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UNESCO Biosphere Reserves - A view from our expert author
Hydrangea on the island of Flores © unukorno, Flickr
The islands of Corvo, Flores and Graciosa have been recognised by UNESCO as Biosphere Reserves; protected areas designed to demonstrate an equilibrium between man and nature.
The general opinion is that Graciosa, meaning ‘gracious’, is the most relaxed of all the islands. Most certainly it is where I would choose to stay in all the world if ever strife and tribulation became too great and I needed to recuperate.
I can record little change in the 30 years since my first visit. A roughly oval-shaped island lying southeast/northwest and the least humid of the archipelago, Graciosa’s highest point is Pico Timão at only 398m.
As a result, villages are distributed more or less equally across the countryside, and not located only around the coast. The pace is slow, men can still be seen travelling in pony traps or riding donkeys along the roads, there are good eateries, the walking is easy and everyone recognises the visitor second time round. The scenery is picturesque, an idyll of pastures and enclosures, little clusters of whitewashed houses around village churches, occasional windmills with their distinctive red, onion-shaped domes – there were once 36 – and all surrounded by a glittering blue sea. Like rare wine, it is an island to be enjoyed slowly. It is also, perhaps, a window into what the world could be like with fewer inhabitants.
Although it is a long way from anywhere, Flores is an island of quite spectacular natural beauty and well worth the effort to reach. July and August are the peak times, June and September are busy, then tourism fades away. Come in winter, see no other tourists, enjoy sharp lighting, cloud effects, rainbows, storms, brilliant sunshine, wonderful conditions for photography – for in winter there is tremendous clarity – and simply escape from the madding crowds. Today, however, all too often the tourist is in a hurry to see everything and move on.
Having invested travel time and fares to reach Flores, do stay at least three nights, even if you are not a walker; if you are, then think of five nights. If you want to visit nearby Corvo, you should allow an extra day. Ideally, you would spend a whole week. In winter, be tempted to rent an old restored comfortable cottage with wood-burning stove, bring books and CDs, and retreat for a month or three.
Corvo is by far the remotest island of the archipelago and must surely rate as one of the most isolated places in all Europe. This ancient volcanic remnant is surrounded by an often cruel and savage ocean, and inaccessible for months at a time from its nearest neighbour until the very recent advent of the aeroplane. It is the tiny elusive gem at the apex of the Azores crown.
Day visitors from Flores making the boat crossing in settled summer weather are increasing, but for the true traveller intent upon getting a feel for this island there are eight rooms in a small residencial or a simple camping site available.
In 2009, UNESCO declared the island a Biosphere Reserve, encompassing all the land area above sea level and a surrounding marine zone totalling 25,853ha. The landscapes and biological value are considered to be of regional, national and international importance, and take in the previously protected sites.