Welcome to the Azores, widely considered some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Good luck seeing it all in half a day though…
We got off at about half nine and hired a taxi for a tour of the west half of the island. We went along some of the windiest roads you’ve ever travelled, through thick sea mist/fog up about 2000 feet to the top of the volcano and then down into the craters. The roads are beautiful. Absolutely smooth, with no potholes whatsoever. Dad wonders if this is where all the EU money given to Portugal was spent! We went into the crater of the volcano that isn’t currently active, before you start raising your eyebrows. There are two lakes in the crater, separated by a small two-lane causeway. When the sun shines, one lake is bright blue, reflecting the sky and the other is dark green, reflecting the forest that surrounds it. It’s supposed to be an amazing sight. It doesn’t work in fog! Both were a murky dark green and, our driver, Richard, informed us, in his extremely broken English, deadly. They are so polluted by nitrates from the surrounding fields that if you swim in it, it will kill you. About nine or ten people have died trying to prove otherwise, which shows a degree of hope over experience that, frankly, beggars belief. Never heard of a test tube and some litmus paper?! Or just stopping people swimming in it after the first three or four fatalities?!
There is also another beautiful lake literally just down the road called Santiago, which is in another smaller crater of the same volcano, surrounded on all sides by forest. It is safe to swim in, although most people prefer to get a fishing licence instead. Sadly, they have allowed logging around the top, and the trees have been shaved off the hillside right in the middle of the photo you want to take, like a reverse Mohican. They have now banned logging here, but the damage has been done. It’ll take decades to recover. Nevertheless, the locals still come up here in December to pick a Christmas tree, as these conifers apparently smell particularly good (I think he called them Japanese Cedars).
Then through the pretty little village of Sete Cidades (Seven Cities – it barely had seven houses!) and then back to town. Almost all the buildings on Sao Miguel are made of basalt from the volcano. Because the basalt is black, they paint all the houses white or other bright colours, just leaving a basalt outline around the edges. They do this with all their buildings, including churches, ceremonial arches and shops. They also build their garden walls of the stuff, and paint white over the cement/ grouting, which gives a pretty, if slightly odd-looking, effect.
As an aside, our driver, Richard, told us about the foreclosures and problems that the Azores are having as a result of the worldwide recession. There was supposed to be a brand new five star hotel and shopping centre on the seafront. But the company went bust. So all there is a concrete shell that may never be completed.
He also told us that there is a major drug problem in the Azores. Not surprising, really, given its location. But even his son is addicted to drugs, at the age of 23. His daughter is only 17 and still at school, so he’s not worried about her yet. I also know that his mother died three years ago and his father died 45 years ago, when he was just 14, and that next December is his 25th wedding anniversary. It was a long drive to Sete Cidades. Oh, and 55% of the island’s energy comes from geothermal generation. Which is nice.
We then pootled what few shops we could find and then returned to the ship, just in time for the sun to come out. Typical. It is now five past bob and the sun is so scorching that, even sitting inside, with tinted glass to boot, I can feel my legs getting hot. Good old P&O. Now we leave and we’re heading towards rain showers. I hate this Captain. You just know he’ll make no effort to go around them at all, just plough straight through and to hell with the consequences. Can’t go out on deck anyway, as there is a very loud “British” sailaway party going on. Cheap Pimms and Union Jacks. Hideous.
They’ve just done a last call for the people whose cards have not been logged in at the gangway. One of them is called Heathcliff! There’s no answer to that, really…