The Azores: they’re way out man!

Sunday, May 14, 2017, 18:08

Panoramic view of Sete Cidades Blue and green lagoons

No, I haven't reverted to 1960s hippydom – well, only a little bit. "Way out" is a simple statement of fact. If you take a plane and head due west for a couple of hours from the approximate latitude of Lisbon or Setubal, you'll eventually come across the islands of the Azores, far out in the Atlantic Ocean.

They are, though, 'way out' in the language of a hippy, too. To find out why, click here.
The picture above is three photos 'stitched' together to show you the extent of the almost circular caldera of the massif of Sete Cidades, a dormant volcano in the west of the island of São Miguel. The first massive collapse which formed the crater is thought to have occurred about 35,700 years ago, with three other large crater collapses and many more smaller eruptions between then and now. It is thought the last one took place around 500 AD.

Sete Cidades means seven cities. Though you can see a settlement down on the shores of the lagoon, when you get there you will realise it is only a village. So where are the seven cities?

There is a charming tale to explain this strange name. It's on the lines of the legend of the Irish saint, St Brendan, who set out in the early 6th century to find the Island of Paradise. In the Azorean Tale, in AD 734, a Vizigoth Archbishop fled the Moorish Invasion of Spain with six bishops and around 5,000 faithful. In Porto he took ship for some islands fabled to be out in the ocean to the west. It seems they were lucky, as such small islands would be easy to miss, and on arrival they burnt their boats. Each bishop then built his own Christian settlement or 'city'. Sometime later, perhaps through some unrecorded volcanic event, these cities are said to have disappeared beneath the waters of the lakes, leaving only their name.

To reach the lip of the caldera you drive up remarkably good, if at times narrow, roads bordered by manicured verges and countless azaleas and hydrangea bushes. We were too late in the season to see the azaleas at their best though vestiges of pink and red abounded, yet we were too early to see the hydrangeas in flower, which is a pity, as the sight must be stupendous. From the early florets we could see, we had the impression that the main colour is white so in high summer the island must look as if it is dressed for a wedding. (We did, though, see the odd blue peeping out and on one bush some pink and purple flowers too.)

Then as you come to the top of the climb you see perhaps the saddest sight on the island: a huge abandoned hotel falling into ruin.

Abandoned hotel at a high point on the rim of the Sete Cidades Caldera

I gather it is some 20 years since this - according to a local restaurant owner – once-five-star hotel closed because it failed to make a profit. Tourism, he said, was for a long time insufficiently developed to support such an enterprise and so it has been allowed to fall into disrepair. It is so degraded now that perhaps it can never be brought back to life but I hope I am wrong. It stands at the most desirable location on the island: the view from its top bedrooms must have been spectacular.

Imagine opening your curtains in the morning to see this. Who wouldn't pay for it if they could?

Blue and Green Lagoon in the Sete Cidades Caldera

Surprisingly the hotel isn't fenced off and intrepid tourists can explore its abandoned rooms and terraces. For someone with a few million dollars/pounds/euros to spare here is the perfect renovation project. I wish I could do it: what a wonderful challenge, not to mention business opportunity.

We however, parked nearby to look out over the crater. We could see two main bodies of water. The far one is called Blue Lagoon, perhaps because it usually reflects a clearer sky than the one on the day we visited and the nearer one is the Green Lagoon no doubt as it reflects the verdure around. Notable among many extinct fumaroles and geological features all around the lakes are a couple of smaller lagoons in mini calderas and a crater called the Caldeira Seca, the dry crater.

As so often with such magical places there is another folk tale associated with the lakes. There was, far back in the mists of time, a beautiful princess, only daughter to her widowed father, who not only was a king but also a sorcerer. Jealous of his daughter's love, he kept her a virtual prisoner in his castle until one day, while he slept after lunch, her nurse aided her to escape into the nearby countryside, where she heard a shepherd playing his flute. Day after day she returned to listen and eventually met and fell in love with the rustic musician. Eventually they decided to ask the king for permission to marry. He, however, refused angrily, forbidding his daughter ever to see the shepherd again. As a dutiful daughter, she agreed to the separation but slipped away once again to say farewell to her lover. They wept so much at that meeting that two lakes were formed, one green from the colour of the princess' eyes, the other blue from the shepherd's.

You will see that across the narrow strait between the lakes there is a bridge carrying the traffic to the town. We took the twisting, turning road – São Miguel is a world leader in hairpin bends – across the bridge and down to the hamlet of Sete Cidades. For a village in such a stunning location, Sete Cidades disappoints. I felt it could do much more to promote itself and its incomparable location though there is a delightful church, dedicated to St Nicholas, at the end of a magnificent avenue of huge pines.

Church of St Nicholas in the hamlet of Sete Cidades

And there is a newly opened – only a matter of weeks - splendid little restaurant and café associated with some attractive self-catering apartments. A considerable amount of money and thought has gone into this complex, called the Quinta da Queiró, and if this is a continuing pattern in the village, perhaps in a couple of years I may be able to say, "Sete Cidades does not disappoint". I hope so. We had between us a rather good apple and walnut cake and an apple tart.

Quinta da Queiro restaurant, cafe and self catering apartments in Sete Cidades

Of course, there are active volcanoes in Italy and Iceland and extinct ones elsewhere but craters so verdant around lakes so tranquil, where else in Europe could you see such fascinating geology as this?

Much of the Massif of Sete Cidades is almost Swiss in appearance. There are forests of massive pine trees, which look dark and mysterious amongst wide green pastures speckled with black and white cattle. Where could you go on more delightful hikes?

São Miguel is fascinating, curious and charming. It may be far out in the Atlantic Ocean but it is so unusual – far out in hippy terminology – that it's well worth the trip.

Have you been to any of the other Island in the Azores? If you have, do write in and tell us. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

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