A long walk on a small island – seeing something of Santa Maria

Oops,I’d meant to leave a bit more of a gap before publishing this one. Madeira to the Azores Part II is below if you missed it. Still, I do have a bit to catch up on..

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The first walk on Santa Maria took me up a very steep path to a fort overlooking the harbour – the one from which I took the photo of the marina in the last post. In fact I was wondering if the path was carrying on several times.. The reception at the top was a bit guarded as well.

It is superbly sited though, commanding views not only of the harbour below but both sides of the inlet.

I also did a bit of wandering in the nearby town – Vila Nova do Porto extends further inland from the fort. Around 3,000 people live here – roughly half the population of the island. For it’s size it’s very long – the three main parallel streets are constrained by steep ravines either side. This is literally the high street..

It’s a bit of a walk up from sea level, but it’s very common for a local to offer a lift as they’re driving past.

Although there were few boats in it the harbour was quite busy as the local ladies’ fishing competition was on. The contestants usually left in the evening and came back any time between 11pm and 4 am – obviously very keen!

The final evening was finished with the inevitable fireworks display, thankfully rather earlier.

Getting to explore further on the island would be a bit tricky, though it was looking very tempting from the end of the main street.

There is a bus service, but it’s geared to local people’s needs as there are few tourists . The bus goes from the villages into the town (definitely singular) very early in the morning, and a return trip just before lunch. It then turns round and comes straight back into town again in the early afternoon, and back out to the villages in the evening.

So to see much of the island a taxi trip to the other end of it seemed the best option – it’s small enough that it’s not too expensive (ok, 12 euros isn’t cheap either), and I thought I’d quite possibly be able to walk the full way back.

Talking to the taxi driver was quite interesting – he was born on Pico, and had previously lived on Sao Miguel, and from what I could understand of the rest of what he said people are generally much more mobile between the islands than I’d imagined.

We went to Santa Barbara, a village on the east coast, on the other side of the main ridge in the centre of the island. The countryside is much greener than the other side of the island, with rolling hills all around. The rural houses are also very distinctive – blue edging and big chimneys abound. It’s been a while since we were on the Algarve, but that’s where the style was imported from, as many of the settlers of this island came from there. Interestingly, they seem to have bagged the sunny south both at home and overseas…

I took a bit of a detour from the walk described in my book to start with, passing some abandoned windmills

to visit a former quarry, now a local beauty spot.

After that I started heading towards the central spine of the island..

..and soon I was looking back down on the hills and valleys towards the sea..

until I got a bit further along and was quite grateful for a shady tree-lined section.

This track eventually led right up to Pico Alto, the highest point in the island at about 590m. From here you could see pretty much all of Santa Maria except a few parts blocked by nearby hills, such as the south-west corner:

You could see right the way to the other end though – quite a change after Gran Canaria and Madeira. The main town and airport are in the far distance in the next picture.

The airport was actually the main stopping place for transatlantic flights for some time in the 20th century. It was built during the Second World War to support American and British operations, and it was the most modern airport in the islands when it was first used for civilian flights, though it’s since been overtaken by other airports on some of the bigger islands.

The status of Santa Maria has changed a few times like that – from the first of the Azores to be discovered and settled to becoming quite isolated at the extreme western end of the chain, to being an international transport hub and back to a largely quiet island.

It’s starting to become more developed now as it generally has the finest weather in the Azores, and some of the best beaches, making it a popular place for holiday homes, but as you can see from the photos it’s still a very rural landscape.

Next I continued in this direction:

First I went along the tree-covered ridge to the right, then passing the villages in the valley on the right to reach the ‘desert’ patches just visible in the trees beyond.

The Barreiro da Faneca is unique in the Azores – a desert of red clay created by the effect of the arid climate on the rock from the most recent eruptions on the island. I was wondering if it would live up to it’s billing, but the reds and yellows really are impressive.

They stand out especially clearly where channels have been formed.

There are quite a few plants growing there as well, mainly native species such as this Azorean heather.

All in all it’s a beautiful place, and incredibly peaceful.

From there I carried on westwards for a bit before turning back south towards Vila Nova do Porto. The western side of the island is also heavily farmed, but much flatter and dried than the other side.

By the time I’d got back to the town I’d covered quite a few miles, and was feeling rather hungry, especially noting the streets paved with fish and ships.

That wasn’t actually on the menu though, so instead I boldy selected the one sandwich on the list I’d never heard of before – the Pe do Torresmo.

For 1 euro this is probably the best value sandwich I’ve ever had, though it was a bit of a shame that ordering it interrupted the owner of the bar finger-picking on some kind of stringed instrument. And when I find out what it was (the sandwich that is) there will probably be a post or two to come on food..

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