Azores - early summer 2018

The Azores, a group of tiny islands in the middle of the Atlantic.
Find Lisbon on a map and go west half way to America, thats where the Azores are located. They are part of Portugal and a destination, which is still rather unknown.

And they were not very high on my list of destinations either. But due to my ailing knee and the idea that they might be a good destination for a foto workshop, I decided to go there before flying north to Greenland and Iceland during late summer. I definitly did not regret this decision. I had a really great time there, lots of good, sometimes unique and sometimes even very demanding photo opportunities. The quite southern location helped to feel fine as well! As much as I like the higher latitudes, the sunny and warm oceanic weather was highly appreciated after all the journeys through the higher latitudes.

The Azores are a very diverse location for photography, it is a bit of everything and that's why the Azores are so interesting. There are even two UNESCO world heritage sites, the city Angra do Heroismo on Terceira and the traditional wine growing in the lava fields on Pico (formal title is:Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture). That's quite something for a group of little islands!

As the Azores are, like Iceland, a group of vulcanos sitting on or near the mid-atlantic ridge, they are full of vulcanic landforms and processes. It is not surprising, that they hold another UNESCO title: UNESCO Global Geopark. Geoparks are defined by unique geological and geomorphological processes and that is definitly the case for the Azores Geopark and something I really enjoy as a (former) geoscientist.

Overall there is lots of vulcanic landscape with vulcanos, lava fields and tube-caves, picturesque villages, whaling traditions which developed into one of the best whale watching locations world wide, a lively yachting scene, good food and wine and and and....

And of course, every island of the archipelago is different. I picked four islands:

  • Faial
  • Pico
  • Sao Jorge
  • Terceira


Faial - Yachting, a newborn vulcano and an awesome caldera

Beeing right in the middle between Europe and America the Azores attracted everybody who wanted to cross the Atlantic. First where the explorers, then the exploiters, later the communicators (Horta was/is a station for many transatlantic cables) and now the yachts crossing the Atlantic. And most of the yachts pick Horta on Faial as their main landfall on the Azores.

The yachting scene is something very special, sailors look different and Horta is full of them. There is even possibly the most famous of all sailors bars worldwide, the Peter's Cafe Sport, located at the waterfront in Horta. I had twice my breakfast there and to my surprise it was full of locals having their coffes. Later it is full of tourists of the non sailor type and full of sailors from the many yachts in the harbour.

There is a tradition among the yachts calling at Horta. They have to (?) paint a little picture on the wavebreakers and the walls of the harbour and it must be thousands by now. I do not know how this tradition started, but it is alive and kicking....

It makes a nice photographic subject to cover these little paintings, which range from masterpiece to .......

Horta is a small but busy town and to reduce it just to its sailing visitors does not do justice to this town. It is worth to be explored with its small cobblestoned streets, many (coffee) bars and restaurants.

Faial is dominated by the huge caldera, basically Faial seems to consist just of the slopes of this caldera. Geologically this is not true, but if you look  at this island as a visitor, Faial is the extinct vulcano Cabeço Gordo (better lets call it "sleeping") with its caldera and some smaller vulcanos on its slope.

The hike around the caldera is something very special and truly unique, but very often this mountain is shrouded in fog and clouds.

The slopes in the higher altitutudes are used for cattle grazing and forestry. Being an island wood is an expensive material and on all islands introduced species dominate in the forests. The mostly endemic Azores temperate mixed forest is reduced to small pockets. Now the japanese red cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) forms huge and dense forests and is at least as typical for the island as the endemic species of juniper and tree heather.

From the lush green of the temperate forests to the grey ashes of the Vulcão dos Capelinhos! Vulcão dos Capelinhos was born in 1957 and it makes a wonderfull and very impressive day full of photography. Lava cliffs at the coast, a lighthouse, areas without vegetation and a museum in the underground. It is easily more than one day, as you cannot stand the heat in the shadowless area during midday anyway.

But the pic I like most is not a landscape shot but the architecture of the main hall of the underground visitors center!

Pico - a dominating vulcano, extreme viniculture and whaling morphed to whale watching

On Pico and on all neigbhouring islands Mt. Pico dominates the landscape. It is a vulcano out of a textbook (to be precise a stratovulcano). With an altitude of more than 2300m, it is the highest mountain of Portugal and one of the highest mountains in the Atlantic, it attracts lots of hikers and is just pretty to take pictures of! If you want to climb it from the bottom of the sea, you have to add a couple of meters. It holds the title of the highest underwater mountain worldwide, 2351 above and 6098m below sea surface. (Guinness book of records)

I was tempted to climb it, but as always I had to little time, especially as one day on Pico was very rainy. Pico is one of the youngest of all azorean islands and you see it at the landforms. Lots of very fresh lava flows, lots of lava tubes, lots of smaller secondary craters and some ponds in the craters, which are by the way not very photogenic.

Most of the islands are densly populated and most areas are cultivated or used for cattle grazing. This is true for Pico as well, but in the highlands I found wonderfull wetlands with native tree heather and juniper, a very interesting but challenging photographic target. I remembered the wetlands of the Rwenzori, which I visited during two long expeditions.

Right in the young lava fields wine is grown, protected by lava drystone walls from the salt and wind of the Atlantic. Lots of black with a little green. The traditional vineyards (UNESCO world heritage site) have no irrigation, have no soil layer, it just grows in gravel of lava. The tradition was nearly lost, but it gets a foothold again in the economy of the islands. I think tourism helps a lot. I have seen many vineyards overgrown with large trees, but also many areas are cleared from the forest, the drystone walls are repaired and wine seedlings are planted!

Of course I tried the wine (red and white). It is tasty and it is different to other portugese wines from the Douro or from the Alentejo. It is a very interesting taste and I was tempted to ship some bottles to Munich. I wanted to visit the biggest wine maker, but the opening hours where not in favour of photographers....

The Azores are an example where a hunting tradition, which kept the islands alive for many years, changed into one of the main reason to visit the island nowadays - whale watching. Whale watching is big on Pico and the whales are still spotted from the very lookouts, which have been used to spot them to hunt them down. In the 19th century little rockets where used to call the hunters now it is internet and radio equipment.

Part of the tradition is kept alive, the old whaling boats are repaired, cherished and used for regattas. Somtimes the boat sheds are now part of museums, the whale factories are defunct and tourist attractions with exhibitions. Whale watching is attracting lots of visitors and especially Pico is one of the best cetacean watching areas world wide.

I did not go whale watching, but all people I watched coming back had been smiling.....

Pico is a great place to stay a while for whale watching and hiking. Due to the whale watching tourism the touristic infrastructure is quite modern and all is very well organized. The villages are picturesque, they may lack the atmosphere of Horta on neigbouring Faial, but it is still fun to explore them.

Sao Jorge - Fajas (and cheese)

Sao Jorge is a small, thin and very elongated island. The highlands are topping out at more than 1000m above sea level. The precipice down to the shore of the Atlantic is sometimes breathtakingly steep. Most settlements are located at mid altitudes, there is only one bigger save harbour at the main town Velas. On Sao Jorge the economy is about cheese. Thousands of cows are grazing the slopes and the highlands to produce the milk for the famous Sao Jorge cheese.

Place to settle was and is sparse on Sao Jorge due to the steep and extraordinary geomorphology of this island. Especially on the northern side of the island only small alluvial plains the Faja's, allowed to settle on the shore of the Atlantic.

The Fajas are a world on their own. They have been and still are. Most of the Fajas are now connected to the road network of the island, some are deserted, but there are still a few settlements, which have no road access. Fajas are a wonderfull hiking destination (starting high, descend to sea level and climb up again....) and the villages have a very special secluded atmopshere.

As most remote areas the Azores suffered from emigration due to economic and natural desasters. The Fajas have been especially vulnerable. No road no life. It seems that the trend has stopped or got weaker at least. The connected Fajas discover tourism and hikers, even the unconnected offer accomodation and bars. If you want or need to get away from whatever, choosing a Faja might be your choice!

I had typical island weather, but more extreme as on Pico or Faial. Sao Jorge is straight west-east oriented and I had strong northerly winds. The northern side of the island, was nearly always covered in clouds, the highlands were completely clouded all days and the wind increased to gale force in the mountain passes, which I often passed at zero visibility. The southern side was clear with dramatic clouds.

This went on for days and when I wanted to fly out to Terceira, the flight was cancelled due to severe gales. Fortunately it calmed down in the early evening and I could hop on a flight to Sao Miguel with a connection to Terceira, my last destination.

Sao Jorge might be small, but with the extreme geomorphology and the picturesque villages, it is a very rewarding destination. Some more impressions!

Terceira - Angra do Heroismo and?

Angra do Heroismo, the capital of Terceira, was the reason to go to Terceira. Additionally I have seen some interesting pictures of native forest. Thats was my idea after my preparation.

Angra is UNESCO world heritage site and it deserves this designation! Angra alone would be a reason to visit Terceira, but the rest of the island is compared to the other three a bit "uninteresting". We have Angra, we have the forests for the hikers and vegetation lovers among us, and thats it. But if you like caves there is a third reason. It is the very, very impressive Algar do Carvão, you walk down the chimney of a vulcano and you even can visit the former magma chamber.

In Algar do Carvão photography was a real challenge, tripods where not allowed and it was very dark with very high contrast. It worked quite well and I got some very usable results. Highly recommended!

Strange enough there are only very few geothermal areas on the Azores. On Iceland you have dozens on the Azores nothing which would compare to the fantastic sites on Iceland. I do not know the geologic reason, but do not expect anything like that.

Back to wonderfull Angra do Heroismo. I was extremely lucky as I arrived on the last day of one of the biggest traditional festivals of the Azores, the Sanjoaninas in Angra. This festival is huge, for 10 days you have concerts, marches, religous ceremonies, bull fights and so on. I mean Angra is not Lisbon. Sometimes I thought half of the population is watching the other half is performing!

Let the pictures speak for themselves... ( as I was out of town during most of the day for other locations, most shots are from the events in the late afternoon/night)

Angra is a lovely and busy town. You feel the long history of this place and Angra was never distroyed unlike most cities in europe. It is a unique place!

From Angra to the native forests of Terceira. When I was preparing the trip I found a picture full of gnarled trees. I knew that I wanted to visit this place. Wherever commercial forestry is possible you find the red ceder trees. These forests are now "wild" and you hardly can imagine, that this tree is not local.

But as soon as you have lava flows the native and often endemic vegetation takes over. I did a hike through one of these ancient juniper forests, amazing! I know, that I want to come back to cover this forest again. As ususal the highland was foggy when I started, but suddenly I had sun when I did not need it. But you cannot change weather! Anyway it was big fun to crawl through this forest, even on the path, you had use both hands to climb over and under the trees and the lava. Big fun!

As you see, Terceira is definitly worth a visit (and I would visit Terceira again). But you have to focus your vision on certain topics....

Finally I want to write some lines about general topics, which might be of interest!

Beaches and Bathing

Beaches are a bit different on the islands I visited. Sandy beaches are rare, Angra and Horta has nice sandy beaches and there are some more on Terceira. But that does not mean, that you cannot spend a leisurly day at the sea. On the Azores "beaches" are built into the lavaflows, old harbours are used, sometimes even old whaling slips. Sometimes they offer a protected natural pool, sometimes artificial pools are built to offer save swimming. So do not forget you bathing utensils when coming to the Azores!

Food, Accomodation, Infrastructure

The road network was surprisingly good and often very new. I think lots of EU money went into this remote corner of the world to prevent further emigration and to make this place worth living in for the local population. As there are quite a few car rental companies even on the smaller islands, renting a car is easy and straighforward. Cars are offered at the airports and ferry terminals, very convinient.

Failal, Pico and Sao Jorge, often called triangulo, are connected by several ferries per day. The ships are quite new and the terminals are shiny and comfortable. Baggage handling is like on airports. You buy your ticket, drop your luggage and pick it up again on a belt after arrival. Easy.

Between the more distant islands with no or irregular ferry connection several flights per day are offered by the local airline.

Accomodation is available, but during high season advance booking is essential. All kind of accomodation is offered, from hostels to 5* hotels, from self catering to alojamento rural. It is your choice.

Food is available in nearly all villages as you find (coffee) bars in even smaller villages. Fish, seafood and meat is tasty and often locally produced. It is again your choice.


What else is to say?

I had a great time on these remote islands and I could imagine to come back again. From the 9 islands I visited only 4 during my 15 day stay.The weather could have been a bit better, but that is part of the island atmosphere! You never know which weather is around the corner...

Right now I am relaxing in Szentendre, but the next trips are on the horizon. During August it will be north to Greenland (workshop) and Iceland and later during September/October/November I will make several shorter trips to the italian dolomites ...... And January is again dedicated to the Falklands!

And do not forget to visit us at following foto/travel/adventure fairs (now we are at the Weltblicke in Essen as well)!

Check out my workshop pages for my next workshops.

Szentendre July 2018