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Wine, Culture & Adventure on Pico Island

April 9, 2017

As I approached Pico by ferry from neighbouring Faial, its huge 2,351m volcanic cone—the highest point in Portugal—towered over the port town of Madalena.

Known within the Azores as the black island, Pico has a distinctive character all to its own. The reason for its nickname becomes abundantly clear as soon as I set foot ashore: its soil is black as ink and its windy roads contoured with walls of dark volcanic rock.

The Ilheus de Madalena, large rocks off the coast of Pico Island

Pico is geologically the youngest of the Azores islands, giving its landscape a grittier feel. Against this backdrop you’ll see many houses painted in a traditional style—black outlines against chalk-white walls, accented with fiery red doors and window frames. It didn’t take long for me to be charmed.

My first day on Pico had a cultural focus and involved touring the wine country and visiting some of the former whaling towns. The second day would be all about climbing mount Pico and exploring a few of the 200 lava tube caves hidden underground.

The site of the wine museum, and some centuries-old dragon trees

I met my guide under an enormous dragon tree at the local wine museum, who explained to me some of the island’s unique wine-growing history.

Growing crops proved difficult in the young and infertile soil, though the saying goes that on Pico one learns to make wine out of lava. To protect the grape vines from the salty sea winds, settlers built piles of lava rocks around small rectangular plots. The resulting mazes of walls are so typical they have earned the island UNESCO recognition.

The vineyard culture on Pico has UNESCO world heritage status

The wine-making industry collapsed in the last century due to plant disease and it wasn’t until the 90ies that it was reestablished with help from the EU. Some tracts of land still have their walled off plots but are overgrown with scrub, while others are back in full production, with the grapes used mostly to produce white Verdelho wines.

The Pico wine museum explains how the grapes are grown and covers the history of the wines, which were once popular with the Russian royal court. (One local wine still bears the name Szar because of this, and Russia remains an unusually key export market for certain Azorean wines.)

I continued on my tour of the island, driving in a circle all around the coast.

The charming town of Lajido is known for its traditional houses. Some of them have walls with rocks painted alternatingly in black or white, making them stand out like dalmatians in the black and green landscape. At the back of this town you can see old mule cart tracks deeply imprinted in some of the hardened lava—a process that must have taken centuries.

The drive continued past progressively greener landscapes and some cute former whaling villages, with many a miradouro (lookout point) along the way.

An artist had carved little faces like these into wood all over the island

Time for a break with fresh limpets and local cheese with honey

Arcos do Cachorro, the dog’s head rock

Caving and climbing Mt Pico

I had an early rise on my second day so that I could climb Pico’s volcano, which had tempted me with its peak since the moment I got to the island.

The trail is well set up and includes a small visitor centre where you can check in for the day. Unfortunately, this morning proved a harsh one for climbing, as cloud cover gave minimal visibility and extreme winds made it hard to keep your balance. I was literally getting blown off the mountain!

Mist sadly covered much of the mountain when I hiked

I gave it a shot anyway and got pretty far up, our path at times snaking along thick crusts of ropey basalt. But the cold 70 km/h winds were hard to ignore. Since I wasn’t lucky enough to get a clear view on this day in March, we descended again after a couple of hours.

Later that day the skies had already cleared up, revealing the top of Pico again

The climb did not seem too strenuous overall, however. Under normal weather it should take about 6 hours to get up and down again, earning you an epic view of Pico and its neighbouring islands.

The mysteriously overgrown entrance to one of the caves

I spent the afternoon exploring caves in several locations. If you want to visit some of the lava caves on Pico, you essentially have two options.

The easiest one is to go to Gruta Torres, a large cavern that you can follow down for about half a kilometre. Apart from an initial staircase down to the lower level, this cave is intentionally left undeveloped. There are no artificial lights inside, so you’ll be exploring it with flashlights.

The other option is to get a guide and descend into one of the countless smaller caves around the island. My guide from the tour company Épico (yes, that’s a portmanteau of epic and Pico) took me into two wonderful little caves. Both were in hard-to-find locations in the middle of cattle fields and forests, with their entrances covered entirely in ferns. It gave the whole affair an Indiana Jones feel.

Inside were some lava stalagmites, as well as caverns once formed by the gasses of lava flows. In the second cave there were also some old pieces of ceramic on the ground, and it’s believed that people once used to come to these dark places to collect the freshly filtered rainwater.

The hill in the background has a lava-formed chamber inside with this cave leading up to it

With cute seaside towns with distinctive building styles, hilly landscapes perfect for hiking, and plenty of other outdoor adventures, Pico might just be my personal highlight of the Azores.

Tips for visiting Pico island

  • While there’s plenty to see, Pico is rather off-the-beaten-track. Public transportation is virtually non-existent. There are only under a dozen rental cars on the island so be sure to book one early, or rent scooters or bicycles in Madalena.
  • Local tour operator Épico can help you with guided climbs up to Mt Pico, caving, wine tours, and other activities.
  • For drinks, try the Cella bar in Madalena. Sitting on a coastal cliff, this bar looks like a giant wine barrel that you can sit inside of. Very cool.
  • Many restaurants serve Azorean dishes in a traditional setting. For a modern and stylish atmosphere with Portuguese fusion food, try the excellent Casa Ancora.
  • There are many great hiking trails on Pico. For an overview, visit the official site.

The view from my accommodation in São João (the B&B Glicinias do Pico)

The center of the island is a labyrinth of rural paths

The former whaling town of Lajes do Pico, seen from its medieval fort

Lookout point at Mistério da Prainha – eruption sites were called ‘mysteries’ back in the days when the science was not yet understood

        

I travelled to Pico with support from the Azores tourism board.

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1 comment

  1. Ana Reply August 22, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Amazing!!!

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