Sunday, April 27, 2008

Island of Fire

I'm off to Lanzarote in a few weeks' time for a fortnight's break. Yes, I know that it's not the most glamorous of locations. And no, I'm not living rough in a bivouac made of pliable birch twigs, or in a hut with Kalahari bushmen. Nor am I doing anything particularly worthy, humanitarian or of deep scientific interest. I'm going on holiday. And that, for me, means doing bugger all. Well, not quite ... I'll always have my laptop or notebooks with me. And a camera. That never stops. But I won't be thinking about meetings, deadlines, shopping, mortgages, bills, direct debits or dinner parties. Just me, Dawn and some sunshine and sea.

I say that Lanzarote isn't glamorous but I'm being unkind and far too generalist. Admittedly, most of the coastal tourist region has taken on a kind of Ibiza anytown aspect with sports bars, karaoke clubs and night spots by the hundred. But there are some great restaurants if you're willing to hunt around the back streets (we found a fabulous seafood place last time and were the only guests in there every night. The food was superb and the fish so freshly killed that the relatives hadn't been informed yet). And there's art. Everywhere you go on Lanzarote you'll see echoes of Cesare Manrique. But more of him in a mo.

Head inland from the main resorts and you find volcano-sculpted landscapes dotted with bodegas growing wine grapes in curious pumice-rimmed craters. You'll find places like the Valley of a Thousand Palms. And everywhere there is quiet. It's just so peaceful and the African sun is glorious and almost constant. As you pass through each of the island's small districts, you also pass a variety of 'wind toys'. This is the legacy of Manrique. A native of the island, Cesar Manrique was a contemporary of Warhol and Picasso (and met them both) but he would not be drawn across the sea from his beloved Lanzarote. Instead, he made it his life's work to preserve the island's unique mix of Spanish and African culture and to stamp it with his own indelible mark.

His wind toys are huge kinetic metal and wood sculptures that spin, dance and twist in the breeze. In the North, there is Jameos del agua, a series of extraordinary buildings and structures that Manrique created within extinct lava tubes and bubbles. There is a restaurant, an undergound theatre and the most amazing swimming pool you've ever seen. Manrique's house - now a museum (he died in a car crash in 1992, aged 73) is well worth a visit as is the Mirador del rio, an observation platform he designed on one of the Canary Islands' highest points. The views are extraordinary. And he also designed the scariest restaurant on the planet - The El Diablo Volcan Grill is built smack bang in the middle of the Timanfaya National Park (an area of the island decimated by volcanic eruptions as recently as 1894). The restaurant cooks all of its food by volcano. Yup, just a few feet down, the ground is hot enough to turn water to high pressure steam and human beings to a crisp. So they dug a hole, stuck some griddles over the top and that's how the food is prepared.

Even the look of the island has a debt to pay to the man - thanks to his constant lobbying, laws were passed to ensure that tower blocks (in fact anything over three storeys) would never ruin the beautiful landscape. Having seen such things go up in the city of Arricife, he was so incensed by their brutality and ugliness that he dedicated himself to preventing any more being built. He also saw the way that package tourism was affecting the sister islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Fuerteventura and was adamant that Lanzarote should not be next. Consequently all new builds must be sympathetic to the environment and built with local materials - mostly volcanic basalt stone with the bubbly texture of an Aero chocolate bar. And if it ain't stone or wood, it's painted white. The results are artfully at one with their surroundings.

And that's why I like the place. Art, striking landscapes, great weather, and a little guy standing up to the big guys and saying 'To Hell with you. Art and beauty and style can exist side by side with nature.' In his own words:

“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.”

And that was 40 years ago. If only all town planners and architects thought the same way. So that's why I go to Lanzarote whenever I need to recharge my body batteries. I love the place. And it's only a few hours' flight away - it would take me longer to drive to Scotland.

I can't wait.
Photos by me


The Factory said...

Well as a proud resident of mainland Spain I can see exactly where you're coming from (or going to in this case). I'm lucky in that I live in the beautiful Mediterranean city of Valencia, which is unspoilt by tourism and a constant joy to live in. I've never been to Lanzarote but I'm told it's where the Spaniards with taste take their holidays. So, enjoy.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I will! It's Spain with an African accent (and even better weather than you enjoy - it's been thunderstorms here today. Sigh.)

Anonymous said...

I have ben to Lanzerote 4 times and had a superb holiday each time. I am sure you and Dawn will love it.

punk in writing said...

I went to Lanzarote as a kid and brought home a piece of vulcanic rock from Etna. :)
It sat on my mother's bookshelf for years, next to our "science corner" with a book on the vulcano Etna and books on geography, biology and other such topics.

andy said...

As a resident of Lanzarote I hope you have a great time here. You will have constant sun, there will be lovely beaches to go to, warm water to swim in, fish to look at, great restaurants to visit, very cheap food and drink, entertainment everywhere, friendly and safe environment, i could go on about palm trees and lack of humidity, cute geckos etc but you get the idea. have a great time and please tell us about it when you get back! Check out La Ola restaurant and Café del Carmen for cool laid back vibes and chilled lounge jazz music. Both in Puerto del Carmen. Regards. Andy.