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Las Palmas de Gran Canaria - Friday 30th December 2016

We had seen a number of spectacular Belén Christmas nativity tableau during our two cruises and we knew that there was always a spectacular nativity made of sand on the Playa de las Canteras. As well as the pamphlet for this Belén de Arena there was also a list of the most significant Belén in Gran Canaria, which were published to encourage people to get out and see them. We were limited to Las Palmas, but here there were 8 Belén. It was going to be a busy day. The bad weather and high winds forecast for our visit to Madeira had forced the Captain to abandon our visit because of the dangers to the lifeboats which are used as tenders when the ship is at anchor. We were still going to Madeira, but only to see the fireworks, and the arrival time was rescheduled to be close to 2300 instead of 0800. To the delight of most passengers and crew the Queen Victoria was going to stay in Las Palmas overnight, leaving at around 0400 on 31 December. So we had plenty of time to go hunting for Belén and the problem would be taking photos when it got dark.

It is only a short walk from the port and past the Museum Elde de la Ciencia y la Tecnologia and the Park of Santa Catalina into the narrow streets which lead to the Playa las Canteras. There was a short detour into a Canarian Handicraft shop to check the price of proper hand-embroidered silk shawls (100 euro upwards) then into a telephone shop for about the same time (and the same potential purchase price).

Reaching the beautiful beach wearing our waterproof jackets it was a new world with bronzed tourists lying on the clean yellow sands in the sunshine. We had been worried that the high wind would have damaged the sand sculptures but the detail of the two privately made sand sculptures was still crisp. The main display opens on 2 December until 9 January and information is at www.belendearena.es It is the 11th time of building of this sponsored sand sculpture and it is said to be the biggest open air Sand Nativity in Europe. The sculptures are 5 metres high and made of over 2,000 tons of sand. The leaflet stated that there are 200,000 visitors each year and it is free to admire the work although there are souvenirs for sale for charity at the exit.

The tableau is almost at the end of the beach at the Plaza de Saulo Toron so it was only a short distance further to the fishing boats. There are two markets in Las Palmas and the Mercado del Puerto is at the end of the R Tenerife, so only 200 metres further. We had been warned that it was small and that the food stalls closed at lunchtime but the bars and cafes remained open all day. Having tasted the local platanos banana icecream in Candelaria yesterday this gave the chance to purchase a small bunch of bananas. The Canarian bananas are much smaller and sweeter than the ones for sale in the UK. To complete the exploration of new places we followed signs to the Castillo de a Luz, which is indeed a sturdy castle in a lovely park. It had been refurbished as an exhibition space and was not expensive to view. There is a useful little SuperDino next door which stocked cheaper but riper bananas and also boxes of icecream cornets. The park is a good place to sit with a picnic.

Our brochure list showed a Belén at the HyperDino Miller Bajo by the ship and although we generally avoid Centro Comercials we knew this Belén must be special. Indeed it was very large, and easy to find because it was next door to the entrance to the HyperDino. Daily life in Bethlehem is depicted and includes the nativity scene.

After lunch we went out again on foot, walking along the waterfront promenade to the Old Town. There are more sandy beaches and marinas. It is estimated to be an hour on foot and with the attraction of a bus (either #1 or #12 and costing 1.40 euros) to come back. Our destination was the Estacion de Guaguas de San Telmo, the bus station on the edge of the San Telmo Park. Usually the park is a peaceful space with a central bandstand and a pretty cafe on the corner. Now there were rows of white tents preparing for the New Year celebrations, and the large central tree was surrounded by a large circular Belén.

After walking twice around the tree with a video camera it was time to move on to the next Belén, in the Quegles Building, which opened promptly at 1700. The house was built for the impresario Domingo Rodriguez Quegles at the end of the 19th century , designed by the famous architect from Gran Canaria Fernando Navarro y Navarro.The Belén was a small historic tableau, made from 18th century privately owned beautiful Neapolitan components. The building itself is not open for visits, but the entrance hall and stairs gave access to the room with the Belén. The information board outside said that it now belonged to the state and was the Conservatorio Superior de Musica.

Our third Belén was at the Cabildo Insular and we were surprised to find the tableau behind perspex glass and stretching half the length of a modern office building. It is clear now how it can be visited from 1000 to 2200 because it is outside the main entrance. Unfortunately the glass and resulting reflections made it difficult to take good photos. The Cabildo Insular building was just a short walk from the San Telmo Park and we caught the first bus back to the port, descending near the Playa de las Canteras to watch the setting sun.

Overall our tour of Belens had been special. Each adds its own blend of historical traditions to the standard Nativity displays, with demonstrations of local activities and customs. There were 8 Belén listed in the brochure in Las Palmas and we visited 5 of them. These were described as "the most significant" and there were others in Las Palmas, as well as all the rest throughout Gran Canaria. As we returned there was a steady procession of people going out to enjoy an unexpected evening in port.

Some additional Background from earlier visits

Gran Canaria is the third largest of the seven Canary Islands. The port of Las Palmas is in the northeast corner of Gran Canaria. In previous visits we have taken tours inland taking us to the Crater of Bandama a(t 574m), Teror which is known for its many beautiful balconies and for the cathedral of our Lady of the Pine which is one of the most important churches in the Canaries and the historic city of Arucas. We have only once spent a full day in the port and capital city of Las Palmas, visiting the cathedral in the Plaza de Santa Ana, the nearby Canarian Museum with its display of mummies and the yellow sandy Playa de las Canteras beach. Las Palmas is an interesting town with plenty to keep tourists busy. One moors right next to the large El Muelle shopping mall also which proves very popular. The Cruise Terminal is at the Muelle Santa Catalina and the port area is at the northern end of Las Palmas, a long straggling town. The port is however quite close to the Playa de Las Canteras across a narrow peninsula. The Playa de Las Canteras is probably the best of the local beaches as is protected by a coral reef which protects it from the surf and provides safe swimming. The mile and a half long beach is lined by a wide promenade with many cafes and bars - a favourite of the staff we understand, especially a Chinese Restaurant providing an unlimited buffet. The interesting old part of the town round the Cathedral of Santa Ana is at the far end - it looks a long but possible walk on the maps.

This description is based on our last but relatively old visit on the QE2 in 2007 when we went ashore as soon as the ship had cleared immigration facilities early in the morning. We started off walking along to the old Vegueta district which has the Cathedral and Museums. All the maps had conflicting scales so we underestimated the distance from the port and it took nearly an hour and a half with a few stops to stroll through the lush semi-tropical grounds to take pictures of a nice looking hotel, The Hotel Catalina, for any future visit and through the San Telmo Park with its novel kiosks. We noted that it was beside the bus station for future visits and so we could get back quickly. We eventually reached and walked through the popular shopping streets to the old Vegueta district. We had been brought here last visit by coach as part of an excursion but had not had time to look around properly.

We started off at the Cathedral de Santa Ana and the associated museum. It was started in 1500 and took 4 centuries to complete which has led to it having three distinct architectural styles as well as many other variations as it progressed. One of the Bishops is the process of fast track beatification (being given the status of a Saint) - his body is remarkably well preserved and is on display in a glass paneled coffin in a side chapel. The associated museum was also interesting, in practice the only way into the Cathedral seems to be to pay the €3 each for the museum - we had to pay for a couple of others from the QE2 who had no Euro who put some back under our door the next day.

The next visit was to the Casa de Colon which includes the original Governor's House where Columbus stayed when he put into port to repair one of his ships on his way to The New World. There are enclosed courtyards and over a dozen rooms of exhibitions including details of all Columbus's journeys to The Americas which all stopped at the Canaries as a staging point for provisions and water. The archipelago is ideally sited for navigation to the west because of Trade Winds and favourable currents making it also a market for goods and a source of emigrants. It took us a while to look round as there are not only the two floors round the courtyard but also a large crypt which also seems to be the home of two huge parrots which were sliding down the banisters when we arrived. Unexpectedly it was free which is probably why so many tours visit it - we were fortunate that it was mid afternoon.

We walked round the area in particular, admiring the Andalusian style balconies on the old buildings. We walked through the Plaza Santa Ana where we saw the Bishop's House and the birthplace of Don Jose de Viera y Clavijo. The town hall, currently being restored, is at one end and the cathedral at the other. There are two bronze dogs at the Cathedral end; these 'canes' gave their name to the Canary Islands. We continued past the chapel of San Antonio Abad where Columbus heard mass before continuing to discover America.

We walked a short distance down the road to make our final visit to the Museo Canaria, for 3 ecu each (in 2007) but well worth it. There are many exhibits covering the early inhabitants of the Canaries including models of there dwellings made of stone without mortar and roofs made of stone slabs and soil - a cross between a house and a cave. Perhaps the most memorable and famous exhibits are of mummies. The ancient Canarians preserved their dead by desiccation followed by wrapping of the body in a shroud made of layers of rush matting and pelts. A number of remarkably well preserved corpses are on display in a room also walled with cabinets holding thousands of sculls. There are x-ray pictures of the 'mummies' showing details of the bone structure indicating the age and often causes of death. There are also models reproducing the burial mounds and burial caves. When they are viewed the lights in the room are dimmed to increase the realism.

We were, as ever, short of time so we walked back past the San Telmo Park to the bus station where we discover we needed a number 1 bus which went from just down the road outside the pharmacy. We got off the bus as it came close to the Playa Las Canteras and had a quick walk along the promenade - it was a bit late for a swim. It looked very pleasant with a long and broad stretch of fine yellow sand with a reef visible close inshore to protect it from the surf. There were plenty of pleasant looking bars and restaurants on the promenade with outside tables overlooking the beach. We had no time to indulge and we just had time for a brisk walk back to to reach the ship just before the 'all aboard' time, by then very footsore after a very full day.


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Content revised: 17th July, 2020