| Cunard Queen Victoria 2017
Canaries Christmas Voyage
Lanzarote is quite different to the other popular Canary Islands and one we have visited less often. The total population is only 106,000 of which 45,000 live in the capital, Arrecife. Previously we had a split holiday sometime in the 1980s, partly in Playa Blanca and then crossing by ferry to nearby Fuertaventura, after which we have only had a single visit by ship in 2010 when we spent our time in Arrecife. Our memories from previous visits were of a dry island dominated by volcanoes and high winds where wine is made from grapes grown in little hollows in the volcanic dust and protected from the wind by a dry-stone wall of lava.
The immediate impression of Lanzarote is that the buildings are generally low, typically only two or three stories high, and the walls are bright white with green or blue doors. Only the single tall 5* Arrecife Gran Hotel spoils the skyline. This is almost entirely due to the influence of Lanzarote's most famous resident- César Manrique.
César Manrique is difficult to categorise, he was a painter, architect, sculptor and designer and his imprint on his beloved birthplace is totally inescapable - almost everywhere we went his influence was visible, or in some cases not visible as it is thanks to Manrique there are no advertising hoardings scarring the island and any new high-rise buildings are banned. Manrique himself fought any attempts to categorise his work, finding such labels constraining his view being "Classifications are negative because they weaken art." His guiding principle, was to work in harmony with nature and from a young age he was totally consumed by the unique beauty of Lanzarote. His passion for the island, from the twisted lavascapes of Timanfaya in the south to the verdant valleys of Haria in the north, sparked both artistic inspiration and a desire to ensure the island's preservation.
Lanzarote in the 60s faced the prospect of being buried beneath a sea of five star concrete as package tourism began to take off in Spain. Whilst other sun spots ran headlong into the arms of mass-market, high rise development Manrique counseled restraint: "I believe that we are witnessing an historical moment where the huge danger to the environment is so evident that we must conceive a new responsibility with respect to the future." Developers on the Costas and the Canaries however wanted profits, not prophets but after long battles his views prevailed and has led to Lanzarote being the unique place it is and his work as an ecologist was ultimately rewarded in 1993, when Lanzarote became the first island in the world to be designated a UNESCO biosphere. A popular quote from César Manrique is that "Lanzarote is like an unframed, unmounted work of art and I hung it and held it up for all to see."
To now put this into the context of our visit, we chose to visit the "Fire Mountains" as the Volcano Park at Timanfaya is known. The idea and creation of a Volcano Park at Timanfaya was masterminded by César as was the other major tourist destination - the creation of the Jameos del Agua from a collapsed lava tube. The tour guide gave some excellent background and pointed out immediately the low height building and the first point of interest was a huge sculpture by César Manrique. Unfortunately we did not stop for pictures and by then we had discovered the bus had deeply tinted windows which have caused us some interesting challenges in colour balancing our pictures! The novel methods required for agriculture involving use of volcanic ash were explained and we passed a quarry for this ash. After an interesting drive we reached the boundary to the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya which is marked by a sign carrying the mischievous El Diablo (The devil) logo - .
The multicoloured volcanic landscape enclosing the Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains) stretches around 20 square miles (51 square kilometres). It is undoubtedly the highlight of Lanzarote’s landscapes, though almost completely devoid of any bird, animal or plant life.It was formed by a period of dramatic volcanic eruptions in this area in the 18th Century. In 6 years more than thirty volcanoes violently exploded, spilling fire, smoke and huge masses of magma onto the surrounding landscape, burying entire villages. Fortunately, most people deserted their homes in time so there were no casualties. These eruptions transformed almost a quarter of the island into a sea of solidified lava, multicoloured volcanic rocks and copper-coloured sand, with wide areas covered with thick layers of lapilli (coarse ash). These materials formed the malpaís (badlands), and more than 250 years after these eruptions, there is still hardly any vegetation here. For the time being, the area is quite safe, though underneath the surface it is still bubbling and an odour of sulphur hangs in the air. Not surprisingly due to the dangers.
The Parque Nacional de Timanfaya can be visited but only on a coach tour or guided walks; free roaming around the park is not allowed. Our first stop was the visitor centre where we had demonstrations of just how hot the area still is. Firstly some ash was shoveled up from about 10 cms deep and a small bit placed in everyones hands - it was almost impossible to keep hold of it without jiggling from hand to hand. Next some brushwood was thrown into a hole just over a meter deep at which depth the temperature reaches 400 degrees and it spontaneously caught light. Thirdly some water was poured into a tube in the ground down a number of holes in the ground, only for it to burst back up again in a geyser like spout, a few seconds later. We then had a chance to look round the centre. The heat just below the earth's crust is still so intense that the restaurant uses an opening in the ground to grill all the meat and fish they serve to diners. This thermal grill is a building shaped like a pottery kiln, again a design of César Manrique. He also designed the interesting lighting originally using frying pans welded to poles and attached to the walls. In fact Manrique is also credited not only with the design of the restaurant which sits on top of the Islote de Hilario, where the car park and coach pick up point are but also discerning the optimum driving route through the park which is still in use.
We then had the tour which takes you for about 40 minutes on the 10 km (6.2 miles) long Ruta de los Volcanes, through the surprisingly colourful landscape. On this extraordinary and unforgettable journey. There were awe-inspiring views over volcanic cones, look down into craters, over dunes of picón and lapilli and gave glances into lava tubes. There were many stops on this tour, but we were not allowed to get off the bus and had to take our pictures through the heavily tinted windows. We saw the Islote de Hilario, a black volcano, which at 1,673 ft (510 metres) is the tallest of all the Fire Mountains and dominated the view. There was a commentary which extensively quoted an eyewitness to the eruptions, Father Curbelo, who recorded the events in his diary as he watched the eruptions from his parish in Yaiza.
The sight of all this lava, in places looking like melted wax, in others frozen crusts tumbled on each other in layers is impressive. Although the volcanoes are of the Hawaiian type, which means that the lava is slow moving and there is no pyroclastic flow of ash and suffocating debris, it must have been terrifying to see the earth in its molten liquid form. Especially if you consider that some of the slabs of rock you will see standing perpendicular to the horizon must have flown through the air and landed where they are from the force of the explosions. All too soon we left the park, passing the site of the camel tours.
The next stop was at the Aloe Vera 'Museum' which was actually more interesting than we expected and one got a chance to use (or even eat) the raw 'extracts' from the Aloe Vera leaves. The tour continued passed the last of the salt pans into the valley of La Geria, which has been declared a 'Protected Area' and is Lanzarote’s main wine-growing region,
La Geria occupies about 50 square kilometres and stretches on both sides of the road from Masdache to Uga and right up to the volcanic slopes. This area produces most of Lanzarote’s wines, of which 75 per cent are made from the Malvasía grape, one of the oldest known grape varieties. Best known as a honey-coloured, very sweet wine with a rich flavour, it was praised by Shakespeare but is less to modern tastes. The Malvasía grape can produce a wide variety of acceptable white, red and rosé wines, from very sweet to very dry.
The vineyards of La Geria valley are located on the edge of the badlands and covered with black volcanic ash and look like they have been transplanted here from another planet. The Lanzaroteños have found an indigenous way of cultivating vines on this arid and hostile ground. They dig large numbers of funnel-shaped hollows into the thick layers of picón (coarse volcanic ashes), planting a single vine in each hollow, filling them with soil and pouring thick layers of picón over it - the porous volcanic granules ideally retain the night humidity to feed the plants. In order to protect them from the constant winds and drying out, they build low, semicircular walls around them. This unique cultivation method results in a prosperous wine industry whose wines can be sampled and purchased in a number of local bodegas.
We stopped at the Bodega La Geria where we received single minute samples of either a sweet or dry white wine, but we would not have wanted more having tasted them. We thought we ought to give the benefit of the doubt and also paid for samples of two red wines (1.5 euro for two half size samples) and they were much better but did not attract us enough to buy at 12 euros or so a bottle. There was an interesting Belén which featured the salt pans we had passed and we had some excellent views over the vineyards showing the method of cultivation required in these extreme conditions.
After that it was back to the ship. We normally avoid tours in places we know but the "Fire Mountains" are a must if you visit Lanzarote and the rest of the tour was very instructive thanks to an excellent guide. The only major problem was the buses heavily tinted windows which gave major challenges to correct our pictures.
This is mostly based on our visit on the Ocean Countess in 2010 when it was a Sunday and we found that Arrecife was very quiet. Lanzarote has suffered much volcanic activity and the most popular excursion is to visit the Fire Mountains in the Timanfaya National Park. Another popular trip visits the wine area of La Geria. Lanzarote has a reputation as a windy island. We had done the "Fire Mountain" trip many years ago so we decided to just walk round the town without realising that with a small population it would be quite so quiet on a Sunday.
We caught the free shuttle bus to the edge of town and then walked alongside the saltwater lagoon, El Charco de San Gines, with its fishermen’s houses and little bobbing boats. Only one or two bars were open. Definitely no shops were open on a Sunday except for just one souvenir shop and a corner shop selling ice creams and groceries. Even stamps for our postcards were going to have to wait until tomorrow. We strolled along the promenade, then along the seawall to see the Castillo de San Gabriel. Looking back towards town there were three model yachts in full sail turning a buoy; we met their owners clutching radio control equipment in the Parque Jose Ramirez Cerda. There is a serious club which meets on Sunday and the boats we saw were over two metres tall and weighed about 35 kgs - the owners were removing the batteries and keel weights before transporting them.
Just beyond the Arrecife Gran Hotel we sat with ice creams by the Playa del Reducto and its clean yellow sand, and a little white tourist train trundled past. We walked back through the deserted side streets with their closed shops and stopped outside the 17th century Iglesia de San Gines, named after the city’s patron saint. Almost all the only other people in town were from the ship.
|Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 4th January, 2018