Monday, April 9, 2018

Azores 2018 : Day 4 - The black beach of Agua de Alto

You know when you really notice church bells? It’s when you have a hangover. You really notice them then. The church bells in Livramento start ringing at 6:55 and bang away for 5 minutes and then mark the hour with 7 single bongs. Then at 7:55 they start up again with the same big, loud song and then 5 minutes later 8 single bongs, but the second time around it sounds like sonic booms. It works well for getting lazy and hungover people out of bed in the morning; the 5-minute warning song wakes you up and ignites your headache. Then the single bongs produce identical bonging in your head that forces you to stagger down to the kitchen and gobble a few painkillers of your choice, drink some water, and get your arse moving. I bet that hunchback yanking and swinging on those bell ropes in the church is just laughing his ass off thinking about all the misery he’s causing.

I think that each time you suffer through a hangover it forces you to do a mental calculation of whether or not the intoxicants consumed the night before were worthwhile. A lot of people say their hangovers are so bad that they swear they will never drink again. But then they do it again, sometimes the next night, so that’s just bullshit exaggeration. I wonder how bad a hangover would have to be to cause you to teetotal? I read a t-shirt once that said, “The liver is evil and must be punished.” I thought that was real funny. But I digress.

We left at 9 am to pick up Pedro from the mechanic, where he was dropping off his vehicle to have some work done. Since we had nothing planned, we offered to help him out and, since he was on vacation this week, we could hang out for a while and make a morning of it. So we picked him up in a town called Relva, which in English means “grass” - proof that non-English speaking countries have some pretty dumb town names too, so quit picking on Moose Jaw, Climax, Eyebrow, Big Beaver, Stoner, Crotch Lake, and Dildo, all of which are towns in Canada (mainly Saskatchewan; we tried to corner the market on goofy town names back in the early 1900’s). Although there is one village in Quebec that might take the prize for originality – welcome to Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! Those Quebeccers are a real gas.

Our first stop was the Gruta do Carvao which is a system of underground caverns located right in Ponta Delgada. But upon arrival we were told that they were fully booked, and you need to reserve ahead to secure a place. Instead we went for a 15-minute drive westward out to the town of Feteiras, which is where we own a building lot. The last time we were here in 2012 the wild bamboo had grown to over 20 feet tall, so we were expecting it to be even taller this time, and perhaps populated by monkeys and hedgehogs. But as we pulled up to the lot we discovered that somebody (I assume the town) had completely cleared off the land and burnt all the bamboo, probably because the neighbours were complaining about the urban jungle sprouting up between their houses. We’ve owned the lot for about 10 years, and this year we wanted to consider doing something with it. The lot itself is excellent - it’s about 60 feet wide and at least 200 feet long, and backs onto a cliff overlooking the ocean. The view is magnificent, and we’ve often imagined building a kick-ass house there and waking up to see dolphins playing in the waves and spouts of water shooting up from the blowholes of sperm whales. We will see.

We drove around the town for a while and not much at all had changed since the last time we were here. Still very sleepy, slow, and not much going on. There is a long, steep road very close to our lot that leads down to the sea, and there used to be a nice swimming pool there, similar to the one in Lagoa. The last time we were here it was no longer open and looked close to falling apart. Well, this time, it was completely destroyed. It looked to me like somebody had put a ton of dynamite in the centre of it and blown the whole area to smithereens. Pedro told us that it was probably one of the fierce winter storms that had eventually ruined it. We were hoping that they had been rebuilt, which would give a big boost to this small town.

From here, we returned to Ponta Delgada and Pedro took us on a tour of one of the oldest churches in the city, built on a tall hill, called the Hermitage of the Mother of God, which was closed, but was magnificent, especially the views over the city. Next, we drove down to the university and toured around the gardens and some of the buildings, including the library. The construction material used here was concrete, but they had left the grain from the wood forms in the concrete and layered on many coats of coloured lacquer which created the look of natural wood - very cool.

We dropped Pedro off at home and then continued eastward to Villa Franca, taking the slow road instead of the highway so that we could drive through all the towns along the way. We reached Villa Franca and continued down to the marina for lunch at the restaurant (or “snack bar” as they like to call them) there. Although it was only about 15 degrees, the sky was mainly clear and the sun beating down made it feel much, much hotter so we sat back in our chairs and soaked up the sunshine. Our winter this year in Canada has been rotten - since November we’ve had an endless string of cold, heartless, grey days and tons of snow. Even now in April it’s still snowing and miserable, so we’ve been looking forward to sunshine for a very long time.

We weren’t sure what to do after lunch, so we just started slowly working our way back westward, and when we reached the beach at Agua de Alto we decided to stop. The beaches here are all volcanic black sand and stunningly beautiful. Because of the deep water there is little vegetation that washes up on shore, making them naturally clean. We set up base camp with towels and bags and changed into our bathing suits. At first it was lovely, but soon the wind started to gust, and with each gust we received a complementary skin exfoliation. Once you got up off ground level it was better, so we went for a nice long walk on the beach while the kids built some structures out of the driftwood. Soon, everybody was full of sand and getting a bit chilled from the wind, so we changed out of our swimsuits and continued along the road until we found a sign pointing towards a town called Caloura - a place we’ve never visited. We drove down and discovered a nice sheltered marina and a natural sea pool with people swimming! Magnus and I did a quick change back into our suits and went for an exhilarating, cold, and very brief swim, but long enough to wash the black sand grit out of our hair and get a dusty coating of evaporated ocean salt on our skin. It felt great.

On the way back to the house we stopped to look at an old, abandoned orphanage. One of Ana’s aunts spent some time here as a child, and it must have been a remarkable building at one time, but now it was decayed, ruinous, and inhabited by pigeons and perhaps any number of small, ground mammals, not to mention spooky ghosts. The structure itself was still intact, but many of the windows were broken and the doors were held shut by chains. The main gate was also chained, so we couldn’t get into the courtyard to have look around, but we did peek through the cracks to see an overgrown, wild garden, infringing on the building and offering refuge to many species of birds.

Back at home we had a drink and great visit with Rui and then a bit of downtime before driving into Ponta Delgada for a walk around the port and marina area and dinner at a restaurant called San Pedro’s. This restaurant is several steps up from the typical snack bar, evidenced by the higher prices and the white, instead of plastic, table cloths. Our server was an engaging, slightly quirky, lovely young man, who walked us through the menu and set us up with wine and drinks for the kids. In the restaurant they had two televisions that played videos of the Azores, and we noticed some places we hadn’t yet visited, so added them to the mental checklist of spots to check out. At the end of the meal, our server snuck over to our table, and was hiding something in his jacket. He looked left, and then looked right, and handed Ana a DVD.

“Don’t tell anybody, but this is for you, it’s free. I noticed you watching the videos on the television, here is the DVD! But keep it quiet because I don’t do this for everybody,” he said. I wasn’t sure how we were going to watch it, as we haven’t had a DVD player in years, but I’m sure we will find a way. In any case, it’s a nice keepsake from our trip, and a fine end to a fine day.

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