October 2023 sees us back in the Azores – three different islands this time! We're starting on Terceira and go on to São Jorge and Graciosa. These three islands are quite different in character but of course have a lot in common, too; there are many things to see and explore and we didn't quite manage to do everything we had planned, but we did do some other things and also had time to relax.
Photography-wise, this is the first big outing for the OM System OM-1 camera (supported by the Olympus PEN-F when something smaller and less obtrusive is called for), with the 12–100mm/4 and 8–25mm/4 zooms as the main lenses and the 18mm/1.7, the 60mm/2.8 Macro, and the 100–400mm/5–6.3 in reserve.
Click on any picture for an enlarged view.
6th October – Oh-Dark-Hundred
We're getting up very early today because the taxi to the airport waits in front of the house at 3.30am. Our flight to Lisbon is at 6.05am but we want to play it safe since TAP, unlike Lufthansa, doesn't let you bring your suitcases the night before. (This proved to be quite useful on our trip to Israel almost a year ago because it saved a lot of time on the actual day.) But we managed to scrounge a last-minute upgrade to business class when TAP auctioned off some seats on Monday, so today we're travelling in style! At any rate this lets us saunter blithely past a long queue of plebs to the “Premium” check-in counter where it takes us next to no time to get rid of our suitcases and be issued with new boarding cards (apparently there was some change, of which more later). The security check is just as quick, since our lane is one of the new ones where you no longer need to unpack all the electronics, liquids, etc. in your cabin baggage. Given that Anselm, as usual, carries a backpack which is practically bursting with technology this is a major time saver. It's a very long trek to the actual departure gate and we're an hour early for the boarding at 5.15am, but we're not complaining.
The flight to Lisbon takes a little over two hours and is fairly uneventful – we're sitting on the side of the plane that doesn't have the spectacular views of the sun rising over the Alps but the glimpses we can catch through the off-side windows are quite scenic. So is breakfast, which arrives in the shape of a tray that has actual china, metal cutlery, and tasty food that makes us commiserate with the people back in coach who don't get anything at all (unless they pay for it).
In Lisbon, the customs agents are on strike which doesn't concern us since we're not leaving the airport. Instead, we install ourselves in the TAP lounge, with more food (including very nice fresh pasteis de nata, Lisbon's signature sweet, and bacon and eggs that would give many hotels we know a run for their money). The lounge is quite busy but everyone seems to be on their best behaviour so the time to our connecting flight passes very quickly.
From Lisbon it's another two hours plus change to the island of Terceira, and this time we're really living it up: TAP is using an Airbus A330 neo, a wide-body long-haul jet which has actual business class seating (and not just normal seats with a little more leg room and nobody in the middle of a three-seat group, which to be sure is nothing to scoff at already). This means everyone is in their own little compartment – ours have a retractable partition between them –, with practically infinite leg room and a seat that will recline not until it hits the knees of the person sitting in the row behind, but until it is essentially flat, like a bed. There's a huge video screen in front of each of us for movies, TV, and music, and of course there's more food, again of the delicious variety served on proper tableware, with drinks in cups and glasses that are not cardboard. We agree that this is how air travel is meant to be, and regret that we're not on a really long trip somewhere. (TAP also deserves credit for the first in-flight security video we've seen for a long time that is actually entertaining and fun to watch, because it basically shows you the sights of Portugal with security advice cleverly interspersed.)
We arrive at Lajes, the big airport on the Azorean island of Terceira, around 2.15 in the afternoon – the airport was constructed by the British in 1947 and later taken over by the US Air Force, which is still operating an air base there. (It was also an emergency landing site for the NASA space shuttle, which accounts for the length of the landing strip.) Our suitcases arrive pretty soon and that puts us first in the rental-car queue, which is just as well given the amount of paperwork involved, but soon afterwards we're set up with our wheels (a Fiat Panda which is barely big enough for us and our luggage) and embark on the 6-minute drive to our hotel in Praia da Vitória.
The hotel is also very nice (it's basically on the other side of the street from the beach), except that the “parking” it claims in the travel materials turns out to be enough for four cars. Everybody else must either park on the municipal lot (which costs €3/day on working days) or else drive along the beach for a couple hundred metres to the marina parking lot, which is free. But that doesn't really bother us. We drop our stuff in the room (which is really a mini-apartment with a kitchenette, and the beds in a separate part of the space), rest for a bit on the balcony (with a nice view of the harbour and marina) and then decide to explore Praia da Vitória for a bit. (Note that at this point we have been up and about for 13 hours already, give and take.)
Our first stop is the blue-and-white Igreja de Senhor Santo Cristo (which is a bit of a weird name but what do we know). On the other side of the street is the childhood home of Vitorio Nemésio, a very important modern-Portuguese poet that we have never heard of. He wrote poems (oodles of), novels (some) and lots of other novellas, histories, literary criticism, travelogues etc. He is also credited with inventing the term insularidade, which expresses the early-20th-century Azoreans' sadness at having to live in a forgotten backwater and homesickness for that forgotten backwater once they have finally managed to leave and live somewhere else.
The church is notable for its whitewashed interior (which for a Portuguese church is highly unusual, given that the principle for interior decoration in Portuguese churchs is “don't paint what you can gild”). The church was originally finished in 1521, but it burnt down in 1821 and was rebuilt by 1824. Just a little down the road is Igreja Matriz de Santa Cruz, which is an even bigger church whose foundations were laid in the 15th century but which wasn't finished until 1517. Various additions were made over the years, so that now it represents a hodge-podge of various architectural styles. Its insides are highly decorated (to the general standard of Portuguese churches) and features, among other things, a nice little pipe organ and a sacristy with a wardrobe full of splendid priestly vestments.
From the church we walk down towards the sea, where we get to sit on a bench on Largo J. de Deus to enjoy the late-afternoon sun. On our way back to the hotel we pass a large mural of the 1829 “Battle of Praia”, which occurred during the civil war instigated by Dom Miguel, the arch-conservative brother of the previous king Dom Pedro, a liberal and modern ruler who had abdicated in 1826 in favour of his under-age daughter, Dona Maria da Glória. Dona Maria, who was 7 at the time, was supposed to eventually marry Dom Miguel (her uncle, yuck) but Dom Miguel didn't want to wait until his wedding to become king of Portugal so he staged a reactionary coup. Liberals, democrats, and freemasons fled from Lisbon to Terceira and established a counter-government in the city of Angra. The battle occurred when troops sent by Dom Miguel tried to force a landing at Praia in order to suppress the liberal counter-government, but this failed, and the other Azorean islands joined Dom Pedro's cause. Dom Pedro visited Angra in 1831 and managed to raise enough soldiers for a liberation army which prevailed on the mainland in 1833. In 1834, a constitutional monarchy was proclaimed, with queen Maria II (Dom Pedro's daughter) as the ruler. She decreed that the town of Praia would thereafter be known as “da Vitória” – “of victory”.
On our way home we pass the O Pescador restaurant, which is highly recommended by our guide book and only a few steps away from our hotel. This is where we go for dinner (although by now we're both quite tired); Marie has a steak with São Jorge cheese sauce, and Anselm tries the squid-and-shrimp cataplana – a stew cooked and served in a special domed dish. This cataplana comes with a cream, bacon and mushroom sauce and is awesomely delicious – it pains us to send so much of the sauce back but we agree that our polite upbringing precludes using the content of the bread basket to mop up the remaining sauce. We're consoling ourselves with dessert – a small cheese cake for Marie and the “house delight” (another piece of cake) for Anselm. (Remember that in Portugal, the dessert is the most important part of the meal, and Portuguese restaurateurs will be deeply hurt and offended if you don't partake of the delights of the dessert cart.) By now we're really tired and waste no time in going back to the hotel and falling into bed.
7th October – Angra do Heroísmo
It looks like a beautiful day today and our plan is to explore the island capital, Angra do Heroísmo. (The “do Heroísmo” comes, again, from Queen Marie II., as a reward for Angra's “heroic” part in the civil war of 1825–1833.) Angra is not quite a half-hour drive from Praia on the new EU-sponsored motorway. The town was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1983 on account of its importance as a link between the cultures of Europe, Africa, America, and Asia in the 15th and 16th century. Even now it is a prime example of Renaissance town planning and architecture.
We leave the car in a large parking lot near the court of law – parking in Angra can be quite expensive, depending where you go, but this parking lot is free and we make up for that by walking the rest of the way into town. This goes down a fairly steep hill and we realise that we will have to walk all the way back up to find our car again! But this is still some time away.
Our first stop is the old town square, which features the new town hall, built in the 19th century on the site of the previous town hall, and modelled on the town hall of Porto, which reminds us that we haven't been to Porto yet. From there we continue to the palace of the Captain-Generals, who ruled the Azores from 1766 to 1832 (this was a step up from the previous feudalism, but still not great for the common Azoreans), and then to the Sé Catedral, more formally known as Igreja de Santíssimo Salvador da Sé. This is the largest place of worship in the Azores and supposed to be quite lavishly decorated and worth the visit. Unfortunately, even after taking a complete circuit of the church and in spite of notices to the contrary having been posted outside, there is no obvious entrance for the public and all doors remain solidly locked. The same thing happens at Igreja de São Gonçalo, which according to the guide book sports a rare picture of the engagement of Mary and Joseph, but which is also closed to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays. (While we're on our way from the door a group of French tourists arrives and is duly admitted; we briefly debate whether we want to try to pass for French and tag along but in the end decide against it. Mary and Joseph will have to celebrate their engagement without us.)
We take a brief stroll through the Jardim Público, otherwise known as the Jardim Duque de Terceira. This is supposed to be one of the largest public parks in the Azores (as we recall, the botanical garden in Furnas on São Miguel is quite a bit bigger but of course is not a public park – in 2017 we managed to avoid the steep entrance fee by eating cozido in the associated hotel, which lets you visit the botanical garden for free afterwards, except that you're much too full and tired to even move). We walk among various exotic plants and sit down on a bench to watch a seemingly endless procession of long-distance runners coming down from the nearby Alto do Memória. There must be some sort of race going on, but we don't find out what it actually is.
From the Jardim it is not far to the Museu de Angra do Heroísmo, which uses the 15th-century Franciscan convent and houses various exhibitions on the history of the city, the island, and the Azores in general. This is exhausting in more than one sense and we don't manage to see it all – but the parts that we do see are fascinating, even if many of them are only explained in Portuguese. Part of the visit is the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Guia, another ginormous and richly-decorated church which we finally do manage to get to see from inside. This church is where Vasco da Gama, the discoverer of the sea route to India, buried two thirds of his crews, including his brother Paulo, who had fallen ill during the voyage and eventually died on Terceira. The church nave is full of the numbered graves of da Gama's seamen – unfortunately at some point the list giving the names for the numbers was lost, so by now nobody knows who was interred where. Incidentally, we get a free organ recital (or just someone's organ practice) and a peek at the organ, fairly small and pedal-less, but incidentally the oldest pipe organ in the Azores, later from the gallery which is reached via the museum).
The final church the guide book says should be visited is Igreja da Misericórdia, a wonder in blue and white down by the port. Unfortunately once we make it there, you guessed it, the church is closed for the weekend. (We will have to have words with the guide book publisher.) So after sitting in the sun for a bit and marvelling at a statue of Vasco da Gama at a run, a tuk-tuk (Asian motorbike taxi) offering guided tours of the city, and a house with lots of street art on its window shutters, we walk over to the Rua de São João and the O Chico restaurant, which is another guide book recommendation. This is in fact open and quite full, but the maître d' manages to find a table for us. Lunch is the soup of the day for Anselm and a large platter of grilled limpets (shellfish-like sea snails) for Marie, followed by grilled squid for Marie and the bife da casa for Anselm. This arrives on a piece of bread and is smothered in a cream-and-mushroom sauce (Anselm says he will really have to lay off the cream sauces very soon) which also cleverly conceals a number of whole garlic cloves. We won't have to worry about vampires anytime soon; Marie, having tried one of the garlic cloves, claims that she can still taste garlic even after dessert – a humongous slice of chocolate cake for Marie and a slice of Dona Amélia cake for Anselm. Dona Amélia cakes are a Terceirian specialty and normally come in muffin-size pieces although Anselm's is a proper cake wedge. They derive their name from a visit of Dona Amélia, the queen of Portugal, to Terceira in 1901; the recipe is considerably older but Dona Amélia liked them so much that they were renamed in her honour. Dona Amélia cake (like much of Portugal's pastry) contains loads of eggs and extra egg yolks, and is flavoured with molasses and cinnamon. To German palates it tastes vaguely like Christmas but is still quite delicious, as is Marie's chocolate cake.
Having thus fortified ourselves we manage the climb back to our car. We want to visit the megalith structures in nearby Postos Santos, but having arrived there, there seems to be no way of locating them or indeed getting at them, as the most likely area is marked off as “private property” and we don't really want to trespass. So instead we set out on our way back to Praia da Vitória via the scenic coastal route, which takes us along back roads and to some viewing places (miradouros) which offer spectacular views on the Ilhéus das Cabras – remainders of an ancient, long-extinct volcanic crater. The Miradouro Cruz do Canário in the coastal village of Porto Judeu even features a swing set which Marie tries enthusiastically.
We stop at the Continente supermarket on the edge of Praia da Vitória to pick up some rolls, cheese, and sausage for dinner (plus some other provisions which might come in useful). From there it's only a short drive to our hotel, and we're pleased to notice that one of the four reserved spaces in front of the hotel is available, so we won't need to haul our groceries (and other stuff) back from the marina lot. We're putting our feet up for the rest of the day!
8th October – Up and down the Serra do Cume
Today it's cloudy and looks like rain, but we're not about to be deterred: The plan is to take a short hike near the Parque de Merendas de São Brás, which is close to the village of Fontinhas, not far from Praia da Vitória, to see the famous oxcart ruts. Apparently there used to be a popular road for oxcarts, and their wheels have worn fairly deep ruts into the rocky surface, a bit like the negative of a railway track. We arrive at the parking lot of the campsite and locate the start of the trail, but a quarter of an hour or so in (we've already seen some of the oxcart ruts) the trail becomes completely overgrown and impassable. This can apparently happen in the Azores, where nature is quick to reclaim hiking trails if they're not constantly maintained, and in this situation the guide book strongly recommends turning back! We decide that we've seen the main attraction and also it is starting to rain a little more insistently, so we prefer going back to the car. We're mystified by a microwave oven which is sitting on the border wall of a horse paddock; it gives the definite impression of having been deliberately installed rather than just thrown away, but exactly who is getting their soup heated there is a riddle to us.
From Fontinhas we continue up the Serra do Cume, which is a range of hills west of Praia da Vitória. The road ascends fairly steeply to the top of the ridge at around 500 metres above sea level, and our small car is doing its best. We arrive at the miradouro, which is on the west side of the ridge, near an impressive collection of military aerials which are apparently shared by the Portuguese and US air forces. There's a “skywalk” which protrudes into the void above the steep hillside, and the wind is quite strong. We're joined by a small tour bus full of elderly American tourists and flee to the other side of the ridge, which is way less windy and offers spectacular views over Praia da Vitória and the airport at Lajes.
We decide to perhaps give another short hike a go, at the Caldeira de Guilherme Moniz, which with a circumference of 15 kilometres is supposed to be the largest volcanic crater in the Azores, but is also mostly no longer visible due to erosion. In any case there are a few kilometres on a cobbled road, only interrupted by a view of a spectacular rainbow, then another few kilometres on the Praia-to-Angra freeway before we turn off into the forest to the trailhead for the Caldeira de Guilherme Moniz hike. This features a very welcome chemical toilet, but if anything the weather looks even more unreliable, so again we resolve to give this one a miss and prefer to stay dry and warm inside the car.
It's north now, on not-too-busy roads past the only golf course in the Azores, through the village of Agualva, and finally down a steep agricultural road to the Alagoa da Fajãzinha, a nature reserve and sea bird nesting site. The weather has improved somewhat, so we walk the last kilometre or so to the coast; no sea birds are in evidence, instead a variety of lizards is enjoying the sun on the rocks, and the waves crashing on the rocky shore are fascinating to watch! We climb a very steep footpath up the basalt cliffs to another miradouro which offers a very scenic view of the whole bay, and then manage to climb down again, reach the car, and drive back up to the regional coast road before the next rain shower starts – which is just as well because we didn't want to be caught in the rain either at the top of the cliff or else at the bottom of the iffy track leading back up to the main road!
By now it is past 2pm and we wouldn't mind a bite to eat. Unfortunately restaurants – especially restaurants that are open on a Sunday afternoon and serve more nutritious fare than calorie-heavy and vitamin-free Portuguese pastry – seem to be thin on the ground on the north coast of Terceira, so we end up following the coastal road past Vila Nova and Lajes back to Praia da Vitória, where we again manage to snag one of the reserved parking spaces in front of the hotel. Yay us.
We're digging into the food reserve in our hotel room (having a fridge is very useful) for a quick snack of rolls, sausage, and cheese and relax for a bit. At 6.30pm or so we're shocked awake by a bolt of lightning and roll of thunder, and we realise that if we want to go out for dinner it will be now or never. We grab our stuff and make it to the Chinese restaurant on the other side of the roundabout and up the road with 10 seconds to spare before the deluge breaks loose. The rain looks spectacular from a table next to a full-height window with a view on the Praia harbour, and we're celebrating our narrow escape with spring rolls, a “two-winter duck” for Marie and rice noodles with beef and vegetables for Anselm (thankfully no cream sauce with mushrooms). Fortunately by the time we're ready to leave, the rain has stopped again and we manage to return to the hotel without getting drenched.
Photography note: The surf pictures were taken using the neutral-density filter simulation feature of the OM-1. This lets me take pictures with an exposure time of almost a second – no tripod necessary, thanks to the image stabiliser – without overexposing the images, which makes it possible to capture the dynamics of the water. I do carry glass ND filters but this way is a lot more convenient.
9th October – Terceira mostly in the Rain
The weather today is somewhat worse than yesterday, but there are still places to explore. We're traversing the island on the central road towards the west coast, and experience an Azorean traffic jam: A herd of cows trots along in the middle of the road, and after an excruciatingly slow crawl behind the accompanying tractor we decide to tag along after a more intrepid local who is overtaking both the tractor and the cattle, which are fortunately for the most part keeping to the right-hand lane. Five minutes and a few oncoming cars and lorries later we're safely past the lead cow and can continue on our route at a more appropriate pace.
Our original plan was to drive up to the viewpoint at the top of the crater ridge of the Serra de Santa Bárbara, in the western part of Terceira, even though the weather is still pretty bad – on the other hand, it can change very quickly here and we're hoping for the best. Perhaps we'll get lucky after all and the clouds will go away for a bit so we can enjoy what is reputedly the finest view on the island. The drive up from the main road consists of six kilometres of steep inclines and hairpin bends and once we're at the top the clouds give no indication of wanting to go anywhere anytime soon. A gale-force wind shakes the car, the rain hits the windows in horizontal sheets, and we don't even bother to take photographs because the conditions are so abysmally foul. Nice try. Fortunately coming down from the viewpoint there are a few sunnier moments, with views on the coast and the ocean, and that makes up for part of the wild-goose chase.
The weather is getting nicer now, at least on the coast, and we're driving north through a succession of typical Terceiran villages (two long rows of houses on either side of the main road) to the Miradouro do Raminho, which affords a spectacular view of the coastal cliffs. The sun has come out, which makes this even more worthwhile. Going south again we pass through the eucalyptus forest of Mata da Serrata before turning off another steep and narrow side road towards the Ponta do Queimado, a jutting headland on the west coast of Terceira. There's a parking lot at the end of the road right at the top of the cliffs and a footpath that leads down almost to the waterline – the waves are crashing onto the rocks and there are great views up and down the coast.
For lunch we follow yet another guide book recommendation and end up at Ti Choa, a “typical restaurant” by the side of the main road in the village of Serreta. This place is apparently so popular that you need to make a reservation for lunch, which we of course haven't done, but the waiter does manage to find a small table for the two of us. This turns out to be a major stroke of luck because food is divinely delicious. We start with cheese from the island of Graciosa accompanied by bread and pineapple jam made on the premises, and then follow our host's recommendation of the combined Terceiran tasting menu, which consists of a pork platter (including various types of meat, sausage, and blood pudding with sweet potatoes and different types of bread) followed by alcatra, a typical Terceiran stew containing beef, bacon, and onions, which is spooned over sweet bread. (This is something we wanted to try in any case so that's convenient.) Dessert is doce do vinagre – sweetened milk curdled with vinegar – which tastes a lot better than it sounds.
We're almost too full to move but we still manage to drive a few kilometres south to the village of Cinco Ribeiras. (Azorean place names often don't seem to be very inventive – “Cinco Ribeiras” means “five rivers”, and we passed other villages called “Quatro Ribeiras” and an inflationary “Doce Ribeiras” – 12 – earlier. This is on top of the many villages simply called “Praia” (beach); it's probably just as well that the one we're staying in has “da Vitória” attached because it avoids confusion.) Cinco Ribeiras claims to have the oldest cheese dairy on Terceira, and while we don't actually get to see the cheese being made - other than by way of a video running in a loop on a TV screen in the adjoining café – we do get to try a small free platter of samples (more food!). The cheese is very nice and ranges from bland to strong with quite a kick to it, but we eschew buying any simply because it would be a hassle to take to São Jorge on Wednesday (and of course bringing cheese to São Jorge would be like bringing coals to Newcastle).
After sitting for a few minutes at the Miradouro Negrito in the village of São Bartolomeu we decide to try getting a view of Angra do Heroísmo from above by driving up Monte Brasil, a volcanic headland immediately to the south of the city. (We didn't quite manage that on our visit to Angra on Saturday but now is as good a time as any.) Thanks to satnav it is reasonably easy to thread ourselves through a succession of streets until we reach the road that actually goes up the hill (past a big military barracks). At the top we're greeted by a life-size statue of Portuguese king Dom Afonso VI looking quite dashing like an extra from The Three Musketeers. In real life, Dom Afonso wasn't so lucky; he was paralytic and feeble-minded and never actually got to reign his country, ending up on Terceira from 1668 to 1673 after having basically been deposed by his younger brother, Dom Pedro II. The views from the top – which also offers a large monument celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Azores, and a number of rusty-looking WWII-vintage anti-aircraft guns – are quite breathtaking and we spend some time picking out our route from Saturday.
Driving down from Monte Brasil, which purportedly got its name from an inhabitant of Angra who made it big in the South American country and upon his return bought the headland and called it “Monte Brasil”, we end up going past the Sé Catedral and notice that for once its main portal seems to be open! It looks like we may get to see its interior after all and so we throw ourselves into the warren of Angra's narrow old-town streets looking for a parking space, which we actually manage to find after only a few minutes of driving around. Even better, nobody seems eager to collect the €2-per-person entrance fee that the guide book mentions. The cathedral is indeed quite splendid on the inside, too, though decorated conservatively for a major Portuguese church. It does sport a magnificent wooden ceiling and lots of valuable pieces of art, including a fairly modern set of stations of the cross which impresses Marie.
We retrieve the car and after some scurrying back and forth actually manage to leave the maze of tiny cobbled streets behind the cathedral, and eventually the rush-hour traffic of Angra do Heroísmo. (Angra has only 16,000 inhabitants but the amount of vehicular chaos these – together with commuters from elsewhere on the island – manage to create is still quite impressive.) The freeway takes us back to Praia da Vitória, where we're getting lucky for the third time in a row with the reserved parking spaces in front of the hotel. Perhaps they don't need more than four after all? We're still so full from our extended lunch that dinner consists of the remainder of a large can of honey-roasted peanuts and half a bottle of vinho verde, which we need to finish because obviously we can't take it to São Jorge on Wednesday. In any case we don't fancy going out again because there's another thunderstorm and we'd much rather stay dry and warm!
10th October – Sulfur gas, a volcanic shaft, and wine
Today we're back in the central highlands of Terceira to visit some sites of geological interest. First are the furnas do enxofre, or “sulfur caves”. These are in fact fumaroles, or places where volcanic gases escape from active areas underground. From the parking lot it is a short walk on a heavily fenced-in trail to where the fumaroles are, and their presence is easily discovered from the rotten-eggs smell that pervades the area. The trail circles around the fumaroles for a total length of a kilometre or so, with interpretative boards every so often – tourists are strongly discouraged from leaving the trail due to the danger of suffocation from carbon dioxide (which makes up 98% of the escaping gases) or poisoning from some of the more noxious compounds which are part of the other 2%. A sign at the entrance lists all the “don'ts”, including that you're not supposed to try to boil food in the fumaroles. (This of course can only happen if you've already disregarded about six of the other “don'ts” on the poster, but it reminds us of our visit to the town of Furnas on the main island of the Azores, São Miguel, in 2017; one of the attractions of Furnas is the cozido, or volcano stew, which is prepared by burying a pot with meat and vegetables near the fumaroles of Furnas and leaving it there for 12 hours or so.)
The weather at the furnas is not completely terrible – in fact, there are patches of blue sky and the sun appears every so often. This encourages us to give the Miradouro da Serra da Santa Bárbara another go, since it's not that far away from where we are already. Unfortunately conditions on top of the caldera's rim, while somewhat less dismal than yesterday – the car isn't shaking and it's possible to walk around without being soaked to the skin or carried away by the wind – there's still no view to speak of, so we decide to descend again and retrace yesterday's route on the coastal road, to the village of Raminho and then on to Altares for lunch.
Lunch is at the Restaurante Caneta, once more a guide book recommendation. To be fair, there don't seem to be very many restaurants in this part of the island in the first place, so it's not surprising to see the place filling up quite quickly with a long queue of hopefuls outside the door – fortunately we were among the first people there when the restaurant opened and are safely installed at a nice table in the far corner of the guest room. The guide book recommends the alcatra and also points out the delicious Angus steaks from the restaurant's own cattle. In the interest of a diverse diet – after all we had alcatra only yesterday –, Anselm orders the bife com ovo (steak with a fried egg on top, a typical Portuguese combination) while Marie goes for the bife with the unavoidable cream-and-mushroom sauce, which in this restaurant has a certain je ne sais quoi added to it that makes it extra delicious (we suspect it might be port or other alcoholic embellishment). Of course it would be remiss to not mention the starter (a combination of items such as bread, butter, fresh goats' cheese, pork sausage, and blood sausage, which in typical Portuguese fashion are all ordered separately from the menu) and the dessert – Marie has a slice of Azorean pineapple while Anselm tries the brigadeiro, which, named after the Brazilian politician Eduardo Gomes, who was a brigadier in the Brazilian air force, is apparently the most popular cake in Brazil and is made of chocolate and cream and incredibly rich – eating just a small slice will make one feel two kilograms heavier, but it is absolutely worth the nasty side-effects.
From the lunch table we rush back to the mountains to the Algar do Carvão cave, which is scheduled to open at 2.30pm. We arrive half an hour early and are just in time to start what becomes a queue of 30-odd people by the time the doors to the visitors' centre open. Access to the cave (Algar do Carvão means “coal pit”, on account of the rock inside the cave which is in places almost pitch black) is along a tunnel and then down a steep flight of stairs alongside the wall of a volcanic exhaust shaft – fortunately the volcano has been extinct for a very long time! At the bottom there is a ginormous cave which visitors can explore (more steps). It's intriguing to see the various rock formations, there's a lake at the very bottom of the cave (unfortunately not accessible any more, due to safety concerns), and stalactites and stalagmites have started to form in several places due to the influx of silicic acid. Fascinating. By the time we're back up on the surface the sizeable parking lot is almost packed with cars (we shudder to think what it might be like in summer, and indeed the Os Montanheiros group, which operates the cave, seems to be considering limits on the number of people admitted daily in July and August). – Incidentally we note that our plushy travel companions seem to have been joined by a bat from the cave (or more probably the souvenir shop). Let's see how they will get along.
We drive back down to the coast to the village of Biscoitos (which is next to Altares, where we had lunch). Biscoitos means “biscuits”, but unfortunately we're not here for the coffee-table treats – these “biscuits” are a crumbly type of lava which is common in the area and suitable for wine-growing. To do them justice we visit the Adega Brum wine-making museum, which collects a large number of artefacts and machinery related to the production of wine, and also displays a variety of vines from all over the place (including “Riesling” from Germany). Unfortunately the opportunity to sample the local wine at the end of the visit does not materialise (boo guide book), but we can live with that. These days the adega, which has been in the Brum family for five generations – the founding father, Francisco Maria Brum, having single-handedly rescued commercial wine growing on Terceira by figuring out how to deal with various imported vine illnesses and parasites – produces only enough wine to keep the museum going.
We feel that by now we have done enough to merit some relaxation, so we make our way back to the hotel, by way of a filling station (so we can return the rental car tomorrow with a full tank). For the rest of the day we sort and repack our luggage, empty the remainder of our rolls/cheese/sausage/olives larder for dinner, finish the beer bottle and the passion fruit lemonade, and generally get ready to leave for the airport after an early breakfast tomorrow morning. São Jorge, we're coming!
11th October – The Capital of Cheese
We're getting an early start today because we're changing islands! Everything works very smoothly and we arrive on São Jorge a little before 11am, after a 20-minute “inter-island” flight. Our new rental car is another Fiat Panda, except this time it is bright red (which should make it easier to spot in parking lots) and with nearly 50.000 kilometres on the odometre not quite as venerable as the other one – although clocking up 50.000 kilometres on a small island like São Jorge seems a bit of a feat! We're giving it a spin by taking a drive along the central ridge of the island. São Jorge is basically a long range of hills, with all settlements on or near the coast and practically nothing in the mountainous centre of the island, so we're driving east along the coast to a village called Urzelina, where we veer left and take a curvy B road up to the col between the Pico da Caldeirinhas and Pico de Pedro mountains, at nearly 800 metres above sea level. Here's where the fun starts: A gravel road takes us along the ridge line with spectacular views of the islands of Pico and Faial to the left and somewhat less spectacular views of the islands of Terceira (mostly cloudy) and Graciosa (virtually invisible) to the right. This goes on for 7 kilometres or so until the tarmac starts again, and we rejoin civilisation another 3 kilometres later near the village of Beira (home of the São Jorge cheese-makers' cooperative).
We're driving down to Velas, which with its 1600 inhabitants is the unofficial capital of the island. It looks like a neat and laid-back place, and we have no problems finding a place to leave the car (it's free, too!). Lunch is at the Restaurante Açor, opposite the Igreja Matriz de São Jorge (with a dragon fountain in front, which figures) – we're having salads as a starter and then the “island carbonara” (spaghetti with a São Jorge cheese sauce) for Anselm and the pizza “Jorgense” (with chorizo, bacon, pineapple and lots of São Jorge cheese) for Marie. The pizza comes in three different sizes, which the waiter tries to simulate with gestures; Marie ends up ordering the medium size, which is quite a bit bigger than expected and we suspect that the large size should be enough to feed a family of six! In the end, Marie manages half the pizza and we take the remainder with us for dinner.
After lunch we stop at the local supermarket to stock up on provisions before driving up to the hotel, and “up” means “up”! We follow a succession of roads and streets that become progressively steeper and/or narrower to the Os Moinhos hotel in the village of Santo Amaro (this must be 400 metres or so above sea level). This is a rustic place where we have a “double room suite”, i.e., a semi-detached lava stone cottage containing a living room, bedroom, and bathroom but no kitchen (except for a little fridge which is very handy), plus a table and two chairs outside in front of our door where it is quite sunny and warm. Bliss! And the view onto the sea and the islands of Pico and Faial is nothing short of breathtaking.
We unpack a few things and take the rest of the afternoon off to sit in the sun, relax, read, drink coffee or tea, eat pasteis de nata and a local type of sweet which is based on very tough butterscotch and reminds Anselm of his late aunt Margot's Christmas baking. Some of the hotel cats come to visit; one of them seems to particularly like reclining on our doorstep, which means we will have to take care not to step on it when leaving the room. The sun sets behind the island of Faial and we go inside to view the day's photographs and have dinner (mostly the leftover pizza from lunch, plus part of a bottle of red wine we brought from Terceira) before relaxing some more and then retiring. This is the good life.
12th October – Cows, butterflies, and a lighthouse
Today we're going hiking! After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, which is served at our table – we suspect that with only eight guests in residence (we're counting four cars in the parking lot and estimate two people each) they don't want to bother putting up a big breakfast buffet – we drive to the Parque das Sete Fontes recreation area near the north-western tip of São Jorge. This is a lavishly appointed park with lots of amenities, including an open-air chapel, a duck pond (with lots of ducks that sidle up to us expectantly as we're getting out of the car), and public conveniences. All of this was apparently financed by donations from emigrants, which is why a replica boat in another small pond shows an azulejo version of the famous painting, The Emigrants, by Domingos Rebelo. (The original is in the Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada.)
From the Parque das Sete Fontes we walk first on agricultural access paths and then on the main track to the Ponta dos Rosais lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is situated dramatically at the top of the 200-m-high sea cliffs of the north-west tip of the island, but this is somewhat difficult to appreciate from the top of the cliffs (this is one occasion where a drone might come in handy). Built in the late 1950s it is part of a large compound including quarters for a small army of lighthouse keepers and other auxiliary buildings (it is safe to assume that not everyone there was engaged in keeping the lighthouse running, but that during the Salazar dictatorship other more military things were going on). When the lighthouse was new it was the most modern lighthouse in all of Portugal, but it was badly damaged in earthquakes, first in 1964 and then in 1980, and is now considered structurally unsound. In 1982 it was converted to fully automated operation and is strictly off-limits to hapless tourists like us. Instead, we get to enjoy an old whale-spotting tower at the top of a little hill somewhat farther back up the headland – this can be reached by a strenuous climb up a very steep path but the views are absolutely spectacular and worth the exertion. All of the islands of the central archipelago are easy to make out – Graciosa and Terceira to the north and Pico and Faial to the south. All that is missing are some actual whales.
We backtrack for a bit on the main lighthouse access track and then veer off to the right (south) for a longish climb up an agricultural road to the col between Pico da Baleia (“whale peak”) and Monte Trigo. This is again a little strenuous but we're rewarded with a great view of Mt. Pico and the island of Faial. The path now descends towards the village of Ponta das Rosais, decorated with hordes of tiny butterflies and the smell of wild fennel, and offering even more spectacular views of the south-west coast of São Jorge, and Pico and Faial. Eventually we reach the village, where we rest briefly on the steps of the milk depository (in the company of a large number of lizards which peek out from the gaps in a lava drystone wall) before going for the final uphill slog back to our car. All in all this was “only” a 12.5-km hike – but somehow 12.5 kilometres on São Jorge seem to feel longer than 12.5 kilometres at home!
We still want to see the Miradouro Ferrã de Afonso, which according to the guide book affords a breathtaking view of the north-west coast of the island, but we're cheating by driving most of the way in the car and only walk the final 100 metres or so (which feel a lot longer). The view, though, keeps what the guide book promises – a long succession of cliffs stretches in the distance, and it's possible to make out some of the fajãs, or small settlements between the bottom of a cliff and the sea, where people used to scratch out a living until the hardships of this life and the attraction of the big cities caused them to emigrate. Many if not most fajãs are now deserted, and due to earthquakes and rock slides, some are virtually impossible to reach even on foot.
From the miradouro, we drive home to the hotel (with a brief comfort stop at the recreational park's sanitários) and rest our legs for a bit until it's time to go down to Velas in search of food. We end up in the Tasca Zé do Porto, which is a small restaurant famous for seafood. After the soup of the day (a carroty concoction for Marie) and garlic bread loaded with the inevitable São Jorge cheese (Anselm) we have fried breaded parrotfish (Anselm) and black pork “secretos” (Marie – not what you might think but a little-known cut of meat which is very nice and tasty), followed by crème brûlée à la Henry Ford (Waiter: “What can I get you for dessert?” Us: “What is for dessert?” Waiter: “All I have is créme brûlee!”) – not a bad choice for us! We start our meal on the open-air deck on top of the restaurant but are then forced to flee when it starts raining. Fortunately, there are empty tables in the downstairs restaurant, where we note that at the table next to us there are four German-speaking tourists whom we had encountered earlier at the whale-spotting tower. We don't know whether they spotted us in the restaurant – tonight we don't look anything like the scruffy dust-covered hikers of Ponta das Rosais – and decide not to press the point before returning to our car and driving back to the hotel.
As we reach the hotel car park there's a surprise phone call from Miguel, who is the owner of the whale-watching outfit where we booked a tour for tomorrow morning. Apparently he was off sick today and couldn't take a tour, and is now asking us whether we would mind going tomorrow afternoon instead (so he can take today's group tomorrow morning). We don't mind at all – in fact it is rather convenient because it means we get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and a restful morning (Anselm in particular is fairly sure he won't be able to move, anyway) before heading down to Velas to (hopefully) meet the whales. Miguel tells us that he has just finished a hydrophone which he wants to try tomorrow to see whether we can listen to the whales – we're intrigued and will see (or, rather, hear) what happens.
13th October – Meet the Rissos
It's a greyish day today, and since our whale observation trip isn't until the early afternoon, we get to enjoy a relaxed breakfast and then take the rest of the morning off. Anselm spends some time zeroing in the red-dot sight for the camera (a device that makes it easier to photograph fast-moving objects). Then eventually it's time to drive down to Velas to catch the boat.
Fortunately the “blue kiosk” near the marina is easy to find and there's also ample parking. We have to wait for a bit for Miguel and his buddy Nuno (who will be driving the boat) to show up, and there are also a few other people who want to go out – all in all we're a party of seven, plus Miguel and Nuno. We're fitted with lifejackets (“for the insurance”, Miguel says) and after a brief talk about how there are lookouts who will be whale-spotting for us we get on the boat and set out to sea. The boat is a smallish Zodiac-type semi-rigid inflatable and the less is said about the actual trip the better – it is a windy, bumpy, buffeting rollercoaster ride that doesn't seem to stop, after a while it starts raining, and every so often a large scoop of seawater comes over the side. At the end of it we're literally soaked to the skin and squelching in our shoes. It is a truly uncomfortable experience and over dinner we agree that we have a new appreciation for people who use small boats to try to get from Africa to Europe, or across the English Channel. At least in our case we did it voluntarily for pleasure, it was very safe (Zodiacs basically can't sink unless very bad things happen), the boat wasn't even filled to capacity, and after a few hours we were back on shore and (eventually) under a hot shower with coffee/tea and biscuits waiting. Do the same in a ramshackle rustbucket that has twice as many people on board than is safe and it's a completely different story.
Anyway, whales. It would probably come as no surprise if for all the discomfort of the trip, there was nothing at all to show in the cetacean department. But we're happy to say that shortly before we collectively decided we wanted to go home, we did encounter a pod of Risso's dolphins (Scottish country dancers in the audience, think “Pelorus Jack”) which swam about in front of the boat for a bit and then disappeared, never to be seen again (by us, anyway). Risso's dolphin, at up to 4 metres in length and a weight of up to 500 kilograms, is the largest animal which is called “dolphin” (orcas are technically dolphins but we tend to think of them as killer whales), and unlike the more well-known smaller dolphins it doesn't have a “beak” because it feeds on squid, so it doesn't look like Flipper from 1970s TV. Risso's dolphin is named after Antoine Risso (1777–1845), a naturalist from Nice, which at the time was part of the Duchy of Savoy but is now of course in southern France. It is also called “grampus” (its scientific name is grampus griseus) but is unclear where that name comes from; it might be a contraction of the French grand poisson. Miguel says they're a resident species around the Azores but are not seen often; they tend to be elusive because they can dive very deep in search of squid. Ours, though, are probably below the boat considering what to make of it – apparently sometimes they will approach a boat out of curiosity but today doesn't seem to be the day.
We're back at the hotel warming ourselves up (there's a huge pile of very wet clothing that we're not sure how to dry out – right now it's all in the bathroom on jury-rigged hangers and we have set up one of the electric space heaters which are stored in a cupboard, presumably for winter, to add some extra warmth). Fortunately the rain eases up somewhat and we can rush down for the hotel's restaurant for dinner – it is somewhat on the posh side but given that the whale trip was only €20 per person (Miguel said that it would be OK not to pay anything at all but we felt it was fair to contribute towards his time and expenses) we decide to pamper ourselves with a starter of Azorean bread, São Jorge cheese, and fried shrimps with piri-piri sauce (very tasty). As a main course, Marie has the grilled fish of the day and Anselm a steak with pepper sauce, and the dessert is Portuguese milk cream (really a lot like yesterday's crème brûlée but a little runnier) and encharcada, purportedly after a medieval recipe from a convent. We're curious but assume – correctly – that it will involve a lot of egg yolks because the pious nuns would need the egg whites to starch their habits! One makes a sugar syrup and then feeds the egg yolks into it slowly to cook at fairly low temperature until the consistency is just right. Theoretically it is flavoured with lemon zest and cinnamon although ours seems to have orange and vanilla in it (perhaps the recipe is from a different convent) and comes with a slice of orange on the side and a vanilla stick on top. After our dinner the rain has stopped and we retire to our room/suite for an early night.
There aren't many photographs today because there wasn't really a lot to photograph. I didn't bother to try to take pictures of the Risso's dolphins because I wanted to enjoy the experience itself, which was in any case quite brief. The lifejacket photographs are from Marie's mobile and the picture of Risso's dolphin is from Wikipedia.
14th October – Going East!
The weather today is a lot better than yesterday, and in fact it may be the last sunny day we have on São Jorge. So after breakfast we set out to explore the length of the island all the way to its south-eastern tip.
Our first stop is the village of Manadas, whose main attraction is the Igreja de Santa Bárbara (St. Barbara's church). This is supposed to be one of the finest Baroque churches in all of the Azores, and to our surprise it is actually open and admitting visitors (the guide book suggested as much but we've been burned before), so we can't resist having a peek inside. It is very lavishly decorated – as many Portuguese churches are – and also sports a very ornate wooden ceiling. In the chancel there are very large azulejo panels illustrating the life and martyrdom of St. Barbara, and of course the usual trappings, like the Fátima madonna, are all there. (Marie, who was on the lookout for some newspaper to help dry our shoes from yesterday's adventure, takes it as a heavenly sign that in a corner there is a large stack of Fátima pamphlets for people to take along; she appropriates a bunch of them and now we can say that the Virgin Mary of Fátima has condescended to help us in our hour of need. Hallelujah.) We take a short walk around the church, which has nice views on the sea and also sports a quaint sanitário; there's also the ruin of an old watch house – pirates were an issue in the 17th century, especially as the church was quite rich – which the town council of Manadas has seen fit to adorn with an oversize chair with “I ♥ Manadas” on the backrest.
From Manadas we proceed to the town of Calheta, which is the second-largest settlement on São Jorge (after Velas). According to the guide book, not a lot is happening here, and there isn't a lot to do, either. In view of that sort of glowing recommendation we're only making a brief stop at the local supermarket for some provisions and then take a short drive through the main part of the town before continuing on.
Next on the list is the Fajã dos Vimes, which is reached on a very long access road from near Calheta via another village called Ribeira Seca. A fajã is a settlement on the coast, between the sea and the coastal cliff; some can be accessed by car, others can only be reached by foot or by boat. Many fajãs have been abandoned by their inhabitants because life was really much too tough and it was hard to make a living by agriculture in these very constricted spaces. Some fajãs, though, like Fajã dos Vimes with its 60 people, are still in operation, and the fact that there is a paved road leading to it (and not a bad one, either) probably contributes to that. It does take 20 minutes or so to drive from Ribeira Seca to Fajã dos Vimes (or the other way), though, and we wonder if one would really like to live in a place that is so far from shops or a doctor (we presume that a permanent population of 60 isn't enough to support a GP unless they're really old and decrepit, but perhaps they have a medical professional visiting every few days or so to take care of routine stuff). Fajã dos Vimes is famous for the coffee that is grown there and served in either of two local cafés, but we don't really want to stop because we still have some distance to cover.
Back in Ribeira Seca we rejoin the main road east (there is only one) towards the town of Topo, stopping at various miradouros along the way (with spectacular views of São Jorge, Pico, Faial, and the sea between them). Eventually we take another access road to the Fajã de São João, purportedly the most beautiful fajã in the eastern part of the island. The access road, though, is daunting, with lots of tight hairpin bends and a very, very steep section at the end that makes us worry, driving down, if we will ever manage going up again. Apparently once a week (on Tuesdays) there is a bus that runs from Topo to Calheta via Fajã de São João, and we wonder about the size of the bus and how it will negotiate the tricky approach. We also wonder whether the 10 families who purportedly live here (the place looks a lot more busy to us) will send their kids to boarding school.
Fortunately we do manage to reach the main road again and cover the last few kilometres to the town of Topo. This was started in 1470 by the Flemish nobleman Wilhelm van der Hagen and eventually came to be considered as the informal capital of São Jorge. Not much is left of those glorious times. We continue to past the lighthouse at the eastern tip of the island, the Ponta do Topo, where we leave the car and walk down a steep path to a viewing area where we can watch the waves crash onto the shore and look across the sea to the islands of Graciosa and Terceira. There's a small island, Ilhéu do Topo, off the point; one can see cattle there which according to the guide book are ferried across on wobbly fishing boats (probably not a great experience for the cows if not the fishermen).
We stop at the local beachfront restaurant but as the kitchen has just closed the only food available is carrot soup (which we respectfully decline) and cake, so we end up with two monstrous slices of different types of cake which we duly share. It is obvious that this will be tonight's dessert right there.
It's now 4.30pm or so, and we still need to go all the way back to Velas. We decide to try the O Branquinho restaurant in Rosais for dinner, which according to Google only opens at 7pm, so we have some time left, which we spend at the Miradouro do Canavial above Velas, reading and watching the lizards on the sun-warmed stone walls and the sunset over the island of Faial. The restaurant does have a table for us even without a reservation, and we have fried blood sausage with pineapple (Marie) and bacon-wrapped dates (Anselm) as a starter, with a fish cataplana (actually according to the menu, a fish-and-seafood cataplana, but the seafood was more like a no-see-food) for Marie and (as a change from the usual fish or beef) chicken in a cheese sauce for Anselm. We apologetically skip dessert, having had more than the equivalent at the Ponta do Topo, and drive back to the hotel, which we reach at around 8.45pm. We're pleased to see that our clothes from yesterday are drying nicely and another night in the drying room (also known as the bathroom) should probably finish the job – but chances are that tomorrow will be a rainy day again and we will be inside most of the time.
15th October – Stormy Weather
Today's entry will be quite brief because we haven't really done a lot – for most of the day, the weather is completely horrible, with deluges of rain and gale-force gusts of wind that rattle windows and threaten to rip the door off its hinges when we open it. We prefer not to set a foot outside, other than to rush over to breakfast and back (at which time the rain has, thankfully, let up a bit). So we spend most of the morning and afternoon relaxing, reading, or napping – which considering that we're on our holiday is absolutely allowed. When we go to dinner at 7pm – again during a lull in the rain, one can almost see the sunset – there's a jumble of patio furniture in front of the door to our room/suite/apartment; we can tell that it includes our table and the one from the room/suite/apartment next door as well as most of the four chairs, although one of them is conspicuously absent and nowhere to be seen (even in the distance). Hopefully if one of the neighbours finds a plastic patio chair on their lawn tomorrow morning they can figure out where it came from.
Dinner is at the posh hotel restaurant again – originally we wanted to drive down to Velas to have Chinese for a change, but given the high winds we're not quite sure that's entirely safe. (The car is insured but we still don't want to go over an edge somewhere or be blown into something.) This time we have the fried shrimp as a starter (again) plus some olives, and Marie has the grilled steak with São Jorge cheese – we imagined some kind of sauce but in fact they just seem to have plonked a slice of cheese on top while grilling it – while Anselm has a grilled pork chop, which doesn't come with any kind of cheese. Both dishes have identical grilled vegetables on the side, which are again very nice, too. Dessert is four carefully counted chocolate and coconut truffles (two each – it's one serving which we're sharing), plus coffee (which in Portugal means “espresso”; Anselm usually doesn't drink coffee at all but is prepared to make an occasional exception for that).
Incidentally, we're both reading – on separate Kindles, thanks to Amazon's “family library” feature – Andrew Lawler's Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World's Most Contested City, which is a fascinating description of archaeology in Jerusalem's Old Town from the 19th century to the present, and the people and the infinitely complex political issues around it (then and now). You get strange tales like the one of the Israeli Arab leather men's wear manufacturer who one morning opened a trapdoor in his factory to find a bunch of drunken Coptic monks in what he thought was a dank and shallow crawl space but which had apparently somehow mutated into a large vaulted room with rows of columns stretching into the distance. It turns out that the Coptic monks had found another entrance to this Crusader-era space, which over the centuries had become filled nearly to the ceiling with all sorts of nasty garbage and debris. The monks had secretly removed all the muck in the hope of using this space for their own purposes, and had eventually celebrated the completion of the project with a boozy party when they got caught by the factory owner. This then turned into a 20-year lawsuit trying to figure out exactly who owned the subterranean space.
The book is full of often hilarious and nearly always mind-boggling accounts like this and in places almost reads like a novel – but the plots would be much too far-fetched for fiction. It also turns out that many things one would ordinarily consider fairly trivial – like opening an entrance at the far end of a long tunnel which starts at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, for the convenience of visitors – have caused riots with large political repercussions, or at least require long negotiations between political officials and religious dignitaries. We find out about European Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of King David's palace or the Ark of Covenant, secular Israeli archaeologists fighting ultra-orthodox rabbis for the right to conduct excavations near the Temple Mount (the ultra-orthodox rabbis don't want the secular Israeli archaeologists to be allowed to dig at all, while they themselves are secretly digging a few metres over), and of course the ongoing disputes between orthodox Jews (who are eager to establish archaeological precedent for the Jewish history of Jerusalem, starting with King David, and preferably the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of Herod's Temple under the Dome of the Rock) and devout Muslims (who are eager for everybody to leave everything alone, except when they're using bulldozers to clear an entrance ramp to an underground space they want to make available as a prayer hall for Ramadan).
Having been to Jerusalem and heard at first hand about the hair-raising issues involved in merely keeping all the various Christian factions from getting at each other's throats in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see our Israel photo-blog for more details), this comes as no surprise to us whatever. We're looking forward to enjoying this book some more (Anselm is reading a bit faster, and he's almost half-way through) but we're also hoping that the weather will improve!
17th October – São Jorge to Graciosa
We're getting another early start today because we're going to Graciosa, and we're supposed to give the car back at the São Jorge airport at 8am. This means getting up at 7am, no breakfast at the hotel (but the breakfast lady – who might be the proprietress – kindly volunteered to make us a brown-bag breakfast, which she'd even more kindly deposited in our room last night while we were out to dinner), and some high-precision maneuvering with the car after loading the luggage in front of our room. Somehow this was a lot easier when we arrived, but of course that was in daylight – and we're not eager to add some new dents or scratches to the car during the last half hour that we have it. Anyway, it gets the adrenaline going in a way that carrying the suitcases down to the hotel parking lot never could.
Fortunately it's only a five-minute drive to the airport, mostly coasting downhill in neutral to make sure that the tank remains officially full (we filled it up yesterday before dinner, and a drive up to the hotel, then down to Velas and back, and then to the airport today shouldn't affect the fuel gauge, but who knows). We're there in good time but we need to wait for the car rental guy; at this time in our holiday we're already relaxed enough not to worry while some other German customers of the other car rental agency seem to become increasingly frantic because their guy is still missing, too. We do think there's a light in the car-rental booth until Marie points out that the booth has no ceiling and what looks like light inside is simply the overhead lighting of the airport concourse.
Of course the car-rental guy does get there in time, and we get to check in our bags, go through security (this time Anselm gets the explosives-wipe treatment, for no discernible reason) and sit at what seems to be the São Jorge airport's only departure gate while we see the aircraft arrive, disembark its passengers, and get turned around for the flight back to Terceira (it is impossible to fly from São Jorge to Graciosa directly). There's a slight confusion because apparently some passengers can't go on the aircraft – there's been a medical emergency, and a rather worse-for-wear-looking small girl has been installed on a stretcher which blocks a number of seats. (This is presumably why you don't want to live on São Jorge permanently.) We're not affected except for a short delay.
Back on Terceira we hang around the airport departure concourse for a bit until our flight to Graciosa is called. These inter-island flights are using De Havilland Canada (formerly Bombardier) “Dash 8” Q400 aircraft, which are twin-engine turboprop planes that carry 75 passengers – give or take – and can operate from fairly short runways; this isn't an issue on Terceira, where as we mentioned before the runway is long enough for the Space Shuttle (as well as large inter-continental aircraft), but the ones on the smaller islands tend to be rather shorter. The flight to Graciosa does have empty seats, and it takes about as long as the one from São Jorge to Terceira – twenty minutes. (Incidentally, some people have asked why we don't take a ferry instead of flying. The answer is that there is a ferry between São Jorge and Graciosa, but it operates only in summer and then only twice a week. We're told that generally in the Azores, ferries can be quite unreliable and ferry timetables are supposed to be consumed for entertainment rather than information.)
Graciosa has another one of the small-island airports (it's the second-smallest inhabited island of the archipelago), although they seem to be building a very large extension next door. We wonder why given that the only flights from Graciosa go to Terceira, but perhaps they have big plans. Our new car isn't a Fiat Panda, but an Opel Corsa for a change – quite a bit bigger, which means that both our suitcases can go in the boot where with the Panda, Marie's had to ride on the rear passenger bench. Anselm is sure that Corsas used to be fairly small cars; this one here seems as big as the car Anselm had in driving school, and that was a Kadett (Astra for our younger readers).
We're feeling a bit peckish after all that activity with no proper food (and in Marie's case, no coffee) so our first stop is the Casa da Pasto O Leão restaurant on the road from Santa Cruz da Graciosa (the main town of the island) to the village of Guadalupe. This comes recommended in the guide book and is reasonably easy to find – we're the first guests of the day but the lady is very nice even if she doesn't speak a lot of English. By now we're proficient enough to order in Portuguese by pointing to items on the menu, and indeed our lunch of Graciosa cheese with honey (which is a thing they do here), and a cheeseburger with fries for Anselm plus a fully decked-out lockjaw-making “house” hamburger with onions, a fried egg, and probably all sorts of extra delicacies for Marie arrives quite promptly. We skip dessert in favour of coffee and plan to buy something nice to eat in the hotel later.
Next is shopping for dinner, and we arrive at the “Sabores Parenteses” mini-supermarket in town to buy some cheese, red wine, and passion-fruit soda (our favourite Kima doesn't seem to be available, but the alternative Sumol is also not bad), plus bread and a filled croissant (for dessert) from the bakery next door. Then we try to locate the hotel, which is a bit more difficult than expected because the arrangement of one-way streets seems to have changed since the last update of our satnav data, and some of the proposed routes are blocked by nasty no-entry signs. But eventually we manage to thread our way through the small streets of Santa Cruz and end up in the parking lot of “our” hotel, the “INATEL Graciosa Resort”. This is supposed to be the poshest hotel on Graciosa, which honestly isn't saying much because there isn't a whole lot of competition. We feel it is a bit of a step down from the other hotels because it is a typical chain-type hotel and can't compete with Os Moinhos on São Jorge for rustic flair and boutique appeal. Also the view from the balcony is a lot less scenic – you can make out the sea if you lean forward a bit and look to the right, but the main scenery consists of the hotel parking lot, the Santa Cruz football stadium, and an old windmill. It's reasonably quiet, though; the room is OK and well-furnished (if a little smaller than we're used to, with suites and apartments and stuff), and the staff is friendly. Let's see what the breakfast buffet is like tomorrow before pronouncing our final verdict.
After a brief stop for rest we decide to have a look around, so we drive back to town and leave the car on the main town square, Praça Fontes Pereira de Melo (or Rossio to its friends). This has old trees with little lace sleeves around their trunks, and two large reservoirs which in former times were used to store water for cattle in case of summer droughts. There are two churches to visit – Igreja Matriz de Santa Cruz is the bigger and more ornate one, while Igreja de Misericórdia is a lot smaller and plainer, although it wins the Lugubrious-Looking-Jesus contest by a wide margin. (They also have a very lugubrious-looking John the Baptist with a Fred Flintstone outfit and a bloody line across his neck where his head must have been chopped off and stuck on again, presumably after Herod and Salome were done with it. All these guys have ample reason to look lugubrious.) We sit on a stone bench in front of the Igreja de Misericórdia for a bit just to enjoy the sun, before driving up the Monte de Ajuda, which is a 120-m volcanic hill next to the town on top of which are three “hermitages” (no longer used as such) with a nice view on the town – and incidentally our hotel – as well as a bullfight arena in the middle of the crater. This is probably the most scenically-located sports venue that we have seen in a while. (Bullfighting is still a thing in the Azores, as it is in other parts of Portugal; the main difference between bullfighting in Portugal and Spain is that in Portugal, the bull isn't killed as part of the entertainment – this has been illegal since 1928. There have been off-and-on attempts to ban bullfighting outright, starting with a law by previous blog subject Dona Maria II. in 1836, which lasted until 1921. The most recent one was in 2018 and didn't get anywhere in parliament. Elsewhere in the Azores there are types of bullfight similar to the ones in, e.g., Pamplona, which are considerably more dangerous to the humans involved than the bull.)
It's still not that late in the afternoon and so we decide to take a drive out to the scenic Ponta da Barca lighthouse – this looks like a bit of a project on the map but as the island is so small, you can get there from Santa Cruz in less than ten minutes. There seems to be nobody there except us, but we look around for a while. Next to the lighthouse there is the Ilhéu da Baleia, a rocky island which indeed looks like a caricature whale.
Our drive back to town is somewhat complicated by the fact that the car shows a tire-pressure warning light. It turns out that all of Graciosa has a total of two filling stations, both of which are on the Santa-Cruz-to-Guadalupe road (we wonder if they're opposite each other but they aren't), so we drive up to the tire air dispenser to see what's what. It is difficult to make out what the tire pressure should be, given that the instruction manual for the car is in Portuguese only and that we know nothing about the car except that it is a Corsa, so after ensuring that all tires have the same pressure and still seeing the warning light Anselm decides to call the rental car agency for further instructions. The rental car guy explains that one of the tires has recently been changed and doesn't seem to have a pressure sensor, so we should ignore the warning light altogether. The next thing that happens is that the car won't start – apparently the battery was marginal to start with and is too flat now. So we call the rental car guy again and he eventually turns up to check things out for himself. He does manage to start it by rolling downhill for a bit (fortunately the air-tire thing is at the top of a little ramp) but still asks us to follow him back to the airport so he can give us another car. Eventually we end up with a Toyota Yaris (a much posher model with more electronics, even if it is a bit smaller than the Corsa) and that seems to be working all right. We're back at the hotel at 6pm or so and decide to call it a day – after all that stress and confusion, sitting on the balcony with a good book and some beer and watching the sunset seems to be just the thing.
18th October – Move over, Professor Lidenbrock
The main attraction on the island of Graciosa is the caldeira, a remnant of a big volcano which collapsed approximately 30,000 years ago. The crater is 1.6 kilometres across and can easily be reached via an access road that goes through a tunnel in the caldera rim. This of course is something that we can't miss, and since the weather today is forecast to be reasonable, at least in the morning and early afternoon, we're setting out soon after breakfast on this newest adventure.
Again, because Graciosa is so tiny, we reach the caldeira after less than 15 minutes of driving (including a brief detour through the second-largest settlement on the island, São Mateus, which we shall revisit later today). The inside of the caldera looks like a different world – unlike the rest of Graciosa it is lushly forested and the low cloud cover gives it a bit of a Jurassic vibe. You almost expect a tyrannosaurus rex to appear looking for a tasty tourist snack (and yes, we know that the T. rex is an animal from the late Cretaceous, and closer in time to us than the actual Jurassic, so thank you very much, Michael Crichton – although to be fair, “Cretaceous Park” has much less of a ring to it).
But of course the caldeira itself isn't the end of the story. Graciosa has its own furnas do enxofre, and this one isn't just a few stinking holes in the ground, it's an actual volcanic chimney left over from the original volcano. It is in the middle of the caldera so we leave the car in the official visitors' lot and descend a long sequence of steps through the forest to the visitors' centre to pay for our tickets and enter the chimney itself. This is another couple of hundred metres' walk from the visitors' centre and you can smell the hydrogen sulfide from quite a ways away – access is via a purpose-built tower with an 184-step spiral staircase (which is just as well because early, i.e., pre-1939, visitors had to rappel down with ropes). Down at the bottom there's a ginormous cave sporting a lake that is 150 metres across – you used to be able to row on the lake with a tiny boat that is still tied to a little pier at the shore, but this is now forbidden because it is too dangerous. The CO2 levels in the cave are being closely monitored at various points, and according to the display screens up at the visitors' centre, down near the lake there's a 4% concentration, which would be quite dangerous for people. But the accessible bits of the cave are higher up and quite safe (the management reserves the right to close the cave altogether if CO2 levels are too high for comfort). It's quite spectacular – possibly not as varied as the Algar do Carvão on Terceira, but its size is something else again. We don't quite manage to go down to the “centre of the Earth” like Jules Verne's hero, but then again we don't get to climb down into an active volcano all that often, either, so we're not complaining. (We're saying “active” because there are some fumaroles at the far end of the cave, where the hydrogen sulfide aroma is strongest, and you get to look down into a shaft where some grey stuff is slowly bubbling away like so much porridge. So there is some volcanism going on – but to be sure the volcano isn't “active” active; its last actual eruption was 10,000 years ago or so.)
Climbing up all those steps again is a bit of a strain (it's quite damp and muggy in the cave, and the sulfury fumaroles at 84.5°C don't exactly make the air more enticing to inhale), but eventually we're back at the car and have to sit down for a moment to get our breath back. There are some more cave-like entities to visit around the caldera, so after a short drive back out and up the outer side of the rim we climb another 100 metres' worth of steps to reach the Furna da Maria Encantada, which is the remnant of a lava flow, i.e., a mostly-horizontal tunnel through the crater wall. This is too dark and muddy to walk the length of, but there's an alternative route to the other end, from where there are spectacular views of the caldera. We also follow the sign for an observation tower along the hiking path that goes all around the caldera's rim, but to actually reach it would require a longer walk than we're prepared to entertain especially because up there it is very windy and patches of cloud mean you don't even get that great a view, so we turn around and descend back to the car. Another lava flow, the Furna do Abel is supposed to be signposted from the access road, but we don't see any actual signs and decide not to bother.
Instead we prefer to explore the south coast of the island, and we're also interested in lunch. The “Dolphin” snack bar in the coastal village of Carapacho, which is praised by the guide book, is taking a vacation, so instead we stop at the Farol de Carapacho lighthouse to enjoy the view onto the village and also the rocky promontories and the Ilhéu de Baixo off the coast. Then we drive down to São Mateus again to check out another snack bar, the “Vintage”, which is right across the street from the beach wall on the main through road of the village. The guide book praises its choice of food offerings but when we arrive the only available starter is carrot soup and the only available main course is “meat”, so we agree to that; the carrot soup is nice (very carroty) and the “meat” turns out to be slow-cooked ribs with noodles (! – a nice change from the ever-present chips) and a salad, which is OK with us. (It's also reasonably cheap.)
São Mateus da Graciosa, locally also simply called “Praia” thanks to its beach (“Praia” is a very popular place name in the Azores, even for places without notable beaches), is the second-largest settlement on the island at 800-something inhabitants; it officially became a town, and the administrative seat of the island, by royal charter in 1546 but lost the latter lofty status in 1867, in favour of Santa Cruz which at the time was a lot larger. After lunch we walk along the beach wall to see the São Mateus parish church, which was originally built in the 15th century and is supposed to be the main (some say “only”) attraction in Praia. Unfortunately two workers are busy sanding the top of the main entrance doors using a scaffold which blocks the entrance, and in the interest of health and safety we decide not to try and squeeze through. Walking round the church there doesn't seem to be an alternative entrance, so we may just come back at another time to see whether the work on the doors is finished (Praia is just five minutes or so from our hotel).
There are some huge dark clouds coming in, so for the final attraction of the day we drive up one of the foothills of the volcano to the Nossa Senhora de Saúde chapel. The chapel itself is closed (as expected) but from there the view on the town of Praia is quite spectacular. What is also spectacular is the wind, so we don't stay long. Instead, we go down to Praia again and take the scenic route along the coast back to Santa Cruz and our hotel, for a relaxing afternoon while outside the weather is gradually getting worse. Later that day the floodlights come on in the football stadium and we wonder what football is like given the high winds – but then again this may just be part of the game in the Azores. Dinner is the rest of our bread and cheese with some red wine or beer, and two more of the local queijadas da Graciosa sweets we bought yesterday. These are produced by the official queijada factory in Praia, and are star-shaped dough shells with a filling consisting of milk, sugar, eggs, and cinnamon – like much of the local pastry they have a bit of a Christmassy taste, but still quite nice. (They also don't keep very long, so we're not sure they make good gifts for the people back at home.)
19th October – Craters, Waves, and Surprise Finds
The weather is rather nicer today than yesterday, and the bright spells are supposed to hold at least until the afternoon. We use this to visit Graciosa's second crater, the caldeirinha or “little caldera”, which is near the west coast and much less touristy – a non-signposted track turns off the main coast road up a mountain which holds a wind farm and a bunch of antennas. Opposite the gate to the antenna installation is a parking lot where we leave the car, and then it's a very brief walk – 50 metres or so – to the edge of the crater. As the name suggests it is a lot smaller than the other caldeira, but still not something you would want to fall into! It's, however, easily circumnavigated on a comfortable footpath, and the views on the coast, the surrounding area, and the various other hills of Graciosa are second to none. The plain to the north-west of the caldeirinha forms the newest part of the island, while the mountains in the north contain the oldest rocks. The big caldeira is visible to the south-east, and that of course is also relatively new, geologically speaking.
The weather is so nice that we decide to try to go around the big caldeira, too – this appears to have a ring road which is either tarmac or gravel and according to the guide book, navigable for normal cars (we only went on it for a couple of hundred metres yesterday and didn't investigate further). The satnav map shows only a dashed line, which to Anselm suggests “footpath”, but this time we're prepared to believe what the guide book says and plan to see how we get on; after all, in a pinch we can always turn about or reverse. So it's down the current hill and across the island on some smaller roads until we're back near the spot where the steps lead up to the Furna da Maria Encantada, which gives the most convenient access to the ring road. This turns out to be surprisingly well-maintained and driving on it is no problem at all; in fact, every so often there are picnic places, viewpoints, and – to Marie's delight – swing sets offering scenic vistas of the coastline. Bliss! Even though we make frequent stops to admire the views, take photographs, and sit on swings we eventually make it all the way round the caldera. (The other nice thing is that we encounter practically no other people, so we have all the swings to ourselves.)
By now it's time for lunch, and as far as we can tell, the restaurants on Graciosa have either already been visited by us, are closed, are of iffy quality according to the guide book, or are located in Santa Cruz, so we end up driving back to Santa Cruz (which isn't a problem; as we said the island is tiny) to go to the Jale restaurant, which is not in the guide book but past which we have driven a few times already so we have a rough idea where it was. Inside we're surprised to see that the table mats and menu are uncannily similar to those of O Branquinho in Rosais on São Jorge (see the entry for 14 October); apparently the two restaurants have the same owner. We're trying the daily specials – vegetable soup, the meat dish (pork tenderloin) for Marie and the fish dish (bicuda – certainly not the fresh Azorean catch of today, being a predatory fresh-water fish of South America, according to its Wikipedia entry a nasty-looking fellow that looks like a pike in a biker gang) for Anselm. Both of these, especially the fish, turn out to be quite delicious and also rock-bottom cheap – we don't quite believe our eyes when the lady at the cashier rings up €17.50, but the receipt lists everything we've consumed, including soft drinks and coffee, so if they're happy, we're happy too.
The weather is still good, certainly much too good to go back to the hotel. We plan to do some shopping at some point in the afternoon, so we drive out of town past the big “Filnor” supermarket and the airport to Barro Vermelho, which is a recreation/picnic/swimming area on the north coast of the island. Again we have the place to ourselves, and since we've just had lunch and don't plan on going swimming in the sea we just sit on the sea wall and watch the waves coming in. (Did we mention we didn't want to go swimming here? There are reasons for that; there's a new one every few seconds and it's metres high and white and makes a very loud noise.) Anselm plays around with his camera (taking series of photographs of the surf at 20 pictures per second is a great way of emptying the batteries and filling the memory cards), while Marie walks around for a bit and finds someone's debit card lying around on the ground. We don't quite know what to do with this – we certainly don't want to leave it where it was – and finally decide to make a quick run into town to ask for help at the tourist information office. The young lady there apparently understands some English but uses a translation app on her phone to let us know that “I know that person and will hand over to police”, which is good enough for us because at least the matter is out of our hands now (“a good deed every day” and so on). We go to the “Filnor” and buy some goodies for tonight's dinner, and then decide to return to Barro Vermelho to watch the surf some more. It seems that the tide is coming in and the waves are getting even more spectacular. This serves as entertainment for another hour or so before we go back to the hotel after all.
We sit on the balcony for a while and enjoy another sunset behind the old windmill next to the football stadium, and then have another picnic in our room while watching University Challenge on YouTube. Life is good.
20th October – It's Raining Again
This will be another short entry because the weather is terrible again – not quite as windy as on São Jorge last Sunday, but the rain is enough to keep us inside for most of the day. We discover that the common area of the hotel has comfy chairs which are much nicer than the ones in our room; those are the rattan type that needs extra cushions from the bed to be bearable for more than a couple of minutes. (We contemplate “borrowing” one of the nice ones for as long as we're here but then think better of it.)
In the afternoon we clench our teeth and drive into town to see the Museu da Graciosa, which is a nicely-put-together collection of farm machinery and wine-making implements (among other things), plus a special exhibition on the various types of symmetry of Azorean pavements – which is great for mathematicians but probably goes over the heads of people who aren't familiar with group theory –, a traditional living room of a well-to-do Azorean family, and an exhibit of folk traditions such as music, dance, football, and carnival celebrations. This is perhaps not the best museum we have ever seen, but for a rainy afternoon it's a well-spent euro (per person). They do make an attempt to have explanations in English as well as Portuguese, but the English is sometimes quite hilarious in a “Google Translate” kind of way which you can only make sense of by going back to the original and trying to decipher it with the little Portuguese we have (plus French and Latin).
After the museum we nip over to the bakery for some delicious treats, which we eat back at the hotel. Later on the rain has stopped and we go back into town for dinner at the restaurant, Costa do Sol; unfortunately we don't find a good parking space right away and once the car is finally put away safely, on the way to the restaurant we're caught in a cataclysmic downpour. But the restaurant has a table for us and we can console ourselves with nice food – cheese, bread and grilled lapas as a starter, and arroz de peixe (“fish rice”, for Marie) and grilled tuna (for Anselm). For once we can't resist dessert and share a scrumptious piece of chocolate cake to finish.
21st October – The Long Way Round
The sun is back today (OK, he brought some clouds for company, but at least it isn't raining cats and dogs like yesterday), and, having seen most of what is to see on Graciosa (did we mention that the island is tiny?), we do have some loose ends to tie up.
After breakfast we decide to go back to Praia to see whether the workers at the São Mateus church have finished their work on the entrance doors. To make things more interesting, rather than taking the direct road which goes past our hotel, we're making a scenic detour through the Serra das Fontes, which is a decision that pays off handsomely first with breathtaking vistas of Santa Cruz and the north of the island, and then with equally breathtaking vistas of Praia and the south-east of the island, with Terceira and São Jorge in the distance. It's a fairly narrow back street and we take our time; fortunately there is no shortage of little lay-bys and places to park for a few minutes to enjoy the view. The same applies to a big new miradouro on the main coast road down into Praia, which has a helpful information board telling us everything about the different types of volcanism visible from there (pretty much all of them as far as we, as non-geologists, can tell).
In Praia, the door to the São Mateus church is indeed open (and scaffold-free), so we can nip in for a look around. This is the oldest church on the island, whose earliest parts go back to the 15th century; after various alterations and extensions, mostly in the 19th century, it is also the biggest. If what we can gather from the Portuguese-only explanations is true, then at some point there must have been a belfry next to the church, but that doesn't seem to be there anymore; there are a few bells in the front gable now instead. The church sports a lavishly decorated high altar and a “wardrobe organ” (probably because of the doors in front of the pipes) which is unfortunately closed so we can't inspect it in more detail. There are other altars with the usual selection of protagonists, including various Marys and a shepherd-type Jesus which could give the St. John the Baptist in Santa Cruz a run for his money in the Fred Flintstone gentlemen's attire contest.
After we're finished with the church – on the way out we try to remember the traditional symbols for the four evangelists, and indeed Matthew is associated with an angel, as seen in the window above the chancel – it's time for lunch, which we plan to take in the Toma Lá Dá Cá restaurant in Praia. (It's probably just as well that we're leaving tomorrow since we seem to be running out of reputable restaurants.) This is another beach-snack-bar type place with a landlady who apparently speaks less English than we Portuguese, but we do manage to order some food: bread, cheese, and fried local sausage to start, and then the bife de casa for Marie and (after some picks from the fish menu, all of which weren't in fact available) a pork steak for Anselm. The food is nice and the portions are more than sufficient.
We don't have big plans for the rest of the afternoon and decide to take a drive around the (tiny) island the long way round, to see whether there are any viewpoints that we have missed. We also plan to stop at the big “Filnor” supermarket northwest of Santa Cruz to pick up some rolls and cheese for dinner. The weather is still quite nice as we go past the Ponta da Restinga with its lighthouse and the village of Carpacho, and having gone through Luz take a side road to the Baia do Filipe, which does indeed have a rest area with a very nice view on the sea cliffs and … a swing! Marie is happy, and that leaves Anselm some time to try to photograph the ubiquitous lizards with the big telephoto lens.
From Baia do Filipe we continue around the island, stopping every so often for the views on São Jorge and Faial (even the slopes of Mt. Pico can be made out behind the São Jorge ridge, although the peak is hidden in clouds), and later the Ponta da Barca lighthouse (which we visited on our first day here). At the “Filnor” supermarket we notice that they seem to be out of rolls, so we make another stop at the bakery in town to get some. We also buy a few boxes of queijadas to take home as gifts. Finally we want to fill up the car's tank so we don't need to do it tomorrow – we suspect that the petrol stations might be closed on Sundays, and as we reach the first (the scene of Tuesday's tire pressure débâcle) we note that it even closes at 1.30pm on Saturdays (and doesn't open again until Monday)! We're miffed and decide to check out the other one, which turns out to be a couple of kilometres down the road to Guadalupe and – even better – turns out to be still open, so we do get to top up the tank. (That petrol station would actually be open on Sundays, too, but we're pretty convinced that we can drive about for a bit with the needle not moving from “full”, so that's fine.) We're back at the hotel at 6pm or so and relax for the rest of the day with another episode of University Challenge, plus an episode of Taskmaster as an extra weekend treat.
22nd October - Goodbye to Graciosa
Our flight back to Terceira is at 4pm-something today, which gives us most of the day to get organised – checkout time at the hotel is 12pm, which is very nice. We take a long leisurely breakfast and then repack our suitcases before leaving at 11.55am. The weather is still quite nice today, but (having filled up the car yesterday) we don't want to drive around too much, and in any case we seem to have seen all of the scenic bits of the island (which in case we haven't mentioned it yet is tiny). So instead we go back to our favourite spot, Barro Vermelho, to look at the waves some more. This is easily good for three hours of entertainment, especially as there are some more people around – a couple seems to bring in enough food to feed an army battalion, so we suspect that there will be a party of some kind in one of the community buildings available at the site.
We check in our bags at the airport and return the rental car (in that order – the car rental guy seems to be busy elsewhere and we want to make use of the time), but even so we have to wait around for a bit before we can go through security and then some more before the aircraft actually arrives, the incoming passengers disembark, and we can get on for the 20-minute hop to Terceira, which passes without incident. Back at Lajes we pick up our baggage and meet Nuno, our driver for the transfer to Angra do Heroísmo, where we'll be spending the night. It turns out that the drive from the airport to the city centre of Angra takes only 15 minutes, if you have something less undermotorised than a Fiat Panda and speed limits apparently do not apply to you.
The hotel – the “Azoris Angra Garden”, which is sandwiched between the old town square and the Jardim Público park – is pretty nice, and after locating our room (with a view on the park, yay), dumping our luggage, and having a brief rest we go out for dinner, this time the Tasca das Tias restaurant. This is just a brief walk from the hotel and again we're lucky to get in without a reservation, although the place is pretty full and the service seems to be rather on the slow side. We share an Azorean cheese board as a starter, and then Marie has a breaded hake fillet and Anselm enjoys the shrimp pasta, both of which are delicious. Given that this is our last evening on the Azores (and YOLO, anyway) we splurge on dessert and order almond pie (Anselm) and doce do vinagre (Marie). The latter is quite unlike the one we had in Serreta two weeks ago, especially because it seems to consist in a large part of cinnamon, but Christmas is coming up and it is still nice. The almond pie has a little cinnamon but not obtrusively so.
After dinner we take a short walk down to the marina and sit for a bit in one of the two-seater recesses in the sea wall. It's a beautiful night and it's nice to see the place with lights on for a change. Then it's back to the hotel and off to bed!
23rd October - Leaving, on a Jet Plane
Today, too, our flight home isn't until the early afternoon, so we have some time to kill in Angra do Heroísmo. We take the opportunity to visit the inside of the Igreja da Misericórdia, which is €1 per person but well worth the expense – not only do we get to walk all around the nave, chancel, etc. but we even get to climb a narrow spiral staircase up to the organ gallery. This church has another one of the “wardrobe organs”, with nicely painted doors which can be closed to cover the pipes. (It's notable that church organs here don't seem to have pedals.) The staircase goes even higher, to a nook that affords an interesting view down onto the church nave, and we can also walk along a side gallery that leads all the way to the far wall of the nave. The only issue is that Anselm sometimes needs to duck to avoid hitting his head!
The sun is out and we sit on the sea wall for a few minutes before walking up to the town square (having taken a little peek inside the building of the finance and excise administration, which is lavishly decorated with azulejos). We decide spontaneously to check whether a small supermarket nearby carries Cha Gorreana tea, which is grown on the island of São Miguel (which has the two only tea plantations in the EU) and would make a nice gift for people at home, and then we return to the hotel for a comfort break and to wait for our taxi back to the airport.
This works just as smoothly as yesterday and so we're at the airport in very good time. Once more we get to stroll past the check-in queue to the “Premium” counter (our upgrades to business class having been confirmed the day before) and then to the gate to wait for our flight to Lisbon. (Unfortunately the airport at Lajes doesn't have a departure lounge.) The flight from Lisbon comes in a little late and it seems to take ages to marshal everyone to get ready to march across the apron to the aircraft, but eventually we're installed in our comfy seats at the very front of the cabin (which means lots of legroom but no opportunity to push the camera bag under the seat in front, which means no pictures from the flight). We take off – again a little late – and once more there's pretty good food (ravioli with cauliflower, and more doce do vinagre) and a smooth ride to continental Portugal. We get in almost on time and rush over to the gate for our connecting flight to Frankfurt, only to find that that is delayed for 15 minutes, too (not enough to stop by at the TAP lounge to cadge some pasteis de nata, unfortunately) – but eventually that is sorted out as well and again we get to sit in the first row and settle down for the last leg of our trip back home.
This time there's an actual menu – a choice between duck confit and four-cheese pasta as the main course, with smoked salmon as a starter and a pumpkin brownie for dessert – and again the food is very nice (certainly for airline catering); we both end up having the duck, considering that we had pasta already on the flight to Lisbon (a luxury problem if there is one). In Frankfurt we're first off the plane and even at the baggage carousel our suitcases are among the first to show up, so we're out and ready to leave way before our pre-ordered taxi home appears. (The taxi guy says that normally he'd call us to tell us where to go to be picked up, but he was quite surprised that everything seemed to go so quickly for us.) Anyway, we get home at 11.20pm and are ready to call it a day. A wonderful holiday that will leave memories – and probably not our last trip to the Azores!