Feature ERC

On the verge of something amazing

by Anthony Peacock / 14th May 2014

Where Europe and America meet there are…the Azores. These are an archipelago of untrammelled islands stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic, with Portugal their nearest neighbour, two and a half hours flying time further east. Not many people go there, unless they’re on one of the many cruise ships that slink in and out of the harbor of the biggest island, Sao Miguel, increasing the average age of the population by at least 20 years each time they disgorge their human cargo.

The weather in the mid-Atlantic is as predictable as a chimpanzee with a hand grenade: there can be rain, bright sunshine, biting winds and fog in the space of 10 minutes. The climate is essentially equatorial, which is why one of the great Azorean exports is the pineapple.

This week, the Azores gave the world some rallying as well. A strange place to hold a rally you may think, but following the logic that the best place to practice the drums is a deserted basement, there is actually some sense in it.

The Azores forms the latest round of the European Rally Championship, and it’s probably the sport’s biggest hidden gem. Everywhere you look there is sea, sky, and enormous clouds. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never completely dry as there’s always this fine salt-water spray in the air – as if you’re standing on the deck of a large ship. Which in some respects, you constantly are. No wonder you don’t see many Italian cars in the Azores. They’ve all rusted to oblivion within minutes of purchase.

Don’t contemplate going there unless you like fish (there are apparently more than 500 different recipes for bacalhao or codfish alone) and cheese (which comes with everything, including the bacalhao).

But if you’re into desolate, unspoilt and rugged landscapes – imagine the Falkland Islands, or Lord of the Rings – then this is the place. The drivers love it too: just ask Craig Breen, who starts as car number one on Thursday.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else like it here on the planet,” he said. “You open your curtains and you can see three different types of weather with one glance. It actually makes Ireland look predictable! But they’re simply amazing roads. Really good for rallying.”

So there we have it: like the lost city of Atlantis, the best-kept secret in rallying lies in the middle of the ocean.

The downside is that this makes it a somewhat tricky event to get to and from. If you’re going by boat, it takes three days to get to Lisbon. If you fly, it still takes the thick end of three hours. Looking on the bright side though, it only takes an hour or two more to get to America.

It’s all worth it for the unique Sete Cidades stage pictured above: the only stage in the world (to our knowledge, at least) to run along the rim of a volcano. It’s vertiginously breathtaking – but whatever you do, don’t look down.