Friday, September 5, 2008

Pineapples - Tea - And The Lakes of Tears

Awake at 4:45, I guess the wake up call was unnecessary. We probably should have left the window open last night, as even with the fan on it was warm. I enjoy watching a city wake up. There is a bakery right next door, and the early delivery keeps me occupied while sitting on the balcony, cigaring, and writing my journal. There is a school or day care across the street and parents lovingly drop off their children into welcoming arms. The caregivers and children seem to be overjoyed with the prospect of the upcoming day spent together.

Thursday – September 4th – Exploring Sao Miguel

Just a few other observations:

1.) The Portuguese language as spoken here on the islands is almost lyrical, a perfect match for the environment.

2.) There are many cows but few horses and pigs, and there is bamboo everywhere.

3.) On Terceira the pasture fences are black lava stone, here they appear to be vegetation, mostly the aforementioned bamboo.

Before separating last night we agreed to meet at the car rental office just southwest of the town center. How difficult could that be. Pretty difficult as Kat and I wandered up and down every street in the vicinity three times, but the right one eluded us. This time it was our turn to be 30 minutes late; embarrassing. We did however discover the beer factory and almost stopped for a coffee and pastry, which in retrospect I should have, as I skipped our provided breakfast at the hotel.

All forgiven, we headed toward the north shore of the island toward Ribeira Grande, my grandfather’s birthplace. Sunny, warm, and agreeable the weather appears to be as constant and the same as the occupants of our van. (Let me just say that Rich is an excellent driver and navigates these vans through the narrow streets as if he was born to it. This becomes very important in the not too distant future.)

Our first stop along the way was a pineapple plantation where the plant and fruit are cultivated within greenhouses. The setting (once found) is beautiful, and a little walking tour allows you to enter the greenhouses, each showing a different stage of the maturation of the plants. They are very colorful in the flowering and early fruit stages. There are a number of Kodak moments around the guest house and once inside you are rewarded with a small (very small) thimbleful of pineapple liquor. It had a pleasant taste, but not pleasant enough to shell out 20 Euros for a bottle of it. We took our free pictures, and jumped back into the van to continue our trek north.

It is a short ride to the outskirts of Ribeira Grande (Big River) and at first blush it looks a little run down, with a lot of road construction going on. First blushes can be misleading. Rich quickly found what we are calling the Emigration Museum (Memorias da Emigracao Acoriana). Within is a collection of pictures, letters, newspaper articles, artifacts, etc. that provide a very personal history of the Azorean Emigration. Looking at some of the pictures from the 1950s it was like being swept back to my childhood, and I could almost hear the music as the crown and procession made it’s way down Broadway to our parish church.

The real treasure of the museum is Mary Moniz, who made us welcome, and could not have been friendlier or more helpful to us. She patiently explained where the various records were held, and what information was available to her at the Memories Museum. Generally, birth records are kept in the public libraries, one per island, and municipal records held in the city halls, again one per island. On Sao Miguel, Ponta Del Gada library housed the birth records, and it is located just north of the main square (which by my reckoning is about 5 minutes from our hotel). Horta library contains the Faial records. Cool.

Additionally Mary told me that if I could find some birth records for grandfather Vieira and the date of immigration to the US she would try to research any emigration information she might have about him. What more could I ask for? Nothing except a recommendation for lunch, which she provided. Great visit. Lunch was a long way off to this crew; we were just getting started.

First we have to get to the Vieira ceramic factory (just up the road) and oh yes, before we eat, we should really tour the Tea Plantation since we’ll be so close. OK. The ceramic factory was better than I had expected it to be. Some of the artwork is incredible and we did watch one of the artisans decorating a small piece of green ware. The wall tiles that are on display are exceptional. I’m taken by the map of the Azores, one of the few groups without a religious or pastoral theme. Pretty pricey, and I try not to buy anything I can’t eat while we are traveling. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for the souvenirs, kids.)

The Cha Formosa was even better than the ceramic factory. An idyllic setting and apparently just the right climate to grow the elusive tea plant. This is the only place outside the far east that tea is grown and harvested. An informative tour followed by a cup of freshly brewed, medium bodied orange pekoe, which by the way, you can buy a small bag of this exact same tea, right here in our tasting room. It was so good, we did, immediately breaking the rule from the previous paragraph. (Kids, you can share a cup of tea with us anytime.)

Now, let’s get to that lunch recommendation: a buffet (our first) that Mary from Memories suggested to us. And it is exactly where? Yes we see the address and we think we see it on the map, but where? It’s pretty hilly here, explaining probably why the ribiera is grande. Rich went down the hill to park the van, and we sent a scout party up the hill. Pretty good plan, huh? With some local help we found the hotel in which this restaurant was housed. Didn’t know about the hotel part, but even if we had, we wouldn’t have found it on our own.

The food at the Barco a Vela in the Encosta do Mar hotel was excellent, and the meager price could not possibly have covered the cost of what we ate. We will probably not be invited back soon. Breaking with the traditional role, I announced that a nice walk through the town was needed to aid the digestion, and I had 6 willing co-conspirators. Rich agreed to recover the van and meet us at “the big church” to the east of the river. Our troupe was rewarded with a beautiful view of the river and the arched bridge that we had crossed earlier. Spanish moss (or was it Portuguese moss) hung from the trees around the square. Pretty good decision, I thought.

We approached the church from the south, and were startled as we made our way to the front, to find the classic black and white stone/masonry church adorned as a Christmas tree with strings of lights. Oh, I wish it was twilight, to see this massive decoration in it’s full glory. It appears the parish is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the church, ensuring that it was around when my Avo (grandfather) surely attended mass here.

Rich, good to his word, met us at the base of the stairs and whisked us to our next “out of this world” experience. After a number or detoured false starts along the water (through some areas that await town redevelopment), we turned off the highway at a sign that indicated a viewpoint of the Sete Cidades.

Legend has it that the two lakes (one green, one blue) in the caldeira of this huge volcano, were colored by the tears of a princess and her lover, a young shepherd, who were forced apart. Their tears formed the two lakes, each colored like their eyes. I know I use a lot of superlatives, but this was indeed incredible. According to the tour book: “It is normally covered with clouds that fill the inside of the cone. In the few days that is uncovered, each side of the lake reflects the sunlight in different colors.” Today was crystal clear.

No less incredible was the audacity with which my brother piloted this van across the top of a barely wide enough for a Cooper Mini ridgeline on a dirt track. I was in a rear outboard seat and looking at the “road” beneath us. The only thing that separated this high center of gravity van and a precipitous drop of a few hundred feet was a row of hydrangeas and his nerve. I was nervously assured by Lucy, on the other side, that the situation was no better there. We stopped at what can best be described as a vehicle and one half wide bulge and nervously took a few pictures, thanking every spirit that no one was coming up behind us.

Ten minutes later we gratefully emerged onto a paved parking lot beside what looked like an abandoned hotel, where a couple of street vendors sold ice cream (where’s the portable bar when you need one) and taxi drivers brought tourists to marvel at the view (they approached from a sensibly paved road). Glad we were not going to have to return via the same Tibetan pass we came on, we were startled to see a car drive onto the path we had just left. All along we had (erroneously) assumed it was one way and we were going that way.

Our final meal of the day was at the Barriga Cheia, a “snack bar” just to the east of the main square. None of us was up for another big meal and this hit the spot. Fries and hamburgers, and an omelet for me (my first of the trip), filled with the same tasteless white “fresh cheese” that was very tasty. Good lively discussions filled the night air, and we all retired to our respective abodes, wondering what other enchantments these small islands held.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I love your pictures...so beautiful. I have saved many of them as desktop wallpapers!