East of Pico Alto lies the most picturesuqe village of the island, Santa Bárbara. Its lovely white houses with indigo blue lines (vertical, horizontal, around windows and doors) dispersed on the surrounding green slopes. For me, Santa Bárbara is the prettiest village of the island and I simply fell in love with its simplicity and charm. With its ambience of great tranquillity and serenity, this village provides very pleasant walks to explore its magnificent surrounding. Each corner brings another photo opportunity and there is wonderful silence apart from the occasional crowing of a cockerel.
And here live some of the friendliest people that I ever met on my trips. While taking the pictures (I could not stop!) a local woman passed by and we started to talk. Her name was Maria Inês. She showed me her house on a nearby slope and asked if I would like to go with her as it was a great view of the village from above. I helped her with the bags and we went. She showed me the interior of the house and we had a glass of locally made sweet liquor. We had a nice conversation about her family and life in the village. She offered to stay in her house whenever I come back to Santa Maria. And I know she really meant it. I was deeply moved, and felt very happy at the same time realizing that such places and people still exist.
Trying to find my little paradise wherever I travel, Santa Bárbara became my Azores paradise :)
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Continuing east along the coast you will reach beautiful white sand beach Praia Formosa, one of the best swimming beaches in the Azores. It is located in a wide bay at the foot of steep cliffs. Vineyards tumble down the hillside to meet the beach. The road, with parking, runs along behind the beach. Given its outstanding geographical location, it is surprising that this area has not yet seen any major tourism development. There is a small apartment hotel and campsite, and a restaurant.
Miradouro da Mazela providing beautiful views over the beach and the south coast. At the western end, before descending to the beach, are the ruins of the Forte de São João Baptista, dating from the 16th - 17th century, which the sea has almost demolished. The cliffs here are normally dark with pittosporum and myrica trees but in summer they are marked with 4m tall yellow flower spikes of agave.
Praia Formosa is also famous for its music festival Maré de Agosto which takes place here every August.
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I was on the road from the north (Lagoinhas) to the south (Vila do Porto). Somewhere in the middle of the journey, just a short drive to São Pedro, a lovely chapel draw my attention. The sign next to it said it was in the village called Fátima. I did not count, but there must have been some 150 stairs that led to the top where the chapel was situated. From there it was a nice view of the surrounding pastures, villages and the northern coast. Along the way there were nice gardens with trees, flowers, azulejos and sculptures with the Bible motifs.
This chapel is not mentioned in any guide book or pamphlet, and even the local people knew nothing about it, so I can't provide any more info. But it looked very attractive and I it was well worth stopping by.
Across the western plain, which makes an obvious contrast to the hilly and green eastern plateau, lies a tiny village of Anjos, situated on the deserted north coast. Once it was a centre for tuna but now the factory is closed. The little bay has recently been very nicely developed for swimming. There are two natural swimming pools with crystal-clear water as well as changing rooms, showers and a small snack bar.
Anjos has gained its place in the history of the island as it boasts the Capela Nossa Senhora dos Anjos which is considered the oldest place of worship in the Azores. This whitewashed chapel has an altar that is adorned with a painted 15th-century triptych (recently restored) representing the Holy Family. It is also the place where Christopher Columbus and his crew went to pray when he landed on the island on his return from the Americas. A modern statue commemorates the 500th anniversary (1493-1993).
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Northeast of Vila do Porto is the village of São Pedro. Surrounded by numerous trees and a huge palm tree in its centre, this tiny village boasts a 17th-century church, Igreja de São Pedro with a portal and a large window sculptured in stone. Worth visiting is also the interior. It features an interesting arch covered with carvings displaying the Portuguese royal coat of arms in the sacristy of one nave as well as beautiful multi-coloured azulejos.
Then I took a short stroll around the tiny village. I came across some very charming old houses and there is a nice restaurant just 200m from the church. And for the rest, peace and tranquility of the life in the countryside.
After taking a car in Vila do Porto my first stop was Almagreira, a little village just a short drive from the island's capital. I parked the car in front of the grocery shop where I bought water and locally grown bananas for the journey and had a coffee in the adjoining bar. Then I took a stroll around the village.
Stairs lead up to the church (which is centrally located) giving you a nice view to the surrounding pastures and fields with single little farm houses among them. On my stroll around the village I came across some very old houses overgrown with bindweed in blue-violet bloom which I found especially charming. A few ruins of wind and water mills can be seen in the area as well as the mata-mouras, ditches where cereals and other valuables were hidden from the pirates.
The side road up to Pico Alto, at 590m the highest point of the island, leaves the main road between Almagreira and Santo Espírito where it turns to Santa Bárbara. The clouds that hang in the mountains provide the area with moisture for rich vegetation and it permits a small amount of agriculture.
The landscape here is totally different from anywhere else on Santa Maria, as you ascend through dense cryptomeria plantations (the tree was introduced in the Azores about a century ago to give nature a hand) to arrive at a tiny summit, providing excellent panoramic views when the weather is good. From Pico Alto you are able to see the dramatic coastlines to the east, where high cliffs fall into the ocean, the pastures to the west of the island and the mountainous central region. Some native plants can be also found here.
A tombstone on its top reminds of the blackest day in the island's aviation history when a plane crashed against this peak and 200 Italians died in this catastrophe.
The peaceful village of São Lourenço is superbly situated above a bay with small white sand beaches and turquoise water. This village with its pretty white houses only gets more animated in summer with people enjoying all kinds of leisure activities on its beaches. Located on the northeast coast, Baía de São Lourenço is one of the most beautiful bays in the archipelago. It is well worth visiting for the spectacular descent by road down the cliff face. On the way down, stop at the Miradouro do Espigão which provides bird's-eye view of the bay and the vast vineyards covering the surrounding slopes, neatly divided by black basalt fences.
Worth having a look is also Capela de Jesus, Maria, José from the 18th century which houses a unique decoration of blue and white azulejos representing the holly family. Offshore lies another attraction, the tiny Romeiro islet, which consists of an interesting grotto, featuring stalactites and stalagmites, and an interior mooring. The islet can be visited by boat from São Lourenço.
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Santo Espirito is a pretty village surrounded by pastures and green hills. Well worth visiting is for Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Purificação, boasting a beautiful Baroque façade with surprising black basalt ornamentation on the front. Originally constructed in the 16th century and beautifully restored in 1966, this church is one of the most harmonious structures of the island. It is also noted to be the church linked to the first Holy Ghost festivals in the Azores.
Other interesting sites is the museum, located behind the church (open Tue-Fri 10:00am-noon and 02:00pm-05.00pm and May-Sep at weekends 02:00pm-05.30pm) with displays of early Santa Maria pottery, period household items and costumes. The museum also serves for exhibitions of local artists. For handicrafts, the local Cooperativa da Artesanato de Santa Maria sells delicious bread and biscoitos from its own bakery, and several traditional woven items.
Santo Espirito is also the departure point for a couple of pleasant walks providing beautiful sceneries and excellent panoramic views.
Descending to the coast towards Maia you'll find a beautiful Ponta do Castelo, classified as a Zona Especial de Conservação, with a large variety of important fauna and flora species. It is one of the places with most Mediterranean characteristics in the whole Azores, with an interesting vegetation and geography, marine grottos submerse and semi-submerse, charming bays, cultivated slopes and typical pebble beaches. This is a popular divers spot and the place to observe whales.
After parking the car by the road I took a walk downwards to the lighthouse. I was amazed by unique vegetation of agave and cacti. From Miradouro Vigia da Baleis (viewpoint) there is an an exceptional panorama over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Maia is a picturesque village on the wonderful southeast coast. Filled with quietness, it is located in the area of great natural beauty, on the slope of a cliff that forms a pleasant bay, classified as Reserva Natural. Many of the houses are now holiday homes, but there are still fishing boats on the quay of the tiny harbour.
There are natural swimming pools and crystal-clear waters, frequented by local inhabitants and visitors that get delighted with beautiful landscapes of the place. There are bathing facilities, a restaurant and a bar. You can take a short walk to Foz da Ribeira Grande and Cascata do Aveiro (waterfall). Unfortunately, there was almost no water when I visited.
The rough slopes are wisely cultivated and the stone terracing of vineyards is truly amazing. The wine, purely for local consumption, is vino de cheiro and a very pleasant sweet aperitivo. You can also climb up to Farol de Gonçalo Velho, dating from 1927 and can be visited. It provides a spectacular view not to be missed.
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Santa Maria's capital Vila do Porto is one of the most ancient towns of the Azores. It is located in a cliff-surrounded large bay and has two distinct districts, separated by the mother church, Igreja Matriz de nossa Senhora da Assunção. The older district below the Igreja Matriz, still reflecting some of the past splendour of the town, has maintained a medieval character, marked by the original layout of its streets and alleys. The façades of the old grand houses give an idea of what it must have been like. What is left of the old town runs uphill from the Fort of São Brás, which was built in the 17th century and provides a good view out to sea. The newer district is above the Igreja Matriz.
The town's square is in front of the Camara Municipal which is a grand building. It was the first Franciscan monastery to be founded in the island by the monks who came with the settlers. Worth visiting is Biblioteca Municipal and a small etnographic museum, mainly displaying artefacts related to weaving and pottery, especially the latter looking back on a long tradition on the island. Accommodation is very limited, only one hotel and a few pensions. There are a few restaurants, bars, supermarkets, banks and a post office.
Here we find exhibitions of furniture and tools of a typical Santa Maria house.
Also in this museum, the festivals of the Divine Holy Spirit are represented with written works and statuary from various periods.