Wednesday 25 April 2012

Impressions of Lanzarote

In February I visited Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. Below are some of my impressions of that visit.

Journey out: It was cold cold cold on Gouda station and our train was late. Got to Eindhoven Airport on time, though. The airport was crazy busy. It seemed like every flight was scheduled to depart at about the same time causing the queues for the security check to approach Schiphol levels. Brutal. Our flight was an hour late which may have contributed to the general mayhem. The flight itself was profoundly uneventful. We checked out our rental car (a comfortable though somewhat powerless Fiat) and drove it out of the airport, in search of Costa Teguise. We had been driving for about fifteen minutes before even with my very limited sense of direction I realized that the ocean was on the wrong side of the car. It would not be the last time we got lost on this island: the Lanzarotians do signs pretty sparily, and we were lacking a good navigator in our party.

The apartment: Bare and basic. Our stay there would have been utterly unforgettable if it hadn't been for the unfortunate combination of non-existent noise insulation and the night time antics of our next floor neighbours. Arriving home from their sojourns into Costa Teguise's nightlife at three in the morning as they usually did, they then proceeded to discuss the night's proceedings in loud voices and for some strange reason rearranged the furniture while they were at it. After the first night of broken rest I tried to alleviate the problem by blocking some of the worst noise leaks using pillows, blankets and of all things my suitcase, but this did not prevent six more sleepless nights and bleary-eyed mornings. The apartment had a kitchen but barely enough utensils to make a sandwich, let alone a decent meal. I guess you're supposed to eat out. Staff was friendly, though, and the place was really cheap, coming in at under 30 euros a night.

Costa Teguise: A tired tourist trap. There's really nothing of note here. An endless parade of resorts, some of them abandoned mid-construction, commercial centres, and British style pubs and bars.

Teguise Market

Teguise: This charming market town is nothing like its almost name sake. Here there is something of the old Lanzarote to be seen. Cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses alternating with picturesque squares where locals and visitors alike gather for socializing. Teguise's famous Sunday Market is huge and hugely popular. During thirty years of increasing tourism it has grown from a few stalls in the town square to a few hundred covering the whole town centre, and on any given Sunday every single tourist on Lanzarote can be found on these few square kilometers. Despite its popularity the market has mostly retained its authenticity, although you do find the same souvenir woodblock frogs and wine bottle holders in every ten stalls or so. Unfortunately the Palacio Spinola no longer has its original furniture (as still advertised in our guide) but now houses the Timple museum. The timple is a string instrument resembling the ukelele, which I like well enough (George Harrison was a famous performer) but not enough to appreciate a hundred different examples of them.

César Manrique: The one who is everywhere. This architist (artist and architect) is a national icon and has left his traces all over Lanzarote. Think of him as Gaudi meets Picasso: buildings with natural rounded lines and abstract art. A major theme throughout his work is the symbiosis of humankind and its natural surroundings. Among his many contributions are the Fundación César Manrique in Tahíche (formerly his home, a villa consisting of a string of airy rooms with large windows and reception chambers all connected through chalk white winding passage ways), the Museo Internacional de Arte Contemporaneo (Museum of Modern Art) in Arrecife, the Jameos del Agua, and the Jardín de Cactus. In fact, you can hardly find a place of interest on the island that does not bear the inscription "Creación de Manrique".

Jardín de Cactus

Jardín de Cactus: This cactus garden sits in a large bowl, with terraces running along its sides. In fact, the whole spectacle you see before you as you enter looks like an amphitheatre with cactuses as spectators on the benches watching a play by other cactuses, the whole scene frozen in time. An amazing place.

Jameos del Agua: Built out of one of the holes in the underground lava tunnel of which the Cueva de los Verdes is also a part, this is part restaurant, part nightclub, and part conservation area. It is the only known habitat of a peculiar species of tiny blind white crabs, which dot its lagoon. Blind as they are, they still somehow manage to sit fairly evenly distributed on the rocks at the bottom of the water, at equal distances from each other. The visual effect of thousands of tiny shimmering white spots on ink black rocks is spectacular.

The weather: Record breaking. Apparently "it hadn't rained this much in five years" and "it is never this cold in February". Records aside, the weather became more pleasant towards the second half of our stay, especially when the sun was out and the wind was down.

Playa de Famara

Playa de Famara: This large beach, popular with windsurfers, lies on the northwestern coast of Lanzarote. I spent a couple of hours here just lying on my back on the sand, watching the wind play with the clouds in the sky high above me. From time to time a small wisp of cloud would break off from a larger body and gradually disappear as it became ever more dispersed. Watching these huge forces of nature at work across the vastness of the sky made me feel rather small.

Montañas del Fuego: This area with its towering volcanoes and solidified lava waves is impressive enough, but the way it was made accessible was not. The way it works is you drive up to the visitor center. You are then loaded into a 50-person coach which takes you on a 25-minute trip past some of the views. It is hardly the ideal way to get a feel for the majesty of the place, and my most vivid memories of the experience are not of the surroundings, but of the matter of fact way in which the driver negotiated hair raising turns on a narrow road flanked by gorges and ravines. There was no opportunity to do a bit of exploring myself and in fact I was angrily cautioned when I strayed two steps outside some vaguely defined boundary near the visitor centre.


The climate: Dry and barren. I can't imagine what anyone would do here if they weren't working in tourism or in services (you know, fixing the roads and giving out passports and such). Agriculture was once a fairly large industry here, but has much declined over the years. Forests there are not. Sometimes you see a lane lined by cacti or a type of robust looking palm trees. My impression of the general landscape was that it looks like the surface of the moon, only rockier.

Cueva de los Verdes: The first cave I've ever been in where it was a balmy 20 degrees celsius, warmer than it was outside at the time! These caves where formed during the last volcanic eruptions on Lanzarote and are part of the cave system that continues in Jameos del Agua. Here the caves consist of a series of very large chambers, one of which is a concert venue. Listening to a concert 50 feet under the ground like this enables you to become deeply involved in the music!

Museo Agricola el Patio: This farm has been preserved in the state in which it more or less was in the 1840's as a monument to Lanzarote's rich agricultural past. It's a great place to explore, inside and outside, from the large main building and extensive outbuildings, which tell the story of an operating farm in words and objects, to the gardens and pastures where animals as diverse as goats, camels, and large and small birds roam. A fantastic place!

Museo Agricola el Patio

Arrecife: The capital of Lanzarote and the biggest town on the island, and the only settlement with a feel somewhat approaching a city. We strolled along the seaside for a few hours, and visited the Museo Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, located in a lovingly restored old fort called the Castillo de San José. Inevitably the museum contains a sizable collection of works by the ubiquitous César Manrique, but many other Lanzarotian artists from the last fifty years are also represented in its vaulted chambers. It has taken some time but in recent years I've developed an appreciation for modern art. It allows your imagination to run wild. One other remarkable feature of the museum were its bathrooms, which had large windows overlooking the ocean. While not quite coming close to the Toilet with the Best View in the World, which is located on a mountain in the Fiordland National Park in New Zealand and which I had the good fortune to sit on a number of years ago, but still an odd and rather liberating experience, if you get my drift.

Journey back: We got up extremely early as the flight was at 7:30, only to run into a baggage problem at the airport. Apparently our suitcase had collected enough sand and volcanic debris during out stay on Lanzarote to gain a kilo in weight (we have no other explanation), putting it over the limit. Since this would mean paying 20 euros for the privilege of taking the extra weight with us, we decided to take some stuff out and put it in our carry on luggage. That done we joined the line in front of the security check. It was then I realized I had taken my bag with bathroom stuff out of the check in suitcase and put it in carry on. So stupid. It had all sorts of tubes and flagons with way more than the 100 ml allowed under that stupid "safety" measure. What to do? I decided to check in my small suitcase which I was to carry on the plane. Got back to the Ryanair counter but while the lady was the phone to check if there was room for my suitcase I realized that the value of the fluids I could not bring on the plane was way less than the 40 euros the extra check in bag was going to cost, so I retracted my request. The lady hadn't heard (or ignored me) so when she came back and said it was 80 euros that made the decision only easier. So there I stood chucking out flagons or suncream, deodorant, shower gel, contacts cleaner and hand disinfectant like a security guard in a foul mood. Later I calculated I probably threw away about 20 euros of stuff. The same 20 euros we would have had to pay to check in our overweight suitcase. This way the money wasn't going to go to Ryanair, though. I at least felt better about that.

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