Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Days 21 & 22: Exploring the Interior

Day 21
I woke up early on our first morning in the Azores, and peered outside to see grey and storming skies, with the surf continuing to crash violently on the black sand beach. I also noticed that, in a couple of places in the kitchen, it was raining hard enough that the roof was leaking; so I dug a couple of Tupperware bowls out of the cupboard and placed them around the kitchen. Then with the gentle "plip-plip" inside, the gusting wind outside and a cup of coffee in hand, I relaxed comfortably until Sarah and the kids awoke.

Waking to a stormy coastline.

A short time later, breakfast had been served, showers taken, and the sky was clear enough that we decided to venture out and explore the island. Our plan (fingers crossed about the weather), was to drive up toward Lagoa do Fogo (the "lake of fire") in the center of the island, and do a hike that Sarah had read about nearby. This would allow us to take a look at the lake, which is one of the islands star attractions and stretch out legs in nature, which would be a good change of pace after three weeks of city living.

To get there, we'd have to drive around the west end of the island and up half the length of it's north shore, before diving into it's interior. This gave us our first chance to really get a good look at the Azores, while not completely sleep deprived. So, how to describe the Azores?

Let's start with Hawaii as the starting point. First, take away it's beaches and replace them with shorelines of black volcanic rock and only the occasional pocket beach of black sand. Now, replace 90% of the palm trees with blue hydrangea bushes. Instead of any sort of Polynesian influence to the towns and architecture, replace the towns with continental European villages. Including lots and lots of cows. Now, remove, say, 75% of the tourists. I mean, it's the height of their tourist season, and everything here can easily be described as "sleepy."

This photo, take the next day, shows what a weirdo mash-up the Azores are. Blue hydrangeas. Cow pastures. Some fairy mound thing. Quaint villages. The ocean. Semi-tropical storm clouds. Seems totes fake.

The drive to Lagoa do Fogo went smoothly, except one or two times getting slightly lost, and one incident where someone had either driven off the road or been driven off the road. We came around the corner, only to find his car up on the curb, in our lane, facing the other direction. As we stopped to see if everything was OK, our first presumption was that he'd lost control going around the corner, 180-ed and hit the embankment. But, there was no signs of him skidding out. As I and another motorist approached, he stood on the edge of the road gesturing and shouting, obviously more angry than anything, but completely indecipherable in Portuguese. While he and the other driver talked loudly at each other, I did the shrug and be a dumb tourist thing. Then, once we could tell he was fine and his car still ran, I climbed back in the car and continued out drive.

Soon we wound our way high into the hills, past viewpoints and geothermal plants, until we arrived at the Lagoa do Fogo viewpoint. Parking "Portuguese style" (as we've come to call it when you park blocking as much of one lane of traffic as possible), we got out and took in a truly stunning view of the lake.

An initial view of Lagoa do Fogo. Flowers for flair.

While standing there, we realized there was a trail down, and Otto actually proposed we hike that, instead of the hike we'd planned. That sounded a good to us, so Sarah and Stella went back to get better shoes for Stella at the car, and water; then began hiking down. Quickly we realized that it was actually a really steep drop, and also Stella realized that she was "starving to death." So, despite some pouting by Otto and I, Sarah encouraged us to turn around after hiking about half the way down.

Back in the car, and a mixture of hungry and frustrated, we doubled back the way we came to a food truck we'd seen parked outside some thermal baths. There, we parked, and while Sarah and I had bifanas, the kids had ham and cheese sandwiches. We considered that maybe, now we should do the thermal pools, but Sarah pointed out we didn't have swimsuits, so we were thwarted again, and I was beginning to feel like the whole day was going to be a series of misfires. Then, Sarah suggested that, instead of doing the original hike, maybe we should go back and hike down to Lagoa do Fogo the whole way.

Everyone was enthusiastic about that idea, so after a quick peek inside the thermal pools park -to see them and use their WC- we were back on the road again, headed up to Lagoa do Fogo... again.

Reaching the viewpoint, we discovered it wrapped in fog, and the lake suddenly invisible below. But, undaunted, we set off down the path, dropping into the caldera. The kids, stomachs full of food, soldiered ahead while we continued down. Occasionally, the clouds would part long enough to give us a peak at the lake, and pleasantly, the fog seemed to be detouring some of the hiking traffic we'd encountered before.

Descending into the clouds. 

Finally, we reached the bottom, and started to make our way around the edge of the lake, and were happy at how quiet and remote it felt, despite a few other hikers and Stella barking orders at Otto or giving us weather updates.

Reaching a beach, after a couple of bends, we decided to stop and give the kids some beach time. It was still foggy, and even flirting with raining, but the air was warm enough and the lake inviting enough that even I eventually decided to jump in. An amazing, peaceful swim.

Wading into the lake. Peaceful and misty. A lot warming that this photo makes it look.

After letting the kids play, and taking a swim myself, it was time to hike back up out of the caldera. So, we set off back up the steep and winding path. As we hiked the clouds finally began to burn off, and by the time we which the viewpoint, it was hot and humid.

The clouds clear, as we make our way back around the lake. 

A steep and sweaty climb back up. The kids ran most of the way because they are insane.
A super rare family picture, taken after hiking up from the lake. Plus some random tourists, for flavor.

We hopped back in the car, and -after stopping at one last viewpoint to get a look at the lake from another angle- we headed to the island's south coast and then back to Mosterios. Arriving back at the house, the kids were wiped, so they wanted to stay in the house, but Sarah and I didn't fancy eating at home, and drug them to the second of the town's half dozen restaurants, O Xico. O Xico was decorated with old record albums, and I proved hungry enough that I ordered and ate enough food for two human beings: Salt Cod, Shrimp, potatoes, fries, two salads, and two beers. Obviously the hike had worn me out too.

Day 22
One of the unspoken rules of our stay in the Azores is that the kids get at least an hour at the beach. So, after getting started late, we let them play in the surf for a little bit, while we worked out what we wanted to do.

For lunch, before heading out, we tried another Mosterios restaurant: Café Ilhéu. With its sunny patio, decent food, excellent, local white wine and friendly staff, it's since become our defacto place to eat out. Here's Sarah trying the limpets, on this first visit. 

The basic play was to drive up to Lagoa das Sete Cidades have a look around, grab some lunch and hopefully do a small hike there. Lagoa das Sete Cidades is the pair of lakes (one green and one blue) the sit in the middle of a giant caldera on the western end of the island's interior. There's a small town nestled next to them, with a single small land bridge dividing them. If you pick up a guide book for the Azores, it's the picture on the cover.  

After the kids were done frolicking, we loaded them into the car, and began the windy road up, up, up to the edge the caldera. Reaching the edge, we came across a small dirt parking lot, and a sign that seemed to indicate a viewpoint. So, we parked and all hopped out. Following the sign took us to a dirt road, instead of a view point. "Hmmm, maybe the view point is just a little up the road, and this is, like, an overflow parking lot."

So, we set off down the dirt road. After a little hiking, we still hadn't come to a view point, so we pushes through a little hedge, and what was revealed was a pretty cool view. Below us, the lush valley of the caldera spread out, including the town, several smaller calderas and what appeared to be one of the two lakes. But, it wasn't the quintessential view. One lake was hidden behind a small hill. "Hmm, maybe we'll get a better view, if we just walk a *little* further."

Our first peek-a-boo view. Stunning, but not what we had thought we'd see. (Note: on the left you can see a caldera...inside the caldera.)

But, another ten minutes of walking just revealed more of the same. It was then that it slowly dawned on us that, instead of finding a viewpoint, we'd actually stumbled across the trail head of one of the caldera rim hikes we'd been considering doing. This was great, because we'd been hoping to hike it. But, was less than ideal because we hadn't eaten lunch yet, and had failed to grab any water when we got out of the car.

"We can go a *little* further. Maybe up to that radio tower we see up there." Both Sarah and I were game for hiking, and Otto seemed to be having fun. The only problem was that, in the span of about four paces, Stella went from "I'm enjoying this walk in the woods" to "I'm absolutely dying of thirst."

C'mon Stella, just be a team player and hike a little farther. We don't have water on us, but can get some when we get back to the car. But, Stella had no interest in being a "team player." Instead, she decided to drag her feet and whine as much as she could manage. She lingered. She moped. She drifted. She complained. And, maybe the this doesn't speak well of us as parents, but the more she continued with her theatrics, the more we just wanted to keep hiking.

Hiking the flower-lined ridge of the caldera. 

So, after the radio tower, we noticed that the trail turned into a scenic ridge, and decide to walk that. And, after that, we noticed, in the distance, some sort of mid-century modern building that, frankly, looked like a James Bond villian's headquarters. "Look, Stella and Otto, that seems to be some sort of hotel. If we make it there, I bet they will have drinks and maybe ice cream."

That seemed to give the kids the motivation they needed to get to the end. So, eventually we broke from the trees and approached the hotel. Unfortunately, and somewhat surreally, the building was just an abandoned husked, overgrown with plants. Even more unfortunately, while there were some questionable bathrooms nearby, there was no sign of any sort of concession stand. So, no water or ice cream.

The mysterious hotel, which I've just looked up now, while typing this. You can read about it on this Atlas Obscura page. 

On the upside, the abandoned hotel was located at a pristine viewpoint, and Sarah and I finally got the image we wanted: Two lakes, blue and green, nestled in a valley, village next to them, and bridge dividing them.

Otto in front of the quintessential view of the lake. 

Pictures taken, there was nothing to do but hike back. "OK, kids, not ice cream or drinks here, but if we get back to the car, there's water there and we'll go get food!" Somehow the kids were in better shape hiking back. There was still plenty "I'm tired" and "how much longer" but they solider along, and I even had a nice conversation with Stella at one point about how plants and animals might have arrived on the islands, before settlers did.

All in all, our visit to the viewpoint took about 3 hours, and involved hiking over 6 miles, but we did get our view. Sarah and I did feel a little bad for dragging the kids all that way, unprepared, but our guilt was tempered a little by Stella, who had been dying of thirst mere minutes before, taking the worlds smallest sip of water, before climbing into the car and commencing complaining about something else.

Back in our car, we descended into the Caldera, to the idyllic village of Sete Cidades for dinner. We parked our car, and wandered the quiet streets until we found a buffet-style restaurant Lagoa Azul the meals were on the expensive side, but the beer was free and it gave us a chance to try a number of local dishes.

After dinner, we wandered down to the lake, before driving to the bridge that separates the two lakes, Verde and Azul. Stella, Sarah and I got out (it was Otto's turn to be irrationally angry about something), and looked around, taking in the stillness. It was weirdly stirring, the idea that we were standing in the center of a giant, ancient volcano so massive, it now contained several lakes, a town and a considerable amount of farmland. The world inside the caldera seemed both so contained, yet also so remote from the rest of the world.

Sarah and I both tried to take a number of photos capturing the atmosphere of this area, the weird combination of stillness and peacefulness, mixed with isolation and the almost closed in feeling of the rim walls. In the end, I don't think either of us got the shot we wanted, so here's a picture of Stella and Sarah on the bridge, because I love them.

Moved by the stillness and remoteness, we returned to our car, and drove back to our apartment in Mosterios.

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