A Travellerspoint blog

March 2019

An Unexpected Day in Toronto

Canceled spring break flight allows me to check out a great museum

sunny 39 °F

A half hour out from the Toronto airport, my phone buzzed to inform me my flight had been cancelled. I was rebooked onto another flight from Toronto to the Azores islands. Tomorrow night. At midnight. Sigh. Luckily, the airline sprung for a nice airport hotel through 7pm the next day, along with some meals. After checking in, and changing all my reservations, it was off the 3 Brassuers brewpub. I posted on my Facebook the question that I finally had a chance to research: what to do with a day to spare in Canada’s premier city?
One of my friends recommended the Royal Ontario Museum. Checking out their website, I was definitely intrigued. I am a History buff through and through, and it looked like they had an amazing collection. The other contender was the CN Tower, but at $50 for a scenic view on a cloudy day, I opted for the museum, and am very glad that I did! The big choice was which of the special exhibits I wanted to see. They had three, and they hadn’t packages that included two with the museum entrance for about $35. The choices were:
- Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur
- Zuul: the Life of an Armored Dinosaur
- Wildlife Photographer of the Year
I have to be honest. The only reason I eliminated the dinosaur was that it would be a weekend, and I imagined throngs of shrieking kids would plague that exhibit. Seeing how many kids were in the museum’s other sections - especially the animals exhibits - I am glad that I made the choice that I did. Finding parking was a bit of a challenge, but I found a college sports field nearby that had an automated parking meter and small lot. A 10 minute walk and I was there. I started off taking the elevator to the third floor, which was pretty much the world history section. I started in the South Asia section, with amazing statuary of Buddha’s and other religious art. There were even suits of armor from Sassanian Persian mounted warriors, as well as Ottoman soldiers.
There was also an incredible ancient history section, too. It included four to five thousand year old figurines and seals from Ur and Sumeria. I think I saw more cylinder seals there than I had seen in my 56 years, to this point. The museum also had Assyrian relief carvings, votive figurines, weapons, and more. Everything in the South Asia section seemed kind of mixed together, but once I left that slice of the museum, it was more separated by civilizations.
Egypt was next, with lots of sarcophagi, mummies, statues, and relief carvings. There were even entire wall sections of temple or funerary complexes. I saw mummified cats and even crocodiles. The Egyptian section was very well organized by periods. And they did a great job putting all the artifacts in context. It blended seamlessly into the section on Rome - probably my favorite Ancient civilization. There were lots of statues and busts - all doing a great job of illustrating Rome’s very realistic style of artwork. The Royal museum also covered other Mediterranean civilizations well - Greeks from Minoan and Mycenaean Times, through the Dark Age “Geometric” period, into classical Greece, Hellenistic period, and more. There was more Etruscan artifacts than I had ever seen, plus a great section on Cyprus through the Ancient period.
The last exhibit before my late lunch break was the Wildlife Photograper of the Year section. These were huge, video screen enlargements of about 50 photos. Not all were from the winner, though. There was a nice variety of types of photography - animal, macro, scenic - you name it, it was the most crowded the museum had been all day, though, which was annoying (but probably unavoidable on a weekend).
The Royal museum lets you leave and re-enter, so a lunch break was next. There are a number of fast food and other restaurants across the street, so I ducked across and had a sandwich and pop to re-energize myself. On my return, it was time to hit up the special Jodhpur exhibit. I was honestly a bit disappointed with it, even though it was interesting. The bulk of the exhibit was paintings of court life in Jodhpur. The paintings were incredibly colorful, detailed, and interesting. I just expected more artifacts. There was a very cool Mughal pavilion, a nice collection of jewelry, and lots of clothes and vestements. It seemed very centered on the royal family of Jodhpur, but considering they are the ones who donated everything, not surprising.
I finished my visit off with the First Peoples exhibits. There were some very interesting artifacts, including birchbark canoes, Indian apparel, weapons, and more. I was surprised to see the actual compass case and medallion given to Tecumseh. However, the British in Canada aided the Shawnee leaders’ attempt to form an Indian coalition against the Untied States, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I was dragging by this point, I have to admit. I had been in the museum for nearly five hours and was done.
I headed back to the hotel to stretch out in my hotel room before my overnight flight to the Azores. The Royal museum was a great way to spend an unexpected day in Toronto. I highly recommend it to anyone who has a day to kill in Toronto!

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:18 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

First Day of Hiking

Seeing the amazing scenery of the Azores up close

sunny 62 °F

Looking down at Lagoa das Eguas sul on my hike

I had chosen the Azores as my spring break destination for one reason: the hiking. The islands were formed by volcanic activity and many of the hills you see were former calderas. A lot of them have mountain lakes inside their circular depression. That, combined with the lush green landscape, and the dark zig zags of pine forests, makes for stunning scenery. Prior to leaving, I’d picked out a number of the islands’s well-maintained hiking trails. There was even a GPS-enabled app called WalkMe to help you get to and stay on the trail.

The otherworldly scenery of the Azores on the Serra Devassa hike

Shortly after unpacking at my hotel in the largest town on the island of Sao Miguel, Punta Delgado, it was off to my first hike. Called Serra Devassa, it takes you from barrren, grass-clad hilltops, through pine and scrub forests, and around a handful of lakes. The climb in some parts was steep, but the trail is mostly wide and very easy to follow. The trails often follow ridge lines, which means you have sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It is sparsely inhabited, with only occasional farms or the black and white dots of cows grazing.

The verdant countryside earns Sao Miguel the nickname of the Green Island

An dark stone aqueduct is visible not too far away, much of moss-clad and crumbling, disused. Roads loops among the hillsides, but traffic is sparse. Less than a quarter of a million live on the Archipelago, which was colonized during the Age of Discovery by Portugal. Many of the buildings that dot the countryside are traditional whitewashed with orange tile roofs, though you see modern structures as well.

A close up of the stone aqueduct built in the 1800s to supply Ponta Delgado with water

I stopped to take pictures often, and stretched the one to two hour hike (according to the app) into four hours. Of course, there was the extra half hour climb to the mirador do Pico do Paul, with great views across the island. The trek passed by five lakes, with views of a couple more. Some more blue, some green, and some a tannin-like brown, speckled with floating vegetation. Very little wildlife was seen - other than bright green finches, another dark blue and black bird, and an occasional seagull. Strangely, every tiny pool of water - too small to be called a pond - was host to a frog rave with dozens of amphibians singing along to some bizarre, frog tune.

Pau Pique, another extinct volcanic cone, contains a tiny oval lake in the remains of its crater

The soil of the island seems to be mossy and was often very spongey. More than once I stepped off the trail to get a better angle and felt my hiking boots sinking in the moist ground. Looking at the vivid greens, it seemed to me the Azores must receive lots of rain. Of course, they are in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, about two thirds of the way from the U.S. towards the Mediterranean. That made me doubly glad for the bright, sunny day I was enjoying.

The surrounding green countryside, with its dark patches of pine forest zig-zagging across the island

By the time I reached the parking lot, I was pretty worn out. The flight hadn’t arrived till about 9am, and I had slept less than two hours on the five and a half hour flight from Toronto. My usual crappy luck meant I had the standard crying baby two rows ahead, and directly behind me, Mr. Tuberculosis. Every time I began to doze off, he would try to hack up a lung onto the back of my seat. Light sleepers like me can never count on getting any shut eye on overnight flights. So, I was beginning to drag by the end and was happy to see the car.

More mountain and lake vistas on the Serra Devassa hike

After dinner, I tried to write this entry into my blog, but kept nodding off. That’s why I am a day behind, and will likely remain so on this short, five day trip. Tomorrow’s hike was likely the most scenic on the island, so I went to bed looking forward to more amazing sights in the Azores.

I will have to research why the colors of Sao Miguel’s lakes are so varied

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:49 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Along the Rim of an Extinct Volcano

Blue skies and beautiful views reward hikers to Sete Cidades

sunny 61 °F

The view from atop the rim of the extinct volcano, looking down at the lakes of Sete Cidades

Today’s hike to Sete Cidades would be the highlight of the tour, I was guessing. This massive volcanic caldera features two lakes , one green and one blue, separated by a tiny sliver of land. There are actually other smaller lakes inside the cone, too, but these two are the image you see on tourism photographs promoting the Azores. You begin the hike in a parking lot and gradually start to the climb. Once atop the caldera, you hike along the rim about halfway around its circle.

Looking back down at the steep ascent near the beginning of the hike

The path is wide for most of its nearly seven miles. Like all the hikes in the Azores, it seems, it is very well maintained and signposted. On this one, though, you can hardly lose your way. You are literally following the rim of the crater. Looking down inside the bowl, you see one beautiful view after another. The town of Sete Cidades is spread along the largest lake, its white houses gleaming in the sun. Farms and forests are also laid out beneath you, curving slowly down to the water’s edge. A beautiful blue sky arched above, with only occasional whisps of white clouds momentarily dimming the sun.

The path winds along the rim of the extinct volcano’s cone

The caldera’s rim looks jagged and steep from a distance, but as you approach each bend, you see its edges have been worn down over the millennia. There are no vertiginous drops to set your heart pounding. The path is so wide that cars can and do drive along its dirt and pebble surface. However, on my trek, perhaps only three to four drove past - so it is not a common thing. I saw far more hikers, but Sete Cidades’ vast length swallows them up, and you mostly have the walk to yourself.

In the caldera’s bowl, farms and pastureland are bordered by dark forests sloping down to the lakeshores

This is one of those hikes where every view seems to be better than the last. I took dozens and dozens of photographs, all the while wondering how I would ever sort through them all. I had saved this hike for the day the weather forecast promised would be the sunniest. The beautiful skies held true, and the gorgeous views followed, one after another. High atop the rim, the wind often whipped at my jacket and hat mightily. All day long, I would pull up the hood of my jacket to secure my hat, and for once stretch, I clipped it to my belt to keep it from flying off. Some parts of the hike were sheltered from the wind, though. Stands of trees would shield the path, or the way itself had worn down into the soft soil deep enough to be recessed and out of the wind.

As the steeps sides of the rim tumble down towards the water, they are densely clad in thick, almost jungle-like greenery

The views into the crater were stunning, but the ones looking away from it and down onto the coastal countryside were nice, too. The sea came into view, and the rural landscape of farm, village, and pastureland spread out beneath me. Judging by the number of cows I would see, dairies must be common in the Azores. Surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean for thousands of miles, the islands must get lots of rain. The greenery is persistent throughout Sao Miguel, providing acres of pastureland. In fact, I saw a lot more pastures than fields of crops, so perhaps the soil is too spongy and moist for farmland.

Looking away from the volcano, views of rural Sao Miguel life stretched towards the sea

Towards the end of the hike, the path descends towards the town of Sete Cidades. Strangely, it leaves the wide road it had been following, and instead shrinks into narrow, rocky and very steep path. This was the only part of the hike were the footing was treacherous, at times. Looking at the map, though, the dirt road it had been following arcs around to virtually the same destination. It was if the path suddenly was in a hurry to get into town. I saw other hikers not take the turn off that I did, and follow the gradual road instead. It was a strange end, but there were some nice views as I descended sharply.

Gorgeous sunshine illuminated the hike throughout my trek, shimmering off the water far below

Once in town, it seemed mostly deserted. Perhaps many of the homes are weekend or vacation homes. This being low season, maybe that is why they seemed empty? I used my cell phone’s map feature to locate a restaurant, and it seemed one of the few places with people around. I enjoyed a late lunch and rewarded myself with an Azorean beer. The hike had taken nearly five hours, with lots of ups and downs along the ancient volcano’s rim. Spring is definitely not the busy season here, but I saw more other travelers on this hike than anywhere else in the Azores. I could tell my legs would be sore the next day. However, I was glad I did this hike. Sete Cidades didn’t disappoint. It was a day of rewarding hiking and incredible views.

A tiring but rewarding day’s hike

Zooming in on the gorgeous scenery below with my telephoto lens

Farm on the outskirts of the town of Sete Cidades

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:25 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Easy Hike Around a Volcanic Lake

Furnas provides a day of rest for my battered feet

rain 57 °F

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The town of Furnas sprawls throughout this wooded, rural valley

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:39 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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