Saturday, 18 January 2014

Blogging back home

It proved to be very difficult to get anything posted up while we were in Tenerife... the link kept going down. It's a shame as I think there is nothing so crisp as an account of new things seen while they are absolutely fresh in the retina.
We were mostly escaping from the happy-lands of tourist-ville during our stay in Tenerife, which meant going by car for at least an hour or two to get to somewhere far away, usually to the north. It also meant going into or through the dense wintry clouds which seem to clothe Mt Teide at this time of year.
They had had unusual rainy weather and floods just before we arrived, and enough snow to close some of the high passes. The dry scorching lower slopes to the south are by no means the only landscape or condition to be found...  We were in fact seeking out the windswept ridges, the misty mountains, the cool forests full of birdsong, the almost-English deciduous woodlands, the terraced allotments and vineyards.... such variety in such a small space.
There is now a 'Green' policy on the island - quite a change from our last visit here, with recycling all over the place.
We also searched out some of the fascinating history of the place, which again is better presented than 10 or so years ago, with more pride and more sense of connectedness.  So, the amazing courtyard architecture of the big merchant houses in San Cristobal or Garavico or Puerta de la Cruz can be seen to emerge from Spain's Moorish past and yet - going forward - to link very intimately with the building styles of Cuba or Guatemala as Spain's New World was developed. Similarly, we saw how popular the use of English sash-windows was, and how widespread - combined with the balconies which may have come from Portugal or NW Spain, or even Italy.
The overwhelming thing though is the volcano - it's massive outpourings and effects. We saw lava-fields and (really) whole districts where the rock must have been belched out in a colossal shitting agony - hundreds or maybe even thousands of years later, the stuff still looks unweathered, clinkery, scorched, ashy, and yet with a kind of congealed, viscous, sticky appearance. From almost any distance, you feel you could just go and smooth it down, like the top of a cake about to go into the oven. Yet it is tremendously hard, baked by the great infernos of the inner earth, into a terrifyingly scratchy and rough and impermeable surface. There is miles and miles and miles and miles of it.
Each road is hacked out of the mountainside through deep layers of this stuff. God knows how they did it... and yet they did. Maps date back to the early 1300s show that somehow, the engineers and soldiers and merchants managed it.  Some of the roads have been noticeably improved since we last came... wider now, and with better surfaces. But they have twenty-five million hairpin bends, and some of them are so steep you wonder if your car will make it up the next 10 yards.
The roads go through the lava fields, and round and down the mountains. You cannot get from one village to another (outside the modern tourist villages of the broad, hot southern slopes) without going along these precipitous roads, often over terrifying high ridges.  Everywhere, you can see where people hacked small terraces out of the mountains. Most are abandoned now. Standards of living have improved, and the young have fled - generation after generation, since the Spanish conquered the place.
The story of the Guanches - the aboriginals - is tragic. Enslaved, betrayed, murdered, raped, banished, exploited, orphaned - all the techniques which Europeans could bring to bear were employed. The Catholic church itself arrived to do its bit - all the different sects competing to build churches and convents, where girls were gathered in for safety and piety.  In San Cristobal de la Laguna (now a World Heritage site) as elsewhere, the Franciscans have done a bit better than the Augustins or the Dominicans - they have slightly more nuns left, hiding behind their gorgeous antique screens (more Arabic influence) up on the 16th century balconies.  The Canarians are able to point out typical Guanche facial features in some of the population - high cheekbones, for instance. Most people, they say, have Guanche blood nowadays. The DNA sampling has helped. It shows that the female lines were continued, while the male lines were mostly obliterated (see).   These Guanches are probably of Berber origin, with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were observed by the first literate conquerors to be noticeably respectful of their women.   And on one of the islands, unlike the others where robbery was punished by first one (then on a second offence the other) eye being gouged out, it was noted that robbery was not punished because it was considered an art form.
So, these amazing islands of which Tenerife is the largest, have an astonishing history, and an astonishing landscape to offer. This time of year is their high season for tourism as northern Europeans arrive for winter sun. This year it's especially busy as people have avoided the potential trouble spots of N Africa, for example.  The food is utterly wonderful. Tourists are welcomed and treated with great courtesy and professionalism. You can walk, drive, bike, swim, snorkel, dive, climb, paraglide, hang-glide, explore, sunbathe, study, relax, talk....  I will put some photos up here or onto FB to show you the variety.
We only got home last night and I miss it already.  I'd go back any day - maybe stay in the north this time, or in one of the old cities. Most tourists we saw or met were really on the older side, but I think the young would find plenty to do in the hotspots of the south.
I added loads of photos of all this to Facebook

Monday, 13 January 2014


I can recognise quite a lot of the plants in general terms, but not in detail and my knowledge is v incomplete - but I know enough to say the plant life on this amazing island is fantastic. From the arid deserts of the sunbaked southern slopes to the misty primal forests of the north and east, there is such tenacity and variety, it is wondrous.
The south - we think - MUST have been deforested, because it is possible for large trees to grow, even on what looks like bare rock. Houses and farms have araucaria, or the Canary pines, or dragon trees around their entrances.  Otherwise there is a rather astonishing widespread forest which is only one or two feet high... more dragon trees, interspersed with prickly pear and some very smart vertical shrubby cactus, spreading everywhere.  We can't understand why they are not going for reforestation on these lower slopes - it would save water, increase biodiversity, give shade.
Some of the deep ravines cut into this strange dwarf forest have the same sort of plants which somehow grow a little taller - maybe less scorched by the sun in winter, maybe catching some mist or  aerial water....
Further up, past the litter-line (ugh), we get to the pines starting roughly at 1000m sbove sea level,  and they are marvellous. The area where they now hold sway has been gradually extended by protective laws since WW2, and it's now illegal to cut them. These now grow in an almost complete ring around the might central volcano and its dorsal ridges.  There are some of the dreaded eucalyptus, but we also see evergreen oaks, mimosas, tamerisk, euphorbia, euonymus, almonds (flowering!), bamboo, poinsettyia, and various flowering shrubs - hibiscus, bougainvillea, tropaeolum, trachelospermum, abutilon, datura.... Not everyone is a gardener of course, but some are.   In one town (Arofa?) we saw a small town garden, all fenced in, and crammed with every kind of edible plant - a passion turned into a business - selling food, plants, seeds, and all free for passers-by to see but not touch, behind the secure railing cage.
The road up to the mountains is in good order for the most part, with occasional miradors or viewing places... you stop, hang around for a short while and go on... it seems to be perfectly managed, no squabbles or trouble.
We loved it - the quiet, the greenery, smell of pines, the stupendous views, the awestruck tourists (including us).
This trip today followed a visit to San Cristobal de la Laguna - now a World Heritage Site, because it was created as the first planned city without fortifications in the 15th/16th centuries, and it became the model for the new cities in Spain's New World - Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras... etc.   The great value of the Canaries for the European colonialists who created its current form was that it controlled access to South America.  Nelson had a go at capturing it - and lost, not only the battles but also his arm.
The city is quaint, in the grip of conservationists and developers.... One fascinating feature is that where they used Canary pine in their buildings (400? 500? years ago), the wood is still exuding resin, even today - a fantastic strong and beautiful wood. No wonder the slopes of the mountains were denuded. Thank god the authorities instituted a replanting programme.  If you want to put this wood into your new or your repaired ancient house, it will cost you 6000 euros a cubic metre. Six thousand euros.

Sublime and Ridiculous

It was just chance that our Saturday expedition led us to one of the happiest and most satisfying days of my life.  The day was still and warm. We chose well.  We went up to Santa Cruz, on to San Andre, over the mountains where the edges are the most tortuous you have ever seen, worthy of Ghormenghast or some other wilful and terrifying romance, with the colossal tectonic forces of the volcano laid bare in a series of spiked peaks and teeth, one after the other tearing into the air in a savage and breath-taking dance.  We saw a sky-fight between a huge bird (eagle, buzzard?) and something smaller - and then we climbed into ancient forests, all mossy and draped, with fantastic birdsong and cool echoes.
Down the other side, more precipitous than our ascent, and there the rocks and peaks are towering right up to the sea in a set of savage pointy cliffs.... This was Roques de las Bodegas. We had time to sit and contemplate them, then to order lunch, and I tried painting it.
The man at Casa Africa brought us plate after plate of astonishingly delicious food. We watched the young people surfing in the bay - the water cannot have been too cold as they stayed in for hours and some were not even in wetsuits.
Later we went up to the peaks again, turned east to the far extreme of the island's roads - Chamorgo. There are the famous dragon trees, and more birdsong.  To get to a loo, you must beg the key from the cafe man.
We offered a lift to a couple from Devon, and had a delightful time with them, discussing geology and many other things - her degree was in Politics, Philosophy and Physics (from Durham). His was in engineering.  They took us to San Cristobal de la Laguna - a city built up above Santa Cruz too far away to be of interest to pirates, and the model for renaissance Spanish city-making which they took with them on to Cuba and South America... hence it has a grid pattern, and double courtyards in the fine houses.  We are going back there today.
In between - yesterday - our choices were less sure and less pleasing. We thought maybe to go up towards Mount Teide(rhymes with lady), but we hadn't taken enough warm clothing and the roads were filled with push-cyclists and attendant traffic queues, and the developments along the road as it winds up those 3000m are - frankly - horrible for a lot of the time.  We turned back, and down to the western edge of the island, where there is a constant interplay of ghastly ghastly concrete tourist villages and banana plantations - the gardens or orchards swathed in beige netting presumably to protect against wind damage.  The effect is depressing.
The developments are just like finding yourself inside The Prisoner.
The saving grace was to get as far as los Gigantes, where the massive cliffs are about 800m high, and sheer.  Dark and brooding, they can only inspire thoughts of death... the Guanches, who lived here before the Spaniards came (and a Mr Murphy who helped build San Cristobal de la Laguna in the 16th century), these Guanches thought the cliffs were The End Of The World.
Actually if it is not too hazy, even from the beach level, you can see the next island, la Gomera, so I don't know what they thought of that.  Maybe that island on the horizon was their heaven.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Ancient islands

In some ways Tenerife reminds me of Crete (with its new motorway slammed along the lowlands between the mountains and the sea, or of Cyprus with its bare mountain steeps and scorched rocks). But here the history is so different. The first people known to have lived here were effectively expunged by the Spanish around the time of Columbus. Only about two hundred of their words were written down. They were blu-eyed, had sheep, goats and dogs and lived mostly in the plentiful scary-looking caves hereabouts. They may have been Berbers - hard to say. The worshipped a goddess who came to them from the sea, and which the devout Spanish renamed Madonnas, setting her up in a church where she held court for a while till the sea took her back. She was quite likely a ship's figurehead washed ashore all those years ago.
After yesterday's superb sights in the far east of the island, we will head north, back up into the forested mountains, away from this grasping, concrete, faked-up suburbia in the south. We have had breakfast of rye bread, lovely hard goat's cheese, croissant and fresh orange juice. The sun is up and getting hot.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

N E Tenerife

A perfect day. Early start, out along the motorway heading to Santa Cruz. Failed to reach the two pretty sailing ships in the puerto, but enjoyed strolling around, and loved getting to the Saturday market in the Africa building - bought wonderful fruits and fish.  Then up into the most spiky mountains anyone could ever wish to see.... spikes and points and wobbly-looking boulders on cliff-tops, big enough to demolish County Hall. The whole land is like adolescence - full of eruptions and imbalances, joyous and rough and frightening. Ash, lava, intrusions and erosions all piled onto each other, in many colours and varying states of threat.
We made it - over the top, through a fine tunnel, zigzag up and down a thousand metres of geology, loving the mossy woodland and birdsong at the peak.  We lunched at Roque de las Bodegas which must have one of the most spectacular coastal views in the world... we watched the young surfers and ate a fantastically delicious and cheap lunch at Casa Africa.
One nice oddity is that you can drive right past the tunnel which takes you to the north coast, and cross over it, on a spinal road - which we did, and ended at the furthermost point of NE Tenerife - ie the sleepy, swanky, tiny, botanically gorgeous Chamorga.
There we met a couple from Devon who were basically waiting for a bus back to the city - they were on foot in these astonishing mountains - so we offered them a lift and had a merry journey back. They run a b&b in Dartmouth, and they took us to San Cristobal and its medieval wonders.
Back now in the apartment, about to eat fresh John Dory from the morning market, with salad.

Friday, 10 January 2014


A quick midwinter break to find some sun and warmth - though, to be fair, between the flooding rainstorms at home, we have had some brilliantly sunny days. Anyway,  here we are - it's lovely and warm, and the trees and flowers are radiantly, expansively welcoming.
The best bit so far was waiting for our luggage at the airport.  The indicator board told us which carousel to go to, but the overhead signs at that carousel told lies - saying the luggage was coming from Manchester and Birmingham. It took a very long time to arrive.  We thought, they have about six arrivals an hour here, but it seemed very difficult for them to get the luggage up to us.
The carousel launched into life, churned round with nothing on it for 20 minutes or so, then stopped,
A while later, it started again and when it finally began to disgorge a few pushchairs and cases, that proved too much for it. It jammed, stopped.
In the end, an heroic work clambered up through the suitcase arsehole, wielding a big poky stick, with which he attacked various parts of the travelator or the luggage itself. It was like a giant mechanical bullfight.
Eventually, through sheer brute force, he got it all going and the patient English holidaymakers got their bags.
We are staying at the very same timeshare place we came to with the children some 15 years ago. The architecture is fantastic. The furnishings are glamorous and classy. The clientele is decidedly more down-market than it used to be.  But, we sought out the little eating-harbour we liked so much last time (Los Abrigos) and had a very nice fish supper while the dusk turned to night.
Now, after a battle with Google to get into Blogger, we're winding down.  More anon.