Saturday, March 3, 2007

Fumaroles, Mudpots and Geysers - Azores - Açores

Furnas where we saw fumaroles, mudpots, geysers and a beautiful crater lake and then we went to Lake Fogo where we could have spent more than just a day or two. He also took us to a workshop where a gigantic mechanical saw was cutting volcanic boulders into blocks, for construction as well as decorative siding. The cut pieces then went to other machines operated by people as skilled as any talented artisan.

Atlantis - Azores - Açores

A legend about the Azores relates that these islands (among the youngest on earth) are nothing less than the tips of the highest mountains of the now sunken continent of Atlantis. Proof of the tumultuous demise of Atlantis, says the legend, is the violent volcanic activity which has always characterised the Azores and which can still be experienced today on some of the islands. Although this is just a myth, when I visited the Azores, I still found it fascinating to travel around and spot, off in the distance, the white vapours of fumaroles rising from the wooded hills and even from among the houses and streets of certain towns.

Luxuriant vegetation - Azores - Açores

One of the things that surprised most people was the luxuriant vegetation - which I had not found when visiting other volcanic islands. In the Azores, the ashes from explosions which took place over a period of 20 million years (the last one was in 1952) left a legacy of wonderfully fertile soil which is nurtured by rainfall which, although not constant, does occur throughout the whole year.

The highest mountain in Portugal - Azores - Açores

Early one pleasant morning, we arrived in Madalena, the capital of Pico. It was a little chilly. The sky was clear, with no clouds to be seen. The small airport is not too far from Pico Alto, which is the highest mountain in the whole of Portugal. This volcano is 2,351 metres high, although only part of it emerges from the waters of the ocean, meaning that it is actually much higher. The view of the mountain was truly magnificent! The organisers who picked us up told us, that such a sight - the volcano surrounded by a clear sky - was very unusual. This lucky beginning was just the start of many more wonderful experiences.

Pretty and Tidy - Azores - Açores

Madalena is a pretty and very tidy town. Most of its houses are built with blocks of basalt, painted white, with red, Spanish-style roof tiles. The streets are paved with nicely carved cobbles of basalt intermingled with other types of coloured rock to form pleasing designs.

Hydrangea hedges - Azores - Açores

On our way to explore lava tubes as part of the Symposium program, we visited remote parts of Pico and Faial, under the guidance of the organisers. I could not get enough of the beauty of the hills, all painted green with crops of corn, potatoes, broad beans, yam, and tomatoes. Some of the fields were divided by roads or by fences of basaltic rocks but many of them were separated by hedges of hortensias, which bloom during the months of July and August. Unfortunately, we were there in May and, therefore, we saw only the first buds timidly peeking through the shiny leaves of the plants. I imagined how amazingly beautiful those hedges must be when all of them are covered with flowers! The hortensia is, in fact, the national flower of the Azores, so everywhere you see pictures, posters and commercial ads displaying pictures of that splendid flower with its different colours: pink, white and purple.

Agriculture, Fishing and Farming - Azores - Açores

Azoreans live on more than agriculture. Their fishing industry is strong, and so is their dairy farming. Scenes of cows peacefully grazing on verdant hills, or stopping traffic as they are herded along highways are typical sights you can't miss out in the country.

The memories I took home with me after the symposium, from our visits to Pico and Faial, were so varied it was difficult to put them all together. Two events, though, kept coming back to me. The first event took place one day, in Pico, when we stopped to look at a small lake in a caldera (a cauldron-shaped crater of a volcano). There were a lot of ducks close to the water. When the bus approached the lake, all the ducks raced towards the vehicle. I don't know what the other people thought, but I assumed the ducks were hoping for a little snack from us. Such was not the case! All of them assembled right in front of the bus with their heads held low and their necks stretched tight. We couldn't figure out why they were doing this until we stepped out of the bus. A really powerful and cold wind was blasting out there and the ducks had apparently learned that cars, and especially buses, make wonderful wind breakers... and they had learned exactly which position to take to avoid being blown away!

An outstanding crater lake - Azores - Açores

A stopover in Sao Miguel Island was on the itinerary of our return route. We were to spend several days there after the symposium had ended. After our discovery of the beauty of Pico and Faial, I couldn't wait to arrive at this, the largest of the nine islands!

Although Sao Miguel is the biggest island in the Azores, it is still quite small: 65 kilometres long by 16 kilometres wide. And just like the other two islands we had visited, extraordinarily beautiful. We had been told that the best way to get around would be by renting a car or by taxi. We chose the second option as that way we would be travelling with somebody who knew the place very well. For our first outing, though, we decided to take a taxi to our destination and then go back to Ponta Delgada by bus. We started off with a visit to Sete Cidades, an outstanding crater lake in a caldera which is twelve kilometres in diameter. There is a town next to the lake with the same name. The taxi left us at Vista do Rei, at the top of the crater and we walked for kilometres along a trail designed especially for hikers, following the narrow edge of the caldera before heading down to the town. We had a view of the lake on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. It was quite an experience!