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Portugal

First Day of Hiking

Seeing the amazing scenery of the Azores up close

sunny 62 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A tiring but rewarding day’s hike

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Zooming in on the gorgeous scenery below with my telephoto lens

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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

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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 Comments (0)

On a Zodiac Searching for Whales

Fun on the sea in the Azores

sunny 65 °F

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A dolphin leaps put of the water alongside our zodiac boat

I had never been on a whale watching tour before, but the Azores were supposed to be a great place to go on one. The best months for viewing were April through June, supposedly, but I figured it was worth an attempt. There was no money back guarantee at Terra Azul, the tour company I chose. A plus on their side, though, was they went out in a zodiac - an inflatable rubber boat - as opposed to a larger vessel. This would let them get closer to the animals. The reviews I read on TripAdvisor praised them, but warned that people often get seasick. The zodiacs go very fast, and the company recommended a light breakfast (at most) before getting on board. To be safe, I chose no breakfast - not even a glass of orange juice.

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The dolphins often approached within an arm’s length of the boat

There was a sighting board with some disheartening statistics posted outside the office where the passengers checked in. No whales had been spotted the last four days, and only three in the entire month of February. Every day had spotted either Bottlenose, Striped, or Common Dolphins, though. After our briefing, we geared up with life jackets and waterproof jackets (they warned their would be “spray”). I wore five layers - t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hooded sweatshirt, suede travel jacket, and rain jacket. I was never cold on the entire cruise, no matter how fast our captain gunned it! Interestingly, you straddle a padded cushion in your aluminum seat, which is also well-padded. This helps you stay upright and inside the boat when it hits a big wave and bounces high.

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The pods of Common and Striped Dolphins we encountered often surfaced in groups

On our initial high speed cruise to the best viewing spots in the ocean, I felt a slight uneasiness in my stomach. I focused on scanning the waves looking for fins or spray or other signs of marine life. The initial ride was the worst part. After that, I never really felt queasy. I was too into the experience and trying to spot whales or dolphins. At some point, the guide (a marine biologist) spotted a pod of dolphins and we were soon alongside them, where he cut the engine. Then dolphins swam closer and closer until they were directly alongside our zodiac.

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Although we were disappointed to not spot any whales, the playful dolphins made up for it

Then began the frantic game of trying to capture them with my camera as they surfaced to breathe, or even jump, before they disappeared back into the water with a splash. I had my camera set on automatic, and slowly felt I was getting better and better at getting shots of the group of Common Dolphins. When we started up the engines and began to cruise away, the pod invariably followed us. They could keep up really well. This was my favorite part. You could see them just beneath the surface, their broad white stripe clearly visible in the clear blue water. I trained my camera on them, finger poised over the shutter button. Sometimes, I knew my pictures were snapped too late. Other times, I felt I timed it well. I just hoped the photos would not be blurry.

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Just a tad blurry, or this would be my favorite shot

Later, I experimented and put it on “Sports” mode. I discovered that was where I should have had it on my digital SLR camera all along! That setting enabled my to keep taking a series of shots as I held my finger down on the button. It was fun trying to anticipate where the dolphins would surface. We came alongside several pads over the course of the three hour cruise. We spotted both Striped Dolphins, too - though, honestly, they looked the same to me. It was incredible when the guide deployed the underwater microphone and we could hear them communicating with each other. Dolphins are such amazing creatures, and the marine biologist had all kinds of information about them. Apparently, They can be super-aggressive towards other species, and have been know to try to mate with other sea mammals, as well.

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Approaching Ilheu da Villa, just outside the harbor of Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel

After encountering and taking pictures of several dolphin pods, our guide informed us that our two spotters on the coast had yet to locate any whales. Instead, we would range out further looking and hoping to encounter some. He explained how to spot a whale blowing spray and to differentiate it from a wave splash. I pulled my hood tight as the captain gunned the zodiac’s engines and we took off. The zodiac bounced along, obviously airborne at times. The other passengers reacted with shrieks and giggles. The jolting was never uncomfortable, I felt. Instead, I mentally channeled my inner child and thought, “Wheeeeeee!” while enjoying the ride.

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I had fun zooming way in on things with my telephoto lens, like these seagulls

We came up empty, though. Sadly, there would be no whales spotted, today. We did get to check out a really cool rocky island just off the coast that I had spotted on the drive to Furnas, yesterday. It is a giant volcanic plug with vegetation growing on it. During the 1800s, it was inhabited by a wealthy family. At other times, it was a whale blubber burning station. Now, it is vacant, but you can see the relics of its former days as you cruise slowly around it. I switched between my Digital SLR (which had my telephoto lens on it) and my iPhone camera. I did the same as we cruised along the coast, taking pictures of the villages perched on their cliffs and shining in the brilliant sun. Although I had not been lucky with the whales, I hit jackpot with the weather. It was an amazing, warm, beautiful sunny day out on the water. I had fun taking pictures of the dolphins, so I didn’t consider the 55 Euros wasted.

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Zooming in on a town on the coastline of Sao Miguel, Azores

Hungry once back on land, I checked out a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant - the snack bar for the local volunteer firefighters (or bombeiros, a much cooler sounding name in Portuguese). I tried a local favorite sandwich. Picture a ham and steak sandwich, with an egg on top, placed in a wide, shallow bowl of tomato soup. It was interesting. Not sure I would order it again, but it was a filling first meal of the day at noon.

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The dramatically sited lighthouse of Farol Ponta do Arnel on the northeast coast

Next, it was off to a scenic lighthouse at Farol Ponta do Arnel, on the northeast coast of the island of Sao Miguel. The reviews I’d read said it was gorgeously sited along a rugged coast. It was reached by an astonishing 35% grade asphalt road that was NOT recommended for tourists to attempt. Non-locals were encouraged to park at the lot along the main road up top and walk down and back up. I took the advice, and found the walk much shorter than it implied. It took me less than 20 minutes to walk back up the 35% grade - which WAS the steepest road that I have ever encountered!

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The rugged coastline near the lighthouse

The scenery was nice - not as good as Sete Cidades or Sera Devassa, though. Still, the rugged green cliffs and waterfall tumbling down the escarpment were pleasant follow up to the whale watching tour. There were a number of tiny cottages perched along the road between the top and the tiny concrete pier for fishing boats on the waterside. The cottages all had balconies facing the magnificent view. I could imagine it would be a wonderful place for a writer to spend his days, staring out at the panorama of cliff and sea during the day, and listening to the crash of waves upon rock in the evenings. The lighthouse was white with red trim and looked pristinely kept up. Apparently, they do tours on Wednesdays, which I think would be very interesting.

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More beautiful coastline on Sao Miguel’s north shore

I had been using Apple maps for my GPS to navigate around the island. Other than an early hiccup, it worked very well. Today was its swan song. It routed me along the northern coast, which I had yet to visit. This coast is very scenic and has a number of miradors, or scenic viewpoints, that are well signposted and have ample parking to pull off. I stopped and took pictures at here or four of them, enjoying the sunshine and excellent views. Driving in the Azores was relatively easy, except for the incredibly narrow streets in town. The roads themselves are well paved for the most part, but also narrow. I would highly recommend anyone reasonably confident driving (and navigating) choose that as a way to get around.

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I was glad the GPS routed me along the coastal drive

This was my last full day in the Azores. There were a number of firsts on this day, and it was a fitting way to close out the trip. I would have a little time tomorrow to walk to some sights around town. Hopefully, that would provide new experiences, as well.

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Cows and scenic views — two staples of scenery on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:53 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Passing Time in Ponta Delgada

Half day of city sightseeing on my final day in the Azores

sunny 59 °F

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The narrow, hilly streets of Sao Miguel’s largest town, Ponta Delgada

Prior to arriving in the Azores, I had done some quick research on things to see in Ponta Delgada, the main town of the archipelago and where I would be staying. I typed a half dozen of them into my IPhone’s Notes app. It would be good if I ended up with a rainy day, which thankfully never really happened. My fifth day in the Azores dawned bright and sunny. Four out of five days of sunshine in early Soring is great luck for this Atlantic Ocean island chain. I packed my suitcase so I could return and go quickly, looked up the sights I had researched and plotted them on the city map the tourist board had given me. With that, I was out the door for a few final hours of sightseeing.

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The black and white tiled main square, with frame of the original town gates

My first stop was just down the street - Igreja Sao Sebastiao - the original parish church for the town. Built in 1533, it gleams with whitewash and dark wood accents, evoking the coloring of English Tudor type dwellings. Outside the main doors, a crowd was gathered. A group of 30 or so romeros, pilgrims, clutched their wooden staffs and sang a slow hymn. I whipped out my iPhone and recorded their song, which faded away as the pilgrims laid down their staffs on the church steps and entered the church. I followed and their deep drone echoed off the walls of the more than 400 year old church. It was a pleasant bonus to my visit, and I stayed and watched as they went up to the altar in single file, bowed, sank to one knee, crossed themselves, then returned to their pew. When all were done, they struck up another hymn and filed out. I smiled at them as they went by - young, middle aged, and old, carrying on a tradition their ancestors had passed down to them.

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A large group of Romeros - Azorean pilgrims - pray outside Igreja Sao Sebastian

The next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most. Those who know me, and have read my previous entries may have been scratching their heads: “What? Are there no forts or castles in the Azores?” Why yes, I had saved Forte De S. Brás for the final day. A star shaped fort from the days of gunpowder, it also housed the Azores Military Museum. It is maintained by the Portuguese military, and some sections are off limits to visitors because of its current use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had an extensive exhibit on Portugal’s 20th century insurgency warfare in Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Portugal’s military dictators decided to ignore the trend of granting self-rule to its African colonies. It fought bitter wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.

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Fort de S. Bras guards the harbor in Ponta Delgada

The exhibit began by reminding visitors that the Azores - a Portuguese possession - answered the call when the wars began. Around 15,000 Azorean men were among those who lost their lives in the failed attempt to hold onto its status as a colonial power. The exhibit glorified neither side in the conflicts, but presented artifacts of those 20th century battles. One of my favorite time periods to study is 20th century Africa, and I have read quite a bit about those wars. For many Portuguese, it was their Vietnam War. Although professionally fought by many of its soldiers, the wars were also unpopular at home, too. The difference between America and Portugal is we were a democracy, and our leaders eventually sensed our nation’s opposition to the casualties our people were incurring half a world away. Our leadership made the decision to withdraw, even though some felt the war could be won. Portugal was a dictatorship, and the military refused to give in. Finally, officers of the Portuguese military launched a successful coup and overthrew their government. The new junta then granted almost immediate independence to its former foes. It was fascinating for me to see and (almost) be able to touch uniforms, weapons, and equipment that was there in those sad days.

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Uniform of a Portuguese soldier who participated in the counter-Insurgency wars in Africa

After touring the exhibit, I walked the stone and earth walls for awhile. I recognized the Portuguese style, tiny, domed guard houses on each star’s point. I always enjoy getting a chance to clamber around on the walls of a fort or castle. Although there were not a lot of artifacts from when this fort was built and manned to guard against invasion, it was still a thrill. There were nice views of Ponta Delgada from the walls.

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The whitewashed houses and sloping, cobblestoned streets are a feature of the Azores

Next, it was back down into the town’s squares to check out several more churches. Like any Catholic colonial possession, there seemed to be a wealth of them in town. Although many were from the 1500s and 1600s, they all looked more modern. Perhaps fires had caused many to be rebuilt. There seemed to be a common style - whitewashed, with a square, almost castle-like tower. They were often trimmed in dark wood, and bells hung in the windows of the towers. The altars and chapels were bedecked in guilded, golden glory, with details, statues, and rich decoration overwhelming the eyes. Some had wall panels of the beautiful, blue-painted tiles that Portugal is famous for - azulejos.

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Many of the churches in Ponta Delgada have the same features - square bell towers and almost Tudor like architecture

My final hour or so was spent simply wandering the narrow, hilly streets of Ponta Delgada. I had been walking or driving along them since arriving, but had not really had a chance to photograph them. This was definitely a slice of Old Town Europe planted down among the volcanic islands in the Atlantic. Cafes tables crept out onto most of the side roads, and it was an interesting sight to see cars and trucks slowly winding their way among them - sometimes just inches away from jostling a diner’s elbow. I noticed smoke free dining has not arrived in the Azores. Some traditions die hard, apparently! In fact, I saw a higher percentage of smokers to nonsmokers here In these islands than I have anywhere else in my recent travels. Most men are seen with a cigarette dangling from their lips, and many women smoke, as well. This is not a criticism, but instead just another way that Portugal’s past seems to live on here on these islands thousands of miles away from the shores of Europe and North America.

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Blue-painted azulejo tiles are seen on the interiors and walls of many older buildings in the Azores

I enjoyed my four and a half days seeing the Azores’ incredible sights. My research was proven true. It is an amazing place to hike and enjoy nature - only four hours by plane from the East coast of the U.S.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:06 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Plenty to see in a Quick Trip to Portugal

Castles from different times and pleasant towns make visit colorful

sunny 75 °F

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Moorish Castle in Sintra, an easy day trip from Lisbon

When Continental Airlines announced new service to Lisbon, Portugal, my globe-trotting coworkers and I hatched plans to fly there. Since it usually takes a few weeks for new routes to catch on, we felt there should be plenty of empty seats for us standby, airline employees. Our guess proved correct, and on a sunny Spring morning in 1997, we began our exploration of Portugal.

Overlooked by a castle on a hill, Lisbon is a pretty city with Mediterranean colors -- varying shades of white buildings with burnt-orange terra cotta roofs. The city trams proved easy to use, allowing us to range wide across Lisbon our first day. Along the murky blue waterfront, the Belem Tower is a signature landmark. It also proved an unintentionally amusing sight. The 12th century fortification guarding the harbor was encased in scaffolding, which itself was masked by a photo-like screen colored to look like the tower restored. From the distance, we hadn't noticed, and were fooled.

High above the city, the castle proved the "real thing." It was peaceful, pacing the walls and climbing its towers. Over the centuries, a grove of trees has grown up among the castle ruins, giving it a park-like atmosphere. The views of the city below were gorgeous.

The next morning, we took a commuter train 45 minutes north to Sintra. Its pastel-colored Renaissance era buildings were striking, but were overshadowed by the ruins of a Moorish castle brooding above it on a craggy, forested hill. Its slopes proved more difficult to climb than Lisbon's castle, but the sprawling, gray-stone castle was worth it. The outer walls rose and fell with the contours of the slope. Their triangular crenelations and narrow, frequent watchtowers matched the mood of the threatening gray sky above. It didn't take much imagination to picture helmeted Moors staring out across the countryside, standing watch in a warlike time for Christian raids. On the other side of the hill, the mood turned whimsical, with the palace of a 18th century Bavarian noble. Its gaudy colors and varied architectural styles showed Moorish, Germanic and even Ancient Egyptian influences. The two hilltop buildings could not have been a greater contrast.

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Obidos Castle

On our third and final day, we rode the train north to the walled medieval town of Obidos. Here was the essence of Portugal. Bright flowers spilled over the walls and gardens of all the interconnected white homes of the residents. Moss clung to the walls of the excellent town castle, and the terra cotta roof shingles were every shade from light gray to new orange to weathered brown. The cobbled streets were narrow and worn smooth by the traffic of the years. From atop the extensive, tan-colored stone walls, you could look out and trace the line of a disused Roman aqueduct stretching past olive groves and a crowded cemetery. It was a peaceful, scenic place to wander around for an afternoon.

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Traditional Homes, Obidos

Three days was too short of a time to see Portugal, of course. However, the sights were memorable and the colors bright in our memories. Much like the country's signature liquor, Port, which comes in small glasses -- our trip to Portugal had a rich, pleasing flavor that left us wanting more.

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:36 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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