By Ana Cristina Mendonsa-Garaventa
Some say that the Azores are the legendary peaks of Atlantis after it was swallowed
by the sea.
That’s easy to believe, especially after visiting Furnas — bells ringing from church steeples,
storm-driven thunder clouds overhead, old manor homes with their windows sparkling in the sunlight,
and wind-swept mountain ridges over crystalline lakes.
Its haunting beauty is unparalleled.
“Going home” is a concept with entirely different significance for those who have been uprooted from their home and now live elsewhere. To me, going home is returning to the paradisiacal island of Sao Miguel, where at every corner is a discovery and a memory.
The valley of Furnas, with the exception of a few road upgrades and Wi-Fi, has remained
the same as I always remembered.
Furnas is a magical village where volcanic fumaroles, effervescent springs, and geysers are part of the natural landscape.
Everywhere, the scents of baking bread and fresh fruit mingle with the scent of the ever-breathing volcano.
The valley of Furnas nestles within Sao Miguel’s volcanic crater, venting hot mineral
springs where fresh corn is cooked in burlap sacks immersed in boiling fumaroles; where botanical gardens
are home to black and white swans, and exotic plants and fauna from around the world.
The botanical gardens of the Hotel Terra Nostra are world renowned for their age and the variety of species there, but to me it is what I imagined the Garden of Eden to be.
Started by an American in 1780, the gardens are simply amazing.
There is a serpentine channel, naturally fed by hot springs, grottos, a gorgeous fern garden,
a camellia garden, a grove of old chestnut trees, lush avenues canopied by old ginkgos, lichen-covered
stone bridges, and lily ponds.
There’s even a small courtyard surrounding the Lover’s Fountain, where, according to legend, lovers who drink its waters are destined to be forever together.
The sounds are as magical as the sights. Countless birds call the treetops home, and delight visitors with their constant singing; various creeks murmur in tune with the rustling foliage.
The main feature of the gardens is the swimming pool fed by a natural hot ferrous spring; it’s large enough to often be confused by tourists as a small lake.
Swimming in the pool is a mystical experience; the water is warm and constantly pouring into the pool. Due to the minerals, one becomes noticeably more buoyant and time ceases to have its normal meaning. On cold days, the mist hovers, and iridescent dragon flies are easily mistaken for fairies.
The best way to appreciate the park is to go without an agenda and let its tranquility envelope you as you meander the enchanting pathways. Near the entrance, buy a package of bolos levedos, a type of flat sweet bread locally made, and toss it in a backpack along with a bottle of magnificat water (bottled in Furnas from a local spring) and just wander the gardens slowly, and allow nature to become a part of you.
As a child, this park was my playground. I played in its caves; climbed its trees; swam for daily eternities; and could not conceive that anyone could ever be alive and not have such a garden to visit.
As an adult returning as often as I can, this park gives the constant assurance that,
although I live elsewhere, I still belong to the Azores.
Furnas is a paradise where the soft clopping of hooves on cobbled streets, the babbling
of the brook beneath the mill at twilight, and the smell of fresh baked bread and wild
blackberries fill the crisp morning air — all calling to my heart with a ceaseless whisper to come home.
TOMORROW: The grottos