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Volcanos And Vineyards: The Eternal Surprises Of The Azores Islands

Once home to a thriving whaling industry, Portugal’s Azores islands are now a hotspot for whale watching. The archipelago also boasts scenic hiking trails and unusual vineyards, which are protected from the wind – and warmed at night – by labyrinthian volcanic walls.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Paths to the sea (Guillaume Baviere)

FAIAL ISLAND - The exhibit at the museum near the Capelinhos volcano on the western corner of Faial Island in the Azores makes the 1957 eruption come alive. That’s when a whole village was wiped off the face of the earth, large stretches of land buried in a lead-grey blanket of ash. Within days the island grew larger by 2.4 square kilometers. The museum building itself has been artfully built, sunk down in ash and its exhibit no less artfully tells the tale.

An older couple is examining pictures of haggard men and women, post-catastrophe, looking warily at the camera. Suddenly one of them lets out a cry: they’ve identified a relative of the husband’s. Excited, the man, who introduces himself as Ernesto, tells how as a kid back in 1957 he was evacuated from his village along with more than 2,000 other people. The U.S. government offered a home to some of them, including Ernesto. Now a successful construction company owner, the Faial islander is back after 54 years in search of his roots.

The nine islands comprising the Azores belong to Portugal. For all intents and purposes, they are nothing but a collection of volcanoes, in all their variations, ranging from new, like Capelinhos, to fully-formed, like 2,351-meter-high Pico on the eponymous island. Pico is also Portugal’s highest mountain.

To the unpracticed eye, Cabeço Gordo on Faial and Pico do Ferro on São Miguel might look like relatively flat pasture-land (there are even cows grazing) but an aerial view reveals craters sometimes as deep as several hundred meters. A lot is going on underground, where hot springs and spirals of steam emerge to the surface.

Business-savvy locals have even turned the volcanic fields of São Miguel into oversize cooking facilities: they place huge pots of meat and vegetables in a hole in the morning, and by lunch time the “cozido,” as the stew is called, is ready to be dished out to tourists. Not only are the portions huge, but the wines served with it – made on Pico Island – are delicious.

Since the 18th century, vineyards on the west flank of Pico‘s volcano have been divided into tiny parcels surrounded by dry walls made from black volcanic rock. These walls protect the vines from the heavy winds that course across the island. They also absorb the warmth of the sun and thus keep the ground temperature stable, even through the night. The wall system – which looks like a massive labyrinth if you look down at it from a plane -- is used to this day. The entire area was placed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2004.

Vines aren’t the only plants that take well to volcanic soil. As any visitor can see, so do hydrangeas that border every road and hiking trail. Some of the bushes grow as high as trees, full of white and vibrantly-colored pink and purple flowers.

Another attraction is the sea, especially the waters around Pico, Faial and São Jorge, where several species of whale can be seen. Whales give birth and raise their young ones here, so whale watching is a must. There are plenty of dolphins around the islands as well.

Sipping a gin and tonic at “Peter’s”

As the locals will tell you, there are a lot of boat tours, but only one Norberto Serpa, the best sailor and a diving pro. So at the appointed hour we show up in the port of Horta, the charming capital of Faial. A few minutes turn to half an hour. Our skipper still hasn’t turned up, and with growing irritation we can see the other boats heading out. Then suddenly there he is: small, wiry, brown, with shoulder-length hair and a beard worthy of Captain Haddock in the Tintin comics.

When the catamaran finally leaves the port – after Norberto has greeted what seems to be every single person, on or off a boat, in the entire area – the “captain” revs to such high speed that tour guests are hanging on for dear life, some of them looking green around the gills.

In no time we’ve caught up with the other boats, all in the same observation area, passengers watching eagerly, cameras poised on the glittering waves, for the elegant leap of a dolphin, a whale fountain, or – most prized of all – the sight of a whale breaching.

Norberto and the other boat pilots listen carefully to radio communications and if there’s word of a sighting all boats head in the same direction. This time, there really is a whale to be seen: a tip has been received from men who used to fish them until that was outlawed in 1984. They sit on the cliffs of Pico or Faial and search the sea with telescopes, radioing the boats when and if they spot something.

The Americans were the ones who introduced whaling here. Men on Pico and Faial had two possible ways of earning money: fishing or working in a whale meat factory. The Americans used big ships and high tech harpoons, but locals took their lives in their hands and hunted in small boats. Two museums on Pico show how the men in precarious vessels fought whales weighing tons.

Today, Peter’s Café Sport in Horta is the best place to compare the size of whales sighted. Sailors on their way from Europe to the American coast have been stopping on Faial for as long as anybody can remember. One of their rituals is a gin and tonic at Peter’s. Another is to write something on the harbor walls. The graffiti is supposed to ensure a safe journey. You’d be hard pressed to find a port more brightly inscribed than Horta.

Upstairs at Peter’s is a small scrimshaw museum where drawings engraved on whale teeth tell the tales of adventures at sea. There are also portraits of women, pictures sailors carried with them of their sweethearts back home.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Guillaume Baviere

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Tages-Anzeiger ("Daily Gazette") is a German-language Swiss daily newspaper based in Zurich. Founded in 1893, the newspaper is owned by Tamedia.

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