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Everyone coming to the island of Pico wants to climb Mount Pico. Of course. It’s the highest mountain on the island. The highest peak of the Azores, even. Oh, what am I saying, the highest point in all of Portugal!
However, I am more a hunter of pleasures than of records, and thus the mountain plays a subordinate role in my plans for Pico. I prefer to go for relaxing hikes, sit by the coast, discover the small towns and talk to people – and to invite you to join me on this journey. A journey which took place from the 11th to the 17th of March in the ominous year of 2020, when the Corona virus spread through Europe. Was I going to notice anything about it on the Azores?
I missed the first bus from the port in Madalena to São Roque. The second bus only goes late in the afternoon. So I have to try hitchhiking. The smaller the island, the easier it usually is. From west to east, Pico measures 46 km, putting it in the category of medium-sized islands. Getting around by thumb should work alright.
I have only been waiting by the roundabout for a minute. The second car stops. Two elderly gentlemen are going to São Roque and are happy for me to join them. They are both from there and they have been friends since childhood, they emphasize. The driver is telling me all of this with an American accent, so I cannot but ask him if he ever lived in North America.
“I actually live in California, in San Diego,” he explains, “but every year, I return to Pico for a few months.” The small Portuguese island in the Atlantic receives daily flights from New York, Boston and Toronto, that’s how many Azoreans have migrated there. “And last year, my friend visited me in California for a month,” he adds proudly.
We are speaking about this and that and stopping here and there. They show me some hiking paths leading to the sea, point out a bakery where I can get fresh bread in the morning, and stop at the supermarket so I can get some food. They also inform me that they definitely wouldn’t have stopped, had they known that I am a lawyer. (“I can’t believe that. You look like such an honest person!”)
São Roque is not a big town. I could easily walk to the youth hostel, wherever they drop me, but the two gentlemen insist on driving me to the former monastery.
“This is where all the government buildings used to be, remember?”, the driver asks his friend. And then he tells the story of walking into the grand old building when he was young to register for military service.
“I hope this doesn’t bring back any bad memories for you now,” I am trying to make a joke.
“Oh no, quite the contrary. It was a wonderful time. I was stationed in Africa for 27 months, but I can’t say one bad word about it.” If the Angolans or Mozambicans would say the same?
I am not planning to remain deployed here for quite so long, but converting the former monastery into a youth hostel was a good idea. It is situated on the edge of the small town and slightly above it, with a view over the sea. It’s a beautiful and tranquil place. Now, with the combination of off-season and limited travel, they don’t have much business. Not much is still euphemistic, to be honest. I am the only one walking through the cloister or sitting under the trees. People who can’t be alone and therefore seek out hostels while traveling would be on the brink of despair now. But I am clever enough never to travel without books.
Only the door to the church is locked, unfortunately. I will have to ask if somebody has the key. (If you can’t wait for that, you can jump ahead to chapter 28, but I hope that you will return.)
The next morning, at breakfast, I meet the only other guest, a young man from Germany, as we discover after speaking in English for about 10 minutes. He was supposed to attend a conference in Lisbon about standardization of charging stations for electrical cars, but it was cancelled due to the Corona virus. He made the best out of the situation and flew to the Azores.
Yesterday, he climbed Mount Pico, all 2351 meters (7713 feet), and he tells me about the strenuous, but not overly challenging climb. You have to register with the mountain rescue at the foot of the mountain, where you receive a GPS gadget which is being monitored. “Once, I veered off the path quite a bit because I lost track of the markers in the fog. Then the radio rings and someone puts you back on track.”
Total surveillance, even on the mountain. That’s not quite my idea of adventure. I’ll rather go out unsupervised and relaxed, walking along the coast, where I can’t get lost anyway.
The enemies of leisurely pace don’t walk up Mount Pico, by the way, but run to the top as part of some ultra marathon.
This event usually takes place in early summer and I did bring my running shoes. But, again due to the Corona virus, it has been postponed to late autumn. Too bad. Another summer with more chocolate than jogging.
A path on the north coast is hugging the cliffs as close as possible, at times merely a stumbling way of lava rock, then again well-developed like a road built by the Incas or the Romans.
The waves are crashing and smashing on the island as if in clamorous rage. It’s a surprise that there aren’t chunks of the island breaking off every day.
But the real disaster doesn’t come from the sea, it comes from above, from Pico. Again and again, usually when you need it least, it erupts and spews lava, stones and ash, on the remnants of which I am walking now. Some rocks still display signs of flowing or of being pushed slowly along the surface before the embers from the mouth of hell finally froze.
For centuries, Pico was a wine-growing island, the best of the world. Verdelho wine was exported to the royal palaces of Europe, and Tolstoy found it worthy of being product-placed in “War and Peace”. The walls, once erected from lava stones to protect the grapevines against the wind and to store the warmth, are still standing. Hundreds, thousands of them divide the landscape like a board of chess. Amazingly, they are still warm.
Now, the vineyards look rather fallow, but they have been compensated by being awarded UNESCO world heritage status. The internationally recognized consolation prize for destroyed industries. Well, at least something that Detroit can look forward to.
Some of the wine cellars are still standing, with bright red doors, as if being kept alive to serve as objects for photographers.
Someone must have ordered more buckets of that red color than necessary, because everywhere on Pico, doors, windows, fences and even ships are painted in the same color.
Back to the former settlements along the north coast, destroyed by the volcano. Sometimes, a small church, more of a chapel, marks the spot where once a village stood.
On the way back, I am walking through the vineyards cross-country, simply in the general direction which I assume to be right, and by accident I meet an ancient road. It looks as if the lava had flown and frozen in the exact way necessary to build it. And it looks as if it hasn’t been used for decades.
One could probably use an 18th century map and discover the best hiking paths, as well as deserted farmhouses and buried pirate treasures.
What happened that evening, I published as a separate story, because it was just too bizarre. If you have already read it, simply advance to chapter 11. If not, be prepared for quite something!
After an exhausting, but sunny day on Pico, the way back to the quarantine cloister leads past a bowling bar. In front of it, a scruffy and shady-looking man approaches me, all agitated, asking for 5 euros, so he can put some gas in his car. Then he would drive home, get the money and pay me back. I cannot detect much sense in this plan, even less for me than for him, and I can already hear two camps of readers screaming: “Don’t be that stupid!” and “Come on, it’s just 5 euros”, although the latter group may overestimate my financial condition.
And anyway, I only have a 10-euro bill.
The fuel fox would accept that too, no problem: “I will be back in five or ten minutes, for sure. You can also ask the folks in the bar, they all know me.” I rather ask myself why he doesn’t direct the loan request to his friends. But as I can already imagine the answer, I ask for his name, admittedly without checking its veracity.
The people in the bar look at me with pity, while I am sitting on a bench outside and reading about science in the age of colonialism, pretending not to be worried in the least.
Five minutes have passed.
How could he actually drive off with his car, when he had run out of gas?
Ten minutes have passed.
If he had enough gas to go to the petrol station, why didn’t he drive home and get the money first?
Fifteen minutes have passed.
Any anyway, there is an ATM just across the road from the bar.
Twenty minutes have passed.
I didn’t even think of memorizing the license plate number.
Twenty-five minutes have passed.
As I am just reading about Bronisław Malinowski and his field studies on Trobriand Island, I treat the self-inflicted situation as a scientific experiment about the honesty of the Picorians.
There is Immanuel in his dark-blue banger! He drives past me, taking the corner so that he hardly could have overlooked me, and speeds up the hillside.
Thirty minutes have passed.
Did he want to check if I am really naive enough to wait? If I had been gone, he probably would have joined his friends at the bar and they all would be laughing at my expense, both literally and figuratively.
But there he is again, racing down the mountain, shouting “oh, there you are,” as if he had been looking for me all over the island, and informs me: “You’ll get your money right away, don’t worry. I just need to go to the bank.”
So why is he cruising around instead? And didn’t he want to get the money from home?
I have had enough: “OK, then I will join you to the bank,“ and with that, I simply get into the car.
He didn’t expect that.
“That’s not a good idea,” he explains, “because quite honestly, my mother is the bank.” He seems to be my age, by the way, which would make the mother a bank working well into retirement age.
“No problem, then I will join you to your mother,” I reply, on purpose in a way as if I had time all evening.
“But she won’t like that at all.”
“Then you park the car around the corner and I will wait there for you.”
“I could take you up to the mountains. You have a fantastic view over the whole island from there.”
“No, thank you, let’s rather go to your mother.”
“I can also drive you to Madalena. I can drive you anywhere, for very little money. Much cheaper than a taxi. You can call me anytime and I will pick you up.”
“Thanks, but let’s go to your mother first.”
“My mother is very sick. I have been taking care of her for years,” he says with as much schmaltz as if he was in a soap opera.
“As long as she still got 10 euros,” I am thinking, but I don’t say it.
“Did you already have dinner?”
Oh, I shouldn’t have answered that in the negative.
“I will take you to the port, there is a good restaurant. All of my friends eat there.”
“No thanks,” I say, but he drives to the port. Luckily, the restaurant is closed. Immanuel drives like a madman, jumping the curbs, always with maximum acceleration. But he is the only driver I met on Pico who doesn’t insist on me wearing the seat belt. Maybe he is hoping for an accident and the early demise of his stubborn creditor.
“I will take you to the supermarket, it’s cheaper there anyway.”
“No thanks, I really don’t need anything.”
As if deaf, he still drives there. Luckily, the supermarket is closed too.
“If you always drive around so erratically, I am not surprised that you run out of gas.” This time, I don’t only think it, but I say it. I am beginning to get angry.
He drives to another bar, which I already know from walking past and where the most dubious characters hang out, drink and shout at passersby. “These are my friends,” he introduces three shady guys, all of whom look like prison and drugs. “Why don’t you stay with them for a few minutes and have a coffee? I will be right back.”
“It’s too late in the evening for a coffee, thanks.”
“No, I would really much rather have the 10 euros.”
He realizes that he won’t be able to shake me off that easily. We walk to a building that looks like something municipal, but has seen better times. “This is where my mother lives. Oh shit, it’s closed!”
“What is this building?”, I inquire.
“The nursing home. But now I remember that my mother wanted to go to a party. That could take a while. It’s better if I drive you to the hostel and will bring the money later.”
Nice to hear that the mother has recovered.
“Just call your mother and ask her where she is.” São Roque is not big, she can’t have gone far.
“I forgot my phone at home.”
“No problem, you can use mine.” That way, I am also hoping to get hold of a number, in case I will have to use the services of the Polícia Judiciária after all.
“I don’t know her number.”
“You don’t know the number of your mother, for whom you care so lovingly because she is very sick, although she can go to parties?”
It’s the first time he doesn’t have an immediate response. At least for two seconds. Then, a pick-up truck with cropped shrubs in the bed is driving past.
“Hey, that’s my cousin.“ He calls after the driver who, to my surprise, does indeed stop.
The two men are talking through the open window. I have been speaking English with Immanuel, so he has no way of assuming that I understand some Portuguese.
The man in the truck seems to be a farmer or so. They both agree that Immanuel will work for him tomorrow and will receive an advance of 10 euros. The driver pulls out a 10-euro bill, as smooth as if it had just been ironed. Immanuel hands it to me ceremoniously, and when he hugs me for a goodbye, I make damn sure to keep one hand on my wallet.
Life on Pico takes place by the coast. But I also want to see what the interior of the island looks like. That’s not as easy, because nobody goes there, nobody lives there, steep mountains block the access, and clouds are hiding the path.
Nonetheless, I start walking and soon find a network of paths in the tropical forest. They are wild and full of moss, suggesting they haven’t been used in a long time. Probably since the automobile was introduced on the island and Picoreans prefer to drive once around the island instead of walking straight across it
The path is quite steep, and because I am engulfed by trees with arms like monsters, I have no way of knowing how far I have already ascended and how much lies before me. I am walking like this for about three hours, always uphill. If it is flat for a few meters, I have to wade through water. Anyway, as long as there are no pygmy whales in the pond, I will survive it.
I am beginning to doubt whether this hike was a good idea, but I am simply not the kind of person to turn around.
And then, when I finally reach the alpine plateau, I witness a fight between dampness draped in clouds and the joyful sun. The score changes by the minute.
Only the Lagoa do Capitão, the Captain’s Lagoon, doggedly remains shrouded in fog, not revealing his ship.
The descent takes just as long, but it’s easier, especially as the forest opens up to views of sea from time to time. And with my fast pace, I also seem to have gotten rid of the clouds.
One of my hiking rules is to always choose a different way for returning home, and thus I end up at Parque Florestal da Prainha, adorned with flowers and wonderful views. It’s a picnic spot, but there are no hamburgers on the grill, sadly. Only drinking water, which is welcome enough. As so often these days, I have the whole paradise to myself.
But I really don’t feel like walking back all the way to São Roque. I am lucky, already the third car stops. Two Brazilian ladies give me a ride, also insisting on taking me exactly to the youth hostel. They work at the restaurant Adega Açoriana in Prainha de Baixo and invite me to visit them one day. But on the flyer that they hand me, there are these crazy crabs that have already scared me in the days before.
Oh, I guess I should explain the issue with animals on the Azores:
I was excited to come to these islands because there are no snakes. Until I found out that there is something much worse. I see them scampering under rocks or into cracks in the wall, and once, when I left my backpack open, one of them even climbed inside. They are little snakes with four legs, black and super fast.
And when I sit on top of the cliff and a large wave sprays the Atlantic spume into the hair, sometimes crabs and clams land on my head. Eeeew.
If you collect enough of the shells, however, you can build a house. Not only figuratively, but literally:
The next morning, the sun wakes me up. It’s a picture-perfect day, and I can see Mount Pico beckoning through the window while showering. It would be a good day for a climb, if only I was ambitious or athletic.
At breakfast, again, I meet the only other guest. Today he is a guy from Hungary, planning to visit all islands of the archipelago in 12 days. He is under a strict schedule and has to run down to the port to get to the neighboring island of São Jorge.
I want to cross the island again, to Lajes in the south, but I am not going to walk again. At the roundabout in São Roque, the first car stops. It’s a young man working for the water works. He is on the way to one of the lagoons up on the plateau to inspect it or whatever one does with lagoons. Where he has to leave the road to get to his remote workplace, he drops me off: “Just follow this road, and you will get to Lajes!”
That doesn’t sound as if he believes there will be any other car passing by. Nor does it look like it. But it’s beautiful, green all around, the birds are singing and the sun is shining.
I have no other option but to start walking. A stone marker by the side of the road indicates 9 km, which I should be able to make in two hours. It’s just downhill from here. And if a car will come by, I am of course trying to utilize my experienced thumb.
A van passes by, it’s already full. But the next car, after maybe 15 minutes, stops. A young man and his father empty the back seats. We have quite a lot in common, it turns out. Pedro is a translator for Portuguese and English, albeit with more interesting work than my legal translations. He translates dialogues and subtitles for television.
As I am telling him that I am going to be house-sitting on Faial, he nods, not at all surprised: “Oh, I have done that too, in Europe, in Asia, in South America.” He too didn’t have his own apartment for years, staying with his father in Porto between travels, but never managing to stay there too long before the world called him. But now he has settled on Pico with his wife because they have a baby. As I always tell you: Once the baby pops up, life is over.
And now it’s the father visiting his son, for his first time in the Azores. That’s my experience too: When you live on an island, suddenly all the people who never contact you in years remember you and want to visit. I will have to investigate this widespread fascination with islands one day, because in reality, the Carpathians or the Caucasus are much more interesting.
Pedro tells me that Lajes used to be the most important and largest town on Pico. Because of whaling. It was in Lajes where the settlement of the island began in 1460. Now, it’s only third behind Madalena and São Roque, he laments.
We are talking about towns with a few thousand people, but which – as I have seen in so many countries – feel a hundred times more alive than similarly sized places in Germany or North America. São Roque for example has 1300 inhabitants, but a port, a museum, several parks with free WiFi, plenty of restaurants, taverns, bars, a soccer stadium, supermarkets, gas stations, bakeries, butcheries, a helicopter pad, banks, a library, a post office, a hospital, a shop for animal food, shops for painting equipment, for sewing equipment, for anything you need actually, a youth hostel, a radio station and both land and maritime police.
In Germany or the United States, a village of that size doesn’t even have a post office anymore.
And some towns have public swimming pools:
In former times, swimmers had to leave the water when the whalers came back into the nearby port and the beluga whale was being cut up, because the blood attracted the sharks.
Lajes really shows that its heyday is over.
The whaling port is almost grown over, although it remains the harbor with the greatest view on the whole island.
As you see, Mount Pico is engulfed in clouds once again. Good that I didn’t embark on that torturous tour.
The doors of the monastery Nossa Senhora da Conceição haven’t been opened in decades.
The factories, where the whales were once turned into oil and fat, are all closed.
The houses are decaying.
In the cemetery, half of the graves don’t even have a stone with a name. Probably anonymous sailors who were killed on whaling missions. Out of respect for the unchristened Queequegs, no crosses are put up either.
Even the smallest village on the island has a memorial with the names of the local soldiers who fought in Angola, Guinea, Mozambique and Timor. Each time I walk past one of those stones, I am reminded of the two friendly gentlemen from chapter 1.
And one of them, the Californian, is also symptomatic for a phenomenon through which the Azores have lost much more of their population than in tropical wars: migration. Nowadays, there are less than 14,000 people living on Pico. 200 years ago, there were almost twice as many.
Although the Azores have been part of Portugal (with an interruption of 60 years that I won’t get into for now, because readers already dread my digressions into history) since their discovery – and for once, the term discovery is justified, because nobody lived here before -, the emigrants often went to the USA and to Canada. There were always close ties with the United States, first because of American whalers and later due to US military presence during both World Wars. And migrating westward seemed to be more promising than going to the motherland. Each time a volcano erupted or an earthquake flattened a town, it caused a new wave of migration.
All over the island, empty houses have been left behind, missing their former owners who don’t even bother to send a postcard.
The whaling museum is closed, too. Since yesterday 2 pm, until further notice, says a notice on the door. Damn. One day too late.
I can’t tell if the harbor is so empty because of the situation or because it’s Saturday.
As the museum refuses to be of any help, I have to unpack the whaling compendium that I brought myself. Published in 1851, “Moby Dick” praised the Azorean whalers as tough guys whom the American ships liked to take on board when they stopped here. A great book, by the way!
I could let you in on a little secret. In that situation, many travel bloggers would simply collect information from the museum’s website and pretend that they visited it. Sometimes, I read blogs where the trained and traveled eye notices that the authors have never been to the place they write about.
On my blog, I won’t have any of this. This is no space for deception or deceit, nor for swindling or lying. Here, I look truth directly into the eye, as ice-cold as the harpooner looks into the eye of the killer whale before the metaphor dives into the depths of the Atlantic, reeling from its heavy wounds, never to be seen again.
But the church is still open. They must believe that they can pray the virus away. And if it doesn’t work, they will blame the Jews again.
Strolling through the town, I bump into Pedro and his father. As I said, these are small towns. They would be happy to take me to their village if I happen to travel in that direction. “It’s about 3 km east of here. But there is really nothing to see there.” Well, then I’ll rather explore the town which does also have some nice and colorful corners.
And at the Aromes e Sabores Bakery, they have the crispest and yummiest rolls with sausage that I have ever eaten.
For five minutes, I have been standing where the road forks off to São Roque, hitchhiking unsuccessfully, when the Hungarian from breakfast comes my way. The boat to Velas didn’t leave today because the ferry schedule has been reduced, so he had to spend another day on Pico. “I am sure they still have a bed at the youth hostel,” we make fun of the situation. He declines my invitation to hitchhike together. He wants to walk the 20 km across the high mountain plateau. Actually, as fit as he looks, it wouldn’t surprise me if he will walk a detour across the volcano.
Over the next half-hour, dozens of cars are driving past. None of them stops. What’s going on here? This is very untypical for Pico.
But, as so often in life, the longer you wait, the better the surprise: An old couple with a pick-up truck invites me to jump on in and make myself comfortable in the hay. It’s a windy and wonderful panoramic ride.
A true hitchhiking highlight!
Saturday evening, 5 pm, I am sitting in the park in front of the municipal administrative building. Both the park and the offices are empty of people, it’s a good spot to soak up the evening sun while reading a book. But then, cars with crests and sirens and people with uniforms and papers come racing from all directions. A crisis meeting. Probably the island will soon be shut off completely.
I regret not having gone to the whaling museum in São Roque earlier. Every day, it attracted my curiosity. Every day, I thought: “But it’s such beautiful weather, I’ll keep the museum for a rainy day.” Now it’s too late. Maybe there’s another lesson for life here.
In this case, I am really angry because this museum is in an old factory, where once grey whales, blue whales and pilot whales were dismembered and processed to oil, wax and fat. You can still see the original machines. The oil was then exported and mainly used in the production of soap and margarine. All of this sounds like ancient times, but the last whales were killed off the Azores in 1987.
In case the Corona virus will bring all international trade to a standstill and there will be no more supply ships coming to the Azores, it actually gives me some peace of mind to know that there are still men among us who know how to catch humpback, dwarf or sperm whales. My own contribution to our survival will be rather limited. As a lawyer, I could only try to interpret the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling from 1946 to present some appearance of legality. Will I be able to earn a narwhal steak that way?
In a way, Pico still lives off the whales. But now it’s tourists who are being shipped out to the bottlenose whales, baleen whales and beaked whales to observe and photograph them.
Because of the virus, all the whales can finally take a break from that circus. I am left to keep my eyes open and stare out into the sea, hoping that a fountain in the sea will reveal the position of a right whale at the right moment.
I wonder if it makes sense to close the museums where, especially at this time of year, there might be four or five visitors a day, while the bars and taverns remain open. Even more so as people tend to hug and kiss far less in museums than in alehouses.
The next day, even the city park, where I had always been the only person to sit on a bench and to read, is closed. The park in front of the municipal building is not closed because it’s not an official park, but just benches under trees. Some of this looks like taking action for the sake of taking action.
And when someone is indeed knocked out by Covid-19, half the town is gathering to debate the deceased’s life and to share some cigarettes.
Ten minutes before 7 pm, the lady from the youth hostel knocks on my door. Luckily, I am neither in my pyjamas nor down at the bar in the harbor, instead studying about the scientific aspects of Napoleon’s crusade to Egypt. “You had asked to see the church, haven’t you?”
That’s true. She must be thinking that I am a Christian, when in reality I merely have a cultural interest in the church of the monastery where I am spending a week and where I might well be spending a few months if the ferry service will be suspended.
“A few people have just arrived, so there seems to be a mass.” Hurriedly, I gather the camera, the notebook and a pen and run downstairs.
I take a seat in the last row, so I can imitate the standing, kneeling and crucifixion of the others. It doesn’t help, I still stand out because I am the only person not old enough to have fought in the colonial wars. And anyway, I am sure everybody knows everyone else.
Only ten old people show up. The church has been built as overdimensioned as the youth hostel. I wonder if the monastery was full at its time. Two women arrive late and the wooden floor is creaking so loud that the mice underneath hurry outside, directly into the trap waiting for them in front of the church. God isn’t too picky when it comes to the constant supply of yet more souls for his purgatory.
The sanctuary is adorned with gold, its splendor a stark contrast to the simple Franciscan monastery. Two chandeliers are hanging low from the wooden ceiling, which looks relatively new. Maybe the old one crashed in due to earthquake or neglect. The walls are covered with tiles instead of frescoes. Sadly no tiled stove, though. It is so cold that I will probably catch a cold instead of the Corona virus.
The priest in a purple gown and his assistant in a white monk’s habit reel off the standard Catholic program. Something about sheep and snakes and the sea (Micah 7:14-20). Father Mapple’s sermons are better.
A woman with a small fabric bag affixed to a long fishing rod is walking through the pews. I don’t want to be the only one not to participate in financing the show. At least I can get rid of all the small change. Money is a powerful transmitter of viruses, by the way.
To spread yet more viruses among the populace, the priest distributes wafers from his unwashed hands, coughing in between. I am the only one who remains seated and refuses to get poisoned, for which I receive poisonous looks from the Christians. The verbose mumbling actually did make me hungry. For a slice of pizza, I would let down my guard, but not for a cheap and tasteless biscuit.
Only at the very end, the priest finally mentions the epidemic. The assistant hands out instructions for the second, third, fourth and fifth fasting week, from which I deduct that they are not planning any further services until Easter. The Portuguese word for Lent, quaresma, already sounds a bit like quarantine, and I wish more people had the idea to forego work, football, church and – I say this with all due self-criticism – traveling. Regarding the latter, you are lucky because you can simply refer to this blog while you are at home, safe and cozy.
The lady from the youth hostel tells me that the monastery São Pedro de Alcântara dates from the 17th century. But already in the 18th century, the monks disappeared from one day to the next.
Some suspect a pirate attack. But then why is the golden altar still here?
Maybe they emigrated to North America, like so many Azoreans.
Or they were all killed by a virus. A bad omen.
The mystery keeps me awake and thus, at night when once again I am the only guest in the historical building, I sneak into the library through a labyrinth of secret staircases and towers. But the most recent chronicles I can discover in the light of the full moon are from 1717 and reveal nothing about the fate of the monks. Maybe they had a feeling that Enlightenment was on the horizon and they self-secularized in time.
On Sunday, I want to go east, to the lookout point at Terr’alta. Hitchhiking doesn’t go very well. The streets are like dead today. Finally, a very old and wrinkled woman wearing wellies comes to my rescue. Twice, she stops on the way, indicating that I should stay in the car, leaving the key in the ignition, and she carries a bucket with crabs or so into a house by the road. So that’s her tough job.
She shouldn’t really be driving at all. She keeps the same speed, whether on the open road or going through villages. In the bends, she doesn’t slow down, but complains about the road. Instead of guardrails, there are hedgerows of hydrangea separating the road from a steep cliff, descending straight into the ocean.
We cannot really communicate very well, I just keep repeating where I want to go and thanking her profusely. In a village on the road, she stops to show me where she lives, but then she continues. “For you, otherwise you will arrive too late.” Too late for what, I don’t know, because I just wanted to look over the sea.
Thus, the poor seafood huntress drives me for half an hour and I realize that the way back will be hard. At least on Sundays, there is hardly any traffic in the eastern part of the island.
As we come to a halt in Piedade, I notice that we went too far. She took me as far east as possible, and now she has to return home for another half-hour. “A good journey!”, she wishes me cordially. I just hope she won’t drive off the cliff on the way back.
Piedade seems to be haunted by tourism much less than the rest of the island. In the bar, the guys are more rustic. I order a Coca Cola, and the innkeeper has to rummage all the way to the deep end of the cupboard to find something so sissy-soft between all the beer and rum and whiskey. The men who once sought their luck hunting whales are now buying one lottery ticket after the other.
Rumor on the island has it that in the forests around Piedade, the best marijuana on the Azores is being grown. I remember an episode from Bolivia, where I, by complete accident, once hiked for a full and long day through the mountains where the cocaine producers worked, always wondering why the people were so different than in the rest of the country, more mistrustful and hostile somehow. But that has nothing to do with Pico, sorry. I don’t think the marijuana mafia is quite as terrifying.
Because the helpful lady overshot the mark, I now have to walk back. Calhau and Baixa and Ribeirinha are the names of the villages that I come through. Again, each of them has the memorial for the local soldiers, and each time, just opposite from it, there is a recruitment poster for the Portuguese Air Force (“Become part of this family”) in the window of the municipal building. In between, there are fields, cows, horses and great views.
And there is quite a long and tiring way to Terr’alta, where, according to the guidebook should be a particularly beautiful view across the sea. Why I am making the effort, I don’t really know, because I can see the water quite well from anywhere else on the island too.
But I have to concede that there is really a particularly steep drop at the viewpoint. 415 meters down to the sea. Only now do I realize how good it was that I didn’t slip while climbing up here through the forest.
Unfortunately, it has begun to rain, so I can’t stay and enjoy the view. No dramatic rain, but definitely not the kind of weather to walk back 25 km to São Roque. So, once again, I use the tired thumb. The road leads exactly to where I need to go, after all.
As I had guessed, it’s not easy.
And who ultimately takes pity on me? Two Germans. “We already thought you might be German, because who else stands by the side of the road in the rain?”, they say in jest. Apparently, we are known for not sparing money for rental cars or taxis.
The driver lives in Piedade, long enough to play in the local football team. The girl was visiting for a few days. She was doing workaway, which is something similar to house sitting, but is now terminating her stay on Pico because there is a Corona case in her family in Germany. I personally don’t quite understand why one would want to fly to Corona and the family, when one could be as far away as possible from both. I much rather stay in the middle of the Atlantic.
The next morning, I am happy when I spot the freighter in the harbor. The esteemed readers may be concerned about sub- and railway trains. But freight shipping is much more important that the trip to work or traveling for pleasure.
I want to go to Madalena, the island’s capital, and it’s palpable how much harder it is getting every day to get picked up. As an obvious foreigner, I am associated with the virus much more than someone looking like a local.
Finally, a truck driver allows me to come aboard. He has just picked up supplies from the port, keeping the island running and alive. I ask him what kind of merchandise he is transporting, hoping for cigars or newspapers. “Oh, everything: beer, tiles, batteries, toilet paper.” If he holds on to the latter, he can soon sell it for twice the regular price.
In Madalena, most of the shops are closed. There are long lines in front of pharmacies and cash machines. A barber has the “closed” sign in the door, but inside, he is cutting a customer’s hair.
Only the health-food shop has its gates wide open, profiteering from the pandemic panic, selling some “vitamins” and “natural immune boosters” at horrendous prices.
If I want vitamins, I prefer to go to the whaling factory at the port of São Roque. Because apparently, the little health gizmos are also squeezed out of the massive marine mammals.
I actually go there every day, picking up a large portion, because a healthy diet is really important during the Corona crisis. And in accordance with a recommendation by Herman Melville, I also use “tobacco smoke as a sort of disinfecting agent against all mortal tribulations”.
The largest hotel in Madalena looks closed, too.
I have already written a separate article about this, detailing the effects on tourism and expressing some of my thoughts and modest hopes. Objectively and neutrally as always, I recommend you to peruse it. But if you have a subscription to this blog, you have already received it a long time ago. During the Corona crisis, I am offering this subscription for free, by the way, so that nobody caught in the quagmire of quarantine has to survive without entertainment and information. Of course I am still very thankful, more so than ever, about your appreciative support.
The post office only allows one customer at a time, locking the door after I have entered. One meter from the counter, there is a line taped on the floor. As I approach, the official screams at me: “Stay behind the line!” But then, his more relaxed colleague hands me the change directly into my hand.
Oh, the things I take upon me to send you a postcard!
There is nothing happening in the harbor, either.
The tuna-fishing fleet is still being repaired or painted. In red, of course, the color of which there is still enough left for a few years, although it has been used extensively island-wide, as shown in chapter 8.
The ships will only go out in May, if at all. In 2008, the central Atlantic was declared a marine reserve, and EU regulation 2016/2336 bans bottom trawling. The hunt pays off less and less. Especially with ever-present alternatives of emigrating or going to war (see chapter 21).
The houses in Madalena are not as colorful as the ones in Lajes, but for that, dozens of them sport artistic murals. If the tourism information was open, they would have a city map with information about the paintings.
You must not underestimate these towns, just because they are small. There are a lot of cultural projects and arts festivals every year, most famously the Fringe Festival.
A walk along the coast opens up views of Faial, the island where I am going to spend the next three months. With Horta, they even seem to have a real city over there.
The two islands are only 6 km apart, but the relationship doesn’t seem to be overly harmonious. Whenever I have a longer conversation with people from Pico, I mention of course that I am going to spend the next three months on the neighboring island of Faial. I have never received any reaction of excitement, rather a mumble or icy silence. When I ask them if they have been to Faial, many say “no”, although the ferry only takes 30 minutes and costs only 3.60 € (even less for Azoreans, I believe).
People seem to prefer to keep to their own island. Or maybe the dialects on the islands are so different that it makes communication hard. Friends from Lisbon told me that Azoreans receive subtitles when they appear on Portuguese television, which is probably one of the jobs performed by Pedro, whom you met in chapter 16.
Maybe Pico is angry that the district capital is in Horta, on another island, and that one has to take the ferry to Faial if one wants to petition parliament or go to university. Until 1982, Pico didn’t even have its own airport. (Today, each of the Azores islands has one, even the teeny-tiny ones like Corvo with 430 inhabitants.)
And then – can you already spot it in the distance? -, I have found the most famous bar on the island, Cella Bar, designed like a wine barrel. Or like a boat. Or a whale. Either way, very hip and cool.
In the afternoon, trying to hitchhike back to São Roque, I can tell the difference caused by the Corona virus. At exactly the same spot, one week ago, the second car stopped. Now, hundreds are driving past me.
It takes a depressing half-hour for one van to stop, ironically full to the brim with face masks, plastic gloves, cleaning material and disinfectants.
“Where are you from?”
“From Germany,” I reply, being too honest to make something up.
“Ok, then. I was worried you might be from Italy.”
Nuno is a supervisor for a cleaning company and is really busy at the moment. His mobile phone keeps ringing with new jobs or with requests for masks or sprays. “And it’s already hard in normal times to find enough personnel for cleaning, because everyone wants to work in an office. Now, it’s impossible.”
He explains that the islands are well isolated, so that the risk of contagion is lower than on the mainland. But if the virus were to reach the islands, then the effects would be more serious because the health system would be completely overwhelmed. Portugal has the lowest number of intensive-care beds per capita in all of Europe.
In the end, the friendly disinfectant specialist heartily shakes my hand.
Sometimes, the clouds around Pico look as if the mountain is boiling and about to erupt.
And it would be about time. The last large eruption on the Azores was in 1957, on Faial. Maybe another reason for envy and jealousy between the islands? But nobody needs to worry, the two Picos, the mountain and the island, are both so young in geological terms that they will still erupt and earthquake many times.
By now, the ascent to the summit has been banned as well. I really can’t imagine how anyone would catch the virus up there.
The next morning, there is an armed police officer in front of the pharmacy.
In a tavern, I am ogled with suspicion, but I still get a sandwich. People are watching the news on TV. A Dutch tourist brought the Corona virus to Madeira, another Portuguese island in the Atlantic. Under the glances being thrown at me now, I feel like a kaffir wearing a kippah in a Ku-Klux-Klan coffee bar in Kentucky.
“Where are you from?”, one of the men at the bar asks.
In their minds, they are going through the news of the past days and a map of Europe, I can read that from their eyes.
“Not a good time for tourism,” the same man says, and it sounds like an encouragement to move my ass. To prevent being lynched, I should play the tough guy now and say something like: “I just came on the boat from Newfoundland. Any work here for a harpooner?” But I just stare at the television set, as if I am shocked about the recklessness of tourists myself.
When she comes around to collect the money, I notice that the waitress has put on blue plastic gloves.
When I hand in the key at the youth hostel one last time, the two ladies lock the heavy gate and set the building on fire.
From the last ferry, I take a last long look at Pico, where I felt better than the locals felt with me. But once this virus story is over, I would be happy to visit again. And maybe I’ll even make it to the summit of Mount Pico then.
- The youth hostel in the former monastery is really great, and I am sure it will be rebuilt after decontamination (see chapter 45). You can book either directly or through Booking.com. There, you receive a discount of 15 € if you register using this link.
- Azores Trails has plenty of ideas for hiking routes.
- The ferry connections can be found at Atlânticoline.
- You don’t really need a car, as you have noticed. In normal times, hitchhiking works really well all around the island.
- The most comprehensive guidebook for the Azores is probably the Bradt guide.
- More articles from the Azores.
- More sea.
- More hiking.
- And more hitchhiking adventures.
- If you are interested to read someone else’s impressions of Pico, I can recommend this beautiful blog.
Sometimes, I am accused of writing so much that you don’t need to travel yourself after reading my report. Well, you should be happy about that! Planes crash, ships sink, volcanoes explode, it’s very dangerous out there. And with the millions that you save, you could even donate a little bit to support this blog, so that I can continue to bring the world into your living room.