São Miguel, Azores
By Ross Belfer
Riding the contours of each bend, incandescent light beams of green and blue fall across the road in front of me. With each tilt of my head, a more breathtaking landscape is revealed.
Volcanoes and mineral-colored lakes deck the halls of the Azores archipelago, most prominently on the largest island of the bunch, São Miguel. Folded into the Hawaii-like environment of these far-flung islands off the coast of Portugal, is an unmistakable European charm. In Azores, surprising beauty is so commonplace that it is to be expected.
On a clear day in April, an old friend and I zipped up the hilltop towards Vista do Rei, or in Portuguese, “View of God,” where at approximately 1,800 feet above sea-level, lies an abandoned hotel that stands as a local oddity as much as an almost natural part of the landscape. It has become a point of attraction for visitors to the island.
Originally erected as the Hotel Monte Palace, the property at Vista do Rei was built in the mid-1980s before anyone had truly explored Azores. The hotel was ahead of its time, built when visitors weren’t venturing much further than their local lodges or hotels near the island’s main port town. Hotel Monte Palace had ambitions too high for the island’s visitors, and suffered the fatal destiny of foreclosure.
The hotel’s remains are a sight to be seen. Entering through the lobby, you’re lead towards a graffiti-covered courtyard by the faint sound of water dripping three stories down into a puddle. The space compels you to wonder at its eerie abandonment with a sense that you could very well be in the middle of a Coen Brothers movie set.
With three untapped rolls of Fuji Superia 400 and a Nikon FE-1 film camera, I ascend the spiral staircase on the western side of the building, peeking around each floor, corner, and trying to imagine the very few guests who could have experienced the hotel as it was intended, as opposed to those like me who explore its skeletons.
The ceiling’s monolithic exposed beams cut light patterns that reflect onto the building’s derelict walls. At one point, you can stand in one spot and photograph a moving image simply from the interjection of sky and sun into concrete. This beautiful disaster, one must say, is best explored with a lot of time to spare: its beauty is revealed slowly, over the changing light of a day.
Crumbled chunks of marble on the floor of the former rooms and suites reveal remnants of luxury that only a small few could afford. As dusk begins to fall, I head to the rooftop of the building to take in the enigmatic Vista do Rei and its magical Lagoa Verde y Azul. A natural phenomenon, the lagoon is an almost extraterrestrial beauty that is difficult for the mind to comprehend.
A view of the lake from atop this crumbling, Earth-torn edifice brings forth moments of enlightenment, understanding and beauty that only the Azores can deliver. It is a place of wonder, of curiosity and of removal from the stress that plagues our everyday lives.