I had just sat down at the porch with a book when I saw a yellow shadow darting around the corner. Its pursuer, although chubby and clumsy, gave chase enthusiastically. I stretched my leg to block him. ─ “Gabriel, does that clump of yellow fur you’re holding in your hand belong to that poor cat? Come on, let’s look for it and try to explain you are not a little homicidal maniac. Probably.”
This is the fifth instalment of our trip through Azores, a Portuguese archipelago that sits on the Atlantic Ocean, roughly a third of the way from Lisbon to New York. Read the first parts here, here, here and… here.
The yellow cat had hurried back to the neighbouring house. Its owner was busy tending a beautiful flower garden, and fortunately didn’t seem to have noticed the incident. “Hello neighbours, first time at Flores?”, she asked. The name of the island – which means ‘flowers’ in Portuguese – seemed particularly fitting. What was perhaps less fitting was that she had addressed us in English, with a thick Boston accent that instinctively made me look around for the Old South Meeting House.
Before I could make sense of it, she asked another question: “Does your boy like cats? Here, let me fetch Kennedy”. This time she spoke in Portuguese, punctuating each word except the fitting cat’s name with an Azorean accent. Kennedy ─ the same unlucky yellow feline from before ─ grudgingly allowed Gabriel to pet him.
We talked for a while, while Gabriel and Kennedy made their peace. Like many true bilinguals, she swapped languages mid-sentence without even realising it. She had married very young, and emigrated shortly after to Boston with her husband. They spent most of their life there, only returning to Flores after retirement.
Her husband had passed away recently, leaving her torn between staying at Flores – where she was born – and returning to Boston – where she had lived for most of her life.
“Here, take these cabbages to my goats, I bet your boy will enjoy feeding them”, she said. He did indeed, although from a distance. I had decided to play it safe, as my lengthy reasoning that animals don’t enjoy getting their fur plucked had been met with ambivalent eyes, and the goats looked less forgiving than Kennedy.
Apart from us, our Azorean-Bostonian neighbour, and her goats, there was not much else around. This remote island sits on the Western tip of the Azores archipelago, separated from the other central group islands by a stretch of Atlantic Ocean. Getting there requires either a nine-hour boat journey or a decidedly shorter – but equally bumpy – flight on a tiny propeller plane.
We chose the latter, and landed on the Santa Cruz airport – a narrow strip of tarmac wedged between a mountain and a handful of houses that make up the island’s capital town – on a sunny early afternoon. Two other passengers from our flight had also rented a car, and the lady at the check-in counter seemed unsure on how to handle the sudden rush of clientele.
“Hey, help me out by grabbing this toddler seat and showing this family to their car”, she said to a passing-by airline employee which doubled as the town’s mayor. Unphased by the honour, Gabriel complained when he realised the plane ride was over and we would now continue our trip on a more pedestrian means of transportation.
As we made our way through winding roads in search of the place we had rented, the sun was quickly replaced by thick clouds. It was perhaps unavoidable: all around us, every piece of land that wasn’t buried under tarmac or a house sprouted dense lush greenery, the kind that doesn’t grow without copious amounts of water.
Those clouds would keep us company for most of the time we spent at the island, together with the occasional foggy morning, midday drizzle and late afternoon wind gusts. But it was never cold nor clammy. Every day, no matter how moody the weather looked from inside, the temperature outside was always pleasantly balmy.
We turned into a trio of Robinson Crusoes, minus the cannibals but plus a car to aid our island wanderings. Every morning, during breakfast, we would lay down a map across the kitchen table and pick out places to explore.
The chosen itinerary would often prove too ambitious for a single day. First, there was the difficulty of getting out the door, as Gabriel insisted on a morning routine of chasing down the cats, goats and cows that roamed around the house.
Then, once on our way, Jules had to put up with the whims of the second infant in our group: me. Every turn of the road revealed a new breath-taking view that needed to be photographed. Once we had finally arrived at our intended destination, further challenges awaited.
Some of those challenges were entirely due to our poor planning. Proper due diligence of the Gruta dos Enxaréus – rather than merely pointing at it on a map while eating toast – would have quickly revealed that this cave is only accessible by boat. Instead, we learned that the hard way, hiking up and down a path that ended up on a cliff. A pretty cliff, nonetheless.
Other hurdles were not entirely our fault, like those on our first trip to Poço da Ribeira do Ferreiro, also known as Lagoa das Patas and Poço da Alagoinha. As we hiked our way up a path made up of stones and boulders, we debated what we would find there, as the these three names are somewhat conflicting: the first one means ‘Well of the Blacksmith’, the second ‘Lagoon of the Ducks’, and the third ‘Well of the Small Lagoon’.
By the time we got there, the morning fog had thickened, hiding everything under an inscrutable white mantle. Our burning question would remain unanswered. On our way back it started to rain, forcing us to choose between speeding down the trail at the risk of slipping on the wet boulders, or taking it easy at the expense of getting drenched. We opted for the latter. We got back to the car soaking wet, but vowing to return.
On our second attempt, we finally saw the place. We quickly discarded the first couple of names, as we saw no blacksmith nor ducks. The third name – Poço da Alagoinha or ‘Well of the Small Lagoon’ – was more intriguing.
The lagoon wasn’t particularly small, but it was indeed unassuming. It hid behind a winding trail and surrounded itself with steep crags. Water came hurtling down the rock faces in thin waterfalls, but somehow didn’t disrupt the mirror-like surface of the water, which reflected the green scenery around it. It is one of the most beautiful things we have ever seen.
In fact, the whole Flores island shares that same timid beauty. With a resident population of less than 4,000, two daily flights and a weekly ferry, I imagine it is not much different that it was when 15th century Portuguese settlers explored it.
Yet, it’s not the smallest island in Azores. That honour goes to Corvo, a tiny island that sits a mere 20 km (12 miles) north of Flores. We’ll go there next, in the final instalment of our Azorean series.