Thursday 11 May 2017

Furnas: All Fire and Smoke

You know you’re close when you see pillows of smoke drifting in the air. Smoke. So much smoke. Step out of the car to capture a photo from the hills above, and the smell of sulfur engulfs your nostrils. It both excites and scares me. 

Furnas, on the eastern side of the Azorean island of Sao Miguel, is a town of geysers spewing scorching steam into the air and bubbling-angry waters from the ground. 

Getting to Furnas from the island’s main city, Ponta Delgada, is half the pleasure. I used the north shore on the way to Furnas and the south shore on the return to the city. The drive took me through gob-smacking vistas, forests filled with scents of eucalyptus, land where pineapples grow and Europe’s only tea plantation is found.

Focus. Hug the curb, I repeated in my head over and over, to stop myself from wandering off the road and plunging down some cliff. Beautiful as the sights were, I was passing through with no plans of making a permanent island stay.

Furnas has long been a spa-town, thanks to the twenty-two different mineral waters found there and used in various spa treatments. It also has amazing bread and a dish meaty enough to have even the most carnivorous amongst us, consider a vegetarian lifestyle. From Ponta Delgada, I set the GPS (something I highly recommend having especially if traveling solo) to the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel.  

The GPS took me to the gates of Terra Nostra Garden. Close. But not what I was looking for. I asked a local for directions. The hotel was just around the corner, down the first street, past the store with the vegetables on the left, next to the café on the right.

“You can’t miss it,” I was told.

It’s painted pink and bright-yellow. I didn’t miss it.

photo courtesy of
Terra Nostra Garden Hotel has direct access to Terra Nostra Garden, which is a nice little perk. There’s an admission fee to the garden with its famous thermal pool, but if you’re staying in the hotel, the fee is waived. 

It was drizzling the one morning I had set aside for my garden and pool visit. Since you can’t control the weather, I ventured off anyway. I took a lovely stroll around the park with its hundreds of plants imported from around the world including Australia, China, North America and South Africa. It’s a botanist’s dream!

I got very close to the natural thermal pool, believed to cure everything from arthritis to skin disorders. I felt its heat, which ranges from 35 – 40 Celsius. I stepped back and examined its colour: rust, due to the high iron content. I sat on a bench and watched the gaiety between friends, who clearly were far braver than I.  They were merrily splashing about and saying things like "oohh" and "aahh" and "das ist nett."

I debated the merits of going in. It would do my skin wonders no doubt, but the effort of changing into a swimsuit to dip my body into what looked like a pool of mud, was not very appealing. As the annoying drizzle continued to fall on me, I came up with Plan B: Walk Away.

I chose instead to enjoy the healing powers of a hot cup of tea from the comfort of a window-seat in the hotel’s restaurant. It felt quite Zen. And why not? Is there anything a good cup of tea can’t fix?

As morning turned to afternoon, my stomach reminded me it was time to eat. I ordered cozido, the local specialty, slow-cooked over many hours in holes dug around Lagoa das Furnas, a short trip outside town.

Large metal-pots are filled with a variety of meats, sausages and vegetables. Then it's lowered deep into the thermal ground and allowed to cook five to seven hours. 

This method of cooking has been used for generations by island locals. Today, this specialty can found in many restaurants in the Furnas area. I had to try it. My conclusion: It's a vegetarian’s nightmare! I was, in fact, vegetarian for the next 24-hours!

The best part of eating in Furnas though, is the local bread. Called Bolo levedo, it looks very much like a large English muffin, but it tastes nothing like it. It’s a specialty of the Furnas valley not to be missed. Break into one of these darlings and find airy pockets just waiting to be filled with butter or jam or cheese. The outside has a slightly crunchy edge and a sweetness that makes you say, "more please." 

And on a drizzly-grey day, in a town where the earth seems to burst with anger, filling my heart with awe and slight fear, eating something as comforting as Bolo levedo with fresh Azorean cheese made me happy, happy, happy! Of course a glass filled with a robust local wine didn't hurt either. Verdade!