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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Lanzarote: A Trip to the Dawn of History

The estimated number of volcanos is over 200, but there are no official figures. Fire keeps seething below the crust in Lanzarote and every now and then a new fire mouth opens erupting and covering the island in rivers of lava and lapilli. The vast Timanfaya National Park consists of volcanic material exclusively, and is inaccessible, except with authorised guides.

The island proudly rejects the modern era. Its landscape is reminiscent of Iceland, another land seemingly belonging to another age, with its scant, nearly absent vegetation, whose native living forms exist only there.

In the fourteenth century Lanzerotto Malocello, an explorer from Varazze, near Genoa (whose name the island has acquired), landed on the island and noticed that it was inhabited by indigenous tribes (the Guanches) living in Stone Age conditions. Subsequent expeditions managed to occupy the land only a century later; it remained however a destination of pirate raids, as the Castillo de Santa Barbara stronghold above Haría bears testimony.

Against the growing trend of mass tourism in the other Canary Islands, Lanzarote has preserved its ancient appearance thanks to the commitment of the local artist and architect, César Manrique, who fought strenuous battles against the construction of skyscraper hotels since as early as the seventies, up to his premature death in 1992. Manrique favoured a vernacular type of architecture, respecting local traditions and making it richer with a few flights of his fancy. His architectural and artistic works are spread throughout Lanzarote, making it uniquely fascinating, very different from the rest of the archipelago. His concept was to fuse the impacts of humankind and nature to create a harmony of forms, shapes and colours that would be respectful and peculiar at the same time. His attractive inventions fill us with admiration and awe.

Among his numerous creations are his home with studio and garden at Haría, the Manrique Foundation in Teguise, the Mirador del Río (restaurant and viewing terraces overlooking the Chinijo archipelago), the Campesino Monument, Jameos del Agua (restaurant and concert venue built inside a lava tunnel), the Cactus Garden – an extraordinary collection of cactus plants – as well as a number of wind sculptures around the island. Other works can be viewed in Tenerife (Lago Martianez and Playa Jardín in Puerto de la Cruz), Gran Canaria, La Gomera and El Hierro.

The dominant colours of the typical Lanzarote architecture are the dazzling white plaster and the blue of the sea, which gets integrated in the shape of a pool, a tub or a fountain. Another characteristic colour is the black of the lava stones showing through the plaster.

The little church of Yé, in the north, is our first meeting point with a group and the guides who show us wild beauties, native vegetation, lava formations, the colours of nature. Our hikes include Monte Corona, Caldera Blanca, Montaña Colorada and El Cuervo, all extinct volcanos, each with its history and characteristics.

Monte Corona is one of the highest “peaks”, with the rim of the crater at 609 m above sea level (the island’s maximum altitude is 670 m), and stands out for being “new”, i.e. it derived from an eruption just over 4,000 years ago; the eruption formed also a very long lava tunnel ending inside the Atlantic Ocean several kilometres ahead. In the direction of the sea, and under it, the tunnel forms the fantastic Cueva de los Verdes cave, a fairy-tale place with emerald reflections and reverberations.

Caldera Blanca is instead a very ancient, very wide – 1,200 m – whitish crater rising in the midst of a sea of black lava erupted from a nearby volcano in the 18th c.

El Cuervo is a very picturesque volcano that can be viewed inside and is rich in minerals and luxuriant vegetation.  Montaña Colorada is stunning for the magnificent colours that change progressively as one walks around it: green, red, yellow, and for the “bomb” – a huge basalt monolith thought to have been expelled during an eruption and that struck the sandy ground a few hundred metres of the crater.

The club we joined for our hikes is Lanzarote Active Club, run and enlivened by the exceptional Michele, Carmen, Isabel and Alena. We couldn’t have had better luck.

Lanzarote’s geologic variety is unique, as shown by another natural wonder: El Golfo. It is a volcano that erupted opening a crater inside the sea, and forming a bay – precisely a gulf. The colours here seem even artificial – from the bright red sandstone, to the glossy black basalt, to the silver grey sand at the bottom, to the emerald green lagoon (because of the algae).

Nature is the undisputed sovereign in Lanzarote; however, human beings have lived here since prehistory, in small settlements, fishing, hunting, breeding goats and later growing food and starting forms of trade. The inhospitable environment has always been a major obstacle for both colonisation and innovation.

Today there is an international airport in Arrecife, the capital, as well as a fairly developed road and highway network; internet is established but requires upgrading, particularly the wi-fi system. In a way, it is a kind of rebellious consolation to know that one is sometimes isolated, non-connected, unreachable from the rest of the world. It is therefore a pleasure to discover places where time is standing still, as in the vineyards dug in a bed of lapilli; as in the fields cultivated according to primitive techniques; as in the local craft markets selling really unfamiliar items; as in the farmyards where goats, chickens, pigs and dogs all live together; as in the little stores scattered in the countryside offering only a limited amount of imported goods; as in the sandstone concretions sculpted by the wind, resembling sand castles and citadels built by who knows what aliens…

The communities are small and peaceful, some are rich in history as Teguise, Haría, San Bartolomé, Tinajo, Yaiza; others busy with tourism, as Arrecife, Puerto del Carmen, Playa Honda, Playa Blanca, Costa Teguise. Tourism, however, isn’t like the one in Tenerife or Gran Canaria, loud and garish; it is an active sort of tourism, more interested in discovering the natural environment, less party-loving and night-owlish. Incredible but true, restaurants, bars and pubs open early in the evening and by 9 p.m. they’re already shut. At the beginning we were astounded. We wondered whether we were in Spain.

The very few sandy beaches – most of the coastline is rugged and inaccessible, awesome and dangerous – are frequented by sport lovers and fit people, not lazy families requiring parasols and deck chairs.

North of Lanzarote is a small archipelago formed by La Graciosa, Montaña Clara and Alegranza, only the first of which is inhabited (by fewer than seven hundred people) at forty minutes’ ferry crossing from Orzola harbour, at Lanzarote’s northern tip. The other two islands are protected nature reserves. The crossing is unforgettable; we sail around Punta Fariones and we enter the Río, the strait separating the two islands, flanked by high basalt cliffs on the east and a low sandy coastline on the west. The sea is deep blue and the sun covers it with golden specs. La Graciosa’s harbour is tiny and only used by the rather frequent ferries and fishing boats. There are neither paved roads nor motor vehicles. There are no fresh water springs either; therefore we must carry our own. It is an ideal place for trekking, with dozens marked paths, volcanos, secluded beaches to enjoy in private and breathtaking sights. One of the most spectacular spots is Playa de la Cocina at the foot of Montaña Amarilla, where there is a grotto with view, ideal for a picnic.

Our Lanzarote base camp was in Arrieta, a lovely seafaring village on the northeast coast, where all buildings are two-floor small white houses, there is a long rocky beach, and the waves seem to be perfect for surf enthusiasts. Arrieta is very popular with young sporting people; it also has several excellent fish restaurants, of which particularly noteworthy are El Amanecer and El Marinero, of a higher class.

Last but not least, Lanzarote wine. Production is very limited due to the island’s size, but quality stands out, particularly the white Malvasía, a wine that keeps winning countless international prizes. The vineyards are concentrated in particular in the south, between Tinajo and Yaiza; the bodegas (wineries with public points of sale) are numerous along the main roads; Bodega Rubicón and Bodega La Geria stand out, both offering wine tastings as well as restaurants.

Despite being so limited in size, Lanzarote is a miniature world and a week is barely sufficient for a superficial acquaintance. I’m already hoping to go back and get better acquainted.



22nd March 2015

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