Sao Miguel Island hits you full on with its dramatic landscapes, but only quietly invites discovery of its other charms. Exploring in and around Ponta Delgada was like a leisurely treasure hunt, fitting given its mid-Atlantic position and jagged shoreline so opportune for shipwrecks.
Architecture: Church and state
The triple-arched city gates were striking in volcanic black basalt and whitewash, with a view out to sea from one side and into the historic town centre from the other. 'You must walk through the centre arch,' said our guide Marcella. 'That means you will return someday.' Walking through one of the outer arches, on the other hand, would be bad luck, something we surely didn't want to risk.
In a plaza lined with sycamore trees, we came to the Santo Cristo dos Milagres convent and its enchanting chapel. We weren't able to see its revered Ecco Home statue -- Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. It was locked away in the basement, only to be viewed at specific times under the watchful eyes of nuns. Still, the masterful blue and white tile murals and gilded woodwork of the church's interior were worthy of reverence in their own right.
The most curious feature was outside at the back of the convent. There we found the 'Wheel of Joys and Sorrows' - a rotating wooden window, or 'roda'. In hard times past, it was used by families too poverty-stricken to afford the keeping of new babies. A tearful parent had only to place an infant on the wheel, knock, and silently disappear. One of the nuns inside would turn the roda to take in the baby, no questions asked.
These days the roda is used mostly for delivering joys in the form of religious mementos. After I deposited a euro and knocked, the wheel was turned 180 degrees by an unknown hand and my money disappeared inside. A second turn revealed a medallion and two prayer cards in return for my donation. It was a much sweeter result than the empty space that would have been left by a child given up for only heartbreak and regret.
Given the region's predominance of Catholicism, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that even the courthouse had been designed with a biblical message in mind. On the exterior of the Art Deco Tribunal building, I was intrigued by a relief sculpture of Adam. He was naked, stepping on a serpent while reaching up for God's hand. The point being, I gathered, that if the Bible's first man could have risen above the temptation of the serpent, he never would have known the shame that prompted his fig leaf loin covering.
I was curious about the absence of Eve. Was she merely an extraneous messenger in this artist's imagining, or might it have been too risque at the time to extend the nakedness theme to a female form? Ironically or appropriately, a cluster of bird of paradise plants had been planted to frame the scene.
As we wandered, we admired some vibrant mural art that added character to the city's streetscapes. Although obviously contemporary, they injected patches of colour and pattern without looking out of time.
We found more creativity on display in small shops around town. Beautiful handcrafted items included:
Ceramics in typical Portuguese blue and white patterns, including what seemed at first a surprising number of ashtrays. A few visits to hazy-aired restaurants soon made it clear why they're still a must-have for Azorean homes.
Pretty embroidered linens, all hand stitched. Many pieces were expensive, but understandably so given the intricate handiwork.
Fashion accessories made from the island's cork trees, including wallets, handbags, belts and hair accessories.
Lava rock and volcanic black basalt jewelry, often one-of-a-kind pieces.
A ceramic factory in nearby Lagoa displayed a selection of classic Portuguese tile patterns, all hand-painted. It was clear that tradition reigned at the factory, where the golden-aged proprietor was on the grumpy side, watching us disapprovingly as we browsed. I wondered how many hours and hands it would take to decorate the tiles for an entire home.
Deep sea eating adventures
Traditions are rooted deeply in the Azores, and that extends to the food culture. It's focused on local, fresh, simple and classic. Restaurants are categorized as either meat or fish, a sensible distinction. I wrote about the volcanic cozido stew in my previous Azores post, but of course there was much more.
The menu at seafood restaurant Cais 20 featured primordial-sounding sea creatures never before encountered by the likes of me: limpets, winkles, whelks. By contrast, the restaurant's signature dish of octopus sounded wholly manageable. After all, I'd enjoyed octopus when it was diced into a pasta sauce during my visit to Croatia. And it was bound to be fresh.
In fact it was much closer to its live form than I expected. With gusto, our waiter deposited a sizzling steel pan onto the table in front of me. Nestled cozily within were two small whole octopods surrounded by potato wedges and olives, all smothered in tomato sauce. I may be a near-omnivore, but having the heads of the creatures I'm eating included on my plate can cause me to contemplate vegetarianism.
Not wanting to appear gauche, I resolved to make a go of it. By moving the potatoes and sauce around, I was able to create a mound that mostly covered the heads, which I flattened as best I could. Tammy laughed at me as I grimaced, drew in my breath and sliced off a piece of tentacle.
It wasn't horrible. In fact the octopus was tender and mild, the sauce had an appealing zip, and the potatoes were crisp-tasty. I ate enough to make what I thought was a respectable dent in the dish without disturbing the buried head-mound. When the waiter came to the clear the plates, I made exaggerated gestures to indicate how full I was. The octopus heads, buried in sauce and discreetly half-covered by a napkin, went back to the kitchen.
The rest of our Azorean meals were markedly less challenging, my favourites being:
Lunch at Casa da Rosa in Ponta Delgada's Old Town. The seven euro set menu included soup, a choice of hearty veal stroganoff or veggie-stuffed zucchini, and a shot of espresso. The restaurant was busy with locals on their lunch hours, so we were placed at a table next to a friendly couple. They seemed happy to practice their English, explaining the day's dishes, and we attempted a few bungled words of Portuguese in thanks.
Fresh fish for dinner at A Tasca, a hot spot for both locals and visitors. The place was packed and the service was slow, but my fresh-caught grilled grouper was perfectly done. It was served whole with sides of sautéed red cabbage and steamed new potatoes that still carried the scent of earth freshly turned
An array of local cheeses, including variations from each of the nine Azorean islands. Every restaurant had a cheese board, and each cheese pleased in a slightly different way, from creamy and sweet to sharp, aromatic or pungent. These dairy delights were all made possible by multitudes of cows grazing impossibly green grass growing in the rich volcanic soil of the island's pastures.
Thin-crust pizzas, fresh-baked bread, roasted yams and pineapple ribs fire-baked in josper ovens at our home-base, the Azor Hotel and its sister property in Furnas.
The cuisine of Sao Miguel couldn't have been any fresher or any more hyper-local, but it's always been that way. It was a pleasure to find the dining scene in the Azores hasn't been trend-ified. At least not yet.
Neither has anything else on the island really. This is a place where linens are still deftly hand-stitched, tea sorted by women around a table and ceramics hand-painted with care. And that's the better part of its charm.