Tuesday, May 8, 2012

5 May 2012 Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal

Moray Eel in Ponta Delgada Market

Ananas fresh from the plantation
Waiting for mother's shopping to be done
Different hues of fresh Ananas
Elaborate baroque altar side piece in Ponto Delgada Church
Senhor Santo Cristo statue in convent
Detail of painted tiles in convent, depicting tradesmen at work
Azores fishermen taking a break
Wall art in Ponta Delgada depicting whale and small sailboat on breaking wave
It's Nemo, it's a Hand, it's What???
Sidewal cafe and black and white pavement design
Brand new pleasure boat marina in Ponta Delgada
5 May 2012 - Ponta Delgada, Azores

Back to the Oceans again to cruise the Atlantic swells for two days to reach the Arquipelago dos Acores, which is another group of nine islands claiming 'Lost Atlantis' honours. Plato's writings suggest that Atlantis was a land of seafarers who fought wars against the Mediterranean peoples and came from beyond the 'Pillars of Hercules' at Gibraltar. Atlantis was supposed to be a great island with a huge natural harbour and a city built in seven concentric circles. Most sank in 9400 BC leaving only scattered islands. The Azores, being volcanic and still sporting many 'concentric' calderas and craters could be the remnants of lost Atlantis. As recently as 1811 a new volcanic island was formed, and in 1957-58 an eruption enlarged Faial, an existing island. One of the towns on Sao Miguel is called Sete Ciudades (Seven Cities) to honour lost Atlantis. It is certainly a 'world in motion'.

In 1427 The Portuguese navigator Diogo de Silves (Diogo de Senill?) discovered the two largest islands, Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. Although other sources claim that Goncalo Velho Cabral, another Portuguese discoverer, saw the islands even earlier. There were no human beings, but plenty of birds. Large flocks of buzzards circled in the skies, which the Portuguese mistook for hawks (acores), and thus the Azores were named by a mistaken bird watcher.

Portugal is 900 miles away, and Bermuda 1800 miles away - so they are pretty isolated. As such they made welcome stop over's for early explorers, including Columbus, and their treasure laden vessels returning from the New World. In WWII the Azores played an important role as airbases and communication centres between USA and Europe. Today, they are one of the most called upon islands for valiant sailors crossing the Atlantic in their pleasure crafts.

Ponta Delgada is the capital city of Sao Miguel since 1546. It is a pretty town, clean and white, nestled against hills. It has plenty of historic convents, churches and public buildings, most of them built in the Manueline style (illustrations of the style in separate blog) with stark black (volcanic stone) and white (whitewash) facades.

Outside town, a verdant country side, where hundreds of Holstein cows (seem to be the island's national animal) take care of providing cheese raw materials. Ananas (Pineapple fields) cover the hill sides. Further inland Lagoa do Fogo (Fire lake) is dotted with eerie steam vents. In 'nature's kitchen' locals bury sealed pots filled with meat and vegetables, to slow cook these 'cozidos' (stews) to perfection. Spa aficionados take hot mud baths.

The island is dotted with small lakes of azure blue and emerald green, which makes for exquisite highlights in the island's landscape. There are steep cliffs, white and black beaches, pounding surf and tranquil coves.

We were just one week too early to participate in the biggest annual celebration, devoted to Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Holy Christ of Miracles). Fifth Sunday after Easter sees the town dressed in lights, which adorn flagpoles, light standards, house walls, garlands over streets, church windows and facades in endless variety of designs. A procession winds through town for five hours, over cobblestones carpeted with petals and flowers. Preparation takes weeks, and the festivities last five days. Believers sometimes cross the town square on their knees, laden with candles to express gratitude for received blessings. Expatriates return home to reunite with family, so it is a elaborate longer form of US Thanksgiving.

The revered statue of Cristo is normally housed in a gilt covered ornately decorated chapel, accessible only to resident nuns, but visible through a wrought iron gate at other times of the year. During the grand procession he is carried through the streets with the entire population either in the procession or watching it.

The waterfront bears witness to the relative prosperity to the island. Brand new dock for larger ship, and a thoroughly state-of-the-art marina to house the hundreds of transient sailors passing through this re-provisioning, re-creating and re-pairing port of call in the remote region of the Atlantic.

I walked around of course, leaving 'touring' for another time. Visited the daily fresh food market (what a fest for any gourmet cook), where vegetables, meat, flowers and fish were so fresh, they had never seen the inside of a refrigerator.

Portuguese seem to eat anything that can be taken from the sea: molluscs, bivalves, sting and other rays, octopi of every kind, moray and other eels, deep sea fish with bulging eyes and the usual selection of fish known in the 'western' world, such as cod, haddock, and the ever present sardines.

Of course, it rained for most of the day, nevertheless I found a dry place under a side walk cafe awning and tested the local cheese (those Holsteins are good providers) and local volcanic soil grape...no wonder sailors like to linger here for a respite from the sea.