Picture this – riding along at speed in an open, semi-inflatable boat, watching the sun sparkle on the mirror-like surface of the ocean…and you are somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, over 2000km from continental Europe. This is how a day trip to Corvo starts. Corvo is the smallest island in the Azorean archipelago, and sits on the westerly edge of the islands, about 20km north of the island of Flores. Opportunities to stay on Corvo are limited, so a majority of visitors travel there and back in a day. That day will be one of the highlights of any trip to the Azores.
The day starts with around twenty people (or thirty, depending on the boat) being packed intimately into a small craft, moored in the working harbour of Santa Cruz, on the island of Flores. I use the word intimately intentionally. It is possible that you will have someone’s buttocks bouncing on your knees for the duration of the ride. At least the squeeze minimises the chance of losing anything overboard.
The coastal cliffs of north eastern Flores are breathtakingly spectacular, and your skipper does full justice to their magnificence. These small boats are ideal for speeding between the offshore rock stacks, collapsed volcanic craters and passing behind the waterfalls cascading down the overhanging rocks. It is also a journey through geological time, with strata and sediment, folds and lava fields clearly visible.
Then comes the crossing, from one small island to another, in the middle of nowhere. Advised to keep a look out for whales and dolphins, the horizon stayed frustratingly empty, until out of nowhere a startlingly beautiful silver and blue flying fish appeared and cruised along side us for a few seconds, before plunging back into the sapphire blue water. All the while, Corvo sits there, frequently brooding under an elaborate hat of cloud.
Vila do Corvo – now the only settlement – is a restrained embellishment on the brim, growing gradually more visible as you approach from the sea. Again, the harbour is a working port – a lifeline between Corvo and the rest of the world for much of the year. The benevolent weather conditions of late July can be deceptive. In winter, frequently flights must be cancelled as waves metres high crash onto the island’s small air strip, stranding passengers for days. Nothing smaller than an inter-island freighter could make the trip by sea.
You will be met on the dockside by your guide for the day. Leandro was waiting for us. A young man born on Flores, he is passionate about the islands’ life and culture. He is currently renovating one of the many old buildings on Flores, to create his own home.
A quick car journey took us steeply up hill from the sun-baked town and into the cloud. On reaching the Miradouro Caldeirão, on the rim of the volcanic crater which dominates Corvo’s geography, the drop in temperature was noticeable. We fumbled for fleeces, before beginning the descent to the crater floor. However, once we had started down the stony path, the stillness of the air and the humidity meant that the extra layers were quickly returned to our rucksacks.
If patience is a virtue, it is a necessity in the Azores. Locals will tell you that you can experience all four seasons in a day – and this is true. Practically, this means that if you are prepared to wait, even for a little while, there is a strong chance that prevailing conditions will change, and you will at least glimpse that view which you hoped to see. Our experience of the trek down into the caldera and back up to the rim was one of ever shifting cloud patterns, mist rolling in and out again, tantalising glimpses of geography, geology, flora and fauna which would later reveal themselves just long enough to take some pictures.
A guide is very necessary. There are lakes on the crater floor, and much of the surrounding land is water-logged and boggy, carpeted with sponge-like sphagnum moss. This can look deceptively solid, occasionally with tragic results. It is not unknown to come across the carcass of an animal who strayed just a little too far from the straight and narrow.
Rather bizarrely, the interior of the wild, western flank of the crater shows the clear remains of agricultural enclosures, hedged with the ever-present blue hydrangeas. Leandro explained how – when once isolated more than they are now – islanders used all available land for growing crops. Now the crater serves as a natural animal pen; cattle graze peacefully and a few retired horses have been turned loose there, while farmers can rest easy that their stock cannot easily escape. The sides of the volcano are steep – so much so that hikers can’t walk the rim without a specialist guide. On the outer flank of the crater, there is an almost sheer drop of hundreds of metres into the sea.
On the drive back down to Vila do Corvo, old abandoned stone buildings loomed out of the mist – a reminder of the more scattered community which once farmed this land. The advent of piped water and electricity (still delivered by diesel generator) in the village meant that the entire population of around 450 people gathered in the main settlement, to take advantage of the opportunities modernisation brought. The old buildings are now used for animal and farm supplies, as they gradually weather back into the landscape from which they were hewn.
Given the nature of the environment, even now Vila do Corvo has to plan for a degree of self-sufficiency. It is said that there is always a three-month supply of beer on the island. Now, the forty six children can stay on the island for all twelve of their school years – until recently, they had to leave to complete their secondary education.
Next stop was lunch, and another Caldeirão, this time a restaurant and pasteleria of that name, on the southern most tip of the island. The middle of the day was sunny, still and sleepy, although the presence of small historic windmills across the road from the restaurant suggested that this is not always the case. Three now remain of six or seven originally constructed on the island in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, to mill locally grown cereal. Staring squatly out to sea, they underwent restoration in 2012 and 2013, and now stand sentinel on the island’s southernmost point.
After lunch, we wandered the narrow streets of the town – through an eclectic mix of old and new, the lovingly restored and the tumbledown. At the heart of the settlement lies the sixteenth century church, Nossa Senhora dos Milagres (Our Lady of Miracles). Originally named Nossa Senhora do Rosário, the church was rebuilt and renamed a century or so later. Legend has it that the statue of the Virgin Mary helped protect the islanders from attack by Barbary Coast pirates, during which the church was destroyed – the miracle to which the name now refers. In 1932, the church was destroyed by fire, during which many artefacts were lost – but again the statue of the virgin was saved, adding another wondrous chapter to the story of this fine building.
Further up hill, sits the Ecomuseu, or Casa do Tempo (House of Time). An interesting short film, using some contemporary footage, took us on a brief walk through the island’s history, geography and culture – all still in evidence the moment we stepped back outside blinking into the bright sunshine.
Back down in the harbour, while vital supplies were being off-loaded from other vessels, we took our seats in the boat again, for the return journey to Flores. Speeding back across the ocean in a glorious haze of sunlit spray, wild winter waves crashing on to the rocky lava coastline seemed a world away.
In Santa Cruz, we moored next to fishing boat from which some fine specimens of Atlantic tuna were being unloaded. Catch of the day? Maybe – but I think that belonged to us, with the catch of the holiday.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing,
Dear Jake. This is a long email, so you might want to go grab yourself a cuppa before you start reading. We just wanted to send you an email to say thank you so much for everything. Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing, it was far beyond our dreams and expectations,...
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