Henry Myhill was the author of an early English-language travel guide named simply The Canary Islands. It is a handsome hardback, published in 1970 at a price of two guineas (£2.10).
The year before publication, |as Myhill was completing his research in the Canaries, the first Moon landing took place. Myhill was one of few British travellers who had, up to that point, enjoyed the good fortune of visiting the easternmost Canary Island: Lanzarote. “Lunar” is the term that he uses more than any other to describe the raw, volcanic terrain at the island’s core, and I imagine he empathised with the crew of Apollo 11 when they crunched across the Sea of Tranquillity.
There are indeed plenty of similarities between Lanzarote’s surface, coarser than a crumple of sandpaper, and the grainy images of the Moon. But the island’s remarkable geology is better seen as a dramatic representation of something much closer to home: the centre of the Earth, or at least as much of it as will fit on a fragment of terrain in the Atlantic the size of the Isle of Skye.
Unesco seems to agree, which is why the organisation has designated the whole island as a Biosphere Reserve. Lanzarote even has a patron saint, Dolores, who is known as the
“virgin of the volcanoes” after saving the village of Mancha Blanca from destruction in 1824.
On a detailed map, parts of the interior of Lanzarote look unfit for human habitation – yet the island is ideal for human exploration. Using that map (which will show place names like The Depths and Oasis of Nazareth), find your way to Timanfaya, subtitled las Montañas del Fuego: the Fire Mountains.
Best go close to sunrise or sunset. Dawn and dusk cast a dramatic golden light upon this angry outburst from beneath |the Earth’s crust, which has |the colour of rust, the texture |of hot coals and the shape of a mountain range put through a wringer so that all the life has been squeezed out of it.
Lanzarote’s landscape was last rearranged substantially by the forces of nature in the 18th century, when the Fire Mountains sprouted. They are currently officially dormant, though if you take a tour safely around the range aboard a specially adapted bus, you can expect the guide to show that the land still seethes.
At the end of the tour, at the raised area known as Islote de Hilario, he or she may pour water into a fissure, and a split second later you can witness a spurt of steam – a vivid reminder that you are a stranger in a strange land.
Strange creatures are, appropriately, available to take you around this wilderness. Only camels allowed past the sign specifying Solo paso de camellos.
A caravan of dromedaries is led through the Fire Mountains, adding a Lawrence-of-Arabia aspect to plenty of package holidays. As these fine (if occasionally grumpy) creatures clamber around the recently restless earth, you may speculate on the prospect for imminent activity on the part of these geologically lively rocks; fortunately, the best 21st-century technology has been deployed to identify any threat well before residents and holidaymakers find themselves at any risk.
One islander decided to befriend Lanzarote’s outlandish terrain and establish a cohabitation between the rough end of nature and the creativity of man. He |was César Manrique, a visionary artist who was born on the island and saw the potential for fusing its inherent beauty with art (see panel, right). He harnessed the |island’s natural curves and caves to great effect, extracting beauty from the raw terrain.
Manrique also used his considerable influence and energy to make sure that tourism was a force for good. Given Myhill’s description of Playa Blanca four decades ago – “The poverty-stricken village of the far south” –
Manrique evidently succeeded; Playa Blanca is now a flourishing and attractive resort.
Inland, man has had a generally benign effect on the landscape. North-west from Playa Blanca, the upland village of Uga provides an excellent example of how the people of Lanzarote have worked with the curves of the landscape, their pretty and predominately white homes and churches filling the folds in the terrain.
Even the island’s food bears more than a passing resemblance to the scenery. The clue to papas arrugadas is in the name, which means wrinkly potatoes: new potatoes are roasted in their skins with salt. (They are often then served with mojo picón, a spicy sauce.) To accompany your feast, try some of the island’s own wine, produced thanks to some inventive viniculture.
A swathe of terrain is pocked with craters, each about the size of a child’s paddling pool. One vine has been planted in the middle of every crater and packed with volcanic dust that attracts dew each
night. This natural mechanism feeds the fruit with just enough water. The result is an intense, strong red, which Myhill boasts of buying at a bargain eight pesetas a litre, then the equivalent of just 3p.
The final element of the rock-of-ages tour of Lanzarote takes you to the far north of the island. Manrique, that one-man cultural and architectural dynamo, decided that the summit of a mountain one third of a mile above the Atlantic Ocean needed to be properly crowned. So he devised a network of tunnels to lead you, with increasing anticipation, to a most agreeable bar by the name of Mirador del Río, Viewpoint of the River. But where’s the river? Answer: the name refers to the narrow strait between here and the island of La Graciosa, a seaway so tricky to navigate that they nickname it The River, El Río.
It was here that Jean de Béthencourt, a French adventurer from Normandy, arrived in 1402 to seize Lanzarote. Six centuries later, and long after Spain
asserted control of all the Canaries and fought off raids from Africa, distant descendants of Béthencourt proliferate – you can even find a good number in Venezuela, the next step for |many colonists.
La Graciosa itself is well worth a visit, a gracious island that |feels like a natural satellite of the mother island. A suitable lunar metaphor to lead back to the Earth-Moon divide. At the end of my last visit to the island I like to call Lanzarocky, I flew back to Gatwick and touched down on one of those fresh, slightly damp days that made the Sussex countryside glisten like an emerald.
Lanzarote could never be described as a green and pleasant land. But different is good, and this raw, rocky perch in the Atlantic is very different indeed.
Mirador del Río (00 34 928 526 548); Timanfaya bus tours |(00 34 928 840 057)