Monday, 27 June 2011
The Number One Place in the World, Floating Islands, and Armies of Wild Cows.
The new best place - or places - in the world, for this year at least are The Azores. There's something about islands, about archipelagos, that really catches the imagination. For me, I think part of it is the idea of self-contained, miniature worlds isolated, all by themselves, away from it all. Rachel Neumeier takes this a step forward in 'The Floating Islands,' an amazing young adults book that I'm reading. It's set, unsurprisingly on a small nation of floating islands. She manages the the world creation perfectly, interpreting it through the eyes of Trei, a fourteen-year-old orphan, arriving in the islands to live with his uncle. He decides he wants to join the flyers, men who defend the islands and travel between them on massive wings, constructed from borrowed feathers.
The Azores are the kind of place you can imagine housing dragons, like The Floating Islands. But actually, besides the hordes of frogs I wrote about here, the best Terceira can offer is a race of fearsome wild cattle. They evolved in the wild hills of the centre of the islands, and led the islanders to build weird structures, like really narrow, deep doorways, by the side of roads. These were so, if you got menaced by the wild cows, you could hide in them!
Once the cattle were famed because, when the island was attacked by Spanish warships, the islanders herded a thousand of the savage beasts straight at the Spaniards. The soldiers who didn't get flattened jumped back on their boats and didn't return! Now, sadly, the cattle are mainly used for these street bullfights.
Travelling through the centre of the island we saw the bulls, three or four to a special, spacious pasture, building themselves up for their exertions. They're kept there, far away from the dairy cattle, because if they could get to them they would cause all kinds of aggro. The dairy cattle meanwhile, produce some of the most amazing butter and cheese I've ever tasted in my life...
The Floating Islands have amazing stepping stones across empty air, and magic-hung stair cases. Terceira can't match those, but it does have astonishing volcanic chambers like the one on the left.
There are also weird, jet black, spiky volcanic shore lines, like the one below at Biscoitos framing a country cliff in the distance. The black stone also criss crosses the island in millions of black walls, that section it up into tiny fields, used to house the other, friendly cows, and protect the vines from the Atlantic winds. In the summer, the black walls heat up and keep the vines warm all night, like growing the grapes in an amazing volcanic outdoor incubator.
The people of the Azores are also slightly different, their lives a bit magical. They talk to every stranger they come across, unabashed, about the charm of life on an island. I asked the owner of our local bar about crime. He shrugged and said 'It's not really a problem, there are two people who might steal something, and we know who they both are, so...'
The Azores are actually so astonishing that to me, they were only fractionally less amazing than The Floating Islands. And Terceira isn't even the best one, next Pico and Faial...