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Sao Miguel and the Azores: Misty Fragments of Atlantis
by David Yeadon

Most Azoreans have no doubts on the matter at all.

"Of course this is Atlantis!" Antonio Pinero insisted. We sat sipping coffee and aquardente (Azorean firewater made from the remnants of grape pressings) in an outdoor café overlooking the broad harbor at Ponta Delgada, capital of Sao Miguel island and largest town in the nine-island archipelago of the Azores. Antonio has been a modest, soft-spoken companion during my first hours in this little outpost of Portugal, 800 miles due west of Lisbon in the North Atlantic Ocean. But about this particular subject he tolerated no ambiguity whatsoever. From inside his worn wool jacket he pulled a much-thumbed book titled "Plato's History of Atlantis."

"Was Plato a wise man?" he challenged, obviously preparing for an extended semantic foray. "Yes, he certainly was," he responded. "Now please listen to what he wrote." He turned the grubby pages with solemnity. "'For in those days,'" he began, "the Atlantis was navigable for an island situated to the west of the straits, which you call the Pillars of Hercules.'"

He paused. "That's Gibraltar — the way out from the Mediterranean." I nodded; he nodded. "'. . .and from it could be reached other islands and from the islands you might pass through to the opposite continent.' "

He paused again. "That's America."

"Plato knew about America?" I laughed (a little).

Tony was not amused.

"Of course. Plato knew everything. Now hear me, please. Listen to how splendid Atlantis was: 'Atlantis was the heart of a great and wonderful empire which had ruled over the whole island and several others and she shone forth in the excellence of her virtue and strength among all mankind. The people despised everything but virtue, thinking lightly on the possession of gold and other property which seemed a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury. Nor did they take up arms against one another.' "

Tony paused and sighed. "We Azorerans are so like that. We are not rich; we want only peace, a good honest life — and friends. Lots of good friends. And plenty of good wine!"

We ordered two more tiny cups of espresso with aguardente chasers. Sunshine sparkled across the harbor waves. Behind us, the white stucco and basalt tower of the Convent da Esperanca rose from the ornately paved street. The whole plaza was surrounded by bright white stucco buildings with dark volcanic arches and windows. Shoeshine boys and the old fruit-vendor women in the thick shawls milled around the arches by the church, setting up shop for the day. Strings of red lottery tickets, clipped up with old clothespins, dangled from rickety tables. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted downhill from the little hidden squares of the old town.

"But what happened to Atlantis?" I asked.

"I will tell you," Tony said, searching the wrinkled pages of his book for the right quotation. " 'But then there occurred violent earthquakes and floods and in a single day and night of rain all them men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared beneath the sea. And there are remaining in small islets only the bones of the wasted body — the mere skeleton of the country being left . . . .' "

We sat silently for quite a while.

History here, of course, began somewhat later than the old Atlantis legend, around the mid-14th century in fact, when a Portuguese navigator recorded some of the islands on his chart and claimed them for Portugal. Further island discovery and colonization by both Portuguese and Flemish settlers continued slowly until the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Azores became important factors of trade between Europe, American and the East. Portugal later gave the Azores status as an autonomous republic.

"So — now you know!" Tony suddenly shouted. "This is definitely Atlantis, and if you don't believe me I will show you how right Plato was in what he said. We go to Furnas. Now. Okay?"

~

We left the cobbled streets of Ponta Delgada behind and wound our way on narrow country roads up through Ireland-green valleys, driving past tiny cow-dotted fields bound by hedges of wild hydrangea. As we climbed, the volcanic spine of this 40-by-40 mile island became more visible. Way down at the western end was the great shattered cone, Caldeira das Sete Cidades, rising above a patchwork of fields and white-walled farmhouses with enormous chimneys.

Then came an undulating fantasy-land of tiny green cones, some cloaked in dark patches of forest, others nestled together like furry limpets across the central saddle of the island. Hundreds of feet below, on the northern coast, was the tight-knit town of Ribeira Grande, built on the edge of broken black cliffs with black sand beaches. Turning to the east, we saw more volcanic stumps clustering higher and higher in an alpine setting of shadowy valleys, pine forests and bare basalt outcroppings.

"That's Furnas, over there." Tony pointed to the tallest peaks. "When we arrive I'll prove to you that Plato was right. But first — watch this hill and see what happens . . . ."

We were climbing steeply now; wispy fragments of clouds ghosted over the narrow road; a wind billowed across fields bright with hollyhocks, lilies and dahlias. And then there was just space. We were suddenly floating in blue-sky limbo among puffball clouds.

Tony laughed. "Now look," he said, and I realized we had driven up over the lip of a volcano. There, 300 feet directly below us, was the ancient crater, two miles wide and edged by eroded crags falling vertically into a royal-blue lake — the Lake of Fire (Lagoa do Fogo).

The impact is mesmerizing. You feel you've entered some secret place not intended for mortal eyes. Far below, a narrow peninsula, cloaked in pines, eased into the lake, with a perfect white sand beach on its western side. We were the only people there; we had the whole magical place to ourselves for as long as we wished.

Good old Tony had foreseen our mood. Out came a basket of lunchtime delights, including two snow-white rounds of queijo branco cheese (made from a centuries-old island recipe of cow's and goat's milk); big loaves of still-warm bread with deep golden crusts; a thick wedge of magnificently winey Sao Jorge cheese (made on the nearby island, and truly one of the world's classic cheeses); slices of island-cured ham; a whole pineapple from one of Sao Miguel's greenhouse "factories"; and two bottles of Portugal's sparkling vinho verde wine.

It was a long time before we moved on, and the mood of fantasy stayed with us. Winding down the long slope from the crater, we passed more tiny fields, vineyards and orchards bounded by 20 foot high beech hedges as protection against the winds that constantly buffet these islands.

While the winds and cloud cover can become tiresome, the Gulf Stream-influenced climate generally is one of "perpetual springtime," with temperatures in the 55- to 75-degree range, and rainy squalls mainly from November to January. Houses and farms also seek wind shelter behind high walls and are buttressed by enormous chimneys with multiple vents. Nearby are tall pyramidal frames on which corn is dried, and solid-wheel oxcarts with high wicker sides, still used for farm work.

We passed riders on horseback carrying 50-liter steel containers of milk to the collection point (often miles from the isolated farms); we saw yam plantations crammed in jungle-like valleys brimming with yellow and blue flowers; we passed tobacco fields and tall slat-walled drying sheds; we even wound around a tea plantation initiated by two Chinese experts in 1878 and bounded by hedges of araucarias and screens of Japanese cedars.

"Every time you close your eyes, the island changes," Tony said, and he was right. So far I'd explored less than a third of Sao Miguel and already enjoyed fragments of Irish meadows, Scottish highlands, lush Indonesian jungle, Alpine scenery with Japanese overtones, a volcanic moonscape and a Chinese-inspired tea plantation in a Kashmir-foothills setting.

Then we were suddenly out of the country and into the tight cobbled streets of Ribeira Grande, lined with endless one- and two-story rows of pastel-colored homes. The main street, boasting a series of ornate wrought-iron balconies, meanders gracefully into the central plaza, where a flurry of exuberantly styled churches and civic buildings sets the stage for one of the most idiosyncratic delights of the island.

"You won't believe what you'll see," said Tony.

And I didn't.

We walked uphill from the plaza and into the shadowy nave of the Church of Nossa Senhora DA Estrela, whose somewhat restrained 16th-century facade belies an interior of superb Flemish triptychs and some of the most ornate carved-wood altars in the Azores. A very old man with a severe stoop and leering smile emerged from the dusty shadows carrying a foot-long key on a brass chain, and motioned us to follow him up a series of dark staircases into a cramped room above the nave. He then proceeded to light candles around a six-foot-high, four-sided glass cabinet and, what was previously gloom became a wonderland in miniature: The display case held hundreds of tiny carved figures enacting dozens of biblical scenes in muted (dusty actually) color.

I gasped, Tony smiled and the old man began a painfully slow recitation of the history of these unique works of art. He spoke in the traditional medieval style of Azorean Portuguese, which even Tony had problems following, but we grasped that this curious "Arcanum" ("The Secret") represented 25 years of creation by a 19th century nun, Margarida do Apocalipse, whose life goal became the physical re-creation of the Old and New testaments. Each of the tiny figures was formed by hand from rice flour and gum arabic.

~

In the valley of Furnas, the magic became almost surreal. Once again we climbed into pine-shrouded volcanic hills and for a while were lost in mists, which cleared as we descended into the greenest of green valleys dotted with white farms.

The town, in Victorian days a popular spa for ailing Europeans, clusters around a series of rocky (and noxious) caldeiras or tiny craters, some spewing blobs of boiling mud, others with whirling steam vents and sulfurous geysers, and still others where ice-cold spring water rushes out of cracks in the earth immediately adjacent to the hot jets.

"Plato even knew about this place, too," Tony said with irritating complacency as he thumbed once again through his book. "The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty . . . having in them also many wealthy inhabited villages and rivers and lakes and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame . . . ." Tony gestured at the hills, the cows in the hillside fields, and nearby Lake Furnas. "Now listen to this. 'And in the center island were two steams of water under the earth which ascended as springs, one of warm water and the other of cold and making every variety of food to spring up abundantly in the earth.' And that's right here!" shouted Tony.

I think he detected just the slightest smirk of skepticism on my face. In exasperation, he dragged me down the main street right into Terra Nostra Park, where we lost ourselves in a truly fantastic profusion of tropical and fruit trees, hardwoods, huge beech canopies, natural wooded arbors, ponds and scores of different flowers all in full bloom. A family sat picnicking by one of the lakes — a warm lake, fed by thermal springs, in which they were all dipping their feet and singing melancholy fado songs together as the father played a small 12-string guitar.

"Okay," Tony said. "The last bit. Listen. 'also, whatever fragrant things there are in the earth . . .all of these the sacred island lying beneath the sun brought forth fair and wondrous in infinite abundance.' "

And — to be fair — I have never sensed such natural abundance anywhere. The Azores (particularly Sao Miguel) were once known as the "breadbasket of Portugal" and are still famous for the profusion of their fruits, flowers and the three-harvest-a-year fecundity of their volcanic soils. No other Atlantic islands can match them.

"Okay, Tony," I finally gave in. "I'm in Atlantis!"

Tony nodded, happy in the knowledge that Plato, and he had once again been vindicated by the sheer volume of tangible evidence all around us. "Good — now let's eat," he said.

I expected to dine in the restaurant at the Hotel Terra Nostra (a fascinating art deco masterpiece), but instead we joined a group of friends by Lake Frunas who were sprawled near the water by a rather large pile of freshly turned earth. Dinner, I gathered from all the frantic laying out of cloths and plates on the grass, was about to be served, but there was no sign of food. The wine flowed, followed by more local firewater brandy, plus Sao Miguel passion fruit liqueur for the ladies. And still no food!

Finally one of the men rose (somewhat unsteadily) and began flailing away at the pile of earth nearby with a small shovel until fragrant billows of hot steam poured out of the ground. Then he plunged his hand into the foot-deep hole he'd dug and withdrew an enormous cloth sack, to the enthusiastic applause of the group. He passed the sack to his wife, who delicately unfolded the complex layerings to expose a wonderfully fragrant mélange of chicken pieces, sausage, yams and garlic. This remarkable meal has been prepared "volcano-style", that is, buried in the hot earth and baked for five hours or so. The chicken was the texture of soft pâté; its juices were sealed inside, yet mingled with the flavors of the sausage and garlic; and its color was a subtle golden-pink coral. We all ate furiously with our hands; the plates were merely convenient places to drop bones.

The next day I explored the far western end of the island, spiraling once again up the slopes of an ancient volcano to discover the beautiful Caldeira Das Sete Cidades snuggled deep in the hollow of a rugged crater. Atlantean folklore abounds about this mysterious place with its twin lakes, each of a different color, but after all the Plato parables I was happy this time just to sit on the grassy rim and gaze down on the still, silent waters for a long, long time.

It was this silence that finally seduced me. I had made plans to visit the eight other Azorean islands spread over about 400 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But somehow the peace of Sao Miguel made me realize that to leapfrog from island to island in the short time I had would mean sacrificing the very things I had come to find — total tranquility and the chance to understand a little about island life and ways in this isolated world-within-a-world.

So — I stayed.

I sacrificed my chance to go running with the bulls through the streets of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira island, and to talk with the old whalers among the mazelike cerrados (little walled fields) beneath tiny Pico's 7,700-foot volcano. I gave up the opportunity to enjoy the bonhomie of transatlantic yachtsmen in Pete's Café Sport at Faial's colorful harbor, just a few miles from the archipelago's "new" volcano, which emerged out of the ocean in 1957. And I never climbed the soaring 3,000 foot-high cliffs of Sao Jorge, or found the quiet of Graciosa's vineyards, or the golden beaches of Santa Maria.

But I did find the tranquility I sought. The balmy days passed slowly. I explored every nook and cranny of the island, meeting the old fisherman of Rabno de Peixe on the wave-lashed northern coast, sitting in with a group of islanders near Vila Franca do Campo to play Azorean folk songs on a confusing array of stringed instruments, exploring remnants of old lava flows and visiting a secluded island home distillery, where an old man produced some of the finest fruit brandies I've ever tasted, using an ancient confusion of boiling pots, copper tubes and cooling pans.

Somewhere along the way I met a scrimshander from Pico's whaling village of Lajes do Pico, whose artistic etching of whale teeth had made him something of a national treasure. "There are more Azoreans in New England than the whole population of the islands today," he told me. "Many of my family — most of the men — live in New Bedford, Massachusetts, or have returned from there to start businesses here with their savings. You can make good money in America, but . . ." he paused and looked around at the mountains, the myriad greens of the tiny stone-walled fields, the little white villages, the vast expanse of blue ocean in all directions. " . . .but after a while you need to come home again. This is a very special place."

Some of the mainland Portuguese see the islands as rather backward, geographically unstable (there's always an expectation of yet one more earthquake or a new volcano), economically stagnant and lacking the sophistication of the motherland. Others are wiser, and perceive in these tiny fertile fragments and the peaceful ways of the people, something of a more ancient touchstone, of enduring values and integrity.

Something, in fact, that reflects the very essence of Atlantis.

Plato would have been proud.

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