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An Easy Hike Around a Volcanic Lake

Furnas provides a day of rest for my battered feet

rain 57 °F

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Pleasant lakeside views and an easy path soothe the feet and soles of a weary hiker

Day three started off promising with my first sighting of a group of pilgrims. The pilgrims are called Romeros, and they walk from town to village across Sao Miguel for seven days. They eat only food given to them and either sleep on a church floor or are welcomed into homes by the inhabitants. The tradition started in the 1800s when the inhabitants were seeking God’s mercy for a series of earthquakes that had devastated the island. The group of men I saw were leaving the village of Furnas and headed to the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias. At the airport, there were signs warning those renting cars to be on the lookout for groups of pilgrims on the island’s winding, narrow roads. The twenty of so pilgrims were all men, from young to old, clad in the traditional apparel of hat, cloak, and walking staff.

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A group of pilgrims - called Romeros - trek towards a ruined chapel on the shores of Furnas

I was in Furnas to hike around the volcanic lake, with active steam vents bubbling muddily along one shore. The hike would be the easiest one I did on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. In truth, it was supposed to be my whale watching day. However, the tour operator postponed the trip to Thursday on account of the low clouds and spitting rain that morning promised. My feet and shins were still sore from my first two days of hiking, so Furnas was chosen because it was mostly level, and would be a nice rest. The only steep climbs or descents were at the beginning and end and along paved roads.

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More than a dozen steam vents, bubbling with boiling mud, cluster along one shore of the volcanic lake

Unlike the lakes at Serra Devassa and some at Sete Cidades, Furnas lake looks like any other lake. No odd colorings hint at minerals bubbling beneath the surface. This is a blue lake and with the wide easy path surrounding it, the Furnas hike reminded me of a walk in any urban park with a large pond or small lake. Of course, the lake quickly reveals its volcanic nature early in the hike as trekkers encounter the hot springs. These are visited by wooden boardwalks, and view a dozen or more percolating holes or pools. The rotten egg smell of sulfur is rank in the air, and clouds of vapor are blown away by the breeze.

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I was surprised to see bamboo growing thickly along the trail surrounding the lake

One unique tradition is the islanders create special dishes cooked in these hot springs. The pot is buried in a vent and covered with earth. Although I never found any of these dishes on the menu, there were about a dozen buried pots, each labeled with a sign advertising the restaurant where you could purchase Furnas’ culinary talents. It reminded me of Iceland’s amazing black bread, which is baked in steam vents on that geothermal island.

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Hikers Ford a stream by a line of stepping stones placed in the water

The walk around the lake was pleasant and easy, and only the misting rain and persistent clouds kept it from being even more enjoyable. Furnas is no Sete Cidades (or even a Serra Devassa) when it comes to scenery. There are no dramatic towering calderas, and no vistas that go on forever. Probably the most interesting sights are the plant life. The variety in this area is mind boggling. A wall of bamboo runs along the pathway on one side of the lake. Beautiful orangish-red Japanese cedars hem in the trail on another. There is a side trail that leads to a towering Sequioa tree. It was later explained to me that many Azorean immigrants returning home to the islands brought back plants from all corners of the globe to replenish the island’s plant life.

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A local woodcarver dots the path with his creations, including “Furnie” - the Azores answer to the Loch Ness monster

Another humorous addition to the pathway around Furnas are the carved animal sculptures. A local artist created these and placed them every quarter mile or so. My favorite was “Furnie” - the island’s equivalent to the Loch Ness monster. Unfortunately, no spotting of Furnie were to be had that day, though the misty, gray day was appropriate for the Caledonian cousin.

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This red stone chapel built in the 1800s stands vigil over the far end of the lake

The most interesting historic sight on the trek is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias, finished in 1886. It was commissioned by a gentleman-farmer of the region, distraught over the terminal illness of his wife. It’s rich red color comes from the local stone used for its brickwork. Both Jose do Canto and his wife lie alongside each other inside the chapel. This Taj Mahal aspect to the chapel’s origin, along with its Gothic lines and spire, make it a striking addition to the island’s religious sites. To visit it, you need to pay 3 Euros to enter the more than 200-year-old gardens. A bonus to the entry fee is the 30-minute hike to a charming waterfall, and the garden’s inclusion of a towering Sequoia tree.

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A waterfall is an add-on to the Furnas hike, tucked away in a more than two century old garden with plants from all over the world

The walk ends with a steep climb and steep descent to the lookout point of Pico da Areia. The modern antennas and humming machinery distract only a little from the sweeping views of Furnas and the surrounding villages. The white houses and buildings clustered in rows down the town’s main streets. Occasional brightly-colored buildings stood out in the panorama. Farmsteads and cow pastures, along with patches of dark forest, completed the picture. The very steep descent was a cruel end to the hike, but the footing was secure on the asphalt road. Walking through town, I enjoyed the brightly-painted tiles that families set outside their doorways. Invariably religious themes, they gave a splash of color to the whitewashed street. Since it was a day of rest, in essence, I sought out a local snack bar and enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner, washed down with a local beer. The sun was finally coming out, and my feet had been given a rest from their workout on the Azorean hills the last couple days.

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The town of Furnas sprawls throughout this wooded, rural valley

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:39 Archived in Portugal

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