Sunday, March 10, 2019

Time to head home

Ruth: We took our last ride today before packing our bikes for the flight home tomorrow.  The wind was calm, an unusual occurrence in the Azores, so we headed up to the caldera. Once we were up into the cloud and fog at 500 meters I decided to coast back down to a bakery in Horta, while Gord pressed on to the 900 meter rim. 

It has been lovely in the Azores in spite of the weather being much colder and wetter than is typical.  Of course, when you are from Canada the idea of a bike trip in the winter is pretty amazing. Gord and I still consider the Azores one of our favourite places on the planet. Now that the weather is improving it is very hard to leave. We know, however, that we will return.

Not all trips to the Azores are as affordable as ours. This “boat” arrived in Horta today. I thought it was a ferry, but no, this luxury charter yacht is available for rental by a maximum of twelve well-heeled travelers. Here are the prices. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Faial: Beach day

Ruth: Gord has never really understood the purpose of a beach. Perhaps he is just prejudiced against anything that falls below an alpine elevation. Although I would be bored silly with a beach vacation, I do love a beach day. There are only a handful of beaches in the Azores but two are near Horta. Today we were both feeling less ambitious and did a smaller bike ride to the beach at Almoxarife. Even a 5 km ride still involves climbing up and over the headlands, so I was very happy to rest on the warm black sand when we arrived. 

A few people were swimming in the ocean today.

While I rested, Gord avoided all contact with sand and instead wandered around taking pictures. 

The Azores look a bit like Jurassic Park when not looking like Ireland. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Faial: Back in the Saddle Again

Ruth: We are back on Faial for three days before we go home on Monday. Reunited with our bikes, we headed out with them this morning, climbing halfway to the caldera before we took a forestry road that traverses the flank of the mountain at 500 meters. We choose our road of descent carefully to place us at the bakery in Cedros on the north  side of the island for a tasty treat before winding our way back to Horta.  My back seems to be cooperating again and has forgiven me for some of the hard days I put it through hiking on São Jorge. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Coffee with Seraphim

Gordon:  Our host José’s face lit up when we told him we were planning to do the Norte Pequeno hike.  “I wrote a book and I promised to deliver a copy to a friend who lives at the fajã on that walk.  Could you deliver it to him?  He likes to serve coffee to tourists.” Armed only with the additional knowledge that his friend’s name is Seraphim, and his house is on the ocean side of the path, we set off yesterday morning.

The Norte Pequeno hike is a 10 km loop that starts at the edge of the interior plateau, drops 500 metres to the sea, runs along the fajã for a kilometre or two, and then climbs back up a gravel road that José advised us not to drive (“People have died.”)  

Ruth was feeling fairly strong and said she would like to come on the walk.  After an hour on the precipitous trail down she was having second thoughts, as her legs were starting to shake from the exertion.  We finally arrived at a drivable track near the sea, and located Seraphim’s house through a sign encouraging a visit to a “traditional home”.  

Seraphim’s house is a tiny stone structure with a dirt floor and a wood burning cookstove that sends its smoke up through a hole in the roof.  His wife set to work making us a pot of espresso, while Seraphim presented us with a collection of photo and scrapbooks.  He does indeed encourage visits by foreigners, as shown by the hundreds of photos and postcards he has saved.  Seraphim is also an avid cyclist, with first place awards in his age category in the annual cross-island race.  (The fact that he is over 70 may limit the competition.)  After coffee laced with aguardiente (a match made in heaven) and some limited conversation in Portuguese, we asked if we could leave a few euros.  Seraphim was clear that the only payment he would accept was a picture or postcard from our home.  We assured him we would oblige, and bubbling with positive feelings from our visit we continued with our hike.

Ruth was able to complete the walk, but she was feeling some fatigue this morning.  She dropped me at the Fajã dos Vimes and met me three hours later at the very quaint Fajã de São João.  Being São Jorge island, the 10 km hike required a climb to 500 metres, and then a steep drop back to sea level.  It was a beautiful and varied hike that followed an ancient trail through the forest, passing several cascading stream courses popular with canyoning groups.

Monday, March 4, 2019

São Jorge: Life at the Tropical Fruit Garden

Ruth: José, our host at the The Tropical Fruit Garden, says that he does go to the store for a few things like sugar, salt and paper napkins, but otherwise he is almost self sufficient. We have been enjoying eating all he has been provided us from his small farm. We cook goose eggs for breakfast because, we have learned, they have the best flavour fried. We have also discovered that the best way to eat a fresh avocado is drenched in lime juice and sprinkled with sugar. Our biggest decisions are around whether to eat a tangerine, orange, mandarin or sweet lemon.  Cooking from his garden has been so much fun that we have invited him to join us for a couple of dinners. He never comes empty handed. In addition to his homemade rosé wine, he prepared quail eggs as an appetizer, served with a sauce of hot chillis, garlic, parsley and vinegar.  His garden really is, as the name suggests, a tropical fruit garden. In addition to loads of citrus he also grows papayas, avocados, three varieties of bananas, coffee, and an exquisite tropical fruit called cherimoya.  After the recent storms his papaya trees lost their leaves, preventing the fruit from ripening properly. I offered to make green papaya salad using what was available in the garden and it worked out very well. 

We have had such a lovely stay with him, and it is hosts like José and Adelina that will keep us returning. Ok, it is also the price. We have been consistently paying about 30€ for accommodation each night. We have always had a kitchen, and some of the properties are large homes with several bedrooms.  José has assured us that he would offer us the suite in his house for an extended stay at a very reasonable rent.  Off season, the Azores are a very affordable place to visit. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

São Jorge: The Fãja of the North Coast

Ruth: “I could live here” Gord proclaimed as we headed over the top of the island to the trailhead where Gord would start today’s hike. In all the places we have traveled to and loved, we have never really considered moving anywhere permanently.  São Jorge has certainly come closest to wrenching me from home. 

Today I felt up for a hike but not for the steep 10 km walk that Gord was doing.  I agreed to meet him for the flatter end of his hike.  My walk was the ten kms in and out between Fãja dos Cubres, the last road accessible town on the northeast coast, and Fãja de Caldeira de Santo Cristo. Both are pictured in the previous photo. The word “fajã” refers to flat areas by the sea that are formed from falling debris from an earthquake, or lava flows. 

The twisting switchback road down to the first fajã made my ears pop. To access the second village you either walk or take a quad. 

I joined three Portuguese women for my hike.  You know you are on a small island when you realize you have taken a picture of one of the women in the Carnival parade two days earlier. While we were watching the parade I spoke to another woman who had heard her friend José was waiting to host two Canadian cyclists. It really is a small world. Rumour has it that cows outnumber the 10,000 islanders by a factor of two.

This is the only spot in the Azores where they have clams

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Our New Favourite Island: São Jorge

Gordon:  As our ferry approached the harbour at Velas, on the island of São Jorge, I was struck by how charming it appeared, nestled on a slope between a couple of volcanic cones.  This impression remained as we wandered through the historic area near the harbour.  The main square includes a fountain with a basalt sculpture of a dragon (the island is named after St. George, after all.)  The smaller square beside the town hall is the cutest one we have seen in the Azores.  In fact, I believe Velas is overall the most attractive major town that we have visited in these islands.

We took the ferry from Faial to São Jorge two days ago.  This is the last of the three islands that we are visiting on this trip.  Ruth has been struggling with back problems, so we opted to leave our bikes in Horta and travel on São Jorge by rental car.  Quite apart from Ruth’s back issues, the decision not to cycle was quickly shown to be a good one, as São Jorge is a very steep island.  It has the footprint of a battleship, being long and narrow.  The analogy continues in profile, because it has steep sides on all coasts, and a high, central “deck” running its entire length.

Yesterday morning we stayed in town for a Carnaval parade.  Lent starts next week, and, according to a local, every night between now and then will see a banquet and dance at one of the communities on the island.  The parade we watched was organized by the schools on the island.  It started with the youngest students and finished with the oldest, each group dressed in similar costumes.  There was a good turnout of adoring parents and supportive neighbours.

Afterwards, we drove up to the spine of the island, where one of the formal trails has its starting point.  The trail followed a remarkably diverse course in its 17 km length, going along the height of land, including the island’s highest point (Pico da Esperança, 1050 metres) before plunging down to the north coast.  The clouds toyed with me at the top of the island, periodically parting to reveal that I had stumbled into Middle Earth.  My destination, Ouvidor, is a picturesque village located on a basalt fajã (coastal plain).  After the four hour hike we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in a restaurant overlooking the sea.