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The Azores - hidden treasure of Europe (part 1)

At Jardim José do Canto
A whole year has passed since me and my wife visited the Azores for the first time (and we intend to get back there as soon as possible). And you know what? We still can't get out of our heads this place. After out trip to Azores we even went to see Iceland in winter with all its natural beauties, but still... the Azores are a real highlight of our travel experience. We spent 16 days in the Azores, 8 on Sao Miguel, and the rest on Faial and the last day only on Pico. The trip was made in May/June 2013.
Firstly I need to introduce with ourselves. We are a young couple, we both are economists and we live in Riga, Latvia. In out free time/vacations we like to travel. As most of the time we are quite limited on budget, out travel tips will be most useful to travellers who travel on a budget. We don't use travel agencies; we try not to use local excursions. Instead we try to plan our trips ourselves; we rent a car and go wherever we want. We're definitely gourmets, we like to taste different local dishes, but still because of the budget we don't visit (or rarely) upscale restaurants. Instead we go to small local cuisines or prepare by ourselves by using the local products. 

Arrival at Sao Miguel, Ponta Delgada
B&B by Lapsa
Why did we choose to spend our vacation in Azores? It was mostly a coincidence – we were looking for a place that would be not far away from Europe (we live in Riga, Latvia), but in the meantime the place should be somewhat different from traditional Europe – France, Spain or Italy. And that is how I found out about these hidden treasures in the middle of Atlantic. We started to plan out trip very early, so we managed to build a great itinerary. We started our trip in Porto, Portugal. We spent some days there enjoying our favourite port wine (Croft – I would really reccomend this one, the winery is smaller than Taylor's, Nieport or Kopke, but still we think it's definitely the best). After the short stay in Porto we travelled further to the largest island of Azores – Sao Miguel. I still remember the feeling – we were flying in a plane full of Germans, the rows of seats in plane were placed very close to each other, but that wasn't actually bothering me. Because I was very, very excited that we're only some 30 minutes apart from Sao Miguel Island of which I've been dreaming already for a while. We arrived at a late evening, about an hour after sunset, so you could only see only some silhouette of the mountains around. But the first thing I remember from Azores is the air. When you step outside the plain, you get this feeling of thick and a bit humid air. And after you spend the vast majority of your life in a polluted city, this kind of air in the middle of Atlantic is enough to get dizziness only from breathing it. The airport in Sao Miguel is small (at least at that point we thought it is small, but wait till we get to Pico or Faial J).
We were awaited by out transfer-guy from our Bed&Breakfast. And this is the first interesting thing that happened to us in Azores. Prior our arrival we searched the web for nice and cheap accommodation in Ponta Delgada (capital of Sao Miguel). And thanks to AirBnb.com we found out about a place called "Bed and Breakfast by Lapsa". This was a huge coincidence, as "Lapsa" on Latvian means "Red fox". At the beginning we thought that it's a similar word in Portuguese, but then we found out that a Latvian girl Asnāte is running a B&B in Ponta Delgada. We were really surprised, because Latvia has a population of about two millions, and we managed to find a Latvian girl in so distant to us Azores. So of course we chose to stay there. I really recommend this place, centrally located – in a 5 minute walk from all the main sighstseeings in Ponta Delgada.  Asnāte also took care about the breakfast which included different local delicacies, for example sweet potato jam, local cheese and bread. It was a bit noisy in the rooms because of the thin walls, but it's not a specific problem to this B&B, that's the common feature of buildings not only in Azores but also on Portugal mainland. So if you have an intention to visit Azores and you're on a budget or simply do not intend to spend too much time inside, then I encourage you to visit Asnāte and the great B&B by Lapsa. 

At Ponda Delgada market

We stayed in Ponta Delgada all together 4 nights – two on the arrival, and two after our trip to the other parts of Sao Miguel Island. What would we recommend? Firstly, you should definitely spend some 2-3 days in Sao Miguel. There are plenty of things to see. But... the real Azorean experience is out of the city. Personally for me – the central and eastern part of Sao Miguel is the real highlight of this island (will tell about that in the next blogs).

Local food

On our first day in Ponta Delgada we just wandered around the small streets of Ponta Delgada. It's very easy to navigate in the city; the main landmark is the church in the middle of the city. I would say you get the understanding about the central part of the city in about an hour. After a short breakfast in one of the local cafes, we met Asnāte. We had a cup of coffee in the harbour promenade, she told us about how she moved to Azores. After the coffee Asnāte showed us a bit of Ponta Delgada. For instance, we visited the local market which was full of locally grown vegetables, fruits, and the Atlantic fishes. The market is not large, but you can find everything you need. In one of the corners of the market there is a small shop where you can buy a fresh bread and cheese. I would recommend you fresh cheese that is wrapped in banana leaves, Sao Jorge cheese, as well as bread from Furnas – it's very delicious (a bit sweet) especially in combination with local cheese and ham. And of course all the locally grown fruits and vegetables – they taste so much better than when they're imported from distant lands. In the market you can find also a large variety of sea food – shrimps, tunas, octopuses etc. We wanted to buy some tuna, but were afraid that the aroma would ruin the perfect kitchen of B&B. J
Bamboo trees

The life in the town is slow – no one is hurrying, people look quite relaxed. There are 2-3 shopping streets where you can find everything you need. There are some Chinese shops with all the cheap stuff, and there are some boutique style shops for richer tourists. There are also plenty of places where to have lunch or dinner. I was surprised that Wikitravel article is claiming that there are no good eateries in Sao Miguel. That's totally wrong, there are plenty of them. Just don't eat things you would eat at home (I mean, don't eat English breakfast or steak), choose local products and everything will be fine. There are some good restaurants (especially sea food) along the coastline. You should definitely try the local mussels – lapas, they taste very, very good. Prices? The imported stuff is a bit more expensive that on the mainland, but the local production, especially dairy products, vegetables, fruits, bread, pastry, some meat products (like local sausages) are cheaper. Even by the standards of Latvia groceries were very affordable. And I must admit that quality of the local produced food is one of the highest I have experienced in Europe, the cost-benefit ratio is definitely among the highest ones.

Ponta Delgada at night

In Ponta Delgada, we visited Antonio Borges garden (Jardim António Borges). A beautiful place where you can find a large part of the local flora and fauna in a very compact area. Another great place is the Botanical garden (Jardim José do Canto) - a lot of bamboo trees, banana trees, eucalypts, caoutchouc tree, hydrangeas, etc. There was a small entrance fee (2-3 eur, don't remember precisely). This is a good place if you want to get out of the city, but don't have a car. Both of these places are easily reachable on foot from the city centre. In the Botanical garden, first in my life I saw a banana tree with real bananas on it. The first thing I did after that was a purchase of locally grown bananas. :)

Fruits at the local market

Another great place to visit – a local pineapple plantation. Pineapples are grown in large white greenhouses. It is very interesting to see all stages of a pineapple growth as in each of the greenhouses the time when the pineapples were planted differs. You can easily get there by the local bus (I don't remember the number anymore, but tourism information centre will provide you with this information). Actually pineapples were one our trip highlights. It's not so easy to get good, tasty pineapples back here in Latvia; they are usually very sour and not as fruity as it was on the Azores. Actually the history behind this industry in Azores is interesting to – I recommend you to read this if you're planning to visit the islands.

Pineapple at the greenhouse

In general, I would say that Ponta Delgada is great start for your trip around Sao Miguel – you can get here everything you need. All the main services also are to be found there. Other parts of Sao Miguel are more kind of rural. You can use Ponta Delgada as a base camp for the visits of the western part of Sao Miguel, Cete Cidades, Ribeira Grande, Lagoa do Fogo or even Furnas. But if you intend to go further to the east – Povoacao, Nordeste – then I would definitely recommend searching for a base place there.

On our next blog we'll tell about the central part of Sao Miguel – our visit to tea plantation, Furnas, Ribeira Grande, Lagoa do Fogo.

You can see the other photos prom Sao Miguel here (link to Google+).

Part 2 of this blog can be found here.

Authors of the blog at B&B by Lapsa
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