Friday, April 12, 2024

Azores 2024 - Lagoa do Fogo Crater Lake, Tea Plantation, Toenail Cleaning, and the Big Goodbye (with Pizza)

This is our last full day on the island. After two days mostly on our own, we take John and Maria on a day trip, but not before a big breakfast of eggs, fried blood sausage (morcela), fresh bread, and cheese. Ana and I had bought a full ball of Terra Nostra cheese on sale for eight euro a week ago and we’ve barely eaten half of it, despite picking away at it every day.

It is again a glorious day and as we’re driving I look up to see that there are no clouds at Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire) which is volcano crater lake that seems to be perpetually wrapped in thick cloud cover, so we’ve only ever seen it once many years ago, on a semi clear day. I spin the car around and head south up the hill. We take a long series of switchbacks, passing by the Caldeira Velha thermal pools, then we reach the upper parking lot and walk up to the viewpoint. The view is simply awe-inspiring. The glassy and greenish-blue water, green foliage, black volcanic rock, and the artful meandering of the edges of the ancient volcano. There is a short hike or a long hike you can take from here down to the lake and around it, but we just take a few photos and enjoy the sight for a while as John and Maria are way past the point of hiking up and down hills. We feel exceptionally lucky to have found a clear day for this.

We drive back down the volcano and east to Cha Gorreana – one of the two tea plantations on the island, and take a short tour. There are loads of tourists here and the entire complex has been rebuilt and expanded since we were here many years ago. Despite the potential Perfect Storm of a lame tourist experience, this is not what you get here. First, it is free. You can walk around the factory on your own or wait for one of the guides who lead free tours. There is also a long walking trail that takes you up and down the hills where the tea grows – also free. The tea is free, you simply grab a cup and fill it up with any of the three tea varieties they produce here. There is a gift shop and the prices are reasonable. I pick up a bottle of passion-fruit flavoured gin for the same price it costs in the grocery store. Lastly, there is a café so we grab a snack and a beer, both very cheap. This is the thing that still surprises me – how you DO NOT get ripped off in the Azores. Usually these tourist places are dreadful and you come out feeling like you’ve been assaulted. Not here. A coffee costs a euro no matter where you get it, from the local old man’s café to the busiest tourist sites on the island. Same as beer. The cheapest half litre of beer I’ve seen is 1.80 while the most expensive is 3.00, but generally they cost about 2.30. You don’t need to even look at the price of these things because they are always reasonable.

We stop at the Continental supermarket in Ribera Grande on the way back to pick up a ball of cheese to take home, plus some beer for tonight’s pizza party (Ana and Natercia had cooked up a plan to have everybody over for dinner tonight to say goodbye). John and Maria are ready for lunch so we drive to the Beach restaurant at Populo. It is packed full of “heavitos”, which is a term we learned in Dominican Republic and refers to the well dressed, young, rich, beautiful locals who tend to get their way because their parents own all the companies and land. Now I don’t know if everybody in the restaurant are heavitos, or if it even works like that here, but they sure are young and beautiful and well dressed. Anyway, we have to wait a while for a table, and when we finally do get seated, the server completely ignores us for 30 minutes, so we leave. Hey, we can live with one bad experience in two weeks. It’s too bad because this is one of our favourite restaurants on the island.

Instead, we go to the Ondas do Mar restaurant, a place John remembers from when he and Maria traveled here with Ana’s brother Mark and his wife Stella many years ago. At first glance, it looked terrible. A big restaurant with dozens of tables and a rapidly cooling buffet line. Tourist trap, set up to receive busloads of touristos. But the location is amazing – right at the water’s edge, within view of a natural ocean pool.

We sit down at a table outside and the server brings over menus. The prices are crazy high and there is stuff on here we haven’t seen anywhere else, like lobster meals for 130 euro. But I notice they have a “fried chicharros” option for ten euro which both John and I get. The meal arrives - there are at least a dozen perfectly fried little fishies, plus fresh steamed vegetables on the side. It is absolutely amazing. Both Maria and Ana find a local dish too and love it. The half litres of beer are 2.10. Our last lunch turns out to be incredible as we eat together to the sounds and sights of the ocean. There is also a beautifully built walking path so Ana and I take John and Maria back home then return, first for a swim in the amazing natural ocean pool, then take a long walk on the path along the ocean. It is a perfect afternoon and the sun beats down on my already burned face, impregnating me with even more vitamin D.

Along the path we see a very strange thing. A tall man is sitting on a concrete bench with one of his bare feet out and a smaller man wearing what looks like a municipal worker vest has a pocket knife and is cleaning out the big guy’s toenails. We walk right by them and they don’t seem shy at all; the big guy smiles at me and waves. The little guy doesn’t even notice us as he’s hunched over, working that toe jam out of the tight spots. So I don’t know if you can just ask the municipal workers to help you out with little jobs like this, or if these guys had a special deal or what. When we are returning along the path a while later they are still there but just wrapping up. The big guy’s feet look fabulous and the little guy looks proud of his work. As we pass them, they both get up and head down the path together happily, side by side, looking much like the Azorean version of Archie and Jughead.

This is our last night in São Miguel and once again the whole family turns out. We have six huge pizzas from two different places plus an assortment of snacks and drinks. The family gathers every Friday night at Tio Manuel's house. The girls first give the house a good cleaning and then they sit down and eat together - everybody brings a dish or two of food. It's so inspiring to see the strength of this family and how they get along, support each other, and have such a fun time. We are lucky to be part of it.

Francesco and Cidalia also stop by and we have a great visit with everybody. I, however, am feeling the after-effects of the abundance of sunshine and think I’ve picked up a bit of sunstroke, so every once in a while I sneak upstairs and lay on the bed for a while. I make it to the end of the night and we all say goodbye to everybody. Tio Luis gives me a huge hug and his smiling face just warms my heart every time I see it. Natercia has worn a pair of fabulous shoes so gets herself and Ana positioned on the chair so I can take a photo of them, focused of course on the shoes.

It’s been a great trip and this family is simply the best.

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