Azores – The Wonder That Is Flores

You were abruptly left here the last time: Azores – The take Off 

We had made our way through the center of the island inside a thick cloud, being able to see only the first few meters of road ahead of us. So the dropping cliffs down to the coast came as a huge surprise as we finally reached them. Not to mention the almost ridiculous amount on waterfalls.

With our mouths open we drove down to the shore and found the town of Fajã Grande, which had a camping ground, free to use. The town also happened to be the westernmost village in Europe. It was a small, sleepy looking town, locked between the green slopes and waterfalls and the raging Atlantic, home to around 300 people and quite some cows.

We pitched our camp into a corner of a stone fence, to be safe from the sea winds and rain. Right on our doorstep there was the Atlantic, the coast displaying the frozen lava flows as rugged black rocks. The waves hitting the rocks were causing a constant mist of salty water flying around the whole town, we got slowly soaked as we stood there staring at the vastness of the ocean. We finished off the evening at the bar of the camping, enjoying some port wine and and local enthusiasm. It is not a common thing to have foreign tourists camping out there in the mid winter, so we did pull some attention.

The next morning we woke up with drizzle. That green blob of and island seemed to gather all the moist from the sea and mold it into clouds over the highlands, from where it drizzled down on everything. The day we spent by strolling around, looking at the views that were not covered by clouds. We found some waterfalls and a beautiful lake in the hillside, in the middle of a jungle in total peace and quiet. It was a bit of a lazy day of sightseeing, which was good, since both of us had a flu looming just around the corner.

Back at the campsite, there was a surprise waiting for us. Apparently all the attention of last evening wasn’t just because we were tourists camping out in winter. It was also because I was Finnish. As we arrived to the bar, some familiar sounding babbling from among all the Portuguese floated to my ears. There were other Finns there, at the furthest edge of Europe! Apparently there are a couple of Finns living there in Fajã Grande and they had gotten the notice of us camping almost instantly, and came to take a look if the rumor had any base in reality.

After some chitting and chatting we were invited for a dinner the home of one of these Finns. We learned that one of them had been living voluntarily outside of the safety net of the society in Fajã Grande in a hobbit hole for 12 years already and his friend had moved just a couple of years back. Inspiring stories we heard from them and enjoyed a very delicious meal too!

The camping at Fajã Grande became our home for the holiday. From there on out we did small excursion and hiked some distances when the weather allowed and nobody was dying out of fever. The island’s shores are littered with beautiful villages, connected by picturesque fishermen’s trails. Along those trails you can easily walk the complete length of the western coast. The eastern side is a little less hikable, but there are loops there too.

I loved the contrast between the paradise-like coastal areas and the rough and rugged highlands with the volcanic cones and lakes, often wrapped in clouds. You could almost think you are on another island altogether. On the coast the weather is relatively gentle, and sunny days are plentiful, as on the middle of the island the clouds hang low, leaving the visibility down to few meters and the air cool. No surprise that all the villages are right at the shore and the highlands are inhabited mainly by cows.

We bumped into the Finns still a few times, visited the hobbit hole and shared some wine, food and stories with them, learning loads about the island and how life there was. Turns out, quite some people have left their ordinary lives and settled on the island, to slow down in life. We had quite some inspiring conversations. (Also found out that it actually is real, French people like Aki Kaurismäki movies!)

When it finally was time to leave, we both were reluctant to see the island disappear behind us. We were rolling the idea in our mind of beginning a new life on one of these islands, like so many had done before us. Maybe still, one day?

We still had a day on Pico ahead of us. I’ll let you into that on the next post, hold on to your seats, the pretty things are not over!

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Normandy and Easter – A Perfect Duo

Normandy. The green, softly flowing valleys, glistening sea, shining white cliffs and sky so close you could hug it. Normandy is such a picturesque place, I think my soul has found a second home from its shores. I am always happy to return there, and bring some friends along, like we did this time.

Normandy is starting to be our Easter habit, it seems. It is just close enough to get to for a long weekend, and just far enough to feel like you are abroad, or at least, somewhere else.

Early in the Saturday morning we hit the road. Despite the masses of people on the road we reached our first walk early. We had chosen a small loop around the countryside near the town of Yport. Yport, as many of the towns on the coast, sits there where the cliffs lower down to a valley. The streets climb and wind up from the beach onto the cliffs to go off finding other villages. The houses are a harmonious combination of natural rocks and bricks. I would imagine happy people are living in them.

After a good walk we headed to camp at the same place where we have been every time when we go to Normandy. On the cliffs, a few kilometres to the west from Étretat. Good weather and long Easter weekend had lured out some other wild campers too, so we did not get our favorite spot, right on top of the cliff, but no-one let that ruin the mood.

We got our camp up and campfire going at the edge of the cliff just perfectly to be able to enjoy the colors of the sunset. After dinner the cooling air shooed us away to our tents as the stars started to litter the sky. The night was chill and I could not sleep too much. Instead I listened to the sea and the calmness of the night… and Waffle, sleeping next to me.

I was surprisingly well rested in the morning, as we prepared for the coming day, by munching breakfast. The hike for the day was something we had already done with Waffle a couple of years back. The trail would walk us via the cliffs to Étretat and beyond, and return back deeper inland, stretching a distance of about 16 km.

Waffle and Bram found their inner children and were soon enough climbing and crawling into caves, eventually managing to get me and Maria into that business as well. The beaches and cliffs with their caves kept us rather busy for a while, but the crumbling tummies demanded us to climb back up and find our way to Étretat to get some food.

The closer to the village we got, the more people there started to be on the trail, everybody want’s the hottest selfie with the famous arches. I do think they are better seen a little bit further away, down from one of the beaches, rather than by sitting on top of one.

At one point Bram’s face went sour. He had dropped his phone somewhere. A vigorous search started. Me and Maria were left on the important duty of watching over the stuff, as the guys ran up and down the path in search of the phone.

It was nowhere to be seen.

After the shock treatment Bram swallowed his fate, blocked the sim and life started to go on again. We had a quick lunch in the beach boulevard of Étretat, trying not to get annoyed by the massive crowd of tourists.

Finally we headed on, over the cliffs again, before turning back via the fields. Half way back we ended up at the goat farm Le Valaine, where we had visited earlier too. The place where they make amazing chocolates and ice creams out of goats milk! Of course we had to pay a visit, after which Maria and Bram were rather sold too. The only sad thing is, that they are shutting the place down, since there is nobody to continue the business.

So if you happen to be into goat herding and ice cream / chocolate making, please go there, me and Waffle will promise to be your most loyal clients!

Another tired and serene evening followed with campfire rattling on the cliff and sun putting on its best show while setting. It felt good to crawl to bed and lat the sleep take us away to another world.

Monday was the last they we had in the beautiful Normandy. We started driving off towards Dieppe and another set of cliffs. We were passing a series of very beautiful Normandian villages and farmlands on our way to the destination, which was Criel-Sur-Mer.

Those cliffs covered in whispering grass were bathing in the sun as we climbed them. The northern wind had turned a little warmer with the sun, and hiking was very pleasant, even our Portuguese addition was unwrapping herself.

It was a very beautiful walk to end the trip, not a spectacular one, rather the beauty was more hidden in its subtle colors and warm sunshine. In any case it left me wanting to stay there. Normandy just feels like an improved Finland sometimes, very homely.

We’ll be back, soon I hope.

 

 

 

 

 

Romania – To Retezat

Weeze and Germany were disappearing below us, as Ryanair took us ones more to somewhere new.

This time the destination was the city of Timisoara in Romania. From there on, we would be visiting the National Park of Retezat and the Fagaras mountains. For the flights we had spent a total of 12 euros, for the two of us, there and back.

As usual, we had rented a car to make the moving around easy. The guy from the rental company painted an absolute horrible picture of the Romanian roads and traffic. He spooked us enough to buy an additional insurance, which is something we never do. So with a suspicion in our back bones we headed out of the airport to a night in a  hotel, oh, the luxury!

Our first night we spent in a small village, in the foot hills of the mountains of Retezat. It was a farm, doubling as a hostel. There were lovely dogs running around, a sleeping hotel owner and a friendly drunken man guiding us in. We had a large room, on the upper floor of a hut, leading to it a wobbly wooden bridge. And it was ice cold. The temperature was fast going down and there was no heating in the whole building. Bye bye for the dream of a warm shower in the morning.

In the morning we were faced by a drooping and grey landscape. The temperature was way below 10°C and it was raining. Not exactly the weather you want to spend a wonderful holiday in. But that was all we had, so we packed ourselves in the car and headed up to the mountains.

It was an interesting little road trip, to the southern side of Retezat. The road was taking us through small villages and gravel roads. Until it started climbing on an ill maintained mountain road and reached a dam and a lake behind it. There we needed to pay a small entry fee for the park (15 RON) to a lady who apparently thought we were a little bit stupid, to go there with such a weather. By then the rain fall was closer to snow that water.

From our map we had found a forest hut in the valley, rather close to the mountain peaks, we were aiming to make it our base camp for the following day or two. The hut was looking great. Recently renovated, with plenty of sleeping places and a working stove!

Before we settled in, we went to check out how far on the road we could drive, to have our warm up walk. The road ended after a good half an hour at 1600 meters of height, from there on you have to take to your feet. We packed on our rain clothes on top of all the warm woollies and headed upwards. There was a short climb through a forest onto a meadowy ridge, on the opposite side of the valley from the actual Retezat peaks. My legs were not very excited about being worked inside the not so well breathing rain pants. I was being cooked alive and the short climb was almost taking the better of me.

On the top we got a view over the peaks we would be climbing the following day. Plus it was nicely wintery there, with the mild snow cover on the dwarf pines that grow on the meadows. It took us only an hour or two to finish the walk.

We returned back to the hut. It turned out it was not quite as lovely as we had initially thought. Someone had left bread behind on the table, and that had brought in a nice infestation of rats. There were rodent droppings everywhere and the mattresses were chewed on. Yack. That was anyways our only sensible option for sleeping that night. We saw a set of fairly fresh bear prints just a hundred meters away, so sleeping in a tent was not really an option.

Sleeping with rats? Ooh great!

We walked over the whole hut, cleaned it and checked for a bed that was less rat infested and eventually managed to spend a rat free night after sealing all possible cracks with a foam mattress someone had left behind.

People please, do not leave any food behind in the mountain huts, lodges, where ever you might be staying while going through nature.

The night had been toasty warm and we were both ready for our first proper hike of the holiday. The plan was to get up to the saddle where you find the lake Bucura along with other smaller lakes, continue from there to the ridge of Peleaga and come down from the other side.

We drove again to the end of the road to start our hike from, packed Waffle’s backpack and headed towards the peaks of the day. The weather was getting better and the hiking felt so much easier now than the day before. We crossed a field with a camping ground and a mountain rescue hut. The field was completely turned over by boar. Huge herds of them by the looks of it.

The trail was climbing very gently, passing by one waterfall after the other. It took an hour to get above the treeline but over there the scenery opened into something breathtaking. I was getting flashbacks from our trip to Greece, the colors of the stone and vegetation were very much similar, as well as the season and nature around us.

Soon we made our way to the bowl that is surrounded by several magnificent peaks, Peleaga being the tallest of them. The ridges there look also very beautiful. Kind of a pity that we didn’t have the time to walk them this time. The saddle is riddled with small glacial lakes, where some people were swimming. In freezing cold temperatures. We hadn’t met any people on the way up, but up there tourists were plentiful.

After taking in the views and looking over the lakes we moved on towards Peleaga. The trail should pass by the peak and then take the ridge down on the other side. We strolled through a meadow and some streams and crossed some boulders on the way to a climb to the saddle. After the meadow the climb got steeper and steeper and the trail took us to a rocky slope. We had also reached the freezing point, and everything was covered in frost and ice. The ice had formed weathers on the stones and the colors surrounding us were rather remarkable, we couldn’t help but stop after every corner to take in the views. The peaks were surrounding us and the lakes below us were reflecting the sunlight creating quite an experience!

The icy tor continued on and on, all the way to the top. At some point we lost the trail, there were no more trail markings to be seen, but the peak of Peleaga was not that far away, so it really was just an issue of finding a secure footing to get up there. I hope the doctor won’t see any of the pictures, as he told me not to go climbing anything with the broken hand.

Somewhere before the peak we were swallowed by clouds. As that happened it felt like all the sound in the world disappeared too, there were these cool and moist mittens pressed against our ears.

We could only the landscape drifted in and out of sight as the cloud moved. On the peak it was as icy as on the slopes of Peleaga. It was very beautiful with all the icy tones of colors and we had found our trail again.

We started our way down from there, passed happily our crossing from the ridge back to the car and walked towards another climb. At some point there was a doubt of being lost growing in the back bones of ours. After some searching in the map we located ourselves and noticed, that we were heading straight to the peak of Custura Bucurei, which would mean an extra climb of 100 meters and quite some extra kilometers in order to get back to the car.

We took that route after looking back at the hillside we just came down from, and the estimated spot of our trail cross. It might have ended badly, to go down where the trail would have done. That turned out to be a good decision, there was a barely visible trail going down to the saddle where we had come from, from the saddle in between Peleaga and Custura!

It was nice to return back to our cabin again. There still were no other people and the heat from last night was still lingering in the walls. Waffle was quickly chopping firewood to get the stove going again and soon the gentle smell of smoke and burning spruce twigs was tickling my nose. After a good hike it was so nice to relax in a slowly heating cabin.

Morning came chilly again. We had planned to hike still one more ridge in Retezat, this time on the other corner of it, to have a view on the surrounding mountains too. That hike strated of steep. The trail was following a stream in an ancient forest, up to 50% of climb, so every step we took took us forward as much as it took us upwards. It was also muddy and slippery at times, climbing that felt like real work!

We made it all the way up to the end of the forest and met a view to mountain peaks and a large bowl hosting a beautiful meadow, functioning also as a feeding place for boar. A little higher we had a break and took out our cookies. There we were, munching on them with a warm sunshine and green grass under our feet. Then there was a sound coming form a nearby shrub. It was a snarling sound of somebody big.

My munching stopped, I looked at Waffle and he looked back at me. Was that a bear? Was the question we both asked from each other.

We came fast to the conclusion that it was a definitely a bear, and rather close by, by the sound of it and that it most probably had smelled our cookies. So we packed, swiftly and started moving away. The bear still murmured once before we were gone.

I got quite a spook out of that, we couldn’t help but look back every now and then, to see weather the bear would come out of the bushes. It was hard to keep admiring the view on top of the ridge, once we finally reached it. It was again one of those beautiful grassy meadowy ridge with small ponds all over.

The way back was exciting. We would have to walk straight back to where we had come from. The forest we came through felt all of a sudden more exciting place to be. The warning sings of bears we had seen suddenly had become very real. We started to look around more carefully and indeed, the scrapes in the trees we had dismissed on the way up, were much more meaningful on the way down.

We made it back by the early afternoon to a cabin that has started to feel a bit like a home. The rest of the day we spent looking at the maps of Fagaras, to decide where to go next. We only had the coming night to spend in Retezat. And what a night it was. The scare the bear gave me, made me a little paranoid and I kept jumping awake from every little beep. Poor Waffle, having to sleep with that.

About Fagaras you’ll get to read in the next post. Hang on until then!