Getting lost in the Azores

The Azores, on first impressions, resemble very little of the mainland Europe I left lying off in the horizon. Earthy, damp and though the clouds are low and the rain frequent, you get the impression that it never really gets too cold.

What is it that pulls me closer and closer to these places? The ones that provide such a visceral peek down into the center of the earth? And how is it I keep finding myself lost in obscure, narrow, cobbled European streets – this time in a truck about the width of a whale? It’s becoming  apparent that I keep finding myself drawn to the most geologically active spots in the world (and, into challenging driving situations while I’m at it).

The Azores – A bit like New Zealand… Wait, what?

With the Azores sitting around latitude 37.7412° N and New Zealand at around 40.9006° S, this archipelago sits almost exactly the same distance north of the equator as New Zealand is South. Although not quite antipodes (the antipodes of New Zealand lie over in mainland Spain and Northern Portugal), it is this geographic location combined with the island nature and volcanic geography that explains why this small, Portuguese inhabited island feels like home.

 It’s the sub-tropical laurellaurisilva forests found across these latitudes that give this volcanic cluster a similar landscape to New Zealand. However, the lashings of lillies, smatterings of waist height wildflowers and the walls of blue hydrangeas that give this place the name A ilha azul (the blue island) set it apart, and give frequent nudges to remind us we are still in Europe, if only just.

The nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores all have their own unique flavour. Subtle differences in culture, dialect and micro-climate make each island unique. Way back when the islands were first settled, people arrived from across Europe – not just Portugal. This leaves some of the islands with distinctly Flemish, French or Scandinavian undertones.

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The island I’m on? Faial, the blue island. A popular stopover for trans-atlantic sailors who have made it two thirds of the way across, generally not having set foot on land in three thousand miles.

Horta is famous with sailors around the globe. Each boat that passes through leaves their mark on the jetty walls. Tiles adorned with paintings, names and signatures lines the access way to the water. Leaving your mark in Horta is a right of passage for sailors making the long and often arduous Atlantic crossing.

The iconic sailors bar ‘Peter’s Cafe Sport‘ lies unassumingly on the main esplanade of Horta. Peter’s is one of the most famous joints in the Azores, albeit one of the most infamous sailing haunts on the Atlantic. For visitors who aren’t such sailing buffs, it’s still an excellent spot to swing by and suck down a world famous gin and tonic.

“The man that had the idea to border the road with these plants should have a statue on the island. In no other place, do they prosper better: they need a covering of light, humidity and heat…they are in their place. Their blue, is the blue that adorns the Azores on lipid days…this is a blue that is even more blue, the bunches of flowers of a colour more intense and more fresh. They are in every direction: rising along the roads and the fields forming hedges; they serve to divide the parcels and to cover the peaceful animals.” — Raul Brandão, As Ilhas Desconhecidas (1926), p.33

I had the use of a (rather enormous) truck for my time on the island, and thanks to my terrible internal navigation sense, I got to make many accidental tours of the island. A pleasant surprise and particularly beautiful if you manage to catch the sunset off the western edge as you drive around.

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It takes around an hour to drive the full circumference of Faial, an oddly shaped island with a slightly off-center volcanic caldera claiming feature point. The villages are dotted round the edges, with most of the central space taken by lush forests and farmland.

The main city is Horta. Everywhere else on the island is clusters of small villages, Portuguese farmhouses and the odd snack stop. Pretty cobbled streets, narrow roadways, Portuguese shops, gorgeous churches and a market provide a pleasant day of meandering around, and for those on foot, the picturesque narrow roads amble up the hillside and make for delightful photo opportunities.

So, how did I come to be in Faial?

So, how did I end getting lost in the small streets of Horta, and on endless unplanned full circuits of the island to find my way home each time I ventured out?

The answer lies in the field of horses, the one out my window with the volcano of Pico looming up from across the ocean. I’m house (and horse) sitting, a new string to my solo traveling bow.  Days here involve waking early to stuff nets full of hay to 5 hungry, horsey mouths, hanging with the dogs, stroking the cat and watering the plants.

I ended up here as a very last minute change of plans. Three days before my original housesit was due to begin, it was cancelled due to illness. However, I got asked to attend this house sit in her place.

So, less than 48 hours after learning where, and what, exactly the Azores were, I was on a plane headed out over the Atlantic.

Are the Azores expensive?

The prices are comparable to mainland Portugal, however due to it’s geographic isolation and size some things are harder to find. Imported products might end up a little more expensive too.  In comparison to Asia, the Azores are expensive. Compared to France, they are super cheap. This is one of the more affordable parts of Europe, but at the end of the day, it’s still Europe.

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Are the Azores part of Portugal?

Yes indeed they are. Despite being a close to 1000 miles off the coast of mainland Portugal, and parts of the Azores even on a tectonic plate, yes the Azores are a part of Portugal. The food, buildings, language and people are all Portuguese and the currency used is the Euro.

Are the Azores tropical?

To put it bluntly – no. The climate in the Azores is described as sub tropical with an incredibly temperate climate. The different islands all have varying micro climates, however across the board the heat never goes over 30 degrees (Celsius), even in the peak of summer when mainland Europe is in the 40’s. And it rains – a lot. My 2 and a half weeks spent on Horta in summer it rained every day. When it’s not raining, the Azores are more humid than the mainland Europe.

How to get to the Azores.

Getting to São Miguel Island (the green island) and Terceira (the lilac island), the two most populous islands in the archipelago, is fairly straight forward, with a number of airlines operating there.

The most common places to fly from are Porto and Lisbon in Portugal, London and the USA. Although there are also flights to a number of other European destinations, including the Canary Islands. The main airlines that operate these flights are TAP Portugal, SATA, Ryanair and Easyjet. Once you get onto São Miguel or Terceira, the best way to get to some of the other islands is either by ferry or flying with SATA.



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