Adrift in the Mid-Atlantic

Fields fill the flat land on Sao Miguel’s north shore.

It’s a group of nine islands straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a third of the way across the ocean from continental Europe. The people speak Portuguese, but the islands were undiscovered and uninhabited until 1432. They’ve suffered pirates, invaders, religious persecution and serious crop failures. Today they’re an isolated paradise for hikers and nature lovers.

Welcome to the Azores.

I made my way to this remote island chain via Lisbon, where I took off over the Atlantic and just kept going. Two hours later, Sao Miguel rose from the waves like a lost world. There was something primeval about its deep calderas, with their slopes clad in tangled growth. But up close, this is a pastoral landscape shaped by the slow patient hand of humankind. That bucolic scenery conceals a turbulent past.

The Azores oozed from volcanic vents on the sea floor, their slow growth punctuated by violent explosions and earthquakes. Take their height from the base on the ocean floor and these would be some of the highest mountains in the world, but from sea level, they have to settle for being the highest point in Portugal: Mt. Pico ( 2,351 m) on the island of Pico.

The climate is temperate even this far north thanks to the Gulf Stream. I carried layers against the mid-Atlantic weather, and a jacket for rain, but even when wind gusted on the peaks it was never less than pleasantly cool.

Hiking forest valleys north of Povoacao

Places like this are often discovered by accident — for both the explorer and the traveler. I knew the name from maps, of course, but I first heard about the Azores as an outdoor paradise from my friend Lawrence Millman, writer, mycologist, and connoisseur of remote places. Larry told me to put the islands on my radar, and to make my base in the town of Furnas, where active geology is always a nostril away.

The town sits deep in the bowl of a caldera. I could see the ground steaming as I drove down from the crater rim. Of all the volcanoes in the Azores, this one might just be the most dangerous. It has erupted five times during the past 1000 years, most recently in 1630, killing some 200 people. I admit I thought about a fiery death during my stay. I imagined myself immortalized Pompeii-style, encased in ash in a compromising pose — picking my nose for all eternity, or sitting on the bowl. Would that be my legacy to the future?

I’d much rather be immortalized on a library shelf than be the subject of tourist selfies for the next two centuries. But I had little time to think about pyroclastic encrustation because there was serious hiking to do. Even on the brief drive from the airport, I could see this place was a nature lover’s paradise.

Azulejo tiles on houses of volcanic stone

I wanted to stretch my legs after the long flights, to oil my hinges before attempting a more serious hike the next day. A 10km circuit of Lago de Furnas seemed just the thing to knock out the cobwebs after a sleepless night.

I bought a packet of peanuts and some water from a corner store, and made my way on foot through the narrow streets of the town. The names of the houses in the village core were marked with blue painted azulejo tiles, the sort I’d expect to see in Lisbon, but which seemed strangely out of place in this volcanic landscape. The village ended suddenly, and the road closed in to a tangled profusion of growth — dense green shrub forests backed by black volcanic rock, with blue hydrangea sprouting everywhere, and always the sound of running water.

Walking around Lago de Furnas

Lago de Furnas, the caldera’s main lake, was just over the next hill. I followed the shoreline to the far end, where steaming thermal vents marked a communal kitchen. The entry fee to the park was €2. I couldn’t find any coins in my backpack, so I held out a €20, but the guard at the gate waved it away. “It’s no problem,” he said. “Just go ahead and enjoy the day. That’s the main thing.” The Azores is that sort of place.

Steam roared from vents nearby, and thick ponds of mud bubbled like a cauldron as local men and hotel employees lowered metal pots crammed with meats and root vegetables into one of several permanent holes. They would cover them with dirt and come back 5 hours later to a cooked meal.

I would have a chance to try this Cozido das Furnas, the island’s most famous dish, at a place called Tony’s later that week. My plate was crammed with chicken, pork, pig’s ears, two types of sausage, hunks of cabbage and potato in a mushy medley that spanned the local animal kingdom. The meat was incredibly tender, but the vegetables didn’t soak up much flavour, and it ended up tasting a bit like an overcooked stew.

But stew wasn’t on the menu for me that first night. After circling the lake and climbing a hill on a road that should have been a ladder, I stopped for a post-hike beer at the first place I saw. The bartender recommended the restaurant next to the campsite for good local food.

I expected to dine on fresh Atlantic fish throughout my stay. To my surprise, the waiter suggested beef. “It is the local specialty,” he said, depositing a bottle of wine on my table and walking away. This is farming country, famous for beef, milk and cheese. I saw cows everywhere on Sao Miguel, often in the strangest places, grazing in vertical fields near the top of a peak, but I didn’t see a single chicken or pig.

Sao Miguel is farming country, famous for milk and cheese

It wasn’t always this way, of course. The Portuguese explorer Diogo de Silves first stumbled across the easternmost islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel in 1427. And I suppose discovery was inevitable, despite their position as green-clad flecks in a vast uncharted sea. This was the age when Prince Henry the Navigator was sending ships to explore the coast of West Africa, pushing the limits of the known world. The Portuguese had already established their presence as far south as Cape Bojador in what is now Western Sahara. But these African explorers couldn’t sail straight home to Sagres or Lisbon. Prevailing winds and the southwest flowing Canary Current forced them to make their northbound loop far out to sea. Someone was bound to sight the Azores eventually, and so it came to pass.

Initial landings on the islands were brief, but they did leave behind sheep, goats, pigs and chickens to provide a means of subsistence for future settlers. With the discovery of the New World and voyages to the Americas, the Azores became a stepping stone and provisioning stop on journeys across the mighty Atlantic.

The farmers who eventually settled this remote but fertile outpost grew wheat for the Portuguese garrisons in North Africa, sugar cane for the mainland, and vast quantities of oranges for markets in England. Volcanic soil provided ample nutrition for farming, but millennia of eruptions also produced a dramatic coastline of cliffs deeply cleft with river valleys. Tractors seemed to work on the vertical in the steep agricultural fields, and cows grazed on pastures that looked like green carpets thrown carelessly over plates on a dish rack.

Caldera views at Lago de Fogo

It’s nearly impossible to find a bad view in such a landscape, but the weather changes rapidly on Sao Miguel, engulfing the peaks in fog. That was the case when I followed the high road to the Lago de Fogo volcano. My hopes had begun to fog in too, but as I crested the summit to the northern side, I could see the crater lake was clear. I braked hard and slalomed into a small visitor overlook to scope things out.

The massive caldera spread out below me like something from a science fiction novel. In the distance, a sand beach fringed a peninsula that projected like a finger into a crystalline lake. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to hike down there,” I thought. I wanted to see the water up close. To sift my fingers through the silica of that beach, and to look up at those vertical walls from water-level, choked with vegetation and heavy with mist. And then I realized I probably could. Distance made it hazy to my book-ravaged eyes, but I was relatively certain that one of the black specks down there was a person.

It didn’t take long to find the trail and stumble down the muddy switchbacks to the bottom, where I worked my way around the shoreline to the beach I’d seen from the road. Lucky for me, I remembered to bring lunch. I tore hunks off a loaf of heavy round bread, alternated with bites from a wedge of local cheese that was tangy, greasy and sharp.

A heavy mist rolled in while I was eating, dark grey and loaded with rain. As those gauzy streamers approached, I remembered the warning issued by my wife. “You’d better not break my camera or I’ll kill you,” she’d said as I left for the airport. And while I’m not afraid of matrimonial homicide, I did pull out a dry bag rather quickly and seal up her camera just in case.

I thought I might get drenched, but I only felt a few droplets of mist. The sky moves quickly here in the mid-Atlantic, where clouds seem to cross the sea at eye-level. When the threat had passed, I stretched my legs out on the sand and wrote in silence, capturing the rhythm of the wind.

That night I drove to Povoacao for dinner: beyond the steaming world of Furnas, into and back out of the crater, to the island’s oldest town. This was the site of the first settlement on Sao Miguel. A church and a town were established here in 1444, some 14 years after the islands were sighted.

The town was wedged into a flat area, the drainage of a river where the surrounding shoreline plunged into the sea. I stood on the stones of the harbour breakwater, near the docks where fishing boats waited for dawn, and for the men in heavy sweaters who would climb aboard to brave mid-Atlantic waves. Later, I wandered narrow nighttime streets, where muffled television voices echoed from two bars near the central square. There wasn’t anyone else around.

Dinner was fish soup and a small beer, followed by grilled limpets, a sort of sea snail that clings to rocks in tide pools along the shore. They were served in their shells, drenched in garlic butter and sprinkled with coriander. I chased them down with chilled vinho verde served in a clay pitcher. Each sip reminded me of previous trips to Portugal — hillside restaurants in Lisbon, and seaside sardine shacks in the sunny south.

Apart from the food, the place I’d wandered into could have been set on the mainland. Blue tiled scenes covered the lower half of the walls. An Italian football match murmured from the television behind me, competing with the blare of R&B from the kitchen, which competed with the conversation of the cooks. But the young couple with a toddler eating at the other side of the room spoke in a dialect that could only come from this strange set of islands in the centre of the sea.

Gorreana tea plantation

The next day dawned with low cloud and light rain in the mountains, but down below the coasts were clear. I made a quick change of plan, putting off another volcano hike to explore the fields of Europe’s only tea plantations.

Tea was introduced to the Azores early in the 19th century. The climate of Sao Miguel proved to  be a perfect fit, and this wonder leaf was soon regarded as a promising substitute for the declining export market in oranges. It hit a peak by the 1950’s, with some 14 plantations producing an incredible 250 tons of tea. Today only two plantations remain in operation: Gorreana and the smaller Porto Formoso tea factory.

Gorreana was established in 1883 and is still producing both black and green tea for export. After trudging up and down the terraced fields, which were smothered in humidity from the morning rain, I stopped by the processing plant to sample their delicate floral brew. A group of field workers was standing around the counter on their break when I walked in. They were all ordering espresso.

Wandering the fields at Gorreana, Europe’s only tea plantation

I think the Azores must be unique in hosting both tea plantations and vineyards on the same small island. I wanted to know more about the island wines, and so that evening I consulted Jose Manuel Tavares, wine expert and curator of what must be the island’s best cellar at the Terra Nostra Hotel. This is a man who understands the variety and depth of his nation’s vineyards.

“I keep only Portuguese wines,” he told me, pouring me a glass from right there on Sao Miguel. It was crisp and refreshing, with a pale straw colour and a scent of the sea. “The whites are much better here,” he said. “Reds are more of a challenge, given the climate. But the white wines are unique. Because the vineyards are close to the sea, they soak up that hint of salt.”

The wines of Pico, the island which is more widely known for them, don’t have the saltiness of the small Sao Miguel wines. Instead, they’re full bodied, with an acidity that provides the perfect compliment to seared tuna with taro sauce. The grapes also enriched by the volcanic soil, and they mature slowly in the island’s cool climate. I’d been searching for the spirit of place, the key to unlocking this strange place. Clearly this was it.

Soaking in the Terra Nostra’s thermal pool

I had absorbed the essence of the land through its wines, but I still had to immerse myself in its mineral-rich waters. Back in my room, I changed into a clay coloured robe and shuffled outside for a soak in Sao Miguel’s largest natural hot spring. The pool was filled with visitors during the day, but nighttime access was the exclusive privilege of hotel guests. Not many took advantage of it this close to midnight. There were only a couple others out there, sunk in the water with their heads lost in mist.

The steaming water smelled metallic, but I couldn’t see how muddy brown it looked in the overcast night. It was heavy with iron that would leave my skin smelling like rust for several days. I positioned myself next to the scalding inflow, channeled from deep underground, and imagined the minerals soaking into my hiking-tired muscles and bones, tempering them with the volcano’s metals to add miles to my legs for the rigours of the next day.

I only saw a small slice of these islands while exploring Sao Miguel, but the Azores struck me as a place of constant movement. The earth was moving, oozing forth from the fluid mantle below, and occasionally erupting into new forms. The clouds were moving, so low they arrived at mid-mountain level, shrouding the peaks and soaking the valleys. And the people were moving, sometimes for work — to distant places like Boston, Toronto and Bermuda — and sometimes in retirement, as those distant emigres came back to the one place they could never forget.

As I stood looking over the sun-kissed caldera of Sete Cidades the next day, thinking of all the hikes I hadn’t been able to do, and other islands waiting out there over the horizon, I foresaw movement in my future, too. I  I knew that despite the Azores remoteness, I would be coming back.

Sete Cidades, a village in a massive volcanic crater 5km across.

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