Furnas is a parish in the municipality of Povoaçao, located inland from the south-eastern coast of São Miguel. Furnas’ main attractions include the beautiful Lagoa das Furnas (Furnas Lake) and Caldeiras das Furnas (hot springs).
We travel from Ponte Delgada to Povaçao, literally meaning ‘village’, and pass by the huge lake on our way to the ‘caldeiras’, which will be our first stop. We arrive in the valley, which is actually a seven kilometre wide volcanic crater, and as soon as we step out of the car we can smell the sulphur. It is a curious landscape. Surrounding us are green hills, trees and beautiful flowers. In front of us is a barren, desert-like place, dotted with large holes lined by rocks with steam rising from the middle. The two scenes, although strangely harmonious, appear to be from two very different worlds.
In 1630 a powerful eruption took place and since then the area has had a great variety of volcanic activity. The boiling water in these springs is hot enough to boil an egg in two minutes however food cooked in this water would be impregnated with sulphuric acid and therefore would become unfit to eat.
Each of the springs is named; the big spring, the dry spring, the small spring, the muddy spring, etc… We follow our guide down a path and reach ‘Caldeira de Pêro Botelho’, the hottest of all the springs, spitting water at temperatures of up to 99ºC into the air. The rocks surrounding the spring have turned shades of yellow, orange and green from the sulphur.
Our next stop is Terra Nostra botanical garden. Around 1775 a wealthy merchant from Boston built a simple summer house in front of a pool that had an island in the middle. Surrounding the pool were trees that were imported from North America. In 1848 the house was bought by the Visconde de Praia, who built a new house and, together with the Viscountess, enlarged the existing two acres of gardens to include shady groves and parterres of flowers. Later, their son continued their work adding water gardens, a serpentine canal, grottoes and an avenue lined with Australian King palm trees. Many new species were imported from North America, Australia, New Zealand, China and South Africa. In 1935 the Hotel Terra Nostra opened to the public and shortly after the gardens expanded to their current size of 12.5 hectares.
We find ourselves at the large, outdoor thermal pool. The water is orange and a family of black swans is paddling across as we approach. They come right over to the edge and almost seem to pose for photographs, completed unfazed by the visitors. A notice advises parents to watch their children while using the swimming pool as the water is so murky that it is impossible to see just under the surface. A couple are enjoying a leisurely swim at one end of the pool while a few children are climbing onto the island in the middle. We are warned that it is best to swim in a costume or shorts that we are ready to throw out as the water will turn clothes yellow.
We decide to spend our time wandering through the beautiful gardens instead. We follow our guide towards the river and find ourselves in a tropical paradise. As we wander along the paths we stop every few minutes to photograph exotic plants and flowers of all shapes, sizes and colours. All of the plants have little signs next to them stating both their scientific and common names. We learn to spot the pretty, pink flowers of the rheinland plant and see the different colours of the hydrangea petals that turn blue when planted in soil rich with iron.
We reach the Memorial of the Viscondes, which is surrounded by eight Canary Island palms and soon we find ourselves at a little pond with stepping stones leading to a tiny island in the middle. We carefully follow the rocks into the middle of the pond. Although the water is cool, tell-tale bubbles remind us from time to time that we are not so far from the hot springs after all.
We arrive back at the thermal pool just in time for lunch and set off. Lunch here is slightly different from what we would usually expect and before going to the restaurant we drive back to Lagoa das Furnas to watch our food being dug out of the ground.
Approximately six hours ago pots were buried all over the ground by the lake, next to the hot springs. The heat from the springs has been cooking the food all day and now tourists (and some locals) gather to watch as the massive, metal pots are revealed. One by one they are dug out of the ground and carried to waiting vans. The vans then deliver them to the restaurants in the village. At first glance it looks like a rather primitive way to cook however the ground has been prepared for this and holes have been dug out and lined with cement. Each mound is numbered and some are labeled with the names of restaurants. The area where the pots are buried is fenced off and only the officials can enter to retrieve them. Locals can also bring their own food to cook and enjoy it ‘picnic style’ on the shores of the beautiful lake.
As the last pot is carried to the van we wander around the calderias, watching the water bubble and the steam rise. We can feel the heat without even getting close and are becoming accustomed to the smell of sulphur. We reach a huge hole; the steam makes it impossible to tell how deep or shallow it is but we can hear the rumble from the bubbling water inside. From the safety of the raised boardwalk, we walk past the steaming holes and the bubbling marsh land until we arrive back at the entrance to the park.
Looking back we are once again amazed by the lush greenery surrounding the barren, smoking grounds of the Calderias das Furnas. It is time to head back to the village to try the traditional lunch of ‘Cozido das Furnas’. The meal is made of all different types of meat and vegetables including beef, pork, chicken, yams, carrots and chorizo. It is delicious and we enjoy it with some locally made bread, wine and cheese.