We awake at sunrise to catch the first ferry from Faial to Pico Island. Pico island (meaning Peak Island) is named for its imposing stratovolcano, rising from the middle of the island to a height of 2,351 metres. Mount Pico is not only the highest point in the Azores archipelago but also in Portugal. The volcano’s most recent eruption occurred in December 1720 and in 1562 an eruption began that lasted for over two years, sending lava flowing all the way to the sea.
Pico Island is around 300,000 years old, making it one of the youngest Azores islands. It is also one of the largest, having a length of 42 kilometres a maximum width of 15 kilometres.
The trip from Faial to Pico takes around 30 minutes and soon we on our way to the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture. This site was classified as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004 and consists of spaced-out, long linear walls running inland from and parallel to the shore. The walls are low and made of black basalt rock and were built to protect the thousands of currais (small, soilless, rectangular plots) from wind and seawater. Within the plots are vines that produce the ‘verdelho’ wine. In the 18th and 19th centuries this wine was exported to many countries in Europe as well as America. It even graced the tables of the Russian Court. In the currais we can also see small fig trees, which we are told are used to make fig brandy.
For as far as the eye can see are basalt walls and vines. The UNESCO site is 987 hectares in size and represents the best remaining area of a once much more widespread practise. As we drive around the island we can see currais in many other areas too. Some have vines growing in them while others look abandoned or as though they are being rebuilt. Our guide explains that currais that are no longer used are often restored by locals. Many of the residents of Pico island own their own vines and make their own wine.
Our guides takes us to a small shop near the vineyards where a lady sells her own wines and moonshine liquors. It is still very early but the shopkeeper invites us to try some of the liquors as she tells us about the different flavours and where they are grown.