Do you drive in the race?
A winding narrow dirt road circles most of the cliffs along the edge of the huge caldera, Sete Cidades. The name, Seven Cities, comes from the caldera and the seven craters including four lakes inside it. The road is the annual site of one segment of the European Rally Championship.
“I drive an ambulance,” replied Daniel Cabral, our young guide. He was serious. For the last three years, he has driven an ambulance in support of the race. But fortunately no one has needed his services. Last year one driver did go off the side, but his car miraculously landed on a tree; he was rescued without injury.
Sete Cidades is on the western side of Sāo Miguel, the largest of the nine Portuguese islands that make up the Azores. The smallest island, Corvo, would fit inside the caldera and has fewer people than the little town Sete Cidades that sits next to Azul (Blue) Lake at the crater’s bottom. Blue Lake, the largest, reflects the blue of the sky on a nice day. Verde (Green) Lake, is actually part of the same lake but separated by a picturesque bridge. It is smaller and reflects the green Japanese Cedars that line its shores. The other lakes are Santiago and the smallest, Rasa.
Daniel drives for Greenzone Tours (www.greenzoneazores.com). On a previous cruise to the Azores, we had taken a typical tour on a large bus, just one of the many tourist buses crowding the roads. This time, we chose to take a 4-wheel drive vehicle tour that went just east of the principal town, Ponta Delgada. There were just five tourists on board, and we saw no buses once we left the port.
Although Spanish or even Vikings may have visited earlier, the first recorded discovery was by the Portuguese in 1442. They settled Sāo Miguel in 1449. The Azores have a population of about two hundred and forty thousand people. Like Ireland, hard times caused many to emigrate. Today there are an estimated one and a half million people of Azores descent abroad, principally in Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts and Toronto Canada. As a result, Sata Airlines has a direct flight to Ponta Delgada from Boston’s Logan Airport.
The main industries are agriculture – principally dairy – and logging followed by fishing and tourism. Forty-five percent of their power is geothermal.
The Azores are the principal source of butter, cheese and milk for Portugal, and Nestle has a plant to make powdered milk for their other products. The cows have a good life. They just wander in the fields, returning twice a day to a spot where a wagon with a portable milking machine waits. Cano do Sāo Miguel, a fierce local breed of dog, is chained nearby not to protect the cows, but to protect the parts of the milking equipment. We were told the only traffic jams on the island longer than a few moments are caused by cows changing fields. The busiest tourist season is in July and August. It rains all year, but the heaviest comes from December through February. Sperm whales make their home in the area, and other migratory whales pass by seasonally.
The rich volcanic soil, good warm weather with no great extremes and regular rain makes it an ideal place to grow things. Farmers planted hydrangeas as hedges – the cows won’t eat their way through – and they have been adopted as sort of a national flower planted along the roads. There are also some lovely but troublesome exotics everywhere. The yellow ginger lily came from the Himalaya Mountains; one can break off the stem of the flower and suck on it like a straw. The nectar has a pleasant fragrant sweet taste. I am not sure if it is exotic or native, but the pretty belladonna is called “girls back to school” by the locals because it starts to bloom in September when children return to school.
Our tour first took us along a secondary road to the top of a mountain where we were able to look back at our ship and then towards the Lagoa do Fogo, the Lake of Fire. The lake got its name because it was once the site of an explosive volcanic eruption witnessed by the residents of the island and the other islands as well.
We then descended to the “Natural Monument Caldiera Vehla.” It is a narrow deep valley filled with interesting plants and huge ferns. An easy walk back an excellent path takes you to several hot springs and a waterfall over an orange cliff, colored by iron in the water. There are changing facilities and showers for those who want to get into the water, but a sign at one warns the water at one pool is boiling.
Further down, we left the paved road to take a dirt track eastward past Monte Escuro, 889 meters high, towards the little town of Porto Formoso.
Orange groves on the islands succumbed to disease and were replaced by the only tea and pineapple plantations in Europe. They too have gradually fallen to market forces, but a few remain. We visited Cha Formosa, a tea plantation and factory, where we saw a short film about the process, toured the factory which was quiet until the next season, and had some mild Orange Pekoe tea.
Cha comes from the Chinese word for tea (recently adopted by Starbucks and others as Chai). The Portuguese were the first to import it, and for a time all tea went through Portugal. The tea sent on to other countries was labeled with a “T” for “transport.” Those counties then adopted their pronunciation of the letter for the name of the beverage – or so we were told.
Daniel was an excellent and enthusiastic guide. His parents came from Scotland and Canada, so he learned English at home as well as Portuguese. Therefore, when we returned to our ship for lunch, we asked if he had another tour in the afternoon. He did not, so we hired him for a second tour on our own.
He suggested Sete Cidades, and although three of the five had been there before, we agreed it was the most practical way to spend the afternoon. We were so glad that we did. Not only is a tour with five much nicer and more flexible than a tour with a busload, Daniel took us over roads no bus could negotiate. Indeed, he is an “ambulance” driver for the race in the same Toyota Defender because no regular ambulance could handle the road along the rim.
On our next visit – whenever that is – we will contact Greenzone and ask for an all day tour taking us around the eastern end of the island. Perhaps we will be lucky and Daniel will be our driver.