I was staring at the wet pavement and my red boots which with every step interrupted the pattern of the typical grey tiles that decorate the streets of Horta. A man passing by too close reminded me that I should better look forward when I’m walking, which I did as some rain drops ran down from my raincoat hood to my forehead.
Rain is common in this town during most of the year, but the fact that you can never be sure about the weather always leaves some hope that the sun will shine soon. And this is what happened as I was approaching my favorite side of the town: the beach of Porto Pim. I used to lean against the remnants of the old fortress that used to protect the town from pirates and invaders since the beginning of the 16th century. During the winter, the sea was often rough and the waves were braking violently on the fortress walls. My eyes would always stop at the whale factory which lies on the other side of the beach. I always imagined it full of whaling ships, sailors drinking and singing, taking a break from their adventurous lives on the Atlantic and workers sweating over the fire to transform the precious spermaceti* into money. Porto Pim used to be an important port for the whaling industry in the 19th century. It was a hangout for merchants, workers and the famous harpooners of the island, well known for their courage, much needed for a tough job like that. Approaching the other side of the beach I would step onto its dark volcanic sand, very often next to several Portuguese man o war jellyfish that had been washed out of the sea. Things washed-up on the beach are just a taste of the rich marine life that lies under the angry waters of the bay, but it’s not only the marine life that thrives in the area. The cliff above the beach is designated as a protected Natura 2000 habitat, and its dune is one of the few sites where the vegetation, which originates from North America and was integrated in the local vegetation long time ago, is preserved. In the spring and summer one can hear the famous cries of the “Cagaros” (Cory’s shearwater), one of the protected bird species of the Azores.
Leaving the beach behind, one will encounter the view of Pico, the island opposite Faial, and its peak, which is usually surrounded by layers of clouds in different shapes and colors. Life in Horta is coupled with the view of this majestic volcano, as every time you step out of the door your eyes will automatically scan the horizon to look for it, before you even think about it. When the sky was clear, I used to lie on the grass which is behind Porto Pim, next to some remnants from the Second World War, trying to enjoy the sun as much as I could yet, not knowing how long it will last. Climbing Monte da Guia was another option on a sunny day. Monte da Guia is a volcanic cone that nobody should miss climbing, despite its steep slope. Reaching its peak offers great views over Horta and the beach of Porto Pim, but also over “Caldeirinhas”, a small bay created within the volcano’s caldera, which is designated as a protected area due to its endemic flora and rich marine life.
Following the path back to the town one can quickly reach the docks. The marina is full of drawings made by every sailor that stepped onto the island. Rumour has it that if you dare to ignore the tradition of painting a drawing of your ship, bad luck will strike you on your way out of the archipelago. Indeed all the surfaces on the walls and floor are completely covered with symbols, phrases, crew names and colors. Also, I heard some locals saying that there is a painting made by Cousteau somewhere around but finding it among a sea of paintings isn’t an easy task.
Another high peak of the city is Monte Carneiro, one of the best places for those who want to capture an ultimate view of Pico. It involves wandering for a while in the tiny uphill streets of Horta and passing numerous cows staring at you to find the way, but special signs will show you the way. For some unknown reason, every time I placed my foot on Monte Carneiro, the wind was blowing strongly and it was even hard to stand. I had a hard time to convince the tripod to stay in one place and every time I managed, it was only to realize that the wind wasn’t just transferring dust in my eyes, but it also carried a couple of clouds, blocking the view to the gorgeous mountain. Between cursing and enjoying the rest of the view I would always chose the second. Pessimism and whining are characteristics one should better get rid of before deciding to settle on this island.
I was delighted to realize that Horta, during the night, is lit up by old-fashioned yellow lamps that create a misty atmosphere in every corner of the town. The mysterious atmosphere was enhanced by the simple fact that nobody is in the streets; it seemed that everybody hides away after the sun goes down, scared of the winter wind and rain. Despite the unfavourable weather and the fact that I am a sun lover, I enjoyed a couple of rainy night walks around the town. One of my favorite buildings was the famous Tore do Relógio which is what remained of an old church built around 1861. Also, I was often giving my tiny camera a hard time while playing with the lights at the central fortress, known as “Forte de Santa Cruz”. Sitting on the small park behind it, I tried many times to imagine the scenery a few years ago, without the newly built docks and fancy boats, just with the sand and seawater touching the old walls. During nights like this, I would always end up around Porto Pim to enjoy its peacefulness. With a full moon in the sky the place to go was Entremontes, behind the beach of Porto Pim, where I could just enjoy the sound of the waves against the shadow of a legendary volcano.
Thinking about the months I lived there, I can tell that Horta is one of those places one will hate and love at the same time. Hate it because it is so peaceful and quiet that you will find nothing special to do, and love it because it will give you all the time in the world to invest in things we tend to neglect because of our crazy lives, such as a nice book, a relaxing walk, a genuine smile, human contact and friendship, but most importantly, ourselves.
*Spermaceti: whale fat used mainly in the 20th century for making wax and lighting oil