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Dance on a volcano

Nearly 1,400 km from the westernmost point of the European mainland, nine volcanic islands rise from the Atlantic Ocean. The smallest has an area of only 17 km², the largest 750 km².

That sounds like diving, surfing and swimming to us. But biking? Really?

Just recently taken off, the plane starts to touch down again. The shortest flight of our life takes just 15 minutes and takes us from San Miguel, the largest island of the Azores, to Santa Maria. Approximately 5000 people live on this small island. Two of them are Andre and Miguel, who welcome us at the airport with a Landrover and a minibus. Luis Melo landed with us. He grew up on San Miguel and knows the Azores like no other.

As an enthusiastic biker, he is the ideal companion for our trip over the next few days. Today, the passionate teacher works for tourism in order to further develop biking in the Azores.

"Dance on a Volcano" - from the film

20 trails, 97 km² of area and the highest point at 587 m

My travel companion Jenny and I learn from Andre on the way to the hotel that there are more than 20 trails on the island, that Pico Alto with 587 m is the highest point and that we certainly will not have enough time to see everything. We look at each other surprised. With an area of 97 km² two days won't be enough to see everything? We don't have much time to wonder, because after only a few minutes we are in the hotel. The distances are pleasingly short on a small island.

We mount the bikes and go for breakfast to a small, well filled bar at the village square. We make the first mistake typical for tourists and order cappuccino. It comes out of a bag and not from the temptingly shiny coffee machine behind the counter. "In future we should order "Pingado", espresso with a dash of milk, Andre recommends. We are biting into our sandwich, covered with cheese from the farm opposite, when Luis approaches us with excitement. The postman is here: Nuno Aguiar. We must get to know him. As Luis explains, he has not only brought many letters to the island, but also biking.

A few years ago he moved from Sao Miguel and soon started to free old tracks from the sprawling vegetation with shovel and hoe in order to pursue his passion, downhill riding. Even today, all bikers still benefit from this, even if Nuno has little time left to take care of the trails. Trail maintenance has been taken over by other bikers. After a stimulating conversation about the development of biking on the island, Nuno must continue to distribute letters. And we too can hardly wait to finally take the first trails.

We can hardly wait to ride the first

Trails

As expected, we shuttle to the highest point of the island, the "Pico Alto".

The further we climb, the denser the vegetation becomes. The lush greenery completely captures us. Again and again trails cross the road and we slowly suspect its potential for cyclists. Once we reach the top, it immediately kicks off. A short pedal and we dive into the dense, jungle-like forest. Luis immediately accelerates. As a local he knows every stone and every corner. We on the other hand have to get used to the soft soil with its roots. Luis is waiting for us at every turnoff so that we don't get lost. Like a spider's web the paths run over the mountain. "Santa Barbara", our trail leading to the village of the same name, winds its way through the thicket, but in between it offers views of the green island.

At the next stop Luis warns us to be careful. The following section goes through a mini canyon, which is not much more than handlebar width, man-high and very slippery when wet and offers hardly any room for manoeuvres, or even riding errors. And for real, already the entrance into the tunnel-like section is covered with greasy stones. Brakes on and fun is all that's needed. It slips and it slides, my handlebars twice whitewashes the wall until the canyon spits me out again on a meadow. First stop and take a deep breath. When my pulse has calmed down, I take the surroundings back and see the first houses of Santa Barbara lying further down in the lush green.

The colorful shutters form a strong contrast to the white facades of the houses. As we learn, in earlier times the colour was an expression of the wealth of the families living there. We sit shortly before the imposing church in the centre of the village, let the rural charm of the small village work its magic on us and wait only a few minutes in the sun for our transfer. We continue, again up to the "Pico Alto" to tackle the next run.

"Dance on the volcano" - from the film

We are amazed by the

Diversity of routes

In laborious manual effort they are maintained and some passages are optimized for biking. Small drops, jumps and short pedalling passages fit perfectly into the landscape and seem almost natural. All trails have a name and usually a little history. The "Aeroplane" has its name for example from a plane crash in 1989, where a Boeing 707 crashed here at the Pico Alto. A commemorative plaque commemorates the terrible event to this day.

Also the next day passes much too fast for us. We cycle down steep paths into lonely bays and cross the "Barreiro de Faneca", a gently undulating landscape consisting of red clay deposits, which is also known as the red desert. The variety of the routes is unbelievable. At noon we stop at "Praia Formosa", one of the most beautiful beaches of the island. Here the famous music festival "Mare de Agosto" takes place every year. For a whole week, typical Azorean music, jazz, rock and pop, as well as other cultural performances can be experienced. Every year thousands of visitors from all over the world come to the otherwise dreamy bay with its colourful bars.

When we say goodbye in the evening at the airport, we have to agree with Andre and Miguel. The two days were much too short to get to know this unique island, where time seems to turn a little slower, with all its possibilities. The short flight back to San Miguel is not nearly enough to process the abundance of the collected experiences of the past days.

The next morning begins no less impressive. After a short bus ride we reach our starting point high above the "Lagoa do Fogo", the "Lake of Fire". It lies deep below us in the middle of a crater. The wind whistles and we seek shelter to watch the sunrise. We do not wait long and already the reddish shining sun appears on the horizon and bathes the surrounding landscape far below us in warm light. A grandiose natural spectacle. From up here we have a gigantic view over large parts of the island.

A firework of impressions

In addition to the unforgettable sunrise spectacle, there is another reason why we visited this vantage point. The entrance to the so-called "Cathedral" Trail is right here at the highest point. A firework of impressions pours down on us as we enjoy one of the longest trails on the island. With some good riding technique we have time to inhale the unique views at the beginning of the trail at the crater rim. Shrieking loudly, seagulls draw their circles and accompany us for quite a while. Further down we dive into the dense green and silence of the forest surrounding the mountain. The varied trail fun leads down to the sea, which alone is reason enough to get to the island by bike. With a broad grin on our faces we have a late breakfast in a small bar.

On our way back we visit the tea factory Chá Gorreana, a 45 hectare tea plantation on the north coast. Idyllic and far away from any industry, this family business is located, where about 40 tons of tea are harvested annually. Thanks to the special climatic conditions, the plants of the Chinese tea cultivated here can be grown completely free of pesticides or herbicides. More than 30 employees still process most of the tea by hand today. A bewitching scent rises up into our very noses as we take a warm stroll through the production plant and observe the employees at work. In a specially furnished room we enjoy the freshly made tea which is provided free of charge for tasting.

High Five

The most famous Enduro race on San Miguel is the "FAIAL DA TERRA ENDURO FEST". Eight various stages are held here spread over two days. Of course we don't want to miss this Mecca of enduro sports on the island and visit the community of the same name, "Faial Da Terra", located on the south-east coast. As we approach the village, Luis gets jittery and points in all directions out of the bus, listing countless different trails and their combinations. Many of them are used in the Enduro race.

Our heads buzz as we get out of the car. The fresh, clear air helps us to stop the thought carousel and bring us into reality. Already we discover on the opposite side of the road a wooden sign stating "Pico Grande" and the pictogram of two mountain bikers. We pedal off comfortably. "We have rebuilt a few jumps, but everything works", Luis beams full of anticipation in my direction. He is often here and knows practically every stone. Shortly after the trail drops steeper, a stream appears, over which a jump is built. Luis starts and whirls through the air, the rest of the crew circles the ramp. I don't really like jumping over gaps, that I haven't seen before. But motivated by the waiting crew I take hold and start. I scan the surroundings in a hurry and at some point it's too late to stop. I grit my teeth and go over it. I land softly on the other side after a few flight meters. Built perfectly, I think with a grin on my face. The rest of the way is also optimized for biking, without appearing too artificial. Occasionally there are small jumps to be found..

The riding fun ends in the middle of Faial Da Terra. High Five! We slap away, filled with adrenaline.

"Pedra Torta", a stony, completely natural trail is still on the program before lunch. This descent also brings a wide grin from all of us. We sit on a wooden terrace in the middle of the village as Luis warmly greets a gentleman in jeans and sweaters. We learn that it is Paulo Nazare, the mayor. He joins us and talks about the development of cycling in his region. He is himself a bike enthusiast and joyfully supports everything that promotes sport and is in harmony with nature. Over the years, a network of trails has developed here, which is maintained and constantly expanded by the community. In recent years, all entrances have been signposted for orientation.

"Dance on the volcano" - from the film

On the next morning we take advantage of the stormy weather for a walk on the beach. The spray of the breaking waves splashes meters high.

The wind is dragging against us.

I always find it impressive to feel these forces of nature so close up.

Sun, rain, wind and fog alternate constantly on the Azores. So it is quite possible that in the mornings there is still a veil of fog spreading over the plains, in the afternoons the sun shines and in the evenings a short rain shower passes over. Situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and close to the equator, these changes are not uncommon. Nature benefits from the temperate climate and warm showers. Only this climate makes the unique flora and fauna of the Azores possible - all year round. There are no heat periods or cold spells.

Only the highest mountain of the Azores, the Pico, might be covered with snow. Summer temperatures, blue skies and dry weather - this is what the weather forecast promises us when an "Azores high" approaches Central Europe. On the Azores themselves, however, there is no such high. It is called so only because warm air from equator proximity spreads up to Central Europe.

Locals, Doubles and Tables

on various lines

By 11 o'clock, like clockwork, the shuttle arrives. Today we want to visit the town " Furnas " with the lake of the same name. Hot sulphur springs bubble out of the ground as we have seen in pictures from the USA. The only thing that makes us leave the impressive natural spectacle is the biting smell of rotten eggs. But right next to it there is a completely odourless, further highlight for bikers. The "16 Seconds Trail", which is the venue for various downhill races, is located around the corner. Jumps, doubles and tables are built on different lines in a perfect way into the firm ground. Through a jungle-like forest the 550 hm lead down and guarantee a roller coaster sensation. At the same time there is another line, and the planning for a third one is already in progress. We are so excited that we have to go up again and enjoy the next exhilarating descent through the meter-high fernscape.

In keeping with the sensations of the day, we find the perfect finish in a truly magical setting. The "Caldeira Velha" are natural springs with several swimming holes. A waterfall feeds the uppermost pool and serves as a shower. The temperature is about 34 degrees! A little further down, a smaller basin with about 38 degrees beckons you to linger. We lie on our backs, look into the dense jungle surrounding the thermal springs and feel transported into another world.

Admittedly a little tired, yet also enchanted by the scenery, we review the last days on both islands while lying in the warm spring water. They have washed our senses not only with warm water, but also with impressions, aromas and tastes. We were overwhelmed with the warm hospitality of the people on the islands. For bikers, whether they are road cyclists, cross-country or Enduro pilots, the possibilities are so varied that we have already booked our next trip to the Azores.

Photos: Martin Bissig | www.bissig.ch