Travel: Canary Islands
The Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa offers a unique blend of imported white sand beaches from the Franco era, a 1000-year-old fig tree, and a food mix that includes authentic tapas and branded American burgers.
Destination: Canary Islands
Landing in: Tenerife
Sights: Pico del Teide, Playa de Bullollo, Puerto de la Cruz, Playa de las Americas, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Mardi Gras festivals, Carachico, La Oratava, Icod de los Vinos, Big Fig Tree. Casa de los Balcones
By Jay Stone
PUERTO DE LA CRUZ, Tenerife — When people ask why I decided to take a holiday in the Canary Islands this year, I say: “It’s because we’re travelling on a budgie.” Fortunately, no one has actually asked this, but it never hurts to be prepared. In fact, the Canary Islands aren’t named after the little bird –featured, in an irony that only real life could provide, in a Tweety and Sylvester cartoon on the Air Europa flight from Madrid — but rather after dogs, or canines, that are found here, although I haven’t found one yet.
The Canaries are an archipelago of seven Spanish islands in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa. Tenerife, the biggest, has a population of a million. It’s an oblong with 260 kilometres of coastline road running around the base of a big (and dormant) volcano that sits in the misty clouds in the middle and is visible from everywhere. It’s called Pico del Teide (rhymes with Haiti) and one of the big tourist attractions is to drive the 3,700 metres up there and go for a hike in the national park around it. Our bus full of Canadian seniors will be doing just that in a few days and if the first tour, a circumnavigation of the island, is any indication, it will be like your Grade 11 field trip to the museum, only with older jokes and crankier troublemakers.
The Canaries are an archipelago of seven Spanish islands in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa. Tenerife, the biggest, has a population of a million. It’s an oblong with 260 kilometres of coastline road running around the base of a big (and dormant) volcano that sits in the misty clouds in the middle and is visible from everywhere.
In the north side of the island — the slightly cooler (daytime temperature: 21), slightly cheaper side where we are — the beaches are made of either volcanic rocks or sticky black sand. One of them, Playa de Bullollo, is about a 45-minute walk from our big hotel on the eastern edge of Puerto de la Cruz. You go through a banana plantation and then up and down many steps through a gorge, and arrive at a hidden little cove with a nice restaurant perched just above it. Swim at your own risk, and bring a towel to wipe the black stuff off your feet.
On the southern coast, there are white beaches because Generalissimo Francisco Franco had sand imported from Africa to make things nice and, one assumes, attract the German tourists who now form an important subculture on Tenerife. The beach town of Playa de las Americas, on the southern coast, has a lovely white beach, plus miles of wooden boardwalk beside restaurants and expensive looking condos. Just a block from the beach there’s a big hotel that looks like something out of Las Vegas and features a Hard Rock Cafe. The place looks for all the world like Naples, Florida.
There’s actually a lot of that in Tenerife: McDonalds and Burger Kings, casinos and designer shops sitting side by side with little Spanish towns of cobblestone alleys running up steep hills — Teide dictates a geography of ramps and stairs, all of them, through some Escher-like magic, going uphill — and cute little houses with wooden balconies. It feels like a place in transition, with outlet malls, one suspects, looming at the gates.
Teide dictates a geography of ramps and stairs, all of them, through some Escher-like magic, going uphill…
But Puerto de la Cruz is holding on to its character: it too has a long boardwalk beside the sea with a big water park and lots of places to buy ice cream, designer sunglasses and all the stuff you see in every beach resort in the world. But when you reach the old town at the western end of this, there is a maze of streets with outdoor cafes and restaurants. We happen to arrive during the town’s big Mardi Gras celebration, so the streets were jammed with crowds gathered around makeshift stages where you can hear all the ear-splitting Euro rock (heavy on the downbeat and on the horns) you could wish for, or perhaps against. The nearby capital city, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, has its own Mardi Gras parade that the locals say is second only that in Rio and features miles of floats, bands and women in sparkly colourful outfits. There are also many men dressed as women for some reason: finding your inner female is apparently one of the staples of Mardi Gras. Later at dinner we wondered whether this constitutes cultural appropriation, but the question got lost in the usual haze of vino tinto.
…Finding your inner female is apparently one of the staples of Mardi Gras. Later at dinner we wondered whether this constitutes cultural appropriation, but the question got lost in the usual haze of vino tinto
Our seniors tour arrived at the parade to find that their promised reserved seats — arranged by a local tour guide named Fabrice, but inevitably mispronounced as Fabreeze — weren’t there, so they had to stand four four hours. Also, it was hard to find a bathroom. Finding bathrooms is one of the main preoccupations of a seniors tour, and their availability is one of the first issues addressed in all of the literature. Bathrooms and steps, and there are not enough of the first and too many of the second for some of our group. The fiasco if the unreserved seats has continued to be a topic of outrage in the elevators and the hotel restaurant.
So far we have only dipped our toes into the life of the island. Dinner and breakfast are included at our hotel, a mixed blessing as usual (European breakfasts always include odd processed meat, cheese you can’t quite identify, and breakfast cereals you didn’t know they made any more.) However we found a nice little cafe called Casa Mika in the old town that serves a wonderful paella and tapas, plus various crepes. It provides an occasional break from the diet of warm pizza and whatever a “hamburger” turns out to be.
Dinner and breakfast are included at our hotel, a mixed blessing as usual (European breakfasts always include odd processed meat, cheese you can’t quite identify, and breakfast cereals you didn’t know they made any more.)
There’s a nice local botanical garden where everyone but me walked around looking at flowers and a big fig tree, and about half an hour west of here, in a place called Icod de los Vinos, is the famous Dragon Tree. They say it is 1,000 years old, which qualifies it for a seat on our bus, and it’s a pretty magnificent thing, 17 metres tall and spreading its branches out of a trunk that is thick and weary with age (look who’s talking.) Thousands of people come every year to look at it. There are lots of food trucks nearby.
Nearby is the town of Carachico, whose name means “small island,” or, as I like to think of it, Little Rock. It’s an unspoiled spot on the water with nice restaurants, shops, monasteries, churches and laurel trees, and everyone wants to go back for lunch. You can get there on the local bus system which is — another long conversation at dinner — superior to Ottawa’s bus system despite the fact that it’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far from the appropriate regulatory agencies. We took a local bus 10 minutes down the road to La Oratava, another of the guide book must-sees. It’s a town of 40,000 on the lower (but still almost vertical) slopes of Teide and you can trudge up from the bus station along narrow streets and see lots of architecturally important Spanish houses. The main destination is the Casa de los Balcones, a building with lots of wooden balconies running along the top floors. The good news is that you can see it and still beat the crowds to the tapas place down the hill before lunch. There’s also a very nice cemetery around the corner, although this may be another one of those destinations in which seniors have an untoward interest.
The good news is that you can see it and still beat the crowds to the tapas place down the hill before lunch. There’s also a very nice cemetery around the corner, although this may be another one of those destinations in which seniors have an untoward interest.
That’s about it for the first week, although we did land in Madrid for one night of exploring. We went to a restaurant near the opera house and on the way a street person accosted me with the information that his wife was a prostitute. I believe this was meant to reflect his idea of my perceived attitude toward the Spanish, or indeed, all non-North American peoples. I can only assume he mistook me for a Donald Trump voter, despite my Toronto Blue Jays cap. “Fuck you, white man,” he said, waving his middle finger in front of my face. I would have dealt with him too, but I was busy looking for a bathroom.
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