Faial – Horta (Azores)

Since leaving Antigua nestled serenely in a warm, calm Caribbean sea we have been making our way steadily north east through the cooler, choppier Atlantic Ocean. As each day passes the outside air temperature has decreased from a fatigue inducing mid 30’s  to a more comfortable mid 20’s and at times, a bit lower. We have been heading into quite a stiff wind, so being on unsheltered sections of the outer decks can be quite an unpleasant as the chill factor can quickly turn a healthy looking tan into a less appealing hue. I enjoy the caress of hair wafting vigorously in the breeze, massaging the scalp as follicles are tugged this way and that, I am surprised that this feeling is not shared by Sue or, for that matter any of the other women with long hair on the ship, they seem to avoid the more exposed sections of deck, preferring to pay extortionate prices in the ship’s Spa for a similar head treatment. Makes no sense to me.

Leaning over the bow of the Magellan, waiting to catch sight of flocks of flying fish skittering across the waver tops has now become a thing of the past. The colder Atlantic is the province of whales and they are much less common, frustratingly it wasn’t until the last couple of sea days that both Sue and I caught sight of ‘the blow’ from a whale, too far out to catch more than a glimpse, but the flash of white steam against the dark blue of the sea leaves a lasting imprint on the retina and memory. One afternoon, Sue did spot two very large turtles from the stern of the ship, desperately flapping their limbs as they were buffeted in the back wash of the ship. I caught sight of them using binoculars but they were soon gone from sight, with no time to grab the camera. The closer we got to the Azores we began to see pods of common dolphins racing to play alongside and under the bow of the ship, a very dangerous game if you ask me. It was during one of these dare-devil games that I at last managed to photograph a dolphin in flight as it left the water. Each evening I seem to delete hundreds of similar photos of rippled sea, where a dolphin once was! Early one morning I did spot a shark, lazily swimming alongside, interested in the huge noisy metal tin can that had invaded its home territory,  being just under two metres in length I suppose it had decided that we were just a little too big to have a nibble at.

More often than not, we make port whilst we are are having breakfast and Horta was no exception. On deck it felt decidedly chilly and there was a breeze, the highlands were shrouded in cloud, as was the volcano on the opposite island of Pico. The Azores are made up of nine volcanic islands,  our island, Faial was settled by the Portuguese in 1645 until the Spanish attacked it in 1583. The British had a heavy influence on the island in the 18th century when they introduced the production of oranges, however disease in the 19th century wiped out the orange trees and whaling took over as the prime source of income.

Horta, is the only large city with a population of approximately 7000, with around 15000 inhabiting the island as a whole. In 1957, the Capelinhos Volcano  erupted  destroying many buildings, at the time the population was around 35000, around half of these left the island to create new lives in America and Canada. The island still regularly suffers from earthquakes, the largest one being in 1995 when 600 families lost their homes. You could say that the Azoreans like living on the edge!

Sue and I were intrigued with the volcanic past of this island so we opted for a trip that would take us to see the devastation left by that eruption 60 years ago. We joined a party of around 30 other similarly minded people on a five and a half mile coastal hike of the Capelinhos.

We set off by coach from the port of Horta and drove for around 45 minutes to the opposite, eastern side of the island. We left under thick cloud and a stiff breeze, but soon emerged into bright sunshine as we part circumnavigated the island. We were concerned that our hike may turn into a slow, stop, start, drag with frequent stops to wait for those to catch up who (if they had read the literature) would have known that they were in no condition to undergo such an activity. However, we were pleasantly surprised, all the members of our group were more than capable of a bit of strenuous exercise and I suppose were regular ramblers like Sue and I.

The drive through the lush Azorean countryside was a delight, pretty cottages hugging steep inclines, fields of staring, cud chewing cattle pondering the passing traffic and vertical, blackened sea-cliffs pounded by Atlantic rollers, often seen breaking many 100’s of metres off shore over some hidden volcanic reef. Now and again we would pass by square hedged enclosures inside which bananas would be grown to protect them from the harsh Atlantic gales. No oranges now, but something just as tasty!

We stopped for around 20 minutes at a beautiful rural park Parque Florestal do Cabouco, due to its location and the geography of the surroundings it had a micro-climate all of its own, ensuring that its temperature and humidity remained constantly high all year round. Here there were picnic benches and BBQ’s galore set alongside winding pathways making their way to secret woodland glades. You could easily get lost. In one I found several tame deer, not bothered in the slightest by my presence. I picked grass and fed them for a while. The paths are edged in volcanic rock, as was its surface and also the box-like structures that held the BBQ’s. I thought the place was magic, never seen anything like it before and a fabulously peaceful place to have a picnic. It was disappointing to leave so soon, I could easily have spent all day exploring here and I don’t think I was alone with that thought.

Arriving at the Capelinhos we quickly set off on the ash track that was to be our route to the abandoned lighthouse. It had  once been the furthest point of the island, located precariously atop dangerously high cliffs, but not now. At first we passed though a landscape lush with undergrowth that had reclaimed a foot hold after once being covered in several metres of volcanic ash. Handsome white alliums that would have cost a fortune back in the UK grew every where. Eventually, this  luxuriant zone began to give way to increasingly more sparse and hardier shrubs as we neared our goal. We passed the ruins of ash covered houses, their outbuildings and garden walls, reminiscent of a recent trip to Chernobyl and its newly forested towns and cities. There was pauses  to take a  snaps of plants and the increasing desolation. We could see the new lighthouse and the new land beyond, looking like a saddle fit for some long departed giant. Slowly, 30 sets of feet ate up the distance.

Thankfully, a  forecast of 17 degrees, cloudy with a possibility of rain by the Magellan’s captain that morning, had not materialised (well, not on this side of the island). We had clear sky and sunshine,  bodies clad in trousers, shirts, fleeces and light raincoats were getting decidedly hot! It wasn’t long before outer layers were wrapped, bandana style around my now slightly burgeoning girth and shirt sleeves were rolled up to expose as much heat radiating forearm as possible.

As we closed in on the lighthouse, the landscape became as described in the brochure, “A unique landscape said to be reminiscent of that on the moon.” Having never been to the moon, not even on a previous cruise, I suppose I will have to accept the writer’s description as being accurate. The stark contrast between sea and sky and that of the drab, dusty and rocky landscape (if you squint a little) could easily be taken for some alien landscape and with a little imagination the abandoned light house may easily be taken for a waiting rocket to speed 30 souls back to their mother ship.

With others I spent some time wandering through this dusty lunar look-a-like, taking photos of the original 19th century lighthouse of Ponta dos Capelinhos (now decommissioned) and surrounding devastated landscape, trying to imagine the fear of those early inhabitants as they met their fate.  Yes, it’s true, the scene before us seemed more than a little unnatural to creatures from a little island in the North Sea that hasn’t seen an active volcano for several millions of years, but kicking up the greyish brown dust and leaving footprints the size of Neil Armstrong’s left moonboot did seem quite normal after such a very short time. We humans are so adaptable. It’s funny how heat, exhaustion and a bit of flippancy can play tricks on the mind!

The coach arrived to to pick us up and all too soon we were back on board, engaged in our now guilt-ridden habit of cramming calories into a mouth while the stomach is still engaged on the previous repast of just a few hours earlier.

With fat to burn we ventured out again, this time to discover Horta and sample its delights. First stop was at the supermarket to purchase necessary supplies of refreshments for those long hard days at sea. With several bottles rattling in my rucksack we wandered the pretty narrow cobbled streets, regularly meeting fellow cruisers doing exactly the same, those that hadn’t already replenished their liquid stocks were keen to discover where they could. Having been to the Azores (Sao Miguel) on two previous occasions, the layout of the streets are exactly as we had expected so after a quiet pilgrimage to one of their exterior black and white churches (lots of inside bling) we weren’t surprised to find ourselves at a bar alongside the marina, I to take on further vital refreshments and Sue to peruse the harbour wall paintings. These are painted by the crews of yachts etc. engaged in sailing across the Atlantic, to leave some sort of pictorial mark on the wall or surrounding boulders is seen as a good omen for a safe voyage . There are 100’s of them in various stages of decay, I wonder how many didn’t make it? Never-the-less, I could see them well enough from my little table in the bar, I didn’t feel the need to accompany Sue for a closer inspection.

We completed our day in Horta at a round 5.30pm as we boarded the ship, the Magellan slid her moorings around an hour later and headed through the dark towards Sao Miguel, leaving the twinkling lights of the town to slowly disappear from view.

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