A JOURNEY TO THE COLOURFUL ISLANDS.
Discover the Azores in a camper van.
In the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, between Europe and America, the Azores are a destination that everyone should visit in a camper. A journey through history, flavours, volcanoes and a lush, exuberant nature.
In a camper van, on the footsteps of Atlantis
Often quoted in the weather reports for their anticyclone carrying stable sunny weather to most of Europe, the Azores are a fascinating destination for lovers of plein air and for motor homers who enjoy being surrounded by a generous nature.
With a surface area exceeding 2,333 square kilometres, the Azores stretch over 600 kilometres across the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. This natural paradise made of many colours and wide horizons is composed by nine volcanic islands (we are going to explore the 4 main ones), each its own place and all characterized by amazing natural settings: the beauty of black cliffs and the open sea, ancient craters now filled with emerald lakes, walks through untouched verdant nature, as intricate as rainforest but easier to reach and explore.
Believed to host the remains of the mythical Atlantis, the Azores are both adventurous and family-friendly, thanks to a varied territory that is small enough to allow for a relaxing holiday on board a camper van, where adults can explore and children can play.
São Miguel and the capital city, Ponta Delgada
São Miguel is the Azores’ main island, as well as the largest. Travelling through Lisbon reminds us that this archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal. Ponta Delgada is the capital city, a pretty town where life is relaxed, as it should be, given its independent position, far from America and from Europe.
Ponta Delgada is a town for walking, exploring its north side up to the Forte de São Bras, built in the mid-16th century to protect the city from pirate attacks, but also useful for defending Portuguese neutrality during World War II. We move to the interior, in the lush Antonio Borges park, rich with tropical life, including a huge ficus with protruding aerial roots. The local atmosphere, its rhythm and colours, feels more like a South American country than Europe. Low houses, red clay rooftops, white façades, wrought iron balconies: they are typical of the colonial baroque style found in the Americas. The panoramic seafront closes an intricate maze of narrow lanes and mosaic walkways.
The richness of this island, that in some areas resembles a sort of Switzerland with sea view, is to be discovered away from the city. The interior is made of sheep grazing land, intersected by low stonewalls and thousands of hydrangeas cutting through the lava. After travelling through a succession of rural houses and small hamlets, we reach Ribeira Grande, an ancient city on the northern coast, with its City Hall and church of Nossa Senhora da Estrella dominating the town and its endless beach.
Our island exploration continues westward, through the lush interior and up to the 580 metres of Miradouro Vista do Rei, where the eyes can roam across the Caldeira das Sete Cidades.
A wide crater with steep walls where two lakes sit alongside each other, named after the colours of their waters: Lagoa Verde (Green Lagoon) and Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon).
On the western edge of the volcano, a ten kilometre path provides a relaxing walk across hydrangeas and strelitzias, with breathtaking views over emerald lakes and the blue ocean.
After the western side, from Ponta Delgada, we continue our journey to discover the other side of the island. A visit to the waterfalls and watermills of Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is a must, with pit stops at the vertiginous miradouro, panoramic points high on the cliffs, with tables and stonewalls.
And then to the Furnas Valley and its lake. The village is immersed in the sulphurous vapours of the geothermal park, where we can choose between bathing in the sulphur water pools or walking between mineral water sources and wide boiling cauldrons. Locals cook steamed corn and a typical dish called cozido caldeiras das Furnas: a meat and vegetable stew cooked in the sulphur springs.
Whale island: Pico
The island is named after its 2,351 metre cone-shaped volcano, which is also the tallest peak in Portugal. At a first glance with our camper, Pico appears lava-like, black, rocky, swept by winds and waves. The true nature of these “mountains of fire, wind and loneliness” unchanged since the description of one of the first Portuguese explorers to land on the island in the 16th century. The Northern coast, windy and less exposed to the sun, is harsher, less green and lashed by sea waves breaking on its lava rocks. We cross a series of small hamlets built of black calcinate stone, a contrast enhanced by the terse Atlantic light.
Lajido, São Roque, Santo Amaro, neat and deserted: they still have the slides to lower whaling boats onto the water, the barrels, vats and presses for wine making, which is this land’s new wealth.
There is a small museum in Calheta de Nesquim, with whaling boats and tools, photos of the last whalers: rugged faces, marked by wind and fatigue, yet so lively.
The charming small town of Lajes is the departing point of many whale and dolphin watching tours. Here we can visit the picturesque museum dedicated to whale hunting, an ancient economic activity now turned into a tourist attraction. In the evening, two well cooked boca negra fishes provide the right end for the day, together with a bottle of white Frei Gigante.
Faial, crossroads of the world
On the ferry from Pico, on our camper, only half hour of sea crossing separates us from the island of Faial.
Despite the small size of the island, the town of Horta - where we are heading to - is wide and structured, overlooking two natural bays protected by the volcanic promontory of Caldeira do Inferno. Its position has made this a favourite landing spot for seafarers, and the harbour hosts the sail boats of those who can afford to sail through the Atlantic, from the coasts of Europe, the American continent and the Caribbean. Before going to sea, it is customary to leave a mural on the port’s bastions, which are therefore totally covered with drawings, dates, names, crews and ships, in a mosaic of colourful stories. There is also a cosmopolitan relaxed Marina di Horta, with its Porto Pim fortress, the ancient Caffè Peter, a meeting place for sailors from anywhere in the world, and the wonderful azulejos of the church of São Salvador.
Terceira, the treasure island
The third island to be discovered by the Portuguese (hence the name, which means ‘Third’), its capital Angra do Heroismo is a World Heritage site because of the beauty of its rich architecture.
Protected by two fortresses and by the promontory of Monte Brazil, Angra was a key stop for galleons loaded with gold and precious goods. Despite the 1980 earthquake, the city still shows the grandeur of its past, in an urban setting where classic Portuguese style merges with South American colonial architecture.
We will need a whole day to discover its treasures and atmospheres, to mingle in the meandering lanes lined with colourful 17th century buildings; to visit its many churches, to promenade by the marina dominated by a periwinkle cathedral and finally reach the park, full of tropical flora, to look back at this pleasant city by the sea. Sometimes, in the evening, we can enjoy a balcony view of the bloodless tourada a corda, the island ‘s version of a bull fight, where few braves challenge the animals, with frequent falls in the water for both. Terceira has a surprising interior too, alternating alpine settings with sulphur landscapes, moors and lava caves.
We reach the Lagoa do Negro climbing through a fir lined road and continue to Gruta do Natal, a long, dark underground lava canal, and Furnas do Enxofre, an area of crevasses where hot steam shoots up among the musk and lichens.
The incredible Algar do Carvão is unmissable: a volcanic pit plunging ninety metres into the rock, to a placid underground lake.
We close the day with a fish soup served inside a huge bread roll and accompanied by the local white Terras de Lava, with the company of a kind and friendly people who welcomes you to this lush land of a thousand colours.
Portuguese Tourist Office, www.visitportugal.com
the official Azores tourist board is at www.visitazores.com/it;
The islands are connected by the ferry and hovercraft service provided by Atlanticoline (www.atlanticoline.pt)
For those who love trekking: www.trails-azores.com