15 December 2015

Fuerteventura, the Canary Islands

A Modest Proposal....

We are sitting in the plaza, sipping Dorada beer.  It’s not late, but it’s dark, and a motley crew of northern European pensioners mirror me around the bars.  A balding man with a beard and a pony tail clicks his karaoke machine and fingers his guitar, then breaks into Dire Straits’ Walk of Life.  Children jig around the lamp-post; my wife does a discreet soft shoe shuffle in the shadows; and somehow the atmosphere is absolutely fine…. 

He got the action, he got the motion
Yeah the boy can play
Dedication devotion
Turning all the night time into the day

Welcome to the Hotel Canarino.....  

Such a lovely place 
(Such a lovely place)

We are in Fuerteventura, second largest of the Canary Islands.  It’s early December, and notwithstanding the celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception as the child of Saints Joachim and Ann, it is a quiet week.  

Winds scour the barren landscapes, whipping volcanic dust into the air, and skimming spindrift off the tops of the breakers. 


It’s warm and even under high clouds the air is good. 

Like Everyman, we braved the four hour flight south to get that extra sun, a touch of exotica.  We were Canary virgins, unsure of what to expect.  

I don’t even know now why we ended up on Fuerteventura and not on Tenerife, with its spectacular Mount Teide (at 3,718 metres the highest mountain in Spain, and the third tallest volcano in the world) or on the relatively green La Palma in the Gulf Stream.

Instead, we have desert expanses and hardly a tree in sight.  There are a few neatly trimmed palms by the roadsides, and then dry stretches with agave and aloe vera punctuating the dust.  There are farms in the south, with a few goats.

There are swathes of arid land, burnt by the sun and carved by the rare rain storms that rage down gullies, sculpting the hillsides.  

Little seems to live here, though the shy Houbara Bustard is one species that has made Fuerteventura its home. Occasional kestrels and buzzards can be seen scanning for lizards or Barbary ground squirrels. Berthelot’s pipits hop about in the scrub, spanish sparrows twitter in the eaves of roofless buildings, 

stone curlews 

and ravens 

survive looking glossy and bright, and along the shores egrets, whimbrels and sanderlings make a living among the rock pools.

And as for canaries…. Well, I didn’t see any.  The domestic songbird is a form of the little finch that does come from the Macaronesian Archipelago (which comprises the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries)  but the name Islas Canarias originally meant Isle of Dogs, and the birds were named after the islands, rather than the other way round…..

We explore.  From top to toe, the island rises from the sea in crumbling cliffs or basalt lava flows, with some attempting hexagonal forms not as neat, but not unlike, the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.  

A few tiny villages remain, and one group of farms have been restored as the ecomuseo la alcogida:

And on the west coast, Puertito de los Molinos even retains something of its raw simplicity as it faces the pounding surf.  

Inland there are modest settlements, some, like Betancuria

preserving a past that has been covered in concrete along the eastern and southern stretches of the coast.  

And I was thinking to myself,
"This could be Heaven or this could be Hell"

It is here, in Betancuria, just by the ex-Franciscan convent, that I discover a key to the island’s attraction: a worn wooden door in a white wall, with, on a wooden plaque above, the words Bazar El Diablo!   

Now I know where the Devil takes his holidays!  And perhaps I understand why?

In the Inferno, in the Second Circle of Upper Hell, Dante Alighieri and his companion Virgil find people who were overcome by lust. 

They are punished by being blown violently back and forth by strong winds, preventing them from finding peace and rest. 

Strong winds symbolize the restlessness of a person who is led by desire for fleshly pleasures. 

Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

This is where Dante placed many notable people from history and mythology including Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and others who committed lustful sins, such as adultery…..

We are all just prisoners here, of our own device

Fuerteventura, the Island of Strong Winds, with its cindery landscapes and its relentless wind, is just the place for Satan to relax…..

We visit Lanzarote, which beckons us from our apartment.  

In some ways this island is beautiful, perhaps because of the genius and inspiration of César Manrique, who, in the 20th century, transformed traditional buildings into architectural masterpieces, combining old structures with modern, many of which buildings now house art galleries and museums. 

A website tells me that With his brilliance, bizarre volcanic forms – testimonies to Lanzarote’s volcanic history (some of which was as recent as two hundred years ago) – were adapted and converted into pieces of art in harmony with their origins.  Wind chimes and mobiles, some of them like colourful giant toys, and stunning sculptures can be found spread over the island.  

César Manrique undoubtedly had an enormous influence on the regional council who gave him a free hand. According to his guidelines, no building – and there were very few exceptions in his lifetime (he died, aged 73, in 1992) – should be taller than a palm tree. He banned roadside hoardings as well as the tipping of rubbish, and electric cables had to be buried. He also recommended that buildings should only be painted white with green woodwork – though those with sea views could use blue - so there is a considerable degree of homogeneity on this island.

Teguise is the ancient capital of Lanzarote, and it only lacks tumbleweed.  A waft of cigarillo smoke and it would be no surprise to see Clint Eastwood laying his poncho back across his right shoulder, with Eli Wallach just round the corner.

Another extraordinary thing on Lanzarote is the cultivation of vines, many of which pre-date the European disaster of phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century.

Each vine is individually grown in a sunken pit (up to 3 metres deep) and about four to five metres wide and then a dry semi-circular rock wind-break called a Zoco is added.  The vines are planted directly in the barren soil which is then covered and protected by small black lava stones called Picon.  Again, the black landscape with these low-lying vines has something devilish about it…..

At the northern tip of the island, less than eighty miles from the coast of Africa, a Mirador has been set up, with extraordinary views of the sea and the coast.  

At the southern tip, however, the views are more mundane, and the exponential growth of concrete cells is like the frightening progress of an incurable cancer.  

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair

You emerge from the blackened fields of the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya and Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains) into the dazzling whiteness of Playa Blanca,

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light

where batteries of apartments are ranged in row after interminable row.

We return to the less ordered sprawl of Corralejo, where between the Waikiki and the Aberdeen Steak House, a bare four minutes in a wheelchair, I pause to consult a menu and overhear, You can have grilled rabbit for ten Euros! - Ten euros? The poor thing!

We repair to Gregorio El Pescador, where paella is more to our taste, though the next table is drunkenly requesting baby cabrito, with chips, while the patient waiter tries to explain that a cabrito is a baby goat, so you don’t need to call it a baby cabrito…..

Afterwards, back in the plaza, sipping Dorada, another middle-aged troubadour is serenading the masses:

And after all the violence and double talk
There's just a song in all the trouble and the strife
You do the walk, you do the walk of life….

Hotel California was, for me, one of those wallpaper songs, always there, the worn flock beginning to shine in the dark reflecting the zebra crossing or the ambulance lights..... 

I never really paid attention to the words, though the couplet, 

you can check out any time you want, 
but you can never leave

followed by guitar, drilled into the permafrost that once was my mind, on an island where there are no radiators.

Anyway, it resurfaces.  I am sipping beer on the devil's own island, and The Eagles are circling, spinning their multimillion dollar magic over my gossamer brain, between the devil’s surf school and the deep blue sea.

An idea comes to mind.  A modest proposal.  Perhaps Beelzebub has been whispering in my ear.  Here’s an idea for our beloved Chancellor…..  Ship old age pensioners out to the Canary Islands to end their days in little concrete cells by the sea, a diet of pills replaced by Canarino potatoes and yellow beer, their entertainment a mix of international football on giant TVs and endless renderings of Dire Straits' songs by street performers with paunches and bandanas…..

Here comes Johnny singing oldies, goldies
Be-Bop-A-Lula, Baby What I Say
Here comes Johnny singing I Gotta Woman
Down in the tunnels trying to make it pay
He got the action, he got the motion
Yeah the boy can play
Dedication devotion
Turning all the night time into the day

Mark Knopfler
Walk Of Life lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Just think of the savings!

Plenty of room at the Hotel Canarino

Any time of year (Any time of year)
You can find it here

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before

And I was thinking to myself,
This could be Heaven or this could be Hell

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