We went round the whole island yesterday, not as a predestined route but as a series of decisions, starting with a wish to see Firgar and its remarkable water engineering. In the early days of ownership of the islands, the Spaniards who came here bought a vast treasury of ideas, technical knowledge and tools so they were able to achieve extraordinary things, the aboriginal islanders must have been awestruck as well as enslaved and massacred, seeing guns, gunpowder, steel, sailing ships, etc etc. At the place now called Firgar, in a relatively gentle valley on the island’s north face, a steady abundance of precious water prompted the Europeans to construct a series of aqueducts to channel it nearer to where they wanted. The water flows in a square-ish sectioned canal, about 2 feet wide and maybe 3 feet deep. The flow is perceptible but slow, and the canal runs near to or under the roads and pavements, sometimes behind a parapet, sometimes channelled through a tank or a diversionary weir, to bring fresh supplies to laundry spaces, or into a mill for grading grain. The water is clear and fresh. Despite rising demands and increasing encroachments on the sources, they calculate that there is still more than enough for the needs of every modern inhabitant. The whole thing is – was – so successful that a water-bottling company was established and now 200,000 bottles a day are shipped out by lorry. Access remains difficult in these mountainous regions. The roads are not terrifyingly steep but they are very tortuous and everywhere is a long way away. Road signs show you may not proceed if it’s raining!
The town celebrates its watery history by having a cascade running down the main street, the whole thing set off with a series of brightly coloured ceramic benches and tiled hatchments on the sunny side. The effect is slightly marred because the water here is not part of the sparkling crystal-clear stream in the Royal Ditch, but some sort of sequestered and frankly foul-looking soup which they pump round and round.
Lunch was another café-thang…. The local salad tradition gives you (on one plate) lettuce, asparagus, beetroot, sweet corn, raw onion, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, peaches, pineapples, cucumber, melon, apple, olives, etc etc. This is not a crise de buffet, but very satisfying and fun. You don’t really need to eat again all day.
Breads have varied from disappointingly boring to utterly ravishing. The artisan baker can still be found.
We had called in to a place called Arucas before Firgas because we saw its parish church in the distance – a fabulous concoction of black stone Gothic work with many spires and twiddles. It is roughly contemporary with Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but not so cranky. Like the mountain ranges we saw in the afternoon, it’s hard to gauge the scale and size of some of the landscape features here – this church looked huge from a distance, and is certainly large, but it shrinks slightly as you go in, this being compensated for by the crisp black-and-white interior, with the dark grey-black basalt lacing between the smooth white walls.
The place names here (apart from hamlets called Maria’s bend, Foot-of-the-slope, etc) are all mess-ups of the Guanches names. A frequent little place-name is El Hornillo, or little oven, which offers a hint of how lives were lived between 1500 and say 1950, with communal cooking-places or kitchens.
Our choice after lunch was to press on the north-west, to the Sardine Lighthouse, a land’s end kind of place. Through the mountains, winding on and on, down to a veritable bananrama with hundreds of hectares of the dull brown netting which keeps the winds off the banana plantations. These flat netted roofs frequently shred to tatters, but where they remain robust they offer a runway-like smooth flat surface. I think any alien spacecraft looking for a good landing place would have a shock bumping down on one of these roofs – they would crash through into a strange seried monoculture jungle of huge-leaved palms, their monstrous burdens of clusters of small green fruits waiting in polite silence for the day of reckoning.
The lighthouse is a fine old-fashioned red-and-white striped phallus standing alone in a blackish carpark, with the brilliant blue and white Atlantic bashing onto the rocks a few metres lower down. Someone has built a new holiday terrace there. Quite smart, but a VERY long way from anything else, and a bit contradictory – if you want solitude, fine, but then why would you buy a tiny house crammed in with its neighbours? If you want society, why would you choose somewhere an hour’s drive away from the nearest bar? OK – it’s not finished yet……
The drive home down the western coast was – in plain language – gobsmacking. Here for 30? miles of precipitous well-made road, you follow the line of some ancient tectonic collapse, high above the sea. This volcanic area is/was the oldest bit of the present island, but at some point, a massive slab of it slipped into the sea. All at once or but by bit? Sorry, don’t know. But a map will show you this great concave arc, and it’s only by going along it you realise the sheer engineering genius of the people who made it (1930s – 1950s). The actual route has to zig and zag in and out of massive valleys and around headlands, about 80m above the sea. The rock is of varying colours which show up where the road slices through, but it’s of a relentless hardness and almost malice. Each kind of ‘metal’ has different weathering characteristics, some faces give you huge squared boulders, some are narrowly striped and almost conversational, some are reduced to dusty-looking clinkers or ash, some are sheered into smooth faces or curves, some look like fudge or custard. Again it’s hard to estimate the size of the great walls which tower up above you. They look like the Himalayas till you see a few trees showing over the top in some places. But it goes on and on, and it’s impossible not to be awestruck. I thought of how the Romantic Poets used to go to the Lake District and Scotland for this same sensation – a thrilled dread and respect for Nature.
We were helped by having the sun ahead of us, so that the huge stark headlands all looked black or a misty distant grey, and the sea a shimmering silvery brilliant white, as we went south. Then inland when the road finally gave up, over more (blessedly green) mountains, and eventually back to our little house. Here we are the only English among many Scandinavians and Germans, but they are all very British and only greet us with a silent nod. Today we are hanging around here, and the sun shines, and the wind is bashing through the palm tree fronds high above us.