Thursday, March 22, 2018

Terceira and on to Flores

Ruth: We opted for a stopover on the island of Terceira so that we could visit the UNESCO listed port town of Angra do Heroismo.  It was an important staging point for the Spanish treasure fleets from the New World in the 16th century, when Portugal was under Spanish rule.  In a Canadian footnote, the Portuguese captain who discovered Newfoundland was an important figure in Angra in the late 15th century.  We got out for a walk in town as soon as the sun was up. It was well worth the stop. 

In the afternoon we returned to the airport to fly on to Flores. We are now at the Westernmost tip of Europe, unless you count Greenland. Flores has a population of 4,400 and receives about the same number of visitors in a year.  We expected it to be lush and beautiful, but we have landed in paradise. 

For the next four nights our home is a little stone house in the tiny village of  Fajā Grande.

Gord:  When Ruth was three years old she lived in England.  One of her most enduring and traumatic memories from that period was an encounter with a very threatening domestic goose.  Poor Ruth relived that experience yesterday on a road in Faja Grande.  While the goose was not head height, as it was when she three, it did rush at her repeatedly, hissing and with the clear intention of taking a nip.  As at three, I believe Ruth may have wet herself a little.  In the aftermath my lack of chivalry was the subject of some criticism, but in my defence, I had been immobilized by my own laughter.  Ruth recovered later with a glass of Moscatel on our patio.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Rocha da Relva

Gordon:  Today we went on another hike.  All of our walks have been quite different from each other, but all have been gorgeous.

This morning we walked down from a road west of Ponta Delgada to the tiny seaside community of Rocha da Relva.  The trail that we took to the village is the only access: there is no road and the boulder strewn coast is too rough to land a boat.  The beautifully crafted and mostly paved path works its way down the 500 foot lava cliffs, passing a few rustic houses and their tiny, terraced fields.  There are many grape vines, their branches trained a foot off the ground on numerous short supports.

The quaint village stretches along the sea for almost a kilometre.  It has an open air chapel and some seating facing the sea along the well-maintained trail.  Although this was no doubt a functioning village in the recent past, it was unclear to us whether it remains as such or is now only used seasonally.  We did see a few people, including a young man who was bringing supplies down with a pair of horses.  The stunning setting and access made us think of remote villages in Italy and Greece, before they became tourist attractions.  It remains a mystery to us that the Azores are not overrun with visitors.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ruth's Day

Ruth: Yesterday's plan had Gord's name written all over it, with 18 kms of hiking and walking.  By the end of the day I was singing Leonard Cohen's lines, "I ache in the places I used to play."  This has become my theme song leading up to turning fifty next month. Gord, on the other hand, at sixty has the stamina I had at ... wait ... I never had his stamina. So today I needed a Ruth day. 

We started by driving up to CaldeiraVelha, one of the many hotsprings on the island. Ahhhhh, such a lovely soak with a chorus of frogs singing to us as we enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. 

We continued up the road to the edge of the caldera above Lagoa Fogo (Fire Lake) from where we hiked down to have a picnic at a beautiful beach on the lake.  It was a steep and difficult descent with my recovering body, but the pastel de nata, my favorite Portuguese treat, was a great reward. 

By the end of the day we still clocked ten kilometers. Gord was able to tolerate this more reasonable mileage because I sent him out for an eight kilometer morning run. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Sete Cidades

Gordon:  What if there was a place like Hawaii, but a few degrees cooler, so that hiking is more comfortable, only a few tourists, and, say, at a third of the cost?  If that sounds like a good destination, may I suggest the Azores?

We went on our first hike today, in the popular Sete Cidades area.  This is a large volcanic crater enclosing two lakes, one green and the other blue.  The crater also contains the town of Sete Cidades (“Seven Cities” - I don’t know the origin of this as there is only one small town in there) and some agricultural land.  

We approached Sete Cidades along a portion of the crater rim on a dirt road only just wider than the car (a Toyota Ayga, which I believe translates as “go-cart”).  There was a dense fog, which was just as well, as it prevented us from seeing the 500 foot drop on either side of the road.  A highways crew was working on the road, which included planting a hydrangea hedgerow on either side.  This was done simply by cutting hydrangea canes in 50 cm lengths and jamming them in the ground.  Conditions are so conducive to growth that the canes are already sprouting leaves.

Later, at the bottom of the crater, we walked around the smaller lake, Lagoa Verde.  The forest was lush, with native trees that reminded us of cedars, but undergrowth that was more reminiscent of the tropics. The air was filled with birdsong and scents that recalled Hawaii.

On our return drive, on a larger, paved road, we encountered a number of tourist vans and buses.  The sudden appearance of so many tourists was explained when we returned to Ponta Delgada and found an enormous cruise ship in the harbour.  Our apartment is half a block from the waterfront on a narrow street perpendicular to it.  The view down the street is now dominated by the bow of the cruise ship.  I understand that cruise ship visits, particularly now, in low season, are eagerly anticipated as they provide a significant stimulus to the local economy.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

First Day in Ponta Delgata

Ruth:  With jetlag my writing and thinking skills are absent but I will try to capure our day.
During a 6 hour delay in Toronto while our pilot got his beauty rest, we tried to walk and nap at the airport until our flight left at 3:00 am. SATA only has one plane on this route and if they arrive late, as happened with the previous day's flight, the crew's required rest time has to be added in for safety reasons. An annoyance, but I am willing to admit it might be a wise decision. 

On our drive in from the airport I could easily recognize the buildings I drew of the town before our departure. It is a fun way to discover a place. The vegetation here is lush and exotic, nurtured by the gentle climate.  The town of Ponta Delgada is charming and very recognizably Portuguese.

We spent an hour in a local museum with its creepy collection of all things taxidermied, including three two-headed (Siamese) calves and a small domestic spaniel.

Ok my brain has cats on its mind. Its Ponta Delgada ( Handsom point) instead of  Ponta Delgata ( Point of the female cat). 
Time to sleep. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Heading off to the Azores

In my usual pre trip excitement I started drawing the anticipated sights days before our departure. Don will take us to the airport shortly and we will officially be on route. We will land in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel around 12:30 AM Victoria time. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Summary of My AT Experience

I finished my AT hike at Erwin, Tennessee, 343 trail miles (550 kms) from Springer Mountain.  This is a little less than one-sixth of the entire trail.  Was it a good experience?  Would I do it again?  The answer to both of these questions is yes.

The AT is a very challenging walk.  On the Gaspé last summer we met a 60ish woman who had hiked from Florida.  She was familiar with the Camino, but said she was saving it until she was older.  Having now walked a section of the AT, her statement sounds about right.  Not only is hiking the AT strenuous, the exposure to the weather, the hygiene issues, and the need to carry sufficient quantities of lightweight food all present their own challenges.  On the other hand, the AT allows the freedom to make your own decisions about how far you will walk, when and what you will eat, and where you will camp.

A hike on the AT takes you through beautiful forests and landscapes.  I was fortunate to be walking in the autumn, with its colours and transition from summer to winter.  There is, however, a certain sameness in what you see.  Compared to a long walk in Europe, with the contrast between the forests, the fields and the villages, the visual experience on the AT is more limited.  The scarcity of good views is also frustrating.  Because the tree line is so high at this latitude, you can rarely see the surrounding area, despite the fact that the Trail is often on a ridge line.  The "balds" (bare hilltops) are particularly valued because of their scarcity.

Like the Camino, the AT has a culture.  Although there are a surprising number of older walkers, most of the people who were doing more than a day hike were young and male.  This, and the sheer scale of the AT, leads to an emphasis on mileage.  Many of the thru hikers were walking more than 20 miles a day, a challenging goal when such a distance could easily involve 6,000 to 7,000 feet of climbing and descent.  The result is that most of the hikers were constantly in a hurry - to get up and start walking, to cover as many miles as possible, to prepare and consume meals, and to set up camp.  The shorter days of fall exacerbate this feeling of being rushed.  By comparison, I found that although there was a desire and pressure to move towards Santiago on the Camino, there was also more down time, more leisurely meals, and more time for sightseeing than there is on the AT.

Many of the AT hikers, past and current, cite the camaraderie of the trail as one of its primary draws.  I felt this on the Camino, but less so on the AT.  This is partly because I am older than most of the AT hikers, and also because I was not a thru hiker.  There is also a sparse distribution of walkers in the AT.  I generally met fewer than a dozen other people each day.  On a number of occasions I was the only person camped at a shelter or camping area.

When it comes to material goods on the AT, less is definitely more.  When I saw a hiker approaching on the trail I could generally guess whether they were section or thru hikers by the size of their pack:  those of thru hikers were smaller.  (The presence of a beard and a strong gait were also cues.)  My large pack identified me as an inexperienced AT hiker.  If I were to hike another section of the trail I would use a smaller and lighter pack.  My Deuter is robust and comfortable, but it weighs seven pounds.  Other packs on the trail weighed as little as two pounds, and most were less than four.  Other gear changes I would make would be to replace my white gas stove with the butane fuel canister variety that was in general use, and to bring a smaller tent or bivvy bag.  There is a minimalist ethos in the thru hikers.  Many do not have a stove, and some have replaced a tent with a hammock, a bivvy bag, or nothing (meaning that they are dependent on shelters).  I heard of one thru hiker who did not have a change of clothing: when he washed his clothes he wore a green garbage bag.

I am very glad that I had the opportunity to spend a month on the AT.  It was an interesting and rewarding hike and it exposed me to a culture and experience that is quite distinct from other hikes that I have done.  It also bumped up my fitness level and stripped some weight from my frame.  There is a reasonable probability that I will return to do another section at some point in the future.  Indeed, although I am enjoying the food and physical comforts of a return to civilization, I am already nostalgic for the AT experience.