Travel: Land of fire and brimstone

Claire Gervat finds volcanic wastes, bizarre cacti and fresh fish in Lanzarote

At the Fire Mountains of Timanfaya National Park, in the south- west corner of Lanzarote, the narrow road is just a scratch on the devastated landscape. It winds its way past endless craters and cones, the result of six years of volcanic activity in the 1730s and more eruptions in 1824. It seems incredible that anything can live here, but different coloured lichens cling to the rocks and give them their sunset tones.

It's not what you expect to find on an island that attracts around 1.4 million visitors a year, most of them on package holidays from Spain, Britain and Germany. Instead, you might expect to see nature obliterated by the kind of development that has ruined so much of the coast of mainland Spain. So the view through the coach window in Timanfaya was doubly startling.

The eerie quiet of the park is deceptive for, below ground, the volcanoes are still active. Back at the reception area on the Islote de Hilario, guides demonstrate one sign of this, the high ground temperature. Even a few centimetres below the surface, it's hot to the touch, and in a hole about six feet deep, bundles of dry grass catch fire. The park's restaurant, appropriately called The Devil, takes advantage of this natural fuel source with a massive grill built over a natural chasm that belts out a hellish heat.

Making the best of a difficult geography is evidently a Lanzarotean trait. Despite the low rainfall, farmers manage to grow a range of crops. To get over the water shortage, they cover the fields in a deep layer of the black porous pebbles that were thrown out in massive numbers during the most recent eruptions. These soak up the moisture from the night air, and the plants are then nourished.

The best area to see this is La Geria, the wine-making district to the east of the Fire Mountains. There, each vine is planted in its own small crater, with a low, C-shaped wall to protect it from the wind. As the vineyards stretch away from the road, black and green, it looks like a collection of horseshoes thrown across the countryside. The best-known wine produced here is a white called Malvasia, which Shakespeare refers to in several plays as Canary sack.

Lanzarote has other, more unusual, crops. In the north-east, around Guatiza, the fields are planted with rows of tunera or prickly pear cacti. These attract female cochineal beetles, from which the red dye is extracted. It's still used in the pharmaceutical and drinks industries instead of the less palatable chemical alternatives.

Nearby is the Cactus Garden, the last project of Cesar Manrique, a local artist (he was killed in a car crash in 1992). From the outside it doesn't look special: just a black rock wall with a concealed entrance. But inside lies a huge amphitheatre full of cacti of every possible shape, size and colour.

The Cactus Garden is one of several places in Lanzarote designed by Manrique, but his influence is everywhere on the island. When he returned home in the late Sixties from a successful career in New York, he was worried by the way that tourism was developing. Determined to save Lanzarote from an ugly high-rise fate, he succeeded in imposing his own aesthetic taste on his birthplace. Through his efforts, strict planning laws were introduced that limited the height of buildings, determined what colours they could be painted, and so on. There are no electricity pylons to spoil the countryside, no roadside billboards.

Manrique's old house at Taro de Tahiche is a clear demonstration of this. From the outside it looks like a simple one-storey white house, inspired by traditional Lanzarote architecture, in the middle of a spectacular lava field. In fact, there is a lower storey, five volcanic bubbles that Manrique connected by burrowing through the rock and turned into rooms and a garden. The house is now a museum.

After a while, you start to see the island as Manrique must have seen it, as a place with a uniquely dramatic beauty. There are mountains that look as if they are made of black dough, stretched and twisted by a giant baker; and craggy shorelines where the cooling lava has formed basalt columns and caverns.

The island has other, less-rugged charms: immaculate villages of white houses with green or blue doors and shutters, such as Yaiza and Ye; Orzola, on the north coast, where you can sit and eat fresh fish on the terrace of one of the restaurants; and Teguise, the old capital, which time seems to have forgotten to keep in touch with.

And if that's too exhausting to contemplate, there are the surprisingly white beaches, particularly along the south and east coasts, where you can lie in the sun and dream of coming to live in a place where you'll never have to mow the lawn.

LANZAROTE LOW-DOWN

Getting there Plenty of UK tour operators serve Lanzarote. One Canary Island specialist is Corona Holidays (0181-530 3747). The managing director, Alan Cornish, says availability for one-week breaks during the school summer holidays is limited, but before then charter flights to Lanzarote should be available at around the pounds 200 mark from Gatwick, and slightly less from Manchester. For example, a seven-night flight-only deal departing on 4 July costs pounds 159 from Manchester.

Getting around Renting cars is easy and cheap - expect to pay around pounds 20 per day for a small vehicle. The bus system is not as effective as on other Canary Islands, but fares are equally modest.

Information Spanish National Tourist Office, 57 St James's Street, London SW1

(0171-499 0901).

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