Saturday, November 4, 2017

Terceira is a fine finish to our Azores trip

Monte Brasil can be seen across Fanal Bay on the island of Terceira.

Our recent trip to the Azores ends in Terceira, an island that may be my favorite of those we visited. Like other islands (São Miguel, Faial, Pico and São Jorge) Terceira has incredible views, blue oceans, green pastures, delicious food and friendly residents. What sets this island apart for me is its largest city Angra do Heroísmo (or Angra for short). With a population of around 35,000, Angra is an ideal size in my book. Here we find a good array of restaurants, a swim-able beach, and plenty of opportunities to explore the history, culture and natural beauty of the city.

Fortress of São João Baptista is located at the base of Monte Brasil in
Angro do Heroísmo on the island of Terceira.

On our ride from the airport, our host tells us that one thing we absolutely must do during our week here is to hike up Monte Brasil. This volcanic peninsula, flanked by the Bay of Angra and the Bay of Fanal, has a couple of peaks that can be reached by a series of trails, but we opt to mostly stick to the paved road. (Two in our party take a taxi to the top and then leisurely walk down the mountain.) We're uncertain what to expect, but it turns out to be a nice 45-minute walk. As we begin, we pass Fortress of São João Baptista, also known as the Fort of São Filipe or Fort of Monte Brasil. We veer off the main road and check out a small chapel. As we near the top of Pico das Cruzinhas, we meet our party and pause for a few minutes to watch some military target practice on the slopes below us.

Angra is seen through the flora on Monte Brasil.
The monument atop Monte Brasil's Pico das Cruzinas
honors the Age of Discoveries.

We've brought along some sandwiches and have no trouble finding picnic tables on Pico das Cruzinhas. There's also a zoo here, along with a soccer field, playground and a monument honoring Portuguese occupation of the Azores during the Age of Discoveries.

Buildings along Angra's main street are adorned with iron balconies and
borders of color.

Visitors are welcome to check out Angra's city hall (Paços do Concelho).

Jardim Duque de Terceira is located in the center of Angra.

The windows of Casa do Sal cultural center in Angra are delightful. 

I'm amused by this unusual mural in Angra.

Sé Catedral de Angra do Heroísmo was built in the 16th century.

Chapel of the Misericórdia of São Sebastião in Angra do
Heroísmo has a beautiful ocean view.

Angra is a walkable city, filled with buildings accented with ornate iron balconies and several colorful churches — a refreshing change from most other churches we have seen in the Azores. The pale yellow Cathedral and sky blue Misericordia are two standouts, but my favorite is Church of Our Lady of Guia, part of the monastery São Francisco in which the Museu de Angro do Heroísmo is located. The explorer Vasco da Gama's brother Paulo is buried here.

Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Guia is part of the Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

We are delighted by the museum. We had expected our visit to be short, but we end up staying nearly three hours. The museum is filled with a large variety of pieces, from ancient stonework to a re-creation of a cinema. There are signs in English and several spots to sit down and watch short films.

Museu de Angro do Heroísmo is located in the monastery São Francisco.

A replica of the ship Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai can be found at Museu
de Angro do Heroísmo.

A stone warrior stands inside Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

Old photographs are part of the ecclectic collection at
Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

Our visit to the Algar do Carvão on Terceira provides us with the
singular chance to visit the inside of a volcano.

As our time on Terceira is nearly over, we hire a taxi to take us to the Algar do Carvão, an attraction that is on my can't-miss-on-Terceira list. Located in the center of the island, Algar do Carvão is a large volcanic cone accessible to the public. We pay a small admission and walk downstairs about 80 meters nearly to the bottom of the crater. Being inside a volcano is incredible. Milky white stalactites and stalagmites cover the walls and roof of the volcano, and lush vegetation lines the upper portions of the opening at the top. The lava tube (algar) is home to beetles, centipedes and spiders, although we don't run into any of the natives during our visit here.

The cavernous Algar do Carvão was formed around 3,200 years ago.

Flora inside Algar do Carvão includes dozens of species of
liverwort, moss and ferns.

Our last day here, we are driven to the airport by the brother of our host, who stops at a miradouro for one last group photo and one more spectacular view.

We pose for one last photo on Terceira before heading home across
the Atlantic — two head east and two head west.

Read about our earlier stops in the Azores by clicking on these links for São Miguel and the central islands.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

The islands of the Azorean triangulo

A stop at a miradouro provides this view of the Baia da Ribeira
das Cabras on the northern shore of Faial.

After five days on the island of São Miguel, we travel by plane to the second stage of our visit to the Azores. During our week here, we stay on two of the islands that make up the triangulo: Faial and São Jorge. We also spend the day on the second largest island in the Azores, Pico.

Faial

Caldeira do Faial is a volcanic crater located in the middle of the island.

Our first stop is Faial, where we hunker down in Horta, the island's largest city. Faial is known as the "blue island," in tribute to the abundance of hydrangeas that grow here. Once an important whale-hunting port, Horta remains a stopover point for yachts en route across the Atlantic.

Peter's Cafe and Scrimshaw Museum is popular with tourists.
Peter's various enterprises take up most of this block in Horta.

Our guide shares with us his favorite view of the Faial coast.

A church on the Faial coast comes with a magnificent ocean view.

A huge volcano erupted here in 1957 and the result was a change in the local geography. Our guided tour of the island includes a stop at the Volcão des Capelinhos on Faial's western coast. We also have a chance to peer inside the Caldiera at the center of the island.

Ponta das Capelinhos on Faial is the site of a large volcanic eruption. 

Lava from a large volcanic blast in 1957 added some real estate to Faial.

The city of Horta hugs the waterfront, and steep streets continue up the hillside. Our calf muscles get a workout here. The pleasant weather on the island contrasts with choppy seas, which thwart my plan to go whale-watching while we're here. My disappointment is short, however, as we discover some simple delights during our walks around the city.

I didn't know bananas grew upside down until I came
upon this bananeira in our Horta neighborhood.


As one of our travel companions is a retired firefighter, a visit to Horta's
Corpo de Bombeiros is required.

Horta's harbor-side road is Avenida 25 de Abril — commemorating the
overthrow of Portugal's authoritarian regime in 1974. 

This statue is inside the Igreja de Nossa Senhora das
Angústias, one of Horta's many churches.


Pico


Pico is the highest mountain in Portugal (7,713 feet).
You won't find white sandy beaches on Pico, the second largest island in the Azores, but its offbeat black lava beauty is breathtaking. Dominating the island is Pico mountain, the centerpiece that brings hikers, bikers and other trekkers here. Our primary reason for visiting is because this is the island where many of my husband's ancestors came from.

On a warmer afternoon, this would be a sunny spot to relax on Pico.

After we disembark the ferry in Madalena, we stop for coffee and sweets and hire a cab to take us to the village of Santo Amaro, where Ken's great great grandfather is buried. Although we're unable to find his grave, just being here is moving for my husband and his mom.

Grapes are grown on the hills above the village of Santo Amaro on Pico,
an island known for its wine. 

Our taxi driver takes us along the northern coast of the island, past vineyards where Pico's renown wine grapes are grown. He points out the changing landscape, some parts are green and fertile, others are black and rocky.  Pico's lava beds were turned into orchards and vineyards in the centuries since the island's most recent volcanic eruptions in the 1700s.

Paved paths allow us to get an up-close look at Núcleo Cachorro on Pico.

São Jorge

This bright red gazebo in the Velas's main square, Jardim da República,
is a refreshing splash of color against the gray sky. 

São Jorge's history is a bit of a mystery, although there already were settlers here when its main city, Velas, was established in the 15th century by Wilhelm van der Haegen, a Flemish nobleman. Although Velas contains some charming touches, it is not my favorite stop in the Azores. The best part of our stay here is a scary dip in the ocean at a lagoon very close to our apartment.

We're a bit wary of the waves in this swimming lagoon in Velas.

This swimming lagoon on São Jorge is calmer than the one near where we stayed.

Like nearly all the churches we see in the Azores, Igreja Matriz in Velas is constructed of lava rock and thus is the requisite black and white. The city's auditorium/library, however, is a modern, bright orange structure at the edge of the water.
It seems that nearly all the churches in the Azores are black and white.


The modern Auditorio/Biblioteca in Velas stands out for its shape and color.


A rare touch of humor emerges from this fountain in Velas.

I am enamored of the burst of red in the center of Velas's main plaza.

Our taxi tour of the island takes us along steep coasts that dip down to small flat areas called fajãs at the water's edge. At one stop, we can see a crowd gathering on the edge of a village for a bullfight. At least a quarter of our party is uninterested in waiting around for the main event; I prefer my cows to be peacefully grazing on a mountainside. The main industry here is dairy, and these cows certainly earn their sweeping ocean views.


The dairy cows here are responsible for the famed São Jorge cheese.

The views are never dull in the Azores.


Next up on Away to Live is Terceira. In case you missed part 1 of the Azores posts, click here.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

School’s out for Toussaint — Kid-friendly fun

Autumn school holidays are upon us. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve had to worry about keeping kids entertained during school breaks, but I remember it well. The Toussaint vacation offers opportunities to get out and visit some places, some of which close for the winter right after break. Here are 10 ideas and a few extra Halloween-only events.

Villascopia


Villascopia is a premier place to visit Gallo-Romaine ruins.

Go way back in time to the Gallo-Roman era with a visit to Villascopia, located in Castelculier, about 7 km from Agen. Visits start with a Scenovision Spectacular film, continue through exhibition rooms and then a walk among the ruins. Villascopia is open during Toussaint from 2-5 p.m., and the venue is hosting a special Halloween event, Les Sorcelleries de Villascopia, from Oct. 23-31. For admission prices and more information, visit the Villascopia website here.


Aquarium du Périgord Noir

An alligator seems to be checking me out at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue.

The largest private freshwater aquarium in Europe is in La Bugue (24). It is home to around 6,000 fish that swim about in 66 basins containing 33 million liters of water. The young friend that we took along on our visit especially liked the alligators and snakes — go figure. A prehistoric-themed labyrinth is right next door. For ticket information and hours, visit the Aquarium du Périgord Noir website here.

Musée de l’Histoire du Costume

This display, created by Dolène Durieux at the at the Musée de l’Historire
du Costume in Lauzun, is inspired by a painting by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter.

I’ll admit I am partial to this small museum, and not only because it is located just outside my village of Lauzun (47). Madame Dolène Durieux is one of the sweetest people I’ve encountered, and her collection of handmade costumes on dolls is a delight to behold. Well-known historical figures as well as contemporary celebs are all here. The museum is open by appointment; call 05.53.94.10.62 or email durieux.m@wanadoo.fr.


Château du Gavaudun

The ramparts of the Château du Gavaudun offer a rocking view of
the surrounding valley.

Standing atop the Château-fort de Gavaudun (47), one can imagine keeping watch over the valley below. The fortress was built in the 11th century on the river Lede in the lovely Gavaudun Valley between Biron and Lacapelle. The fortress is just a skeleton now, but it is still spectacular (although not handicapped-accessible). Gavaudun can be visited 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. everyday until the end of October. On Thursdays during Toussaint, Gavaudun presents a special family treasure hunt for ages 6-8 and 9-12. For information, visit the Château du Gavaudun website here.

Maison des Gens de Garonne

A cannon stands at the site of Couthures’s original suspension
bridge. The village is home to Maison des Gens de Garonne.

This place is on my to-do list, and I finally have plans to visit Maison des Gens de Garonne before it closes for the season. The site, located in the pretty village of Couthures-sur-Garonne (47), close to Marmande, offers visitors a chance to learn about the history and people who inhabited this area of France. A visit includes two films (one in 3D). Maison des Gens de Garonne is open 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Oct. 21-Nov. 5. Admission is 8€ for adults, 6€ for ages 6-12 and free for age 5 and younger. The Gens de Garonne website doesn’t appear to be working, so to contact the attraction, call 05.53.20.67.76.

Canal Bike Ride

I met this badling of ducks along one of my first Canal bike rides.

For families on two wheels, there’s nothing like a long flat road with no cars. The path along the western extension of the Canal du Midi, or more properly called le Canal de la Garonne, is one of my favorite places to ride. It runs from Toulouse to the Atlantic. Look at a map and pick out a spot to park the car. If it’s a nice day, pack a lunch, or plan to stop at one of the villages along the canal.


Bridoire Château des Jeux

Games are the hook at Bridoire Château.

If you have children, you’ve likely visited the 12th-century castle Bridoire. This château caters to kids offering games and activities for young visitors. During the Toussaint holiday, Bridoire presents Les Fantômes de Bridoire, a special Halloween adventure from 2-6 p.m. each day. After Nov. 5, the château closes until spring. Bridoire is located in Ribagnac (24), near Monbazillac, 12 km south of Bergerac. For information about visiting this “castle of games,” visit the Château de Bridoire website here.


Les Grottes de Maxange

Another attraction that will soon end its season are the Maxange caves located in Le Buisson de Cadouin (24), between Bergerac and Sarlat. In 2000, Angel Carballero whose family who had operated a quarry here for two generations, discovered the network of grottes containing astonishing crystal geodes. The distinct conditions of the cave have resulted in rare geological art that is beautiful and eccentric. For hours and tariffs, visit the Les Grottes de Maxange here.

Take the train to Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a great family destination during Toussaint.

This city is so intertwined with wine, that some may not realize that it is a delightful destination for children too. Bordeaux’s CAP Sciences museum presents Luminopolis, which the Bordeaux Tourism website describes as “a city of knowledge that contains everything there is to know about light.” An Escape Game makes exploring the exhibition great fun. During the school vacations the museum is open 2-6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 2-7 p.m. on weekends. For details, visit the CAP Sciences website here.

Bordeaux’s Quai Richelieu is hosting the tall ship Mir from Oct. 27 to Nov. 7. Visitors can visit the ship, which is one of five sister ships built at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. The Mir, whose name means “peace”, is designed to be sailed with a crew of 200. Details can be found on the Bordeaux Tourism website here.

To top off the day, ride the ferris wheel at the Bordeaux Fun Fair, located at the Esplanade des Quinconces.

For information about Bordeaux, visit the Bordeaux Tourism website here.

Zoo de Mescoules

Although this small zoo is close by, I only just heard about it. And if I can spirit away my favorite young French friends for a few hours, I plan to visit Zoo de Mescoules. located between Bergerac and Eymet. I mean, who doesn’t love giant snakes, crocs, alligators and other slithery creatures from exotic locations? The privately owned zoo was established in 2009 and is open all year round. For hours and tariffs, visit the Zoo de Mescoules website here.


Halloween

Pumpkin-themed markets such as this one in Issigeac
(this year on Oct. 22), are a highlight of the Halloween season. 
I know Halloween is relatively new to France, but it’s catching on. Many villages are hosting special markets, and pumpkin-centric events. For example, Chateau de Duras (47) invites Halloween revelers to its Ado’lloween event for ages 10 and up beginning at 7 p.m. on Oct. 31. Halloween treasure hunts are taking place in Allemans-du-Dropt and Casteljaloux (sign up at the local tourism offices). Older kids who seek some Halloween cinematic scares can head to the Cinema Le Plaza in Marmande for a triple feature: “The Addams Family,” at 7 p.m.; Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” at 9:15 p.m. (both in VF); and the Stephen King/Brian de Palma classic “Carrie” at 11:30 p.m. (in English). Each film’s admission is 4.30 € .

Stop by your local tourism office or Mairie to find out what’s happening on Halloween in your village.