Sunday, December 13, 2015

Snogged


 

Rich
The Azores and in particular the island of São Miguel are well-known for their volcanic origin. An origin which is still evident.
But it's especially the area in and around the village of Furnas, located in between the mountains on the east of São Miguel that really plays host as a geothermal hot spot.
From the wikipedia entry on Furnas:
'In the central part of the village, springs and geysers are prevalent; thirty springs, each of differing temperatures and chemical compositions, including warm iron-rich streams and piped examples of mineral-rich warm and cold water. The geysers are situated in several basins rich in sodium bicarbonate, boron, fluorine and traces of carbon dioxide'.
Maybe not on the same scale, it reminds one of Rotorua / Taupo (New Zealand), or certain areas of Iceland or the Italian island of Vulcano. And probably many more places on the globe yet to be witnessed by myself ...

I have no ambitions to make this the ultimate tourism reference entry to Furnas village, so suffice to say continuing reading this post you'll not be confronted with a never ending list of all what the village has on offer (and most of it being geothermal in origin).

Treats
But then again, there's quite a lot so I'll list what you should or shouldn't miss. Then continue with a soak at the Parque Terra Nostra and maybe in future a short entry on what's described (by those tourist PR persons) as a pool of paradise.

Anyway, nearly everybody enters the village from the west and after negotiating a curvy road over the watershed divide one suddenly arrives at the volcanic lake, Lagoa de Furnas. Walks are possible around the lake but note that on one side you'll be walking along the main road. 

At the far side of this lake is what is considered the main attraction of Furnas: a geothermal park with steaming and hissing pools, as well as boiling mud. Named Caldeiras da Lagoa das Furnas, visiting here requires an entrance fee which essentially is a labour programme; the fees are nothing exorbitant but cumbersome in all the administrative efforts which need to be met. Keeping a lot of people on the job. The site itself is ok, but nothing special. 

Much is made of the Furnas speciality for foodies: tossing everything in a pan and burying this pan to cook in the vicinity of the fumaroles. Named Cozido das Furnas (Furnas stew) it's not for vegetarians I believe ... 
Below is a photo of the various buried pots and hole's waiting for an upturn in tourism:


Continuing towards the village itself, you'll drop down over the side of the lake to Furnas which has an astonishing labyrinthal one-way system. Certainly for a village this size.

Listing
Things geothermal to look out for in / near the village:
  • Caldeiras das Furnas, an area with many (22?) springs and fumaroles (photo below), just at the lower end of the village. Here's a little more info.
    Note the nearby Observatorio Microbiano dos Acores. Tripadvisor gives this quaint institute / museum five stars. It is indeed worthwhile to walk through, note that they will even give you a full guide (speaking English) if required. Below an original tub from the termas.
 
  • The Estação termal das Furnas (or as it's named now, the Furnas Boutique Hotel) is the hotel with access to it's own termae and is the official focal point of geothermal Furnas. Recently renovated it offers a number of "treatments" as well as possessing it's own indoor and outdoor pools with hot spring waters. Booking.com gives it a 9.2.
  • Poça da Tia Silvina: a foot bath slash hot spring basin just upstream of the Boutique hotel just next to the river.
  • Nascentes da Agua das Quenturas: a trio of springs opposite the Estação termal with each a different taste. Photo below:
  • Banhos Férreos: a restaurant with indoor swimming pool with lukewarm but very iron laden waters. Even though the temperature of the spring is supposed to be 39°C (source). A meal here entitles you to a fee swim in the authentic pool. Tripadvisor notes just 3.5 stars. An experience of the soaking from tripadvisor:
    'Very relaxing, and not too hot, like some springs'.
    During my visit (photo below) it did not look like they were any takers ...:
 
  • Praia de Fogo at nearby (7 km) Ribeira Quente. Rumor (?) has it that there are under water hot springs making this Fire Beach a little warmer than the ocean. Not noticeable on my visit, possibly due to wrong timing (come at low tide?)
Full info on all the features including other attractions of Furnas can be garnered from this government website.
 
Revelations
With this out of our way let's continuing with the hot spring of Parque Terra Nostra (Our Land) which is not your typical geothermal soak. 
It's located within a park, under the gaze of historical residence. 
The park itself is a haven for plants which enjoy the milder weather and high fertility of the soils. 

On a side track, did you know that Furnas is one of the few (if even there are others) where the taro plant is grown commercially in Europe? Back when I was a bit younger, my first job as an agriculture specialist was to assess taro plants in the South Pacific. It's very appealing to observe taro fields under irrigated circumstances (as in Furnas), similar to rice.
Anyway historically the residence and pond were first part of the residence of the honorary US consul of São Miguel back in the times when the waters around the Azores were teeming with whales. With the demise of the whales (thank you) the property reverted to Portuguese gentry control which expanded the park and buildings. However early last century neglect crept in only to be revived shortly before World War II; a period which also saw the hot spring pond expanded and sourced from hot spring water.

Parque Terra Nostra entrance
It's unclear where exact the springs itself source from. On the far side of this pond are two powerful spouts which seem the sole source of the geothermal waters. The pond is quite large, 50m in circumflex with still warm waters, depth would be around a meter and half.
We arrived late afternoon, an hour before closing time. It's a six euro entry fee. A 100m further one comes to the pond. To your left over the edge of the pond and sheltered within the greenery are a number of changing rooms, seeing brisk business this (Sunday) afternoon. 
A quick change and up to pool side. 
The orange tinted waters are warm, but not hot. One can drift around though setting up camp near the spouts ensures a warmer soak.

 

The change rooms revealed (not literally) that it's quite busy even though it's out of season. Many a tour group wander in and around.

What I do notice is the absence of showers. There was one, but didn't get used, though many a tourist changed poolside (discreetly, this is Portugal) so it's only guessing what the waters are like. This large body of water will not be flushed easily. Is this aspect underestimated?
Showers by the way would help post soaking, as the waters taint the lighter coloured bathing costumes a shade of orange.
No, no smell.

So not positive? Well, the large body of water gives enough private space and the greenery around makes it highly recommendable. It's an enjoyable way to end a day's visit to Furnas and surroundings.  

 
Spouts on the far side
 
Wear and tear
There's a hotel attached to the park  which is owned by the company named BenSaude. Booking.com gives this hotel an impressive 9.3; note hotel guests have access to pool beyond closing times for others ...

Other experiences are very positive. Tripadvisor notes 4.5 stars (400+ reviews), the no. 2 thing to do in Furnas. Extracts:
'The changing facilities are not great and I only found one outdoor shower but the experience is great'.
'I'd recommend wearing an older bathing suit as my light coloured bathing suit was stained even after washing it the same day'.
A lot of these reviews though are very recent which begs the question has there been a sudden influx of tourists? Due possibly to cheap flights (Ryanair / Easyjet)?

Finally, there's not much original experiences on the internet, it's mostly photo's. An exception, the Daily Telegraph (Mar 23, 2011) has an article which in it's first half describes a sojourn in Furnas. An excerpt on Terra Nostra:
'It is the Portuguese equivalent of Iceland's Blue Lagoon, a hot, murky lake with steam rising from it, fed by a geothermal spring and filled with bathers taking to the waters in pursuit of health, happiness and surreptitious snogging.
There the comparison ends, since this thermal pool in Furnas, on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, is muddy brown because of iron in the water and dyes your toenails orange, while the backdrop is not the Svartsengi power plant but the palms, ferns and conifers of a subtropical Atlantic forest'.

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