Our first adventure in the Azores was a day trip around Furnas Lake, a popular spot on São Miguel, located over the eastern portion of three active volcanoes on the island. Furnas Lake is known for its bubbling, mineral rich geothermal pools and their use for preparing Cozida, a traditional stew cooked in a hole in the ground heated by volcanic activity. This spot of the world is popular with TV chefs – I remember watching Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain visiting it, both making remarks about how bad the sulfer blowing from the depths of the earth smelled. This is contrasted with what an amazing dish the Cozida is, when pulled out of the earth and served.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we would have to work for our meal. Our hike began at the end of the lake opposite the geothermal pools, near an empty gothic church, the Hermitage of Nossa Senhora das Vitórias, which is used occasionally for special ceremonies.
The Hiking Trail Around Furnas Lake
The guide with us, Andre from Azores Adventures, took us on the easy trail around the lake, on paths that sometimes cut into the thick forest that surrounded the caldera. On this trail, we encountered one of the tallest trees on São Miguel. Looking at its crown from the forest floor would give anyone a rush of vertigo. Although we could easily have done this hike on our own, it was great to have Andre with us, as he knew much about the flora and fauna of the island. His knowledge added an extra dimension to how we experienced the wonderful nature around us.
The landscape around us was serene and beautiful. Although the forest grew thick higher up the slopes, around the lake, it was well maintained, almost manicured. The grass and trees were verdant green, contrasting with blooming flowers of all colors. It felt as if we were walking through a private garden. For most of the hike, it was only our small group of four and the occasional tourist. The lake was calm, surrounded by perfectly cut grass on its banks, great for picnicking on. At one point, we noticed rough, modern looking, wooden statues dotting the banks of the lake. Andre told us that the statues were chainsaw art, carved from the trunks of dead trees with a chainsaw and turned into detailed, totem like monuments. As modern sculptures go, we thought they were some of the best we’ve seen.
Geothermal Pools of Furnas
After a couple of hours, we reached the geothermal pools. We smelled them before we saw them. The area was a large grey patch of gravel beside dark ponds, steaming as if they were heated by the fires of hell. Most of it was fenced off, which was just as well; especially after Andre told us the harrowing story of a drunk person stumbling into one of the sulfur pools by accident. Amazingly, he managed to swim out and was taken by helicopter to mainland Portugal for treatment. Unfortunately, despite this feat and the heroic efforts of the Portuguese rescue services, he didn’t make it.
Around the steaming patch of ground there were many minivans with restaurant signs printed on them, surrounding the covered vats in the ground. It was lunchtime, and Andre told us that the restaurants were all here to pick up their meals, which had been cooking in the earth since dawn. He told us our meal was also one of the many that were there.
Furnas Lake Villas
Our hike was almost done, and we walked on for another hour before returning to where we started. It was almost time for lunch. We were taken to Furnas Lake Villas, which was a beautiful farm nearby. Driving into its grounds was itself quite an experience. The restaurant and the adjacent villas that are available for holidaymakers were located inside a thicket of forest, lending the entire property an air of mystery. The dining area was in a rectangular bungalow in the centre of the farm; its decor was chill and chic, one of rustic luxury. We found ourselves wishing we’d known about this place earlier. We would have loved to stay here a few nights.
Cozido Cooking – A Meal Cooked in the Hot Springs
Our meal arrived, and not too soon, as we were ravenous by now. The stew of meats and vegetables was served on a huge, steaming casserole and smelled and tasted amazing. I especially loved how the flavours of the smoked sausages mixed in with the sides of beef, pork and chicken, and the vegetables, which are all grown locally on the rich volcanic soil of São Miguel. All in all, our excursion to Furnas Lake with Azores Adventures was absolutely perfect. A great introduction to the interior of the island and a wonderful experience of Azorean tradition.