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Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Azores


When the police car drew up alongside us for a second time - lights flashing , angry cop shouting something at us through the rolled down window - it seemed unlikely that we would get away with the same "get going" gesture he'd given us the first time around. And indeed, this time he had a whole lot more to say in rapid-fire Portuguese, and perhaps a ticket to dispense.  

The first time he stopped, we had just pulled out of the airport car rental at Ponta del Garda and were waiting at the side of the road for Ed and Bonita to pull in front of us and lead the way to the house they are letting to us. The policeman didn't like us stopping and waved me on and then blocked our guides, so that we could no longer see them behind us.  So just around the corner I pulled off the road to wait for them to catch up, having missed the turning that we were supposed to take and which Ed and Bonita had in fact taken behind us. A minute later, here was Officer Friendly again looking cross. Given that it was eleven at night and we had no idea how to get to our holiday home, I didn't really want to drive off blindly into the  Azorean night for a second time. But suddenly there was a furious Ed running across from the other side of the road, jumping over the median and leaning in through the police car window, jabbing his finger at the cop and shouting at him. The cop was shouting back; things were getting heated. Mid-argument, the officer suddenly remembered us, waved off Ed and got out of the car to tell us to move on. Then Ed walked over and was just as forceful that we should stay put.  "Shall I just drive onto the nearest parking area...?" I offered weakly by way of mediation. But it became clear that the argument had now moved beyond us, gathering momentum of its own fuelled by pride, machismo and a sense of civic seniority.

At some point Ed seemed to get the upper hand. Tempers cooled, voices were lowered and eventually the policeman had him follow us on a long loop road back to the airport to where Ed and Bonita were now parked. Ed wasn't letting the matter drop though and stayed with the policeman to take his name and number to make a formal complaint, while Bonita got in our car to take us to our house. 

I have wanted to come to the Azores for a long time; since seeing pictures of these jewel green islands, lost in the mid-Atlantic as a kid. Our village, Mosteiros, feels like the Welsh fantasy village of Portmerion: a cluster of low rise, thick-walled stone houses with small windows and clay-tiled roofs. Some have been added to our the years - a roof terrace here, a sunroom there, but always on a modest scale with no hang ups about symmetry. Some are crisply plastered and brightly painted, others though have left their grey-black lava blocks unadorned. Many of these cottages have colourful tiles with religious imagery set high on a wall. At one end of our street is an ancient watchtower of some sort; at the other the stump of a windmill. Cats patrol the narrow lanes, and behind us green hills rise up with strips of field separated by bushy hedges. But what really makes this place is the furious, roaring, pounding sea below our terrace. It sounds like one long express train hurtling past. Swelling blue-green breakers with white foamy tops charging and collapsing into the frozen black lava.

In the car last night, zig-zagging along the unlit coast road, Bonita told us that the Azores are still in something of a time warp. It is never crowded here apparently even in the height of summer. There are relatively few places to stay compared to Madeira further south which she said is now being used as a model of how not to develop a tourist infrastructure. The coast here is not lined with hotels. Before the global recession she said people were beginning to discover this chain of islands, but then tourism fell away. In the last few years the EU has put up road signs and re-paved the roads, but Sao Miguel - the largest island - has the atmosphere of a place that is just off the map somehow. It doesn't feel quite part of anywhere else. People notice you on the street and are slightly reserved. The grocery store in Mosteiros has something of everything including, to my great delight, an imperial brake-pipe flaring-tool kit hanging next to the boxes of safety pins. I needed one to fix my old TVR and had to track it down on EBay the day before we left but I wish I had waited and got it from the store. 

We are sitting on the terrace marvelling at the Atlantic swell. It is unbelievably loud.  When the sun is out, it's almost too hot to sit here and the sea is too dazzling to look at. But black clouds have been sweeping over too, throwing brief, sharp showers at us. A few hundred yards offshore, great waves are pushing at a string of tall rock spires. They  look like cloaked figures standing in the sea, birds wheeling around them, They are known as the "friar and the nuns" and the village of Mosteiros, or "monasteries" is named after them.