Ah, the bounty that Portugal offers to those “in the know” – like us! The mainland is packed with history, beautiful vistas, great food and excellent wine. We have all taken advantage of these riches. But how many of you have visited Portugal’s Azores? Most of you have not, and you have been missing something.
The Azores are a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic. Ponta Delgada, the capital on São Miguel Island, is 954 km northwest of Funchal, Madeira, 1,445 km west of Lisbon and 2,392 km east of Boston. São Miguel itself is almost the same size as Madeira (760-800 sq km) and Ponta Delgada is about the same population as Faro.
Helga and I first visited São Miguel in March 2004. We decided to return in June, for a lazy week of R&R. A comfortable train ride up to Lisbon Oriente and a TAP flight got us to Ponta Delgada pretty efficiently. It’s an internal flight, so no passport control.
The hotel we stayed in 19 years ago, the Pestana Bahia Praia, has become a large, beautiful, luxury beach resort with 100 rooms and five stories. But it is no longer our taste. We stayed in the Convento de São Francisco, a stunning 16th century convent that has been transformed into a beautiful 12-room hotel.
The décor is austere: imposing, rough-cut original stone doorways and cloisters, lavastone features, cedar floors – plus some lovely gardens, a large pool and views to the nearby south coast. Peaceful and quiet. Just what we wanted. The hotel is on the west side of Vila Franca do Campo, a town founded around 1450 and capital of the archipelago until it was destroyed by an earthquake and landslide in 1522.
A rental car is essential. The primary roads are all excellent (thank you EU) and the secondary roads are pretty good. No toll roads.
São Miguel is a small island – only about 65 km long by 15 km wide – but it is quite hilly, with very few flat areas. There are lots of cows (the Azores is known for its dairy products), but no sheep at all and very few horses or pigs. Azoreans are very proud of their locally grown pineapples and bananas, not to mention the obvious seafood. There is some very good wine, too, but the vineyards are on Pico Island, 260 km to the west.
Ponta Delgada has an interesting centre, where there is a unique 18th century three-arch gateway to the old city. This praça is open to the harbour and it is commanded by an imposing statue of Gonçalo Velho Cabral (1400-1460), a Portuguese explorer working for Henry the Navigator, who discovered São Miguel in about 1427. Just beyond the gates is the 16th century cathedral of São Sebastião, best known for its Manueline front doorway, made of Alentejo limestone. Behind the cathedral is a lovely restaurant called A Tasca which, unfortunately for us, was booked out. The town hall (Paços do Concelho) facing the cathedral is quite pretty.
But a day in Ponta Delgada is enough. The really interesting stuff is out in the countryside. On Corpus Christi day (June 8), we drove to the small town of Povoação where, to our delight, we found the streets covered with floral designs, reminding us of Easter here in São Brás. In fact, there were times on São Miguel when we could really see an Algarvean influence. There is a São Brás and a Lagoa and a Santa Barbara – even a town named Algarvia! Most of the early settlers came from the Algarve or the Alentejo, looking for a better life.
In the western part of the island is Sete Cidades, the natural wonder of the Azores. It is a volcanic crater with a circumference of 12 km. There are twin lakes in the crater, one green and one blue, and the village of Sete Cidades itself.
In the eastern part of São Miguel is the beautiful Lagoa do Fogo and, a little further on, the Furnas complex. The sulphurous waters in the area boil away at about 100º centigrade and restaurants commandeer some of the caldeiras to boil a Cozido das Furnas. The area has 56 holes used for cooking and the municipality of Povoação does the actual cooking, using special pots that can withstand high temperatures. The pots are lowered in their holes around 6am and covered. Cooking takes 6-7 hours. For €3, you can have a plateful! We saw the caldeiras, of course, but weren’t tempted by the food.
If you are a tea drinker, there is a large plantation named Gorreana on the north central coast. Tea was planted in the mid-1800s, helped by Lau-a-Pan, a Chinese tea master, and his assistant Lau-a-Teng. There were a number of producers, but most died out in the early 20th century. Gorreana was founded in 1883 and today produces about 40 tons of tea a year from 37 hectares (that’s a lot of tea, folks).
The eastern part of São Miguel has a strikingly beautiful coastline. The most spectacular views are from miradouros on the cliffs south of the village of Nordeste.
One very interesting feature was right on our doorstep. The small chapel Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz is beautifully situated on a hilltop overlooking Vila Franca do Campo. It was built in 1764, on the site where a shepherd found an image of Mary (sounds like Fátima, doesn’t it?). The blue tiled stairway, inspired by the one in Braga, is framed by hydrangeas (which are the national flower of the Azores – they are everywhere). If you visit, try to go at sunset.
Vila Franca do Campo itself is very interesting – especially the harbour, where countless boats are available to go diving or whale watching. The harbour area also boasts three excellent restaurants – Atlântico (lovely roof terrace, great beef), Estrela do Mar (seafood on the terrace) and Mercado da Vila (an interesting collaboration of three Michelin-starred chefs, offering Portuguese, Italian and Asian menus). All three restaurants are within short walks of each other.
It is so easy to hop over to the Azores for a week. Why don’t you do it?