Memories of the Amazing Azores
Every time I see blue flowers I am reminded of the Azores and the hydrangea hedges that tumble down the steep valley slopes towards the blue waters of a crater lake. The blue agapanthus swaying in the breeze on the cliff tops. And beyond the cliffs the blue sea and an occasionally profoundly blue sky. Blue Island is the nickname of Faial Island as it was the first Flemish settlers on this island that introduced the hydrangea there.
We set sail from Faial to look for whales – skimming the choppy water as we headed out to sea. We seemed to travel for a long time until the engines were cut and we floated in silence. After a few minutes a plume of water attracted our attention. Whales ahead. We moved a bit closer, everyone holding their breath as we waited for them to re-appear. When they did there were gasps of astonishment at the sheer size of them and their graceful movements as they plunged to the depths. On our way back to the port of Horta a school of dolphins joined us playing around our boat and jumping out of the sea alongside us. Unforgettable sights.
I love fresh pineapple but never have they tasted as good as they did when we had lunch at a local restaurant on the island of São Miguel. The fruit is grown under glass on this island, the only place where they do this in the world. Fires are set in the greenhouses both to get rid of insects and to encourage the growth of the plants. The local fruit tasted exquisite but sadly the hotels buy imported pineapple from Brazil. This country was the source of the original plants that now flourish on São Miguel.
Cheese is also a favourite of mine and I really enjoyed the most famous cheese from the Azores. St. George cheese is made on the island of the same name but is often served as a starter with fresh bread. The freshly baked bread was delicious everywhere on the islands and I also enjoyed the traditional banana bread. I remember a bizarre dessert called Blue Island that was based on this sweet bread.
As the Azores are volcanic islands dark grey lava is a common feature of the landscape. Pico Island has large areas of lava and for this reason it is also known as the Grey Island. Somehow the first settlers managed to break up the lava into blocks to enclose small, rectangular patches of the fertile soil for the cultivation of figs and vines. This extraordinary landscape has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site and some areas are still cultivated today although it is a very labour intensive exercise.
Faial Island has experienced the most recent volcanic activity and this new volcano, Capelinos Volcano, is the only one that has been photographed and researched during the thirteen months it was active. Driving to the area we passed lots of abandoned buildings both residential and industrial. Half the population left the devastated island. Today the area has been developed as a tourist attraction with an interpretation centre based in the one building that survived the eruption – a lone lighthouse.
As soon as I start to think about the Azores I remember my first impression of the architecture – the simplicity and beauty of the black and white buildings of Ponta Delgada the capital of São Miguel. The most important buildings in the towns were traditionally constructed with local materials, black lava and white limestone. I enjoyed the contrast of the black and white against the green of the cultivated fields surrounding the town. Agriculture is important to the island’s economy and its lush pastures has led to its popular name the Green Island. Most of these magnificent buildings were built by the Jesuits and then abandoned when they were forced to leave the islands. Fortunately, they have been preserved and many still operate as churches and some now house museums.
I have many wonderful memories of the Azores, the islands that rose out of the Atlantic.