Visiting the Azores: What we leave behind – Part 3 of 3

After returning from our bus tour of São Miguel in the Azores, we wandered along Ponta Delgada’s clean, narrow streets which were unencumbered by SUV’s or traffic lights. In front of a tiny market a woman spent five minutes leisurely loading ten grocery bags into her trunk while eight cars stacked up behind her on the one-lane street. This maneuver netted her only two short honks. A similar move in any American town might be considered just cause for vehicular homicide.

The last sight awaiting us near the ship was one of the most memorable—attributed not to the Azoreans, but to those merely passing through. A patchwork of graffiti by ships’ crews covered about a half mile of dockside wall, turning thousands of square feet of barren concrete into an impromptu international art museum.

The Azores: dockside wall art

The Azores: dockside wall art

I easily sensed the sailors’ pride in their ships, whether displaying flags, crests, emblems, ships, or names. A polyglot of English, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Danish, German, Greek, and more was layered thickly across every available inch. Any spot beginning to fade was fair game for a new graphic. The artistry mixed cartoons of a bulldog with Prometheus. Renditions of three-masted schooners battled for space with modern naval ships. Just a sampling of the ships: HMS Carlskrona of the Royal Swedish Navy, NOAA’s Ronald H. Brown, Holland America’s Noordam IV, the Dutch clipper Stad Amsterdam, the guided missile frigate USS McInerney, the destroyer USS Carney, the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, the Dutch Navy’s Hr. Ms. Tromp, the Polish tall ship Fryderyk Chopin (found in three separate graphics), the German Navy’s Air Defense Frigate FGS Sachsen,  the Danish Navy’s HSMS Vaederren, the British Navy’s HMS Coventry, our own Navigator of the Seas (paint still wet).

The Azores: more dockside wall art

The Azores: more dockside wall art

Every crew found a way to leave their distinct imprint. Where the seas showed no mark of their passage, that wall surely did. I couldn’t help but think of my 1831 diarist recording his European travels with pen and ink, leaving behind a memento that would survive the centuries, charting a trail for me to follow.

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Visiting the Azores, vivid and volcanic – Part 2 of 3

The sights in the Azores startled my senses after a week of bland horizons at sea. The island of

The Azores: bubbling mud

The Azores: bubbling mud

São Miguel was a brilliant montage of rugged volcanic terrain: impossibly green landscapes, showy flowers, spectacular views from the heights, cloud-capped calderas, boiling springs, steaming fissures, bubbling mud, and stinky sulfur.

The Azores: view into a lush valley

The Azores: view into a lush valley

Uninhabited until the early 15th century when Portuguese navigators discovered these islands, the Azores retained a sense of isolation from the frenetic pressures of the outside world. Throughout towns and villages, we saw people quietly gazing from wrought iron balconies or open second-story windows, sitting in doorways or gathering in groups of three or four to chat. Many shop signs were hand-lettered. A McDonald’s billboard, the only signpost of franchised commercialization, was so incongruous that it drew laughs from our fellow travelers.

The Azoreans have made the most of their volcanic environment—the hot earth near Furnas Lake serves as a cordless crockpot, slow-cooking their dinners. Their signature dish is “cozido das Furnas,” a stew of various meats and sausages, plus vegetables such as cabbage, peppers, carrots, potatoes, and yams. They place all the ingredients in a tightly wrapped pot and lower it into a hole dug about four feet into the ground. A wooden cover is placed over the hole and dirt is shoveled over it to seal in all the steam. After about seven hours, a perfectly simmered meal is raised and the feasting begins.

As my son Birch and I explored the area, we sampled some of the mineral waters along the way.

The Azores: beautiful pond, nasty mineral water

The Azores: beautiful pond, nasty mineral water

The nasty taste at a public pond’s fountain took three TicTacs to dispel, but the water gushing from a spring tap in another spot tasted like soda water, complete with a faint effervescence. I filled my water bottle with it and was amazed to find that two days later it still retained the bubbles.  (to be continued…)

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Visiting the Azores – Part 1 of 3

While cruising to England to follow my 1831 diarist’s trail, Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas docked for a day at Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores (pronounced “Ah-sor’-esh” in Portuguese). No one knows for sure why, but this island chain was named after a soaring bird which doesn’t inhabit it.

The Azores: a hillside with a cloud of steam

The Azores: a hillside with a cloud of steam

The Azores’ nine major islands straddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the geological hotbed that created them and is still nurturing their growth. Measured from the ocean floor, they’re some of the tallest mountains on earth. My son Birch summed up our first look at São Miguel—a combo of Ireland’s grassy green on Hawaii’s mountainous terrain, a compact package about 900 miles west of mainland Portugal.

With my first few steps onto Ponta Delgada’s dock after a rough week at sea, I expected to feel the strange sensation of stepping onto a surface that doesn’t move. I vividly recalled my only other cruise twenty years ago, when my internal balance compensation switch had been stuck in the ON position for hours. This time my land legs returned as if they’d never left. After a while I missed the rocking of the ship, like the letdown you get when the music stops after a rousing dance.

As we embarked on our tour, the swaying of the bus relieved the boredom of being on stationary footing. On the south coast where the port city of Ponta Delgada is located, we passed small farm plots delineated by walls of black volcanic rock. Other rural areas used hedgerows of a tall shrub as fences. Many of the plots contained a scattering of stocky folk cultivating their crops by hand. The island’s primary economy is based on cattle, which slightly outnumber its human population of 140,000. The country has gone through many changes, drawing immigrants from Portugal, the Netherlands, and France, only to lose them to the U.S., Brazil, and Canada.

The Azores: a narrow one-way street

The Azores: a narrow one-way street

Most of the streets were so narrow that I was thankful not to be one of the pedestrians on the three-foot-wide sidewalk when our bus passed by. While threading us through one small town, our driver got well-earned applause after inching that huge bus into a left turn from one single lane street onto another—less than an inch to spare on either side. In spite of the protruding stone façade on the corner building that nearly scraped the bus’s windows, we emerged unscathed. (to be continued…)

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Travel in Great Britain without Advance Reservations

Travel without reservations? Isn’t that chancy? Perhaps, but you can cut the risk by using Britain’s network of tourist information centres.

On my book research trip following in the 1831 diarist’s footsteps, my son and I spent six weeks traveling throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. No town seemed too small to sport an info centre marked with a big italic “i’ on a simple sign. The knowledgeable staff in each centre helped us select appropriate accommodations (often at a small guest house), phoned for the reservation, and provided directions to it.

London was the only British city for which we secured our rooms prior to the trip. In a tourist mecca like London, the best places are booked up well in advance. We planned to spend too much time there to leave it to chance.

Bonuses of traveling “on the fly”:

  • When not hemmed in by prior reservations for specific days, flex days can be built into the itinerary. These come in handy when time runs short and the list of enticing sights is long. No need to say longingly, “I wish we could spend one more day here.” Now you can! (Even though we’d included five flex days, I regretted not doubling that number.)
  • The locals staffing the info centres know of great lodgings most folks would never find on their own. (A favorite was Fairfield Garden Guesthouse in Bowness on England’s Lake Windermere.)

Fairfield in Bowness (563x640)

Gotcha’s:

  • Most info centres close around 5 p.m. After lingering at must-sees en route, it’s easy to arrive in a town too late in the day. (For our fallback plan, we used guide books or listings picked up at previous centres.)
  • The Brits are fanatics about attending their football matches (soccer to us Yanks). Unaware of the impending Finals, we spent the last of our three nights allotted to Glasgow in the nearest available accommodation—25 miles away in Greenock.

One caveat:

  • This treasure of a resource has recently suffered from budget cuts; some info centres have closed or scaled back services or hours. It would be wise to verify their status before traveling. Though not all centres are shown on any one website, www.britainexpress.com/TIC/ is a good place to start.

As long as you’re tolerant of a few risks, the rewards of traveling without advance reservations can turn a vanilla trip into a flavorful adventure.

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