Can't stop, I'm doing the Canary Islands' perpetual motion cultural desert tour
Restless Jeremy Atiyah turned his back on lazy Lanzarote's stationary beach bums and scurried round four islands in a single day
Sunday 09 November 1997
The temperature is 25 degrees C, the cuisine is strangely familiar, the local people might be described as international types. Welcome to a country without a context. Why not call it Holidayland?
But is there anything remotely exciting in Holidayland? Not much, unless you are eighteen and single. Otherwise, you'll need the motion version of the Canary Islands holiday.
And the motion version requires context. You need to know for example that the Canaries comprise seven main islands, starting just 50 miles off the southern coast of Morocco and spanning 300 miles from east to west.
You also need to understand that the islands closest to Africa (Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) are virtually extensions of the Sahara Desert, while the islands furthest away (La Palma and Hierro) are relatively green and wet.
On the cultural front, it might help to know that the islands have been ruled by the Spanish since the fifteenth century, with the archipelago's original inhabitants (the Guanches) having disappeared virtually without trace.
Nothing too onerous there then. I chose a motion holiday taking in the main holiday centres. To make it really exciting, I would do it all in a single day: a round trip from Tenerife, via Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria - with no stopping allowed.
Breakfast: Funny how the north coast of Tenerife is green and hilly like the Dordogne. Funny because the rest of the island comprises barren volcanic rock that looks as if it has been worked over by a cosmic bulldozer.
Anyway, the 8am flight to Arrecife on Lanzarote takes 45 minutes (another 15 minutes in the same direction and we would be hitting Morocco).
From Lanzarote airport, stationary tourists head for Playa del Carmen; motion tourists jump into taxis and head south. "We like English tourists," explains my taxi driver. "But it is strange that you eat only English food and drink English beer. Are you not interested in our country?"
What country? Actually, the landscape here is just how England would look if no rain fell for about 50 years. There are brown, bald hills and relics of ancient agriculture; old walled plantations where tomatoes and water-melons once ripened, interspersed by white villages. On the right a colossal black larva plain ripples away into the horizon.
Twenty minutes later, and I'm done with this place. At Playa Blanca, on the southern tip of Lanzarote, I await the ferry to Fuerteventura. Here on the edge of the desert lies a small resort village of whitewashed cottages, Marrakesh-style hexagonal towers and palm trees. The waters are clean and a dessicating wind blows in from the shores of Africa.
Lunch: The boat journey to Fuerteventura takes just 35 minutes. I vaguely expect to find the boat full of Canarian commuters in suits, until I remember that this is a Sunday. Hence the day trippers decked out in trilbies.
My first view of Fuerteventura is of a sandy plain, a heat haze and air thick with dust. A colossal ziggurat seems to rise like a monument from old Babylon; this turns out to be a tourist hotel.
Fuerteventura is almost pure desert. And Corralejo, the small resort on the northern tip of the island, is a two-horse, shutter-banging-in- the-wind, vulture-wheeling-in-the-sky kind of resort. The main drag is bleak and hot, and restaurants have names like Willy's Pizzeria. "Drink two-and-a-quarter pints in 25 seconds and get it free", announces a sign in one pub. Opposite the small town beach rises the Isla de los Lobos, a black slag heap in the middle of the bay.
The serious beaches though are outside town. I see a sign pointing south to the "Grandes Playas". I tell myself that Saudi Arabia probably has some great beaches too. Catching a bus south from Corralejo, I pass the ziggurat, and giant sand vistas begin filling my horizon. The buttocks of tiny nude tourists can be glimpsed scuttling up and down the dunes like crabs.
Puerto de Rosario, the capital city of Fuerteventura, is a half-hour drive to the south. It's another dead little place, containing a blinding white church and a hot square where the entire populace gathers under a shady bandstand to drink beer on Sunday afternoons. I am in far too much of a hurry to join them.
Dinner: Instead it is time to move east, on the 2pm flight to Gran Canaria. In the airport bookshop I stumble across a fascinating little volume about the Guanchos, who are thought to be related to the Berbers of Morocco. These people not only developed the world's first whistling language but also learnt the skill of bounding around mountainous terrain on long poles at dizzying speed. The book strikes me as a small step along the road towards proclaiming an independence movement. Nowadays, trendy Canarians name their daughters after Guanchos princesses.
From the air, the true desolation of Fuerteventura is revealed in its dusty magnificence. Only the western hills reveal the faintest of green fuzzes, before we are jumping over the sea to Gran Canaria.
The two desert islands I have seen this morning do not prepare me for Las Palmas, the main city of the Canary Islands. This turns out to be a huge metropolis marooned in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with roaring expressways lined by high-rise buildings.
Dazed, I wander into the old city, La Vegueta. Sweaty youths in basketball shirts lope past in pursuit of girls with delicate eyebrows. Old ladies lean over wrought-iron balconies, tiny cars muscle up tiny streets. Outrageous floral flourishes in plaster adorn the facades. I keep wondering whether this is Third World or First; the higher I walk the more precarious and provisional the houses become, like a Rio favela. Is this perhaps a Latin American city?
A stocky man in sunglasses who is washing his car vigorously looks up. "What do you expect?" he says. "We are half-way between Europe and Latin America. You can fly to Venezuela from here in only six hours."
With the oily broken tarmac, the smell of bubble gum and ducados, the modern buildings and traffic jams, this could easily be Caracas.
Nightcap: Like a vast apparition in the sunset, the volcanic dome of Mount Teide, Spain's tallest mountain, looms up out of the island of Tenerife, one hundred miles away across the dark sea. The highway along the north coast of Gran Canaria to the ferry port is as busy as the M25 during rush- hour but I am more stunned by the view.
We board in darkness, under a warm wind. Passengers range from glamorous Spaniards to chunky Canarians. There are no foreign tourists. The ship has boutiques, a bar and a restaurant and I feel like I must be in Dover.
Arrival at Sta Cruz de Tenerife is around 10.30pm. The crowds evaporate and I wander alone into town. There are cheap pensiones in these streets, where a bed will cost pounds 8 a night. It's time to get stationary.
Canary fact file
When to go
The weather in the Canary Islands is drier and sunnier in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura than in Tenerife. Nevertheless, all the islands are pleasantly mild in summer and winter alike.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of packages are available at any time of year, including large numbers of last-minute deals. Check teletext or visit a travel agent. Prices range from around pounds 200 to pounds 400 per person per week in a self-catering apartment, including flights from almost any airport in Britain. Quality of accommodation is not always high.
All the islands are linked by ferry services. Sample prices on Fred Olsen Lines include Lanzarote to Fuerteventura: Pts 1,800 (pounds 8), and Gran Canaria to Tenerife: Pts 2,700 (pounds 12). Discounts for under-26s available. Buy tickets locally.
Flights on the local domestic airline Binter link up most of the islands. To book from the UK, call Iberia on 0171 830 0011. Sample fares include Tenerife to Lanzarote (pounds 43, plus tax, one way) and Fuerteventura to Gran Canaria (pounds 29, plus tax, one way).
Flight-only deals from Britain to the Canary Islands - to any of the islands - can start from around pounds 100 or even less on a last-minute charter seat booked through a tour operator. If you want scheduled flights, Monarch Airlines (01582 398333) flies direct, twice a week, from Luton to Tenerife. The fare until 18 December is pounds 170, plus pounds 14 tax.
Operators who offer tailor-made trips taking in some or all of the Canary Islands include Mundi Color (0171 282 6021), who also offer a cruise of the islands starting from the UK, Sovereign First Choice (01293 560777), Inntravel (01653 628811) and Magic of Spain (0181 748 4220).
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