Tale of Two Travellers: The two sides of the Canaries
The latest film in our 'Tale of Two Travellers' series sends Ben Ross to the eastern islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, while Simon Calder makes his way westwards to La Palma
Saturday 05 December 2009
Lanzarote's most famous son, the artist and designer César Manrique, was a man with a strong sense of place. "I believe that we are witnessing a historic moment," he said in 1987, "where the huge danger to the environment is so evident that we must conceive a new responsibility with respect to the future." But words were not enough; he'd decided to do something about it.
Manrique was born 90 years ago in Arrecife, Lanzarote's capital. He studied and worked in Europe and New York before returning to this, the easternmost Canary Island, in 1966. He was on a mission to preserve and beautify the place, using nature as his inspiration – and it worked. As a result of his efforts there is but one high-rise block in Lanzarote: the Gran Hotel in Arrecife, which was built before he began his architectural crusade. Even this has been refurbished recently, its view of the Atlantic utterly uninterrupted by further development.
Mankind's relatively restrained impact on the landscape here is plain to see. Manrique's aesthetic of low-rise, whitewashed buildings – evident in the Fundació*building that was once his home and now bears his name – works perfectly against the stark backdrop of this raw and rugged Atlantic outpost.
The interior of the island, meanwhile, is dominated by a spine of still-grumbling volcanoes. An artist's palette here would go heavy on browns, reds, golds and ochres; the brush strokes themselves would be bold, jagged, brutal. It's no coincidence that the Manrique-designed sign for the Timanfaya National Park consists of a grinning devil, its forked tail dripping downwards cheekily. This is the land of the "Fire Mountains", a fearsome, elemental place.
Lucifer himself would surely feel at home astride one of the grumpy camels that plod in caravans across the crumbled basalt.
Within the park, at Islote de Hilario, our camera captured the scene as a guide solemnly poured water into a crack in the ground. I, for one, wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the geyser of super-heated steam that rocketed upwards seconds later was undeniably impressive. Lanzarote doesn't like to be trifled with: a barbecue within the nearby restaurant uses heat stored within the earth to char-grill chicken legs by the dozen.
But there's tranquillity on offer, too. I sipped a glass of Lanzarote's fragrant white wine as we recorded the sun setting – reds and golds again – over the hills near Puerto del Carmen, the island's main tourist hub. The vines for this are found growing in strange circular scoops carved out from the landscape, often guarded by low stone walls that protect the grapes from the Atlantic winds. It's a peculiarly regular pattern in a thoroughly disordered landscape; man and nature combining in a way that Manrique would presumably have thoroughly approved of.
From earth and fire, to air and water. The elements combine rather differently in Fuerteventura. Just half an hour by ferry from Lanzarote, this place is all about the wind and the waves. In summer, the wind- and kite-surfing world championships are held here; in the winter, surfers ride the white water which crashes against nearly 100 miles of beach.
Being no expert at surfing, I tried my hand at the relatively gentle sport of stand-up paddle-boarding in the harbour at Corralejo. As our film testifies, I quickly discovered that I was no expert at this, either.
But there are plenty of other sports to try here in the adventure capital of the Atlantic: sailing, perhaps, or scuba-diving. And after my recent dunkings, I can speak from experience when I say that the water is impressively warm even at the very end of November.
Fuerteventura is bigger than Lanzarote, and developing fast. But like its little brother to the east, the interior of the island is a strange amalgam of present-day tranquillity and ancient turmoil. When we paused at the peaceful village of La Oliva to film the simple lines of its colonial-era church, my eye was drawn first to the vivid blue sky that contrasted so pleasingly with the white stucco of the building – and then to the jutting volcano that glowered just beyond.
The Basque poet Miguel de Unamuno, exiled to Fuerteventura by the government in Madrid in the 1920s, called it "an oasis in the desert of civilisation". It's a description that holds true today: far fewer people live here than on Lanzarote, and the raw, untamed character of this island is evident after just a few minutes watching the surfers along its western shores. Try as they might to tame the waves, the Atlantic always wins in the end.
Should you happen to have the good fortune to find yourself one morning reading the local newspaper in La Palma's luscious capital, Santa Cruz, you may be surprised to learn that the Canary Islands appear to have acquired a new, eighth isle. An entire page is devoted to the goings-on on "La Octava Isla".
Take another bittersweet sip of cafe con leche, glance around at architectural surroundings that reflect the creams and dark browns of the coffee options, and read on. You are likely to be entertained by the latest pronouncements of Hugo Chávez, el presidente of Venezuela. "The Eighth Isle" refers to this vast South American nation: the people of Caracas share much in terms of genes, gastronomy and culture with the citizens of Santa Cruz.
La Palma is an island on the edge. It lies at the wild north-west of the Canaries, and as such has been a trading post since the New World was first a novelty . Many people from La Palma emigrated with high hopes and returned with full pockets, which embellished this Atlantic fragment. Consequently, the island's links with Venezuela – as well as Cuba – seem as strong as those with the Spanish mainland.
Spain's very own emerald isle is a vulcanologist's heaven, having emerged barely a blink ago in terms of the age of the earth, and with a mile-high National Park at its heart spilling from the Caldera de Taburiente, the most impressive of the many craters that have combined to create terra firma (at least for now – La Palma was the location for the most recent eruption in the Canaries, 38 years ago).
The National Park is the centre of a network of 600 miles of trails that spread across the island. A web of wonderment, indeed – but one that was born from necessity rather than a celebration of La Palma's great outdoors. The guanchos, La Palma's original inhabitants, first began to blaze trails through the corrugated countryside, and settlers from Spain, Flanders and beyond extended the network. Today, all paths seem to lead to the Balcó*de Taburiente. This café is half a mile above sea level, with the ocean ahead, the national park behind and a café con leche in front of me.
The question that kept coming back to me was: where is everyone? Given the beauty of the island and its modest but impressive selection of beaches – including Tazacorte on the dry, sunny west side, which is claimed to be the sunniest place in the nation – La Palma feels strangely empty. Which, I guess, is part of its charm.
Back in Santa Cruz, I decided this must be Europe's closest approximation to Latin America. El Salvador is both a small Central American country, and also the name of the beautiful church that decorates the centre of Santa Cruz. There are even a couple of bars, El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, shipped straight from Havana. The New World is closer than you thought.
Take a journey to Spain's Atlantic outpost at independent.co.uk/canaries
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