On top of the world (or at least the island)

The highest point on Sao Miguel is Pico da Vara. And my guide to walking in the Azores told me it was the only “hard” hike on the island. The weather is fairly unpredictable with clouds liable to blow in at a moments notice but with the promise of sunshine for at least most of the day we set out to drive almost the length of the island and walk up the Pico. The North Coast is a lovely rolling drive through small villages looking out across the sea. Everywhere there are brilliant clumps of pink azaleas and we were all reminded of Hawaii: a brilliant green interior with black lava beaches, palm trees and flashes of tropical colour. Halfway across the island a new straight road cuts across the the East and it took fifteen minutes to cover the same distance we had taken an hour to drive along the coast. We were about the only car on it.
The access road into the park is a steep drive over sharp volcanic cinders, tyres squirming to get a grip. After ten minutes of climbing we came to the start of a straight path up through tall conifers. Our guidebook said this was a five hour path but we couldn’t really tell whether that was only one way so after a handful of chocolate each we set off, not really knowing what to expect. We hadn’t got far before I realised that we were all wearing our ordinary shoes and had left the walking boots in the back of the car. Ahem. Back to the car, change, and off again steeply up through the quiet woods, a line of blue sky between the tree-tops over our heads. P and I were sweating by the time we emerged above the tree line. From here we walked along the ridge top, past the site of an Air France crash in the 1940s, marked with a stone cross. Ahead of us and quite a bit further up was the Pico, like a green shark’s fin.
At the top it was still clear and we could see right across the patchwork of San Miguel and out to Santa Maria the closest island to us. We ate sandwiches and hard boiled eggs watching clouds form in the valleys below and eventually sweep up the flanks of the mountain. As we prepared to head down we were enveloped in cloud and the view vanished. Half an hour later and we would have been too late to see anything from the top. Tom, the mountain goat wanted to race between trail markers which, fortified with nuts and chocolate, P and I did, though on one sharp curve a managed to flip over a bank and land in the bottom of a boggy ditch. Tom, sensing my distress, immediately took the opportunity to overtake me and win that leg of the race, before coming back to ask if I was ok… There was laughing, though not much of it was mine.
Once back at the car we decided to head on to the eastern tip of the island as we were so close, and we found a place in Nordest for coffee and ice-cream, just off the main square.  Every community it seems has its church in the middle, then a square marked out in white inlay, usually with a shop or a cafe at its edge. Nordest was utterly quiet and we dipped into the Spar to get some supper. These shops are terrific. There is no superstore out of town to go to so everything you need is right here; tinned goods, frozen fish, plumbing parts, tools, sacks of potatoes, huge oranges and bread made that morning. We got a bit of everything for supper. Though Philippa made me put the plumbing parts back.
Just out of town was a sign for a lighthouse which we followed, parking at the top of a steep concrete road where a sign advised us to walk. It was unbelievably steep, zig -zagging down to a compact lighthouse perched on top of a bunker-like building where the keeper lived. Beyond it, further down, was a miniature fishing community with tiny houses set into the cliff and huts for storing the gear. There was no real harbour and the cobbled slipway was short and so steep that a giant winch was used for hauling up the boats and parking them in the street.  It was the unlikeliest, most inaccessible place for a fishing village and it looked as if it no longer had a permanent population, but it was still in use. As we walked back to the car rain fell in a fine mist and the lighthouse was crowned with a ragged rainbow.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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