This morning was mostly spent exploring Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) and the surrounding area. We drove out from Lagoa towards here and along the crater rim to a viewing point above town. There is a romantic legend for the area concerning two lovers, a princess and a shepherd, who were forbidden from seeing each other other again by the king. Upon this separation, the green-eyed shepherd’s tears fell and formed the green lake, whilst the blue-zeroed princess’s tears formed the larger blue lake. The point where the two waters meet is marked by the bridge joining across from the peninsula to the town. All of this is contained within the ancient caldera, although you sometimes forget this where it is now so green and densely vegetated.
At the top of the crater rim there is a large, purpose-built but very unaesthic hotel built in the 1990s when it was hoped that tourism was about to take off. Almost immediately the hotel was abandoned as a failure and it is now an interesting site where utilitarian almost Cold War style architecture is being colonised by successive vegetation. At the viewpoint, a marking pole with the multi-lingual quotation ‘May peace prevail on Earth’ denotes the area that is supposedly the number one tourist ‘must see’ point in the island. Yet ironically, there is very little evidence that tourists have been catered for in this region. Very few facilities, and only a simple souvenir stall (sold out the back of a car boot) in sight. It is almost as if the government does not particular want to promote tourism or the Azores as a destination, despite the increase in overseas advertising and the need for economic investment. We have been told repeatedly by our guide that the government would prefer tourists to visit in order to consume and use local resources and surplus products in order to save money on exporting these, but it does still feel very Stage 1 Butler model pre-take off and with little united or coherent planning going into developing sustainable tourism. Not that I’m saying everywhere should become tourism-centric, but it does raise questions.
We then spent some time doing reconnaissance work and sampling some of the activities that would be available by local (Ponta Delgada based mostly) tourist or adventure activity companies. First off was sea canoeing on the lake. It was fairly windy which made for some interesting navigation and we all got suitably soaked, but this was great fun. An easy lake for students to paddle about on, and you could set up some fun activities with this such as races, orienteering, routes to follow for competitions etc,. After this we went on a guided mountain bike short excursion around the peninsula. Generally this is very flat bough uneven ground and a few hilly sections but a nice comfortable route passing small holdings, dairy farming, and a picnic area. Again, lots of potential for some ‘let your hair down’ fun with students to break the trip up. The company also offers pony trekking, guided walks, quad biking, canyoning, sailing, etc. and the guides were very friendly and helpful.
We then had some time for our own exploration of Sete Cidades town. This, along with most of São Miguel island so far, had quite an empty and almost abandoned feel as there are so few people visible in town! So far we haven’t really seen much of a community centre, of culture, of the traditional Southern European style. Many homes in the town are second residences for the wealthier citizens of the Azores or for those who have migrated to the mainland and then return here for extended breaks or long weekends. Emigration to the mainland is a real concern for the Azores, particularly since it is mostly the younger generation who go for university or for more employment opportunities and then do not return. There is a concern about brain drain and one wonders how sustainable the islands can be economically and socially in future if this continues. We are always being told how sustainable the energy and resource management is here, but can this continue and what is the point if the locals all leave?!
Generally this area feels more as though it is trying to cater to tourism, be that internal or international. There is evidence of new residential construction, and a few small cafés. European Union investment is leading to the creation of a new lakeside market and craft stall for the summer where locals hope to sell wares in season. A lot of the area feels quite utilitarian and military, not surprising considering the history. However there is an interesting cultural side shown (as also seen in Ribeira Grande) whereby homes are adorned with very ornate plaques above the door which depicts religious scenes or household saints, and a plaque showing the name of the family and year they moved in. There are also little insights such as hanging cabbages by doors if the homeowner sells cabbage!
After this exploration we went to a viewpoint over Ferraria – the westernmost point of the island. This felt like ‘proper geography’! Stark blackened basalt cliffs with crashing destructive waves against them. In places we saw collapsed landslide areas at the base of cliffs that are now flat, fertile and used for agriculture. There was a range of great coastal geography here and you could spend a good deal of time investigating these such as wave cut platforms, blowholes, caves and arches. You would need some very strict safety guidance and limits for student exploration however since the waves are quite violent and often funnelled up against the rocks, very dramatic. Above town along the crater rim there was also a large exposed area of pumice, a tilted and uplifted outcrop from past activity.
There is a very dramatic natural hot spring at Ferreira that goes into the sea. There is a small inlet area between the rocks where you can bathe that is regulated by tide. The hot spring pours out at 61C so the waters are only useable just before and after low tide when temperature is best balanced (the sea is about 18C). This was quite challenging but extremely fun. Perhaps not one for using with students unless they are strong since you have to battle waves and avoid underwater rocks. However there is also a regular swimming pool area that is still heated by the geothermal vent that opens all year round for regular bathing and would be much easier!
We then headed to our final destination today of Gruta do Carvao cave – an interesting lava tubes system. Although not one of the biggest cave or lava tube systems ever, nor having many stalagmites / stalactites it is still interesting and great for bringing kids. There were lots of collapsed lava pillows, pahoehoe lava flows and some minerals evident alongside some small ropy stalactites dripping and looking almost like teeth.
Finally we headed back to Pousada for an early dinner, since tonight was the first focus group planning and debrief session and getting packed for flight to Pico island tomorrow. We had a very productive session discussing logistics and itineraries which was great. Really exciting to consider some of the teaching resources that will be produced by Simon Ross for DtW and the GA with the input of the group, so that teachers can use these for all key stages in future either in conjunction with a trip (before, during and after the visit) or as stand alone resources looking at what makes the Azores distinctive and how sustainable the future is.