The Azore Islands of Portugal: Steaming volcanic islands

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

View from the southern coast of Sao Miguel, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores. photos by Max Hartshorne.
View from the southern coast of Sao Miguel, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores. photos by Max Hartshorne.

A March trip to the Azores gave us a glimpse of a very young place. Created by volcanic eruptions a mere 250,000 years ago, parts of these nine islands are among the youngest land masses on the earth.

Just 3000 meters below the earth, the cauldron bubbles, so in many areas people can enjoy hot springs and the government generates their own renewable electricity using geothermal heat to turn turbines.

The Bubbling Town of Furnas

Everywhere in Furnas are bubbling, superheated hot springs that both entertain and

provide relaxation for locals. People come from around the world to see them and there’s a big hotel in the center of the town where guests go to swim in orange colored, iron-laced waters.

The waters of the pool are just slightly warm; but this hot spring is really hot. My friend Kent, the original hot water lover, would have found a way to strip down and jump into this pool, we had to content ourselves with merely watching others frolic and take photos.

Time as they say, is the most important thing anyone has, and it’s darn hard to coordinate schedules so that everyone you may hope will be able to travel can actually make it.

Azores Facts from Guide Luis Daniel

However exciting travel may be, there is nothing better than that first night back when you sleep in a very familiar bed and wake up to the sounds and smells you’re used to living with every day. No hotel room can be as good as one’s own bed!

Guide Luis Daniel with travel writer Cindy Bigras.
Guide Luis Daniel with travel writer Cindy Bigras.

A few random thoughts about the Azores, many learned from Luis our guide, who proved to be a font of facts and background about just about anything in Europe.

*The Azores rely on geothermal systems, drawing the scalding water up from the ground to make steam and turn generators, it provides about 40% of their electricity.

*In the summer, travelers between islands are strictly limited to only 20 kilos of freight and luggage. Some travelers end up paying more than the price of their ticket in freight charges and sometimes the pilots eject luggage that weighs too much, and the visitors have to wait until the next flight comes in to get their bags.

*The population of the islands has been going down for many years; it stands now at about 244,000 and on some islands like Santa Maria it’s plummeted by half. There are not many jobs on smaller islands separated by 300 kilometers from Sao Miguel.listenradio

*If not for the Azores, NATO would never have admitted Portugal into its ranks. That’s because back then in the 70s the country was a dictatorship, but the generals wanted access to the Azores’ strategic harbors and listening posts.

*In the village of Furnas there are 97 springs and 27 different types of water, here the earth’s crust is just 3000 meters, that’s why there are so many bubbling hot springs. In most of the world the crust is ten times thicker.

*An earthquake in 1957 nearly emptied the island of Faial, and then senator John F. Kennedy arranged to let hundreds of thousands of Azoreans emigrate to the US. At one point the islands seriously considered letting the US annex them, since the Portuguese government was so weak in its response to the devastation of the earthquake.

*The name Azores has three possible origins: A buzzard is known by the same name; a town in central Portugal where many original settlers came from is called Azores and it might have referred to the azure blue of the sea first seen by explorers.

The Cozido is the national dish of the Azores...cooked for six hours in a hole by volcanic steam.
The Cozido is the national dish of the Azores…cooked for six hours in a hole by volcanic steam.

Vegetarian Rotas Satisfies, Big Time

After a week of endless varieties of fish and beef, we need some serious veggies. A local told us about the only vegetarian restaurant in all nine islands, it is called Rotas. We looked it up, booked a cab, and were soon enjoying some of the finest stuffed mushrooms we had ever had.

Rotas is a tiny place on a little street; at present the street is being paved, so it wasn’t busy tonight. But Cristina, our delightfully attentive waitress, told us they’ve been serving this meatless cuisine for three years and she loves her boss. Ok, we’re hooked.

A winter salad of brie, almonds, pears, and lettuce was a perfect accompaniment to the risotto with asparagus with figs. Everything was clean, light and went down just the right way matched with a fine dry white Portuguese wine.

There are only about six tables in the place. In the back there is a tiny ‘store’ where bric-a-brac and tea is offered for sale. We felt like we were dining at a friend’s house, one who could really cook.

The cozy tiny dining room at Rotas, in Ponta Delgada.
The cozy tiny dining room at Rotas, in Ponta Delgada.

At the end of our meal the proprietor joined us and we learned that she has another cafe in Ponta Delgada, as well as a job teaching kindergarten. They told us that, sadly, their cafe had been broken into by vandals and that they’d be closed until Monday to do their repairs.

How nice it is to hear about a place and then track it down only to find that it’s better than we could have imagined. Definitely a keeper, definitely going to be included in our story about this trip when it is published on GoNOMAD in a few weeks!

He Got His Start Washing Dishes in Lisbon

Like many chefs, Joao Rieff got his start in a kitchen as a dishwasher. After earning a degree in economics in Lisbon, he followed the trail through many mainland kitchens and worked for a time in the Hotel Meridien in Paris. Through all of the years of cooking in New York, Italy and Spain, however, he never forgot that his roots were here in the Azores.

Chef Joao Rieff of 100 Espinhas, Ponta Delgada.
Chef Joao Rieff of 100 Espinhas, Ponta Delgada.

He runs two restaurants now in Ponta Delgada, and in both, fish plays a central role. It’s his favorite menu item to prepare at 100 Espinhas, or ‘100 fishbones.’ We visited him on a rainy night and outside, blond Swedish tourists drank heartily and smoked. But we were here for his flavorful parrotfish, and the house specialty, big eye tuna.

Over the years he’s learned what his clients enjoy most…for Swedes, a predominant proportion of the tourists here, it’s different sauces like the pimento-inspired drizzle that lined the top of my parrotfish. Our meal began with another nod to the north–herring.

“Here it’s crazy or lazy,” he said. It is either a line out the door to his waterfront restaurant or just a few tables full. The summer months bring bounty, the winter is a tough slog through slow nights, at both locations. Getting locals to come out on a regular basis is difficult, he said, so he relies on the city’s tourists to fill his tables. “Carpacio, I tried here, it didn’t work…Azoreans like to eat at home, not go out so much.”

He told us about the under appreciated species that more and more he is serving instead of endangered fish like bluefin tuna. Pointing to pictures on a chart of Azorean fish, he showed us the parrotfish, grey triggerfish, and jack mackerel both common and abundant. Prepared the right way, they are as delicious as any endangered species.

Underappreciated species get top billing at 100 Espinhas. Starters and fish are his specialty, and the limpids (tiny clams) he brought out were infused with garlic and a perfect way to begin our meal. He told us he’d love to be back on the line, cooking again, but instead of runs the administrative and front of the house for both places. “If someone calls when I’m preparing menus, I can’t stop, I need to focus,” he said.

Rain Slicked Runways and Foggy Roads: Don’t Look Now!

Enjoying the public hot pools in Furnish, on Sao Miguel Island.
Enjoying the public hot pools in Furnish, on Sao Miguel Island.

I sometimes actually say prayers when I’m taking off in a plane. The other night we took off in a 67-seat ATC turboprop plane for a short flight from Santa Maria to Sao Miguel. It was that old story ‘rain slicked runway’ and I kept imagining the headline about how the plane veered off said runway killing 67. But happily, when we landed 25 minutes later it was not raining.

I had to look anywhere but straight ahead as we drove to the far western side of Sao Miguel, which is the biggest of the Azores with about 80 kilometers of length.

It was up a winding mountain road and there was such thick fog that visibility was next to nill. Our driver wasn’t at all perturbed, but there I was cringing, looking the other way, and just hoping and praying that nobody would stray into our lane and dash us all to bits.

We finally made it out of the fog to to the dramatic tip of the island called Ponta do Escalvado, overlooking another lip of land called a fajo, created by lava pouring down a cliff and spreading out to create more land.

There is a whale watching observation tower here, where people with binoculars and radios tell the boats where the spouts are happening. The windy promontory overlooked cliffs so far down it made me dizzy; then a busload of Finnish tourists backed up and the area was suddenly packed with clicking shutters and whirring video cams.

A cobblestone road on a country lane is striking...there are many of these in the Azores, built by hand.
A cobblestone road on a country lane is striking…there are many of these in the Azores, built by hand.

The houses are mostly painted the same color–white stucco with blue trim, and everywhere are cows grazing. We rarely saw any crops planted besides a few potatoes. So fertile, yet, everything continues to be imported instead of home grown.

Sao Miguel: A Green Island Indeed!

On our way home we saw a highway that’s being built to replace the twisty, hazardous roads and learned that a Spanish company got the contract. The hills and gullies the road will pass over seem almost impossible to connect with a straight highway. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

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