these multi-million dollar super-yachts get paid as much as €20,000 a week! Mind you, catering for every whim of billionaire owners – they probably earn it.
We enjoyed a quiet night working on the blog in the shared living room.
Day Thirty Two … Saturday 21st April
Horta, Faial Island
Today we had a full day tour of the island with Portuguese born marine scientist/ tour operator Fred who we found waiting for us in his sedan car up the road from the Bed and Breakfast just before 9am. We knew it was going to be a great day with Fred as right from the start he came across as delightfully unpretentious, friendly, funny and, even better, he spoke great English. Then more good news, he said the other tourists had decided not to come so we had Fred all to ourselves for the entire day! We wanted to see the island’s dormant crater in the centre of the island as it was reputed to offer fantastic views from its 400 meter deep and 2 kilometers wide caldera. It was classified as a nature reserve and had rare endemic flora species.When we started our journey with Fred the crater was covered in cloud so he said he had “reconfigured our day” to allow for visiting the crater in the afternoon when the cloud had (hopefully) cleared.
We’d only traveled a short distance along the road beside the harbour when Fred suddenly pulled over to the shoulder and pointed to a pod of Risso dolphins.
We jumped out of the car to take photos and he told us it was “very rare to see” these dolphins so close to shore and we were very fortunate. We both laughed and said we had heard the phrase “very rare to see” on every tour or boat we had been on so far in the Azores. We continued up along the road as it curved up and around the volcanic cone known as Monte Da Guia to a car park almost at the summit, high above the aquarium and whaling station we had seen yesterday.
Fred told us the volcanic cone was classified as a special protection area and the inlet formed by the crater was now a marine sanctuary.
Fred walked us down the road a short distance to some stone steps which took us up to a bright white church known as the Whaler’s Chapel that dominated the skyline.
Fred said the chapel had been relocated to this spot and had become the beacon fishermen used to find their way home in rough sea conditions.
We walked down the side of the church along a path through a nature reserve that had both native plants and invasive species.
It was a popular walking track for locals and their dogs that continued to the rocky cliff edge and back but we only went a short way to where a man sat looking at the ocean through very powerful high resolution binoculars.
It was Fred’s friend Pedro who came from the Azores and had studied marine science with Fred at the same university on the mainland. Pedro was now a “spotter” working for Noberto’s, the same whale watching company that Fred said he used to work for before he started guiding tourists.
Rain, wind, hail or shine Pedro’s job was to sit on this very exposed spot every morning and scan the seas for any sign of a water spout. If he saw a whale he immediately reported it by radio to the skippers on the tour boats.
We both had a go and found it hard to see anything other than waves, we also wondered how Pedro coped in bad weather.
Fred said for two years they had been asking the government to allow the construction of a “sympathetically designed” hut for shelter but there was no resolution in sight. Change was notoriously slow in Portugal and bureaucracy was a nightmare, he said.
We continued on around the peninsula, taking in the great views over the bay of Porto Pim and the city of Horta…
….before heading down the western side of the island.
Next stop was outside a relatively modern but nondescript house which Fred said was important because it symbolised the change that came to the island following the 1957/58 earthquake. Hundreds of houses were destroyed and there followed a mass exodus of 170,000 people, mostly to Canada and the US.
Turning 180 degrees towards the sea Fred pointed down to volcanic rocks on the shoreline and what appeared to be dark cement paths running through them and picnic areas in between them.
In summer, he said the hard rocky surfaces would be packed with swimmers and divers – today there was just one man was putting on a wet suit to go spear fishing.
Our next stop was a large promontory jutting out into the sea.
This is called Morro de Castelo Branco, noted as a nesting area for Cory’s shearwaters, which use burrows in the ground. The Cory’s shearwater is rarely seen near land, returning only to breed.
We could see them flying around, as well as some hardy (or foolhardy) walkers coming down a narrow strip of rock that connects the mainland to the promontory. It was supposed to be off limits, but there’s always someone that wants to ignore the rules and the perils.
This area of coast is a favourite for holiday makers coming from overseas, and apparently many expat Azoreans have holiday homes here. Fred took us to where they had used the rock formations to create natural salt water swimming pools, a blend of concrete and rock which actually worked, and with pathways connecting them.
The larger pool also benefitted the fish population as it provided a sanctuary for fingerlings to feed and grow.
It was time for lunch. Fred drove us to a very popular local restaurant where there was local farmer with his very affectionate dog!
Fred ordered a variety of typical dishes including marinated octopus and blood sausage! We discussed tourism and the impact it is having on local communities and infrastructure and how the Azores and New Zealand are facing very similar issues.
We had specifically requested a visit to the volcano museum at the site of the 1957/58 eruption which we’d read about and that was supposed to be very good. We weren’t disappointed. When we arrived we found the location was like a moonscape – desolate and almost devoid of life – even today, 60 years after the eruption.
Designed by a local architect, The Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Centre (CIVC) was constructed underground so it would allow you to “appreciate” the volcanic landscape. The Volcano dos Capelinhos erupted for more than a year between 1957 and 1958 and projected large quantities of lava and ash forming an islet that later became connected to Faial island by an isthmus and increasing the size of the island by over two square kilometres.
Fred didn’t say too much, he parked the car and started walking along the path across the volcanic moonscape. There was a lighthouse not far away and we could see other tourists walking around it and peering through the windows of what was once the third floor but since the eruption had become the ground floor. Low cloud gave the scene a mysterious and slightly ominous feel.
Fred said we’d go to it later but first we had to walk around and over this large flat metal structure set in the ground which unbeknownst to us was the roof of the museum. We followed the path until it dipped down and disappeared down a ramp leading to two large doors. Through the doors and we could have been in a set for a James Bond movie.
There was a large underground chamber made of concrete with a shop and cafe, movie theatre and various other installations around the sides but in the centre was a gigantic strange mushroom shaped structure, designed to conjure up a giant volcanic plume. Stark, bare and constructed out of concrete, it kind of felt futuristic in a 1960s kind of way. There were a number of excellent displays and exhibitions in corridors and rooms that you accessed off the central area that explained the science of earthquakes and volcanoes, with particular emphasis on the Capelinhos volcano eruption and the formation of the Azores archipelago, as well as the different kinds of volcanic activity around the world,
We also watched a 3D movie which showed how tectonic forces worked. After going through an extensive and quite exhaustive series of displays, including photographic evidence of what happened in 1957/58, we emerged into a bare chamber with only a stair case – the shop was next door.After making a few modest purchases we went up the stairs and stepped out into daylight and found we’d emerged from the ruins of the building that was once the lighthouse and accommodation for the four lighthouse keepers and their families.
It felt quite surreal. This was where one of the four lighthouse keepers had remained to document the eruption and where ash covered the entire bottom floor, although amazingly the building remained intact.
Even though this lighthouse was over a century old, it had survived while another more recent lighthouse did not.
The whole museum was very cleverly designed as an immersive experience.
We had hoped the clouds would have lifted from the caldera, but there was no change so Fred drove us on to a well-known local beach, noted for a strange phenomenon.
Looking at it, it seems most unlikely, but apparently during summer it’s a favourite swimming and surfing beach. Every winter the ocean sucks away vast amounts of black volcanic sand – only to return it in time for summer!
From there, we detoured briefly to look at a quirky residence belonging to a friend of Fred’s – who decided the best use for an old yacht was to put it on vacant block and live in it.
Our last stop was Monte Carneiro above Horta which Fred described as his favourite lookout but that he didn’t get to go to very often.
We enjoyed the view with the island of Pico shrouded in cloud across the bay. We hoped the clouds would clear for our visit tomorrow. It was a great end to a great day. The three of us had got along like we’d known each other forever, great political discussions and lots of fun. We gave Fred our address and told him he and his wife must come to NZ for a holiday soon.
Day Thirty Three… Sunday 22nd April
We had hoped we’d wake up to a blue sky and a stunning vista of the Pico volcano across the bay but when we drew back the curtains all we saw was dense low cloud and just a slither of the Pico coastline!! Fred had suggested we could book a day tour of Pico but it would have required us getting the 7.30am ferry and it focused a lot on the wineries so we gave it a miss. Instead we decided on hiring a car and catching the 9.30am ferry – much more civilized. However, when we arrived at the ferry terminal with time to spare we found the 9.30am didn’t run on a Sunday. We toyed with abandoning the Pico trip but as we had nothing else planned and the weather might improve we thought “what the heck” and bought the tickets for the 10.45am ferry. The terminal was empty, there was a cafe but we had not long ago had breakfast. We asked if we could access the internet but were told no we couldn’t so we went for a short walk. Outside of the terminal building and car park we wandered down to a park and building which housed the public swimming pool and exercise equipment. Back at the terminal there was now a crowd of people, many with suitcases, looking like they were returning from a big trip and a very long queue indeed for the ferry tickets – thank goodness we had bought our’s earlier.
On the ferry we sat at the rear of the upper deck which offered great views of the receding harbour and Faial island (but still no caldera, covered by cloud).
The sea was calm for the duration of the 20-minute ferry boat ride across the four mile Faial Channel separating the islands of Faial and Pico. There were fantastic rock formations weathered by the sea as we neared Pico.
In the Madalena harbour, close to the ferry terminal there was an identical ferry to the one we were travelling on upended on rocks and listing badly. Uh-oh!
Arriving at the port town of Madalena on a bleak overcast Sunday morning it seemed old, tired, run down and very dreary compared to Horta.
We couldn’t wait to find the car hire company Fred had recommended but there was no answer when we knocked on the door at 11.30am, the time it was supposed to open. By now, in desperate need of a coffee and sustenance we wandered back the way we had come and into what appeared to be the centre of the town. On the way we narrowly avoided getting run down by an elderly church goer taking up most of the narrow road in her car, and negotiated our way around a confusing network of roadworks to a street that had a cheery looking café. It was surprisingly modern, had a great range of cakes and pastries, served great coffee, had music videos playing and the staff were really friendly.
Revived and ready to go, we didn’t want to waste any more time as we’d booked to return on the 6pm ferry. We went back to the terminal and found another car hire company. The small compact office was open with a twenty something young woman sitting behind a desk. Our first thought was what a depressing way to spend a Sunday morning for someone her age, but when we got talking to her we got the impression that she was happy just to have a job. As with so many we met, she said she would really like to go to New Zealand for a holiday but it was too far away and too expensive to get there.
Our hire car was a tiny manual Nissan Micra (with very squeaky brakes we were to discover). We opted for Andrew only to drive to save money, it was 35 euros for the day, no half day option.
Our plan was to drive around the island and perhaps visit one of the whaling museums, whaling operations were big on Pico and had only ceased in the late 1980s. However, Andrew was very keen to go to the Monumento Natural Regional da Gruta das Torres, Pico’s famous lava tube museum. It was by guided tour only and he was worried it could get booked out.
So, with directions from the young woman, we set off into the countryside where it was very lush and green.
We saw lots of happy, healthy, fat cows; most of the paddocks and fields were walled using volcanic basalt rock, some incorporating huge boulders.
We found the sign for the lava tube and grotto museum and wound our way up a bumpy road inland, but after parking the car and walking to the (award winning) visitors support centre found the next tour wasn’t until 1.30pm, another hour or more.
We bought tickets and went on a country drive to fill the time. However, there were very few signs and the roads were extremely narrow and badly pot-holed. Kerrie didn’t want to go very far as we had crossed a number of intersections and she was concerned we wouldn’t remember the way back to the car park. She didn’t, but fortunately Andrew did.
As we sat in the visitors support centre and waited for the tour to start we overheard a conversation between the staff behind the desk and a man who was insisting he and his wife could join the tour even though his wife was wearing a support for sprained ankle and was using a stick to walk. We could hear the staff explaining that the walk through the cave was not an easy walk, it required strong boots and the ability to walk on uneven surfaces. The man was most insistent and eventually after they said they might only come part of the way, they were allowed to join the tour. The man also inquired about using the cave as a venue for a meditation meeting for 80 people. They had heard about a concert that had been held inside to which the staff said it had but for a small audience.
The tour began with a film explaining the science behind the Pico volcano eruptions and the creation of the tubes. It was good except the narration could have done with a better English translation.
We found out the Gruta das Torres is at an altitude of 285 metres, is the largest lava tunnel known to exist in the Azores, with a total length of roughly 5150 metres and a maximum height of 15 metres, comprising a large main tunnel and several secondary tunnels above and to the sides.
Once we’d emerged from the back of the theatre we were all given a torch, a paper cap and a helmet to put on…..
…before these intrepid adventurers to the centre of the earth followed their tour guide down a series of stone steps into the darkness.
Although the lava tube went for more than 5kms our tour would take us along 500 metres of it, including a secondary tube.
Only the first 50 metres was on a concrete path then it was a matter of walking on the original lava and rock surface, very uneven and at times slippery, stepping with great care and sometimes clambering or climbing over lava rocks by torchlight.
Needless to say, at the first stop, the couple with the sprained ankle issue said it was too hard and they had to return.
There was no fixed lighting anywhere in the tube which made for a very authentic experience. Our guide pointed out the variety of lava formations, from biscuit lava which was very rough and craggy …
to smooth rounded shapes that looked as if they’d been shaped by humans even though everything was formed naturally.
As the rocks are porous, dripping water often made the rocks slippery so you had to really watch your step and not rush it. She said very few life forms can exist in this environment, mostly algae on some of the walls and ceilings plus a couple of tiny creatures including a beetle.
The commentary brought to life the “rich in geological formations”, with lava versions of stalactites and one “stalagmite” formed by the lava but unlike limestone they don’t keep growing.
There were lava balls, striated walls and long rope-shaped strings of lava and “side-benches” that looked as if they’d been carved by man-made machines.
The guide, a scientist was very good and informative. At one stage she made us turn off our torches for several minutes to experience absolute total darkness, which was eery, while she entertained us with tales of people who went into the caves in early days and whose torches ran out of battery, and how they got out – just! One pair of guys returned using a rope as guide, emerging covered in cuts and bruises, another guy was lucky to have been a smoker and used his lighter to find his way. Must have been pretty scary!
When we turned our torches on again – it looked like we’d been joined by aliens!
On our way back, we stopped by a particular feature in the lava which, although natural, looked as if it may have been created by human hand. Our guide asked us what the shape evoked for us.
From where Andrew was standing it looked like the head of an armadillo, but from another side, and with some creative assistance, to others it conjured up the Mona Lisa.
The tour lasted an hour but passed very quickly – it was so interesting and unusual an experience.
As we ascended from the Stygian gloom of the underworld, our guide counted us out to make sure the same number that started the tour ended the tour, seriously!
By then it was 3pm and we had to return the car around 5pm, so there wasn’t enough time to do the big drive around the perimeter of Pico. So we decided we’d take a look at Pico’s famed, unique-looking vineyards.
The vines were grown in small narrow plots or sections each enclosed by volcanic rock walls. We found out subsequently that the rocks sheltered the vines from the fierce winds and weather and kept them warm. Wine is one of Pico’s biggest exports and the landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
From there, we drove east along the coast where the weather had by now brightened and we could see why Pico is such an attractive and popular place to visit.
Not long after we turned inland and up into the mist hovering around the summit, across and down the other side of Pico’s volcano from where we could see the island of Velas for the first time. We drove through small villages and towns, many with holiday homes and houses built out of basalt rock – as always, a mixture of poor and well-built houses. As we drove past a farm, Andrew suddenly braked, and pointed across to Pico’s volcano and its classic pointy stratocone. There it was for the first time, its summit cloud free.
Pico is the highest volcano in the Azores, at 2351 metres and the last recorded eruption was in 1720. A magnificent sight! And Kerrie’s great Sony zoom gave us a close up view of the crater.
Many photos later….
…we got back in the car and drove to the port, returned the car and headed to the same coffee shop for a bite to eat and coffee before boarding the ferry.
The return journey was in brilliant sunshine, we had a better view of Madalena,
and Pico, with a huge passenger ship heading out to sea.
Back at our room we happened to check our travel cost breakdown for the Azores and wondered if we had been overcharged for our accommodation. Kerrie checked the rack rate for the room we were in and found we had paid significantly more than if we had booked the room ourselves – that explained why the room had not met our four star expectations!
That night we splurged and had dinner at a seafood restaurant overlooking Porto Pim harbour which Fred had recommended. Coincidentally, at the next table to us were three women who were staying at our guest house and who had hiked around the caldera and said it was fantastic and they had had stunning views.
The weather had done a 180 degree turn around from when we first arrived in the Azores a week ago and it is going to be sad to leave this stunning oasis in the Atlantic Ocean tomorrow with its stress free, slow lane existence.
Day Thirty Four … Monday 23rd April
Horta, Faial Island to Lisbon
This was our last day in the Azores and we’d gone to bed thinking about whether to do one last whale watching trip trip, in the hope of sighting a blue whale.
Since our flight to Lisbon wasn’t until late afternoon we thought why not make the most of our time here. As we frequently say when faced with these decisions – ‘when are we ever likely to be back here?’
We’d seen signs on the wharf saying there’d been sightings the previous few days, and asked Fred to check if there were seats available. He called back to say there were.
So at 8:30am, with our bags safely locked away behind reception, we headed across the road to the wharf and paid for two seats on the first whale watching trip of the day with Noberto’s. The day was perfect – blue skies, calm seas and no wind.
There were ten of us in a rubber zodiac, plus the pilot and a marine scientist, Lisa Steiner.
This time Kerrie opted to sit in the front row as the seas were calm and she wanted to get some good shots unspoiled by other passengers sitting in the rows in front of her. Togged up in our safety gear and with cameras at the ready – we headed out of the marina.
First up we saw some common dolphins,
and a pair of Corey’s Shearwaters gliding in perfect harmony.
Despite there being no sightings from the look outs, we headed out to a special location, known as a favourite feeding spot for baleen whales. We were in luck! Lisa spotted a blue whale – our first ever. It was massive – even though Lisa reckoned that it would be around 23 metres long, not the 30 metres they can grow to – apparently the big ones were killed for their blubber and it takes time for these giants to grow to full size.
With an easy grace, the big blue broke the surface in a long fluid motion, leaving a smooth patch of water in its wake. We didn’t get to see the head or the fluke, but it was still a moving and intimate experience.
Lisa was brilliant, she quickly worked out the dives were around seven minutes apart and counted down the minutes.
Almost like clockwork, she’d point to the blue shadow beneath the surface and shout ‘blue whale, here she comes at two o’clock’. This gave everyone time to look out, prime their cameras and catch every precious moment. With thirty years of experience, Lisa could identify any whale she’d seen before from nicks and cuts in their fins or flukes. But this was a new one.
We followed the whale for thirty minutes, then broke away as that is the prescribed time for contact with a cetacean to prevent stress.
As we searched for more whale sightings, we spotted a juvenile logger head turtle.
and several lethal Portuguese Man O’War jellyfish, beautifully reflected in the oily smooth waters.
Our luck held, as not long after we came upon two more blue whales, possibly feeding together. It’s unlikely they were travelling as a pair as that is unusual.
They surfaced quite close to us, enough to see the iridescent sheen of their blue-grey skin, and the size of the blowhole as they expelled huge gasps of air and water.
Lisa made sure everyone got a good view, with strict rules about who was allowed to stand (only the side furthest from the whale). The only exception was the back row where Andrew was located alongside a retired English plant virologist, Roger. In his eighties and going strong, there seemed to be virtually no place on the planet Roger had not visited.
Just after we watched our last “blow”, Andrew’s camera ceased recording – out of storage! Phew!
All this against a backdrop of Faial Island and Pico’s spectacular and characteristic volcanic mountain shimmering in the haze.
After three and half hours at sea, we had to head back. We were 10-15 kms out from port and it would take us half an hour to return. It had been a stunning morning and we were so happy we made the call to go. Three blue whales on one trip – how lucky is that!!
Back on land, we walked around the Porto Pim harbour, past the fish restaurant where we had eaten last night, and down to a small café for a bite to eat.
We needed time to digest not just our food but our amazing boat trip. We still had time to spare so sauntered back to the marina admiring the tall ships that were preparing to depart. Many of the students we had met earlier were on board their ship having some sort of instruction.
We’d been told to look out for the artwork on the marina wharves, with visiting ships invited to create their own fleeting masterpiece.
We wandered back to our guest house to wait for Ferdinand our taxi driver, the same one who had picked us up from the airport at Horta. He arrived on time and was just as talkative and friendly. He told us that he came from a huge family but he was the only one that had stayed in the Azores the rest had emigrated to the United States, including his mother. He said he would never move as he liked the relaxed life on Pico. He also said he owned three houses that were available to rent – with a car, if we should ever want to come back. A tempting idea.
After going through a surprisingly meticulous and thorough security check (although the Azores could be an entry point to Portugal and hence the EU), we boarded our jet for Lisbon. Fred had warned us we would arrive at one end of the terminal and would have a very long walk to the other end to get our bags. We wondered if we had taken a wrong turning somewhere as it was such a long walk. On the way, we passed the duty free shops so we took the opportunity to buy a new SD card for Andrew’s camera, then rang our airport hotel for a free transfer. After confusion about where we should be picked up (Andrew more confused than Kerrie!), we were driven the very short distance to our hotel, the Star Inn Lisboa – the same one we stayed at before. This time our room was strangely different – and initially we were a bit flummoxed as the bathroom and bedroom appeared to be all part of the same space – with glass doors on every section including the loo – open to view from the entire room! Strange! There was however a curtain that could be drawn across to create a sense of privacy – yeh, right. We wished afterwards we’d taken a photo as it was so weird. Apart from that – it was quiet, comfortable and did just nicely.
Day Thirty Five … Tuesday, 24th April
Lisbon to Sintra
We had a wonderfully slow start to the day and made the most of the huge and varied buffet breakfast. However, there was one odd incident we witnessed when an American woman complained to a waiter about a man who was now sitting in her seat. She said she had only moments before put her bag on a seat with a window view thereby reserving it, went to the buffet to get her breakfast and on her return found the man had moved her bag and was sitting in her seat and staring out the window. Kerrie recognised him as he had been decidedly rude pushing right past her when she was at the buffet without so much as a glance or an excuse me.
Breakfast done our next mission was to retrieve the hire car, fortunately it was in the same place where we had last seen it in the car park a week ago and in the same condition- we checked and there appeared to be no added scratches or dents thank goodness. We hadn’t scanned the bar code when we entered the car park a week ago, we didn’t realise we had to, so when we inserted the ticket into the exit machine the boom gate remained firmly down. We rang a number on the exit machine and spoke to someone who confirmed we had prepaid our parking and the boom gate magically lifted. The next drama was to find somewhere to park the car for an hour or so. We tried one car park and were immediately summoned by a parking attendant to remove ourselves and our car and suggested we try the car park under the hotel where we had stayed the previous night – um, that’s where we thought we were. We managed to find the entrance but it was so confusing once we were underground, when we emerged from the lift into the hotel foyer we didn’t recognise anything and discovered we had inadvertently parked underneath the hotel opposite. Like good New Zealand hobbits we walked across the road and back to our hotel for a second buffet breakfast – actually a coffee and a bun – before driving to the UNESCO world heritage town of Sintra, which was only about 45 kms away from Lisbon via motorway.
Nestled amidst the pine-covered hills of the Serra de Sintra, surrounded by plain, estuary or ocean and with a climate similar to northern Europe, Sintra was where the nobility and elite of Portugal constructed exquisite palaces, extravagant mansions and decorative gardens. Hans Christian Anderson described Sintra as the “most beautiful place in Portugal” and Lord Byron christened it his “glorious Eden“.
Sintra is possibly the most popular day trip from Lisbon so it is always crowded but getting through the town is a nightmare as the cobbled streets are very narrow and not designed for the tourist traffic and there is no carparking.
We had booked a night in a bed and breakfast in Quinta das Murtas, a former grand home which we eventually found down a very narrow one-way road with treacherous off road parking in a courtyard – we decided we’d be better to park outside the main wrought iron gates.
We had to stand and wait in the grand hallway entrance until it was our turn to enter a very large sitting room and where a man sat at the furthest end near the bank of windows behind a desk. We sat in front of him as if we were being interviewed for a job.
Despite Andrew having done 90% of the bureaucratic check-in procedure online as requested, we had to go through more bureaucracy, passport checks and payment before we were finally given directions to our accommodation, which was not a room in the main house, but a studio apartment in the garden below. We were told we could park our car in the gated carpark but we couldn’t access the apartment before 3pm.
So, we drove down the steep winding narrow road to the bottom garden entrance, entered the security code, waited for the wrought iron gates to majestically open and after a series of tight turns, drove in. Our stand alone apartment was one of several that were positioned around a pond.
We could see the apartment hadn’t been serviced so we parked the car and set off for the magical and quirky palace of Quinta da Regaleira, recommended to us by our Portuguese friend in Wanaka, Pedro Pimentel. After checking at the tourist office and getting a local map, we walked up to the entrance, passing crowds along the way. Even from the street we could see it was grand in a neo-Gothic style.
We paid our entrance fee and set off to explore this bizarre but beautiful wonderland.
Classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as part of Sintra’s ‘Cultural Landscape’, the property was commissioned by a Brazilian millionaire, Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro in the early 20th century. It was a kind of rich man’s folly, part luxury palace and grounds, part Gothic fantasy and part Hollywood film set.
In fact, the carefully planned and executed arrangement of towers, turrets, grottoes, underground passages and Graeco-Roman statues, fountains, look-outs and miniature temples was designed and built under the supervision of Italian architect and set designer for La Scala, Luigi Manini.
We spent a delightful 3 hours or so wandering around with the aid of an audio guide, charmed by the idiosyncratic feel of this quite unusual place.
There are apparently references scattered through the art and architecture to the Knights Templar, the Masons and dark alchemy. The most intriguing and unusual feature was a largely concealed tower accessed through underground tunnels carved out of rock.
With little or no lighting, the narrow entrances and tunnels that you have to stoop to avoid hitting your head at times, give the experience a sense of mystery, conjuring up initiation rituals. And it is indeed called the Initiation well. This is supposed to symbolise the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templar.
There is a concealed passage that descends 27 meters and connects to a series of tunnels that run the length of the gardens.We did have an interesting moment when we took different tunnels from the tower and had to find each other at the pool of “rebirth”, but all part of the experience!
As well as the gardens and grottoes, there was also the original grand house built for the owner. The façade is decorated with Gothic turrets, carved gargoyles and other ornate features.
Inside, it’s sparsely furnished but with design features that hint at its former grandeur.
We had thought to do two palaces (there are several in Sintra), but by now we were pretty tired and we had a twenty minute walk back to the B&B – plus we’d booked ourselves for dinner in their restaurant. On our way back we passed a distinctive looking pottery – and just had to take a look!
It turned out to be a shop selling pottery created by one woman, Olaria S. Pedro, a Portuguese ceramicist – and we fell in love with many of her designs.
Tempted as we were, there was no way we could carry anything so large or fragile on our trip (even if we had the space) and sending it to New Zealand would have cost more than the artifacts themselves ( yes – we checked, of course!). So, we bought some small items as gifts and toddled back, unpacked the car and put our gear in the cabin. We were gasping for a cuppa but were initially flummoxed by how we were supposed to boil the jug! The cord wasn’t long enough to reach the socket, something of a practical design fault.
We eventually worked out a way, although not one that would have passed health and safety. At 8pm we walked up the stone steps to the main building. Dinner was very good, if rather rich.
Day Thirty Six … Wednesday, 25th
Serenaded by frogs and dogs, we had a variable night’s rest. In the morning we walked up to the main house to have our breakfast, which turned out to be incredibly popular. There must have been 20-30 people tucking into the buffet which surprised us until we remembered there were the garden apartments near us, rooms in the main house as well as rooms in another house near the upper entrance.
Andrew wanted a slow start, so we enjoyed the well-stocked buffet breakfast before returning to the room to pack up and transfer our bags to the car. We were concerned about the boot not locking so we kept the car in the B&B’s car park, where you needed a code to open the gates and hoped the code didn’t change on a daily basis.
We headed back towards the town centre, through the steep hillside public gardens and out along the road passing police and guards, wondering what this was all about. It turned out Monday April the 25th was a national holiday in Portugal – complete with marching bands, processions, street-side stages to seat local dignitaries – and roads closed to public traffic.
Coincidentally, it’s the same day as Anzac Day, but completely unrelated.
This meant the place was even more crowded than usual with tourists as well as local holiday makers! We had hoped to visit two places today but getting around was very difficult and we were dependent on buses. We opted for the Palacio de Pena, a 4km bus ride from the town square; but the road was closed due to the holiday and a march so we had to walk 10 mins to the train station where it was total chaos. Buses were parked side by side and along the road with queues for every one of them. We finally got on a bus which had to go the long way round due to closed roads and actually drove past the upper entrance to our bed and breakfast at one point! Argh!
The road was one-way and narrow, one car width wide with parking for vehicles on the side of the road. The bus driver had to negotiate some extraordinarily tight bends and curves with centimetres to spare on each side, climbing higher and higher to the entrance of the Palacio on the summit of the highest hill. We were kept entertained and then horrified by the behaviour of three children who were sitting on the bench opposite us. The youngest boy about 6 or 7 tormented his older sister about 8 or 9 incessantly and the older boy (about 10 or so) got the blame for it – the youngest was clearly mother’s favourite. Andrew predicted a life of risk and trouble-making!
There was a massive queue at the ticket office but fortunately it was for visiting the park grounds only – extremely popular on a public holiday. We went straight to a machine and got our palace and park tickets in a matter of minutes.
The way to the palace was a 500 metre curving and steeply inclined path through the gardens which we pushed ourselves to do as fast as we could.
There were tantalising glimpses of the palace through the trees, a multi-coloured ice-cream cake of a castle. It could have been a Disney set or cartoon castle. But in fact, this was a Royal Palace built by Portugal’s King Ferdinand II. As we got closer, the castle took on a more and more exotic appearance.
Fêted as a product of his creative genius and the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal, the palace is described as having influences from both Moorish and the Manueline styles of architecture. Manueline describes a uniquely Portuguese aesthetic and style: glorious, lavish, sumptuous – Gothic but overlaid and enhanced by influences from overseas cultures, a product of Portugal’s maritime greatness of the 16th century. The result is unlike anything else.
From the moment you enter the gates, you feel you’ve entered a fairy tale world.
Because it was a public holiday, the palace was packed with visitors, so finding a place to take that great shot from a particular vantage point often meant waiting for everyone else to get theirs too!
We had to navigate our way through the inevitable selfie-takers, tourists with no sense of personal space and families with bored kids. It was however, really worthwhile – almost as much a folly/fantasy as the Quinta da Regaleira, but grander.
Originally, there had been a monastery on the site which the king bought and then incorporated features into his Palacio. There was nothing austere about the Palacio da Pena however.
From bedrooms to dining rooms and private study, everything was on a grand and lavish scale – as befits a king!
And the kitchens too, of course, as needs must for a royal banquet.
Our lunch was a modest affair at the palace’s popular cafe which we spied across the decorative crenellations.
Having grabbed a bite to eat at the terrace café, we fare-welled this royal fairyland.
And left the castle to wander around the gardens, equally captivating and and far more restful.
The one criticism was an absence of signposting, and the map we had was more representational than accurate. The palace was built in such a way as to be visible from any point in the park, which contained a forest and luxuriant gardens with over five hundred different species of trees originating from the four corners of the earth.
We navigated our way in a rough circle around the Palacio and finally exited the grounds via a series of ponds, lower down on the estate.
This proved to be a smart decision as we were able to hop on the bus here which was virtually empty. Kerrie saved the day by rescuing Andrew’s camera which he left on the seat as we got in!!
Thank goodness we got on the bus at the earlier stop, as there was a huge line waiting to board at the main entrance. This time we had a woman bus driver and we overheard an American man and his wife sitting behind us commenting on whether she’d get around some of the tight corners, and at times taking a sharp intake of breath. She did – with professional sang-froid. The parade was over so the bus dropped us off beside the town square of Sintra. We walked back up through the gardens to Quinta das Murtas, our B & B and our car parked safely behind the locked gates.
We’d left the room keys in the cabin – so we set the GPS for our next destination and hit the road out of Sintra.
We drove north to Nazaré, a beach side town recommended by our friend Pedro. We’d booked ourselves into “very cheap” accommodation (two stars) in a bid to stay on budget. Once more, ‘Carmen’ our GPS guide, was bamboozled by the one-way system of roads, wanting us to take one-way roads the wrong way. Finally, we arrived and since there was only on-street parking, we started to be seriously concerned about the fact we couldn’t seem to lock the hatch/boot/cargo door of the rental car. We could lock the driver and all the passenger doors but not the one at the back. This was a bit of a worry – raising security concerns both for the car and our luggage – especially since we were planning on visiting sites on our travels, which meant leaving the car in a carpark while full of all our stuff! For some reason we’d only noticed this problem after returning from the Azores.
We decided that we’d better call Hertz and raise the issue with them. But first we had to check in to our budget accommodation!
Turístíca Conde Fídalgo was characterful with tiled walls and floors and a sliver of seaview.
And it was clean – but very basic. The room and bathroom can only be described as motel-lite. Queen Kerrie not happy!
Still, we paid and put our stuff in the room and Andrew set about calling Hertz to report the problem with the car. This turned out to be an epic process as Hertz Spain took forever to answer the phone and then told us we had to deal with Hertz Portugal. There was only an answering message – in Portuguese – which Andrew couldn’t understand – so he called Hertz Spain again – all this on our mobile and with no roaming available in Portugal!!!
While all this was going on, Kerrie took the opportunity to sit outside and catch up on the blog.
Finally, a Hertz guy in Spain put us through to an English speaking Hertz guy in Portugal who said that since it was a public holiday he wasn’t sure he could arrange anything but he would try – please hold (on our phone still). Eventually he said he could arrange a mechanic to come – it would take about an hour.
At the B&B, English speaking Anna mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide wasn’t there but her French speaking mother was and she recommended a good seafood restaurant in the town square facing the beach. We decided to take our chances and head downtown.
Judging by what others were eating, the restaurant was famous for its crabs, shellfish and lobster with bibs provided and the sound of cracking shells all around us.
Kerrie raced off at one point to take a photo of a fishing boat returning to the harbour with about 150,000 seagulls flocking around it.
Of course, as soon as the main course arrived the phone rang. Fortunately, our waiter Nunu had worked in America for a few years, spoke perfect English and Portugese and so we put him on the phone so he could translate the words of the mechanic who was waiting at the car. Andrew’s dinner was put in the oven, and he raced off to meet the mechanic. Kerrie watched the soccer on the TV screen, not understanding anything of the match.
The mechanic tried everything to lock the car but was unable to fix the problem and he finally said it was an electronics fault, a common complaint with this make of car. Deep frustration! Andrew returned to finish his meal, and after our three-course dinner, which was very good and saved the day, we walked up and down the promenade, commenting on the expanse of golden sand stretching at least two hundred metres to the water’s edge. Unfortunately, we also saw a fair amount of rubbish and a woman walking her dog, watching it poo on the sand and then just walking away. Ugh. Back to our sumptuous accommodation.
Day Thirty Seven … Thursday, 26th
Nazaré to Alcobaça and Batalha
We had a pretty dreadful night’s rest as the bed felt clammy (yuk) -Kerrie gritted her teeth as she used the bathroom, the toilet seat didn’t fit properly and you had to sit sideways otherwise your knees got stuck against the wall! We walked down to the beach for a quick promenade and then found a local café to have breakfast, coffee and pastry. We packed up the car and drove north, a big day planned as we wanted to visit three different sites on the way to our accommodation at Pedro’s ‘second Mum’s’ Bed and Breakfast in Coja.
First stop was the Alcobaça Cistercian monastery famous for its 110 metre long nave and its well-fed monks who apparently were the most gluttonous of any known order. We found a car park nearby but as we were concerned about the security of the car (we tried locking everything again – without success), Kerrie stayed to mind the car and our luggage.
Both the church and monastery were massive but very austere inside, free of stained glass, carvings, statues or adornment.
The monastery was founded in 1153 by Alfonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal and reportedly housed 999 monks who held mass non-stop in shifts. The only decoration to be seen were some bas-reliefs and painted tiles in the Azulejo style honouring King Alfonso.
Without furniture or furnishings of any kind, areas such as the vast, vaulted dormitory have a stark but ethereal beauty.
However, there were some exceptions such as the kitchen which was huge, with a great slab table for carving up the food, stone troughs with ornate taps and a pool fed by spring water in which live fish were kept fresh for the monk’s dinner table.
According to eighteenth century writer William Beckford, the Cistercian monks didn’t exactly live an austere existence. He commented on the kitchen and food preparation which suggested a taste for gastronomic indulgence. Next to the kitchen was the high-ceilinged refectory where the monks ate in silence.
Enclosed by cloisters is a tranquil garden, common to many of Spain and Portugal’s monasteries and cathedrals.
You can’t leave without going to transepts of the immense church to view the two intricately carved tombs on opposite sides of the nave.
Dating to the 14th century, the tombs commemorate the tragic story of a pair of doomed lovers.
The tombs were placed with their feet towards each other so that when they reached the everlasting, they could rise and face each other and be reunited straight away.
We drove on to Batalha to visit the UNESCO listed Dominican Abbey which took 200 years to construct, built to fulfil the promise made by King John 1 of Portugal if he won a battle against the King of Castile. In 1385, with the assistance of a few hundred English soldiers (he was married to Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt) he fought and won the battle of Aljubarrota against superior numbers in a nearby field. This elaborately carved and imposing abbey is surrounded on all sides by a paved square and pedestrian precinct which allows you to appreciate its Gothic architecture and workmanship from all sides.
We went first to the Tribune of the Unfinished Chapels, the last addition, built in the 1530s and never completed.
Unroofed, open to the sky, yet with a soaring grandeur and embellished with intricate filigree work in the Manueline style, it had a richly beautiful quality.
We walked around to the western doorway to the church and admired the magnificent carved entrance, featuring a procession of apostles, saints, angels and prophets.
Inside, we went first to the chapel containing the bodies of the King John and his English wife, Philippa on a raised platform in the centre. Their marriage in 1387 cemented an alliance between Portugal and England through the Treaty of Windsor which exists to this day.
Each of their four sons lie in separate alcoves around the side. Their third son was the famed Henry the Navigator,
who’s commemorated with a bust in the town square.
After visiting the chapel, we admired the impressive church and adjoining abbey. Whatever you might think about religion, these medieval churches, abbeys and tombs are awe-inspiring and create a moving, reverential atmosphere and an appreciation of humanity’s creative and engineering accomplishments.
We had lunch in a café in the surrounding square, where we could reflect on the dazzling architecture and fascinating history of Portugal – about which we were lamentably ignorant.
Rested and refreshed, it was time to head off as we had another iconic location on our itinerary. We drove to Conímbriga to visit the largest Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula, discovered just over a hundred years ago. Still concerned about the security of the car and our luggage, we parked as near as possible to the museum entrance. An unusually warm, fine day so a visit indoors was a welcome break from the heat. The museum contained a fantastic display of coins, and everyday items excavated from the site, from rings (to fit very tiny fingers), medical instruments, coins, pottery, farming tools that looked identical to those still used today in many parts of the world, as well as metal ornaments worn by the soldiers.
In another room there were remains of statues, buildings and mosaics taken from the site. A sign for home-made gelato inspired Kerrie to buy two scoops each, very refreshing, (and it made us think if it is as hot as this in April what must it be like in July and August!). But the delay meant that instead of being ahead of the two school groups that were visiting the ruins (and had pushed and shoved and made a racket in the museum when we were there), we were now right amongst them.
The ruins were extensive, dating to the second century AD and covering a large area so it took us at least two hours to walk around the site.
We could see the remains of houses, still with exquisite mosaics largely intact.
Many included similar geometric designs to those we’d seen in Itálica, and one that created an optical illusion, could have been designed by the Dutch artist, MC Escher.
There were the remains of baths, and we could see the network of stone heating ducts beneath the now-missing floors. It always amazes us that the Romans developed sophisticated ways to heat water and have hot baths, keeping themselves clean and healthy, 2000 years ago – yet the technology and practice was then lost for centuries.
Running through the centre of the site is a massive stone wall. Six metres tall and three metres wide, it was built towards the end of the third century AD, to protect the town from Barbarian hordes, cannibalising stone from earlier buildings and leaving grand homes and edifices outside.
The gate or entrance is still visible. Alongside the road leading to the gate are the foundations of a shopping mall.
Outside the late empire wall,
are the remains of a grand house, the Domus Cantaber
and the foundations of the Roman Forum, the location of important religious, political and social activities. Not much remains to be seen apart from the foundations and recreated temple pillars.
But in the museum you can see a miniature reconstruction of how it might have looked originally in its heyday.
The greatest treasure and best preserved structure is the House of Fountains, with a magnificent set of mosaics representing hunting scenes, mythological stories, monsters, birds and sea animals.
Most notable is the portrayal of the death of the Gorgon at the hands of Perseus.
Archaeologists estimate that only 17 percent of the city has been excavated, making this a truly remarkable site. Who knows what else is concealed beneath the dust of eighteen centuries.
We ended the tour back at the car and the boot remained closed, yippee.
Our final leg of the day was to the B&B in Coja, about an hour and half’s drive north east. We were booked to stay with at a B&B owned by an old family friend of Pedro, our Portuguese friend and colleague in Wanaka. Getting there with Carmen our GPS guide was fine, but finding the B&B proved extremely tricky (not helped by Andrew not following our host, Manuela’s instructions!!)
Coja was a very pretty, steep sided village centred around a bridge over a river. Manuela had sent us detailed instructions but it transpired that by following Carmen, we had arrived at the opposite end of town and on the wrong side of the bridge so the instructions made no sense. In desperation, we asked two different bystanders but we couldn’t understand much of what they said. Andrew rang Manuela and we finally found Casas da Coutada. What an oasis! Manuela had converted a former farm building in the centre of her huge garden into an office and two beautifully appointed and tastefully decorated units with really comfy beds, ultra-modern bathroom and kitchenette.
Manuela was charming and her big golden retriever was also very happy to meet us.
We had a good chat over a refreshing cup of tea in the late afternoon sun sitting outside the room, eating the most divine pastries (that were actually supposed to be for our breakfast the next morning).
Eventually, we decided we better head downtown to grab some supper. We walked the 400 metres downhill and across the bridge to the village for dinner at a tapas restaurant recommended by Manuela that also sold the best quality local food products, jams, wines etc.
We didn’t know what to order except that we wanted to try local tapas specialties, so the waitress/cook asked if we would be happy if she was creative to which we replied, ‘of course’. Within minutes she produced a fantastic platter of cheeses and preserved meats including blood sausage together with freshly home-made strawberry juice. Next course was omelette with fresh asparagus and third course was gelato (the second for the day). She was keen to chat to practice her English and chatted away about national politics and other matters.
Over dinner we discussed how we might re-work the itinerary to stay another night, as we both felt we needed a break and Manuela’s B&B was so peaceful and she herself was so welcoming.
We wandered back by starlight, charmed by Coja.
Day Thirty Eight … Friday, 27th April
We woke up about 9am, unheard of for us, had our breakfast and asked Manuela if we could stay another night and it turned out she had put a second night down for us with a question mark next to it. Fantastic news. We had a delightfully slow morning, taking some photos in the grounds of the B&B and its gorgeous views.