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Azores - Europe's Best Kept Secret

Everyone who knows me is aware that my secret getaway spot is a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. And even though I'd really love to keep it to myself, it's not really fare, as this place is one of the most unique and beautiful I've ever seen.

Azores islands are a volcanic archipelago, consisted of nine islands, divided into three groups - Eastern (the islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria), Central (the islands of Terceira, Pico, Faial, São Jorge and Graciosa) and Western (the islands of Flores and Corvo). From all nine of them, over the years I have been blessed enough to explore seven, haven't been able to visit yet only Graciosa and São Jorge, but hopefully soon this will change.

First of all, let me tell you that Azores islands are not a destination for a mass tourism. Here you will not find big hotels and all inclusive resorts, so if this is what you're looking for, you better search for it somewhere else. Because Azores is a place where you go to connect with Nature. The never ending, lush green fields, often contrasting to the blue ocean create a magnificent scenery - what locals are most proud of. And for a good reason. Located more than 2000 km away from any big polluting manufacturing, these islands hide one of a kind experiences and landscapes, sometimes mistaken for paintings. So if you're a nature lover, you better start planning your trip.

São Miguel is the biggest island of the archipelago. Its easy access (from Lisbon and from some other European cities as well) makes it a great starting point to get to know this little piece of heaven, widely spread over the Atlantic. The volcanic heritage is visible everywhere around the island, as all the former craters are now beautiful lakes. Or still a live volcano, like the one around Furnas village, where you can try a delicious meal cooked entirely underground, exclusively by Mother Nature. Or take a dip into the hot, reddish springs, very rich in iron and great for your body. I told you - one of a lifetime experiences. And there's more, as here will find everything from 16th century architecture, through beautiful hikes to black sand beaches.

If you're craving even more low key experiences, combined with a great beach, then Santa Maria is your place. It is definitely my place. It was the first one to be discovered of all nine, by the Portuguese navigator Diogo de Silves in 1427 and as it's the southernmost island, Azorean people call it "the sunny island". Due to its mixed origin - sediment and volcanic, it's the only one with white sand beaches, where São Lourenço bay is known as the most beautiful within the archipelago. If you're into snorkelling and/or diving to observe the amazing marine life, then you should definitely include Santa Maria in your itinerary.

As its name tells it - Terceira island was the third to be discovered. It's historical capital Angra de Heroísmo (dating back to 1534) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it served as an important centre during the maritime explorations of 15th and 16th centuries. The main economic activity on the island is raising livestock and the production of high quality dairy products. So, due to its strong connection with these animals, Terceira island is very known for the bullfights. But not only for the classical ones - inside the ring. Terceira people are also huge fans of the so called "touradas à corda", happening right on the streets. Locals are big on having fun and when they party, they party hard. So if you're into parties, what better place for you to visit than the "amusement park of Azores" (I'm not kidding - this is how Azorean people call Terceira island).

Pico means "peak" in Portuguese. And when you see images of the island you will understand why it's called this way. Its impressive 2341 meters high peak is in fact the highest in Portugal and is still an active volcano. When visiting the island, highly recommend you to add a day or two to climb it if weather allows it - it's such a magical experience and the views from up there are simply breathtaking. Often referred as the "black island" due to its volcanic landscape, its unique, traditional houses are made of volcanic rocks and its historical vineyards are UNESCO-recognized. The island is also an amazing place for whale-watching.

Some people say that the best of Faial island is its view towards Pico. And while this is also true, I find this island very worth exploring as well. Also known as the "blue island", inspired by the writings of Portuguese poet Raul Brandão, due to millions of hydrangeas blooming during the summer months, the views of which are so spectacular. Very famous stop within sailors, Horta's marina is the biggest on the archipelago and forth most visited one in the world. Its well asleep, almost circular, 2000 meters in diameter Caldera is located inside the highest peak of the island, a little over 1000 meters of altitude. However, the most recent eruption happened a little over 60 years ago (1957-1958) at Capelo Volcanic Complex, which led to enlarging the island with 2,4 km by creating "Ponta dos Capelinhos" - a really unique spot to visit.

The Parliament of the Autonomous Regional of Azores is also located here.

São Jorge island is the third one from the so called Triangle (Pico - Faial - São Jorge). Very different from all other islands of the archipelago, it is quite long and thin. Due to its geomorphology - high cliffs and rough central plateaus, its population is concentrated along the coast in the "fajãs" (means a lower site by the sea). I personally have never been to São Jorge island, but all images I've seen from these "fajãs" are awe-inspiring. A must try on the island is the local "São Jorge cheese".

In Portuguese Graciosa means "graceful, enchanting" and it might be an enchanting island indeed. A relatively small and rather isolated, it maintained its rural and calm character. It has a well preserved Caldera, close to which are located the Carapacho thermal springs. Discovered back in the 1750s, these springs are widely used to help rheumatism, skin and liver problems. Its water is rich in magnesium and emerges at temperature of 40*C.

Some people say that Flores island is the most beautiful one of the entire archipelago. Its name means "flowers" in Portuguese and originates from the beautiful hydrangeas that cover the island in pink and blue during summertime. Besides the colourful landscape, here you will find secluded hikes, beautiful lakes, breathtaking waterfalls. It's kind of like a mini-version, however more concentrated one, of São Miguel island, but less crowded and more peaceful. Plus, the microclimate of Fazenda forest allows the development of great variety of exotic species from all over the world. Flores island is very close to my heart, as here for the first time in my life I saw a white swallow (very special bird in Bulgarian folklore).

Corvo is the smallest island of the archipelago with an area of a little over than 17 square km and population of around only 460 people. Can you imagine yourself living here? Its caldera is called Caldeirão (in Portuguese "big caldera"; I guess because of its size, compared to the size of the island) with a diameter of 2000 meters and 300 meters in depth, and is basically the most interesting thing to see here. However, being on such a small island gives an amazing feeling of experiencing something really exceptional and quite exclusive.

Every time I come back to the Azores (and believe me - I come back every year), I don't get tired of experiencing the beauty and uniqueness of these islands. And how could I, when this little piece of heaven is the ultimate place to dive within pure nature, surround myself with great people and disconnect form the rest of the world.



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