Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Azores: Why Have We Never Visited My Homeland Before???

A hedgehog?  Really?  I thought we had horses on our family crest!

My surname, Rico, is Portuguese.  More exactly, it is from the Azores, a set of islands one-third of the way from Lisboa to Boston.  My grandfather, Manuel Rico, was born in Stockton, California, to Portuguese parents from the Azores.  His father, Manuel Rico, died young at 34 after immigrating from the island of Terceira.  My great-grandmother, Teresa Pereira, also from Terceira, remarried Nestor Freitas and had at least one more child, known to me as Aunt Lolly. 

Some funny-looking Azore natives?
Click here to see native Azorean dancers

I have only two stories from these ancestors about the Azores:  first, that my step-great-grandfather, Nestor, swum out to the boat anchored in the harbor and stowed aboard as a teenager.  Once the boat was safely out to sea, he made an appearance, probably scared and surely hungry, and was put to work peeling potatoes until they reached Boston.  Once there, he walked the streets speaking Portuguese to passersby until someone took pity on him and took him in.  Somehow he made some money and took the train out to California and met Teresa.

Beautiful roads.  Did my great-grandfather walk this one?

A second story is about my grandfather, Manuel G. Rico, who worked his way up from these humble roots to become mayor of his little town of Tracy, California.   Once retired, he was bitten by the travel bug and visited the world, bringing back dolls from every country that he visited for my cousins Dori and Dawn, and my sister Suzi and me.  (He died in 1967 before Simone was born, much too early at the age of 61.)  One of his first trips was back to the “old country,” when he visited the village where his mother was born.  He visited his relatives (perhaps for the first time?) and brought some soil and rocks back from the front yard of the home where his mother had been born.  Sadly, she died before he returned to California. 

La terra de mis abuelos

But to my knowledge, neither my father nor my Aunt Dolores ever visited the Azores.  Their grandfather used to tell them, “Don’t go back to the old country, it makes you old!”  Nor has any of my Daley-Rico cousins, not even my cousin Doug, who has traveled the world extensively.  To my knowledge, I am the first of the Ricos since my grandfather to return to the Azores.

My grandfather the Mayor, on the left

Third- and fourth-generation Portuguese Americans
I had no idea what to expect.  Nestled in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, bathed in the Gulf Stream, discovered in 1432 and settled by the Portuguese with the help of the  Flemish, the isolated volcanic Azores are verdant and black-pumiced, with walls everywhere made of lava rocks.  The towns are strikingly black and white, a brilliant stucco with black lava framing the windows and doors.  

Sidewalks, building, streetlights...all black and white

The foliage is a cacophonous mixture of pine, palms, maples, native brush, and tropical flowers, making the island feel like one huge Ladies’ Home and Garden showcase.  Hydrangea line nearly every road, blooming in huge blue, pink, and purple bursts.

Crazy mix of plant life

White hydrangea, too!

We drove first to the west end of Saõ Miguel, the largest island of the archipelago, to Mosteiros.  Luis welcomed us to his tiny home on the hill above the village and showed us to our studio, complete with a double bunk bed.  Five terraces of garden ran down the slope to the sea cliff from right outside our room. 

Luis's garden

It was raining and cold when we got there—the islands never really heat up in the summer, but neither do they get below about 15˚C (60˚F) in the winter.  (It’s said there are five seasons in the Azores—the four regular ones, and a fifth season, where you can experience all four seasons in one day! So changeable is the weather.)  Rather than tour anything, we headed straight to the natural thermal pool in nearby Ferreira, an 8-minute drive down to the coast.  

The gorgeous Azorean Atlantic

This amazing lava sink, closed in on three sides by lava walls or rock and open to the sea on the fourth side, has geothermal heating; the ocean water washes into the crevasses and comes back up piping hot with every wave back and forth.   You can choose your water temperature by swimming out to sea or in to the back of the pool!  We spent over three hours in the rain and drizzle, happily splashing from hot to cold to hot again.  Glorious!  And the next day we returned to experience it again without rain (just as glorious, only more people hanging out). 

Some like it hot, some like it cool

Inky black lava hot tub
The next day we spent hiking around Sete Cidades, the little village tucked between Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde.  Legend has it that these lakes were created when a young princess and a shepherd youth fell in love.  The king did not approve and ordered their separation.  The tears they shed created the lakes, the color the same as their eyes.  We were able to either walk or drive nearly the entire circumference of the caldera that contains the two lakes. 

Lakes of tears

Scaling the caldera

From Mosteiros we drove north and east through the north side of the island—a much drier and flatter landscape, although still green.  Up through Furnas we went, stopping at the calderas steaming and fuming in the center of the little village.  

Sulphury goodness

We were gawking in amazement at six sacks of something floating around in the bubbling, boiling water of a caldera, when a local stepped around the guard fence and hauled out the bags…of corn!  The kernels had turned the water bright yellow, and we asked what he was going to do with it.  What, didn’t you see?  he asked.  You can buy it to eat!  We hustled up to the market at the top of the hill and sure enough, there was the sulphury corn for sale, still steaming.  Delicious!

Nature's crock pot
We ended up on the southeast side of the island in Maria Resendes’s cozy bed and breakfast, the Casa de Maria de Deus.  She welcomed us in, dressed us in plush robes, put towels in our arms, and turned us right back around to Furnas, where we had unknowingly passed the Poça da Dona Beija, a sulphury hot springs with five different pools and open until 11 pm.  We soaked in fire and brimstone for a couple of hours, returning home relaxed and sleepy.

Bathing beauties

Behind the waterfall at Poça Dona Bejia

Sampling ginger flowers with Maria
The next day, Maria had breakfast waiting—special sandwiches in honor of the Asunción de la Santa Maria—and packed us a lunch for our next adventure:  Dolphin swimming!  We hopped aboard a zodiac boat with another couple and went in search of wild Portuguese dolphins.  Once spotted, the captain expertly maneuvered the boat into the path of the dolphin pod and helped us slide into the water to paddle like mad amidst the cavorting mammals.  Repeat this 9 or 10 times, and you feel like you truly have swum with dolphins, even though you get the feeling that they think you are quite the ridiculous human, chasing around after them so slowly!

Ready for dophin ops
Click here to see the dolphins

That night we ate at Tony’s restaurant, famous for its caldos which are cooked in the steaming earth of the calderas.  The following day we walked through the town of Nordeste, then drove back through the Serra de Tronqueira, a wild and curvy dirt road through spectacular forests.  

Warm waterfall

The birdsong was so enchanting that we stopped the car in the middle of the road just to listen, then found a spot to picnic close by.  

Mysterious forest

Returning that evening to Maria’s , she arranged for us to meet her neighbor José, who had a meadow full of milk cows.  Finally a chance to learn where milk comes from…and delicious!

Even the cows are black and white

Harder than it looks

Thanks for the lesson, José!
We finished off our visit with one more night at Poça da Dona Beija and headed for Ponta Delgada, and then on to Lisboa, where the faithful Lion Car waited.  It chugged us back to Puerto without incident (that’s saying something for this 1997 Peugeot held together by guitar string and Kevlar suture), where we were joined by my long-time friend Jenny Israel and her two daughters, Jesse and Katie.   They were packing heat in the form of a guitar and a ukulele, so we practiced up and played a gig at Conxuro in Valdelagrana!  Grand premiére for Tia and Sasha! 

Successful jam session

The girls rocked the house!!

But we weren’t done with traveling yet.  Stay tuned for Santiago de Compostela, Porto, and the Islas Cies!

Hasta la proxima, Azores!

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