quinta-feira, 4 de outubro de 2007

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Quiet Haven in the Atlantic

"PETER CAFÉ SPORT happens to be on the Azorean island of Faial, but it is typical of the gregarious joints that thrive anywhere in the world where more than a half-dozen sailboats drop anchor. Food is not the main draw. Still, Café Sport does have a menu, and I found myself sitting on one of its wooden chairs around noon one Monday last summer.

The waiter seemed eager for me to try the day's special, a spicy albacore stew. Maybe a little too eager. Having been victim of Monday fish specials, particularly those billed as spicy, I asked if the tuna was fresh. His smile crumbled. He looked down at his tray and muttered, ''No, sir.'' Then he confessed, ''It was caught yesterday.''

Work had taken me to Faial, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores. I was there last July to report on the research of American marine biologists who were using the island as a base for excursions to the surrounding North Atlantic. Pleasures -- incredibly fresh seafood was just one -- convinced me to extend my stay to 11 days. Faial, I discovered, offered all the allure of a small Portuguese port village, one separated from the bustle of the Continent by about 1,200 miles of ocean.

In addition, Faial provided just enough activity -- like hiking and scuba diving -- to justify mornings spent lingering over a second espresso at an open-air cafe, or lolling on a dusky volcanic beach hemmed between shimmering green mountainsides and water blue enough to make the Caribbean seem pale. Restaurants offered plenty of cheap, unpretentious food and wine, and in the event of overindulgence, there was ample opportunity to atone on hiking trails with spellbinding views of cloud-wreathed volcanic peaks, terraced fields and neighboring islands far out across the water, all bathed in light whose intensity has never been dulled by pollution.

Vague memories of high school geography had left me with images of beaches and palms. But the Azores are temperate. In the summer, the peak season, temperatures generally range from the mid-60's to about 75; in winter, it's only about 10 degrees colder. Tropical and temperate flora thrive in the volcanic soil -- bougainvillea and tea roses blooming in companionable fecundity behind the same stone wall; palm trees and cedars shading the same paddock; and everywhere, hedgerow after hedgerow of blue and white hydrangeas.

The only real town on Faial is Horta, home to 6,000 of the island's 15,000 residents. The community's raison d'être and focus is, and always has been, its harbor, one of the finest in the Azores. Prevailing winds put the islands on the preferred route for vessels sailing between Europe and the Americas, making them an ideal place to pick up provisions or seek refuge. Early explorers were convinced they'd at last found Atlantis. They also misidentified the local buzzards, and named the archipelago Açores, the Portuguese word for goshawks.

Columbus sailed past on his way to the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh sacked and burned his way through town in the waning years of the 16th century. In 1814, the last naval battle between the United States and Britain was fought at the base of the fort that still guards Horta's harbor.

Today, Horta is known primarily as a port of call between Europe and the Americas for yachts. They give the town a cosmopolitan air and a distinctive appearance, the latter because superstition holds that to assure safe passage, sailors must paint the names of their boats on the docks of Horta. The result is an open-air gallery of colorful and often imaginative nautical folk art.

Arriving by sea may be the traditional way to get to Faial, but like most visitors these days, I came by plane. For an out-of-the-way island, Faial was easy to get to, since TAP Air Portugal offers daily nonstop jet service from Lisbon. Apparently, I was not the only visitor attracted by Faial's combination of quietude and accessibility. The island's three hotels only have about 200 rooms among them, and all were booked when I planned my visit.

That turned out to be fortunate. Hortatur, a local travel agency, set me up in the five-room Residência Neves in Horta. A room with private bath cost $35 a night. My only complaint was that my windows opened onto a steep, narrow cobblestone street bordered by two-story stone buildings -- quaint, but also an ideal echo chamber for downshifted car engines. I decided street noise was a fair trade when I saw two huge buses disgorging a British tour group at the 131-room Fayal Hotel.

With its open-air market, shaded plazas, sidewalk cafes and architecture dating from the 16th century, Horta lends itself well to wandering; 10 minutes will take you from one side of town to the other, but a sturdy pair of shoes is helpful. In typical Portuguese fashion, the streets and sidewalks are paved in arrayed patterns of black basalt and white limestone paving stones, a pretty but uneven surface.

Beyond town, Faial's landscape makes hiking nearly irresistible. A mandatory walk beckons from the edge of the harbor and follows a paved road through a series of switchbacks to the top of Monte da Guia, one of the twin peaks that guard the harbor.

The climb rewarded me with views of Faial and the volcanic cone of Pico, the neighboring island. It also offered subtle delights that ultimately became some of the most memorable moments of my stay. I began walking in sunshine, but the weather in the Azores is notoriously changeable. Midway up, a row of black clouds approached across the strait separating Faial from Pico, then veered away, leaving the perfect arc of a rainbow. It vanished so fast I wondered if I had really seen it.

Renting a car is the way to explore Faial beyond Horta. Although narrow, the roads are smooth and drivers more patient than most Europeans. The island is small, roughly 9 by 13 miles, making getting lost difficult. Keeping to the main road, I drove through villages of whitewashed cottages with orange tile roofs accentuated here and there by colorful and ornate minichapels used during Holy Spirit festivals.

The scenery makes it hard to believe that Faial, like the rest of the Azores, is a new kid on the world's block, geologically speaking. Its westernmost point, called Capelinhos, was created as recently as 1957 when a volcano erupted just off shore, showering nearby farms with ash and pumice. Faial gained a square mile of territory, but the homes of 2,000 of its residents were buried. Miraculously, no one died.

Capelinhos remains a desolate wasteland utterly devoid of life -- I didn't see a blade of grass, even a single insect. Abandoned houses are buried up to their roofs. A derelict lighthouse, once perched on the coast, stands a half-mile inland. It took me an hour to hike across this cratered, rock-strewn moonscape.

Near the edge, the rock appeared fissured, but there were footprints on the other side, so I ventured out for a look. Some 400 feet directly below, waves crashed against the rust-red, stratified rock, a reminder that the sea had reclaimed half the land created by the eruption. I was glad to get back on terra firma, if that's the right term for rocks that are younger than oneself.

HIKING Capelinhos is hot, dusty work. I cooled off in the nearby village of Varadouro, where black lava has hardened to form natural, saltwater swimming pools. The pools provide warmer, calmer water than the ocean for swimming. Yet the water off Porto Pim beach, a five-minute walk from any of the hotels in Horta, was calm and tepid in comparison to the beaches I frequent in Massachusetts. Locals gripe about crowds at Porto Pim, but I counted only 26 fellow bathers on the half-mile, gray-black strand one sunny Saturday afternoon.

Having met the modest challenges of Capelinhos and Monte da Guia, I felt ready for 3,400-foot Cabeço Gordo, Faial's highest point, and all the more imposing because it towers above a massive crater, the long-dormant volcanic heart of the island. The road to the caldera wound past terraced fields dotted with Holsteins and bordered by the ever-present hydrangea hedgerows. Red-topped windmills stood sentinel on a ridge high above Horta. Most were restored museum pieces, but one was grinding local corn, as it had been for 400 years.

I entered the caldera via a mossy tunnel bored through the volcano's rim. The sight on the other side is not recommended for those with vertigo: a milewide crater whose sides plunge 1,000 feet to a flat, boggy floor. Wind drove clouds over the sides, forcing them into the bowl.

A hiking trail led around the crater. Although relatively level, it was often only a few yards wide -- no place for the altitudinally challenged. I hiked through the blowing clouds for 20 minutes, and then Faial went through one of its weather changes. In sunlight, the view was breathtaking, not only of Faial, but also of Pico, São Jorge and Graciosa Islands, and the blue Atlantic.

Fully experiencing the Azores demands an ocean voyage, and the passenger ferries that make the 30-minute crossing between Faial and Pico provide a perfect opportunity to do that for $2 round trip. The morning I went, the citizens of Pico were nursing a collective hangover from the Festas de Maria Madalena, a four-day celebration that included athletic competitions, sailboat races, religious services, open-air concerts, fireworks and the consumption of great quantities of beer.

Given their proximity, Pico and Faial are dramatically different. Pico is so bucolic it makes Faial seem citified. It is brooded over by a central volcano that, at 7,713 feet, is the highest peak in all Portugal. The land around its base is honeycombed with corral-like enclosures of black rock, most no bigger than an office cube, which protect the vines that produce Pico's wines.

The village of Lajes, once an active whaling port, is now the site of a small museum commemorating that industry. Museu dos Baleeiros has a restored longboat, harpoons and other gear, and a collection of scrimshaw carvings. But its most memorable feature is a disturbingly graphic film depicting the bloody death of a harpooned sperm whale.

Azoreans stopped whaling in the mid-1980's. Today, those who once earned money off dead whales are making a living off live ones in Faial's growing whale-watching business. But they haven't forgotten traditional pursuit tactics, with the attendant thrills.

A DOZEN of us donned rain gear and life jackets and clambered into an inflatable outboard boat not much larger than some of the yachts' dinghies. After a couple of hours, we spotted whales spouting in the distance. In thar-she-blows! spirit, we bounced and lurched from wave top to wave top, icy salt spray blasting our faces.

Near the leviathans, the driver slowed, maintaining a respectable distance. For an hour, we watched massive, square-headed sperm whales spout and plow through the water like seagoing boxcars until, one by one, they lifted their flukes and dove.

Although Azoreans stopped whaling, fishermen still head out each morning, to provision the town's restaurants. By focusing on seafood, the more simply prepared the better, I never encountered a bad meal or one that cost more than $20, wine included: limpets in a garlic and white wine sauce, their shells serving as miniature slurping bowls; sardines grilled whole over a wood fire; seared triggerfish with just a touch of butter.

After dinner, much of Horta gathers at Peter Café Sport, known simply as Peter's. Tobacco-stained flags, pennants and other nautical flotsam and jetsam adorn the walls and ceiling. Poor service is raised to an art form, but the 12 tables are full from the moment Peter's serves its first espresso in the morning until the draft beer spigots run dry at some hour that required more perseverance to ascertain than I had.

By 10 o'clock, the overflow crowd spills out onto the seawall. My last night in Horta, I sat there, enjoying a farewell drink, listening to banter in at least five different languages -- six, if you count American and British English as two. What united us was that we were all voyagers finding refuge and a moment of relaxation on a small island in the middle of the North Atlantic.

The way it's always been on Faial. A friendly, laid-back harbor in the Azores."

BARRY ESTABROOK is a journalist who lives near Boston.

Published: May 6, 2001 in "The New York Times"
Foto: Filipe Catry

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