I’d always heard of the Azores as this almost mythical place— “The Old Country” where my father was born and raised until he was eleven years old. Last summer I had the opportunity to return there with him, a truly amazing experience. In case you haven’t heard of them, the Azores are nine volcanic islands located in the Atlantic Ocean roughly two-thirds of the way to Europe from the United States, and just over 900 miles west of mainland Portugal.
Although my dad is actually from a neighboring island, the more pastoral Santa Maria (which I’ll save for another story), this week’s “Snapshot” is of São Miguel. The largest island in the Azores archipelago, São Miguel is roughly 40 miles long and 10 miles wide, with a third of its 150,000 inhabitants living in the capital city of Ponta Delgada.
The first thing that struck me about São Miguel was its lushness. It reminded me of Hawaii but with a maritime, not tropical, climate. Jagged mountain peaks reach up to the sky, perilous cliffs plunge into the deep ocean, and everything in between is covered in green.
On our first day in São Miguel we hired a taxi to take us to Sete Cidades, a small town on the west side of the island. Our driver sped through the cobblestone streets of Ponta Delgada until we reached a very narrow, twisty mountain road lined with millions of blue and purple hydrangeas (or as the locals call them, hortensias.) Our ascent took us over rolling verdant foothills, leading higher and higher up cedar-forested mountains. Everywhere I looked was a picture-perfect postcard.
At last we reached the summit, pulling up to the miradouro, or lookout point. What lay before us was arguably the most beautiful vista I’d ever seen; an enormous volcanic caldera filled with not one, but two separate lakes at the bottom. One lake is deep sapphire blue and the other sparkling emerald green, with only a small roadway separating them. Our taxi driver recounted a legend that hundreds of years ago, a green-eyed shepherd boy fell in love with a blue-eyed princess. However, when the king learned of their romance, he forbade his daughter from ever seeing the shepherd boy again. When they parted, their tears formed two lakes at their feet—a green one from the boy and a blue one from the princess.
Another fascinating thing about São Miguel is that it’s still very geologically active. The next morning, we took a tour to Furnas, a quaint town on the eastern side of the island. What makes Furnas so special is that it’s alive with hot springs, geysers, steam vents, and gurgling mud pots. A sulfurous odor permeates the mountain air—sometimes pleasantly mild, sometimes utterly noxious. Here in Furnas is where they cook cozido, a regional specialty. Buckets full of pork, chicken, cabbage, linguiça, kale and carrots are lowered into the earth and buried, to be slow-cooked by the heat emanating from the earth. It’s sort of like a natural crock-pot. Served family-style at restaurants in town, the food has a somewhat earthy flavor (but in a good way.) Paired with some local wine, it certainly makes for an interesting experience.
Although I fell in love with the three islands of the Azores that I visited, São Miguel was just so unexpectedly stunning that it ranks high on my list of favorite places. I definitely plan on returning someday and seeing more of “The Old Country.”
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