Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

At Flores in the Azores…

Roger St. Pierre finds inspiration in a poem and discovers a Portuguese island paradise

It’s Alfred Lord Tennyson that I blame. As a 12-year old schoolboy, my sense of adventure hooked me on ‘The Revenge, A Ballad of the Fleet’, an epic poem by that revered word master that began with the to me evocative words: 'At Flores in the Azores…'

Ever since then I’ve itched to visit the tiny speck of an island, a third of the way across the vast Atlantic, that set the scene for a mesmerising tale of British naval heroism and tragic defeat by the overwhelming might of the Spanish fleet.

I found myself flying through low cloud in a lumbering turbo-prop aircraft with a couple of dozen other passengers and assorted goods and chattels, en-route to Flores from the bigger island of São Miguel.

The diminutive runway at Flores lays parallel to and just 100 metres away from the main street of Santa Cruz das Flores, the sleepy little capital town of the. You could call it an intimate arrangement but, then, the 143 sq km island is an intimate little place, with a population of just 4,000 or so – a place where passing motorists acknowledge each other not just out of politeness but because they actually know each other.

End or beginning?

Intrepid early Portuguese mariners were given to calling Flores “The Place at the End of the World”. Today’s locals prefer to refer to it as “The Place at the Beginning” – such has been the westbound outflow of emigrants from an island that was once home to more than 10,000 souls.

Claims that the uninhabited offshore rock of Monchique is the outer limit of Europe are refuted by French pedants who argue that this tag should go to their Caribbean islands – Martinique et al ­– which, as fully integrated components of the French state, are, they argue, every bit as much a part of Europe as Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the USA.

In any event, unlike most of the other islands in the near 400-km long Azores archipelago – of which there are eight other inhabited ones – Flores stands geologically on the American and not the European Atlantic tectonic plate.

The problems of kids going to mainland Portugal to complete their studies, never to return; the high costs of both inter-island flights and visits to the mainland; endemic unemployment and all the other woes that afflict communities on small and remote islands around the world cast long shadows.

The final death of the once thriving whaling industry, which happened as late as the 1990s, was a body blow while fruit and vegetable crops raised on tiny plots cannot compete with imports on the home market let alone be viable exports in their own right.

Visionary development

But there are signs of hope. Whale hunting can be replaced with whale watching, marina facilities can be built to encourage passing transatlantic yachtsmen to tarry a while and, once the nightmares of securing legal rights of ownership have been overcome, deserted hamlets can be refurbished and turned into viable eco-tourism projects.

That’s exactly what the visionary and ever welcoming Silva family have done at Aldeia da Cuada, high in the hills just five-kms or so behind the rugged west coast bay of Fajã Grande.

Here, in a project that’s taken 24 years of imagination, capital investment, loving care and sheer hard work, is the re-birth of 17 atmospheric stone dwellings. It’s a Shangri La retreat on an island that is an enticing retreat in itself.

Back in the 1960s, when most of the hamlet was abandoned by its mainly USA and Canada-bound former occupants, it had not yet ever heard the sound of a car engine.

Tranquil haven

It’s still a quiet and tranquil haven but to meet modern needs the amenities in each of the cottages include a fully equipped kitchen and diner, roomy bathrooms and large, comfortable bedrooms – with full usage of local arts and crafts’ furnishings and fabrics and evocative local bric-a-brac. There’s also a bar and a generously sized covered veranda that provides the perfect setting for those sundown drinks.

Using chunks of local black basalt rock, the walkways from building to building can be a bit of a challenge but just take your time because you’ve all the time in the world once you slip into Azorean mode,

There’s a small, well-manicured lawn, dotted with waiting deckchairs – and don’t worry, the Germans staying here will not be jumping out of bed early to beat you to them: “We only have nice people staying here and most of our business comes from word-of-mouth recommendation,” avers Carlos Silva.

As for a garden, well with nature’s own garden flowing up and down the web of dry-stone walls it’s hard to define where mankind’s hands finish heir work and let the elements create the blossom-filled environment.

Floral cornucopia

It’s ironic that the little yellow flower that, it is said, gave Ilha das Flores (‘the Island of Flowers’) its name and which once grew in abundance across the island is now much less prolific but its place has been taken by a cornucopia of other mostly brightly coloured species, including the now virtually ubiquitous hydrangea. There’s an abundance of ferns and shrubs too while the mountainsides are thickly blanketed with all manner of spectacular trees, and water-retaining species of moss that, when the rains stop, release their cache to help create the huge waterfalls that tumble down from the often mist-covered uplands.

And boy can it be wet! But rainfall and humidity are the price you pay for such exquisitely lush vegetation, with its thousand-plus shades of green and all those wildflowers. And, hey, the sun will eventually emerge.

It’s here, at the crossroads of the Gulf Stream and the trade winds that weather patterns are born and the dramatically huge breakers that crash ashore in winter’s gales create one of nature’s most electrifying displays. And if cloud obscures your view, as it often will, then just jump into the car and drive through the swirling mist across the island on virtually traffic-free roads – recently immaculately refurbished thanks to EU funding – and meet the patiently waiting sun on the opposite coast.

Apart from all that rain – and it can be falling, at least as mild drizzle, for as much as half the time during the winter months – the weather is better than its reputation. It never gets seriously cold or fiercely hot. Survive the UK and you’ll comfortably survive Flores.

Nature’s abundance

Climate, then, is not a selling point – nature’s abundance certainly is, so it’s not surprising that guided walking tours are increasingly popular. Musts to take in include the series of vast, steep-sided lakes that now fill the high altitude craters of extinct volcanoes.

Aldeia da Cuada is essentially a self-catering operation but the Silvas can conjure up a full-on Continental breakfast, as well as omelettes, salads and light snacks through the day, and will happily drop you off at one of the small handful of restaurants ­– though it is wise to check that the eaterie of your choice has actually bothered to open for business that night. They’ll pick you up after your meal too, if the owner-chef hasn’t already brought you home.

He or she will no doubt have started you off with crusty, soft-centred bread rolls and a couple of probably homemade local soft cheeses, smeared with a mild red pepper sauce.

Incidentally, Flores has lots of well-fed cows munching its lush pastures and harder more savoury cheeses are now being produced commercially on the island. Branded as Azores Flores, the best of them is crafted in 18-lb wheels and aged for 90 days. It has a well-balanced flavour and a clean finish.

You will not need a starter because the main course will be truly gargantuan, brought to the table on a massive oval serving dish. It will include salad ­­– almost certainly featuring over-sized beef tomatoes, onion, shredded carrot, sweetcorn and lettuce – as well as both rice and potatoes and, usually, a Macedon of cubed carrot, green beans and peas.

Alright, the soup at one Azorean meal included alphabetti spaghetti and rice pudding proved a popular desert but sandwiched between such comfort foods were often beautifully presented gourmet-standard main courses.

Exquisite sauce

I ordered a steak for my first meal on the island. Buried under an ocean of exquisite mushroom and cream sauce was a half-inch thick slab of tender beef, with two more equally monster pieces of meat layered on top!

Second time out, different restaurant. Fancying something lighter this time. I went for the wreckfish (rock bass) option – but it proved to be a full-on ‘Man v Food’ style challenge. It was another colossal plate-filler, lightly fried in butter and arguably the tastiest, most succulent fish ever to pass my lips.

The bill each time?: around £15, including a beer and a strong black Portuguese coffee.

If you are lucky enough to stumble across one of the regular festivals, you might even get fed for free. There was a warm welcome to anyone – friend, neighbour or stranger – who turned up at the Feast of the Holy Spirit that I attended in the seaside village of Lajas. In a large marquee 80 or so sat on benches at trestle tables to be served bread soup topped by huge chunks of stewed beef..

Last time in the Azores – probably 15 years or so ago – I’d tried limpets, which were at that time a much favoured delicacy. I was hoping to sample them again but discovered that they had come close to being fished out and were now a protected endangered species. I did find one restaurant that had slid them onto their menu but at €25 a portion that was more than my limited means as a perambulating travel writer and my concerns for the ecology could withstand.

This present trip left me thinking that Flores is also at a tipping point but hopefully, with tender care from the likes of the hard-working Teotónia and Carlos Silva and the new generation – their charming daughter Carlotta and her boyfriend Silvio – at Aldeia da Cuada, the danger can be averted, with new business opportunities created and the population decline reversed: “I’ve lived in Lisbon and been to other places but this is my birthplace and I want to stay living here,” Silvio told me.

Stepping-stone

Discovered as an uninhabited stepping-stone to the Americas in 1450 by Diogo Teive – 42 years before Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage – Flores was not definitively settled until 1540 when immigrants from Madeira, mainland Portugal and Terceira – another of the Azores – put down roots there.

Today it is part of the Portuguese autonomous region of the Azores islands (‘Açores’ in Portuguese).

Impeccably orgnised by the good people at Sunvil Discovery (www.sunvil.co.uk) , my Azorian idyll also took in the big island of São Miguel – big, of course, being a relative term in this context.

Here I had the pleasure of travelling with a small and friendly group of garden enthusiasts, headed by distinguished botanist David Sayers, a man who – excuse the pun – really knows his onions (and his trees too) and who also happens to be a guide book author authority on the Azores.

Infectious passion

David is a man with an infectious passion for his subjects and one did not need to be an expert or even a gardening enthusiast to enjoy his enlightening comments, handy planting tips and engaging little stories. His formidable reputation provided a magic key that gave us privileged access to several glorious private house gardens that are not usually opened to the public. We even got the chance to wander through the provincial president’s own formidable spread wit its colossal hundred-plus year old trees and colourful formal flowerbeds.

The eclectic seven-night itinerary was inspired by the highly successful ‘Azorean Garden’ exhibit at last year’s Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court Flower Show.

For the first four nights we stayed at the well-chosen Hotel Terra Nostra Gardens, an elegant art deco inspired gem – and, more importantly, blessed with its own expansive botanical gardens, whose massive refurbishment was one of David’s personal major projects. Working with English arborist Richard Green, he identified and treated around 2,500 trees and planted in excess of 3,000 new trees and shrubs.

This flower, tree and shrub filled wonderland was created in1780 around the residence of Boston trader Thomas Hickling, the then American consul, and now covers 12.5 glorious hectares.

Delightful spa town

The hotel is set in the delightful little spa town of Furnas, whose beautiful azalea-fringed lake and profusion of steam emitting hot springs make it one of the world’s largest thermal water resources.

Take various meats, chicken, black pudding, chorizo sausage and assorted vegetables, put them in a pot with a little liquid and some seasoning, top the pot with an air-tight lid and bury it in the ground, returning hours later to reveal a perfectly cooked stew, all without the aid of oven, hotplate or naked flame. That’s what you can do if you’re close to a volcanic caldera, so that’s what we did in Furnas, or, rather, our charming hotel kitchen crew did it for us.

It wasn’t the only superb culinary offering on a trip that led me to dramatically upgrade my view of Portuguese cuisine.

We discovered some amazing Azorean cheeses, sampled highly drinkable local wines and visited the first Azorean tea plantation and one of the remaining places where pineapples are raised under glass – once one of São Miguel’s major horticultural activities.

Natural forest

Besides parks and gardens, the pleasure-packed tour took in areas of natural forest and the Centro Ambiental do Priolo, an interpretive centre set deep in the Parque Forestal da Carcela do Cinzeiiro, near the town of Nordeste.

Here a dedicated team is fighting for the future of a once abundant local bird, the tiny priolo – a unique treasure of the dense laurel forests of the Tronqueira Mountains. One of the few birds that feeds on ferns, this little creature resembles a European bullfinch. Gravelly endangered, it can only be found at this one spot on earth.

As the world becomes ever more closely connected, many believe the traditional way of life of these fascinating islands is also threatened. It was heartening to learn, then, that serious efforts are now being made at both private and governmental levels to maintain the unique charms of the Azores.

Yes, they want to welcome more visitors but it’s a resounding “no” to the woes of mass tourism. Besides garden tours, Sunvil’s expansive Azores’ programme offers a wide range of ecologically friendly holidays, with group or individual travel choices and the option of staying in one location or island hopping.

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