Monday, June 30, 2008

Next time, we pack mugs, fish slices and ear plugs

Despite the fact that I regarded this trip to Lanzarote as a working holiday (I needed to finish writing a couple of scripts and work on a new book), it’s actually been one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve ever had. Unlike our last visit, Dawn and I were under no pressure and had no inclination to visit any of the island’s attractions as we’ve seen them all. Therefore, free of all tourist obligations, we could afford to chill out. And we did just that to Ice Age proportions.

We were staying in Matagorda, about halfway between the capital Arrecife and the resort of Puerto del Carmen. To be strictly correct, Matagorda is a suburb of del Carmen but it does have an identity of its own. It’s off the main road – the busy Avenida de las playas (Beach Street) – and has bicycle and pedestrian tracks only. The beaches are less busy and there are fewer sports bars, restaurants and tacky shops. And I would say that it was quieter but, thanks to the large number of Irish tourists who shouted at each other almost continuously rather than stand within quarter of a mile of each other to hold a conversation, it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole they were pleasant company and a great laugh. We met some grand people and there was no trouble. But loud isn’t the word.

While I’m mentioning the Irish, it was also immensely frustrating to watch their complete ease with the local currency. It was just us British types who fumbled our change as we desperately tried to figure out the difference between a 20c piece and a 10c. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … give us the bloody Euro. We’re now isolated within Europe and are the only idiots who have to buy currency whenever we go on short haul holidays. Everyone else we met - the Irish, Germans, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italians, and the local Canarians – all just simply brought their own.

Our apartment was pleasantly air-conditioned and visited by tame collared doves and palm finches who gleefully stole any food we foolishly left on our balcony table. We didn’t have a great view due to an abundance of palm trees but we were sheltered from most of the Gaelic shouting and it was pretty tranquil most of the time. However, it was curiously poorly appointed for a place that advertised itself as a self-catering apartment. We had no kettle, no toaster and no oven. There were no cooking utensils except a frying pan, a single saucepan and a ladle (What can you do with a ladle?). There was a small microwave just large enough to cook a palm finch in, a hob with a pair of halogen cooker rings, a sink with no draining board and four place settings, minus one spoon and any bowls. And no mugs, just glasses. Despite this, we coped. We didn’t have a knife sharp enough to cut things so we sort-of rubbed grooves into meat and cheese until they split to create irregularly shaped slices. Then we used the saucepan as a kettle and bought the two tackiest souvenir mugs in the history of muggage. Nothing was going to keep me from having a cup of tea. And I did. I took a box of 100 and came back with a single bag.

Over the course of the fortnight the only trips we did were to the marina at Playa Blanca and the geological wonder that is El Golfo (just because they’re so photogenic). We spent the rest of the time swimming, walking – at least five miles a day – and snorkelling in the warm sea. Lanzarote is not famed for its exotic wildlife, which seems to consist mostly of dull grey-brown lizards that live in any crack in any wall they can find. We saw hundreds of them and sometimes had to avoid treading on them as they scuttled under our feet. There were surprisingly few gulls and a single pigeon that we reckoned had got lost but we did see a hoopoe once behind the perimeter fence surrounding the airport, which was very attractive. The bird, not the fence. Oh, and Lanzarote has the tiniest ants, about a fifth the size of our smallest garden ants back home. Our first forays with masks and snorkels revealed nothing more exciting than the plain sandy seabed and two varieties of rather drab looking fish. It was a whole week before we found anything really colourful. We decided we’d try snorkelling in a different spot near some semi-submerged rocks. And it was a good decision. We discovered a marvellous little reef full of live sponges, colourful anemones and corals and a huge variety of fish. Some were very striking indeed, from spiky yellow-green pufferfish and orange things like mullets to a large bass-like fish patterned in horizontal lines of bright yellow over silvery green. At one point we found ourselves floating above a school of around forty of these foot long fish as they tore at the rocks and the weed below. Most striking of all was a small jet black fish, something like a wrasse but with electric blue flashes on its head and flanks.

I mentioned the airport just now. It’s a place that became a regular haunt for us, which sounds a bit sad, but let me explain ...

Every evening, we took a constitutional stroll away from our apartment towards Arrecife. About a mile and half from where we were staying, there’s a curious blue metal structure growing out of the sea like half of a seaside pier and festooned with lights all along its upper span. We soon realised that this was an extension of the runway for the diminutive island airport and the lights act as a guide to pilots coming in to land. Once we discovered this, we’d often wait for a holiday jet to come screaming by, passing so low overhead that we could make out the passengers at the windows. We weren’t alone either. Dozens of people would be gathered there to experience feeling the heat from the engines and we’d all be drenched in the smell of aviation fuel. Which, at this present time, is probably more expensive per fluid ounce than Chanel No. 5 so that probably means that we all smelled pretty damned rich. The planes never got within a hundred feet of the ground but everyone still ducked as they went over. It must be an instinct thing.
The temperature didn’t drop below 35 degrees all the time we were there (the highest was 46) and we were grateful for the air-conditioning in our apartment. Yet, despite the intense African sun, nothing was going to stop the hordes of pasty white British and Irish tourists exposing themselves on the beaches and on the sun beds around the pool. Later, these same people could be seen furiously rubbing after-sun lotions or Aloe Vera – which grows everywhere like a weed on the island – into flesh the colour of a London fire engine. I wasn’t going to join them in their sufferings so I covered up … but the UV still got through my sunscreen and, because I’d been wearing dark sunglasses, I spent three days looking like a negative image of a beardy pink panda.

As is usual in such sunny climes, there were plenty of ladies going topless which always presents a quandary for the chap on holiday with his missus. Do you look? Or do you try not to look? Or does that make it too obvious that you’re not looking, which means that you would if she wasn’t around? It’s a difficult one that. Thankfully I was aided by the curious phenomenon that most of the people who were topless were precisely the sorts of people who shouldn’t be. All the pretty young things with pert bosoms kept them sensibly within their bikinis while the ‘tuck them in your belt’ brigade just let it all hang free. The same could be said for the men. We saw plenty of thongs and Speedos (mostly worn by Germans it seemed) but only ever pulled like cheesewires between sagging buttocks or under voluminous beer bellies. Not one beefcake in a thong, just tired old tripe. One beach near the airport seemed to be designated as ‘clothing optional’ but the only naturist was a well-endowed but withered old man who insisted on showing off his swinging tackle as he cleared the beach of litter. Shudder.
There were several larger hotel complexes nearby and they provided us with unintended but excellent entertainment. One evening there was a children’s entertainer who was dressed as the scariest clown imaginable – a bit like Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT but even more evil-looking – the heat had dried and cracked the white pancake on his face giving him a flaky-skinned zombie-like appearance. He was assisted by a pale, thin Goth girl in black crepe who sadistically forced children to sit on balloons until they popped. At another resort, the kiddies club was themed around the Flintstones with fibreglass dinosaurs and huge white thigh bones supporting the pool bar roof. Staff walked around in ragged orange Fred Flintstone tabards and one poor sod was even dressed up in a Fred outfit; it must have been sweltering in there. Capitalising on this theme, a chap was hiring bicycles nearby under the trading name of Flistons Bicycles. He was dressed as Fred too so I assume it was a misspelling rather than his name being Senor Fliston. Or maybe it was a cunning legal move? I saw no mention of the Hanna Barbera Corporation anywhere so I’m not entirely sure that the hotel wasn’t breaching all sorts of copyrights.
Food was good. We fed ourselves mostly – despite the limitations of our poorly appointed kitchenette – and dined well on locally produced cheeses, meats, fish and fruit. The dates in particular, were amazing. And there was a Supermercado nearby that baked fresh bread every day. Every so often we went out for a proper cooked meal. On one occasion, we walked six miles to the old port at Puerto del Carmen and watched as a local fishing boat brought in a catch of fresh tuna. Nearby was a restaurant called El Marinero that we really enjoyed on our last visit to the island for the quality of the seafood. Sadly it is now a pizzeria and the ‘Seafood – our speciality!’ signs had been painted over with the words ‘burgers, pizzas, kebabs’. That said, we stayed for lunch anyway and were delighted to be served the best seafood paella I’ve ever tasted, crammed with fresh mussels, clams, king prawns, tuna and squid. Fabulous. We didn’t get around to visiting Odin’s Restaurant in Matagorda as Viking food didn’t really appeal. Besides, scanning the menu, we couldn’t understand how garlic bread, steak and chips or pizza was in any way Scandinavian. Oh, I see that they had reindeer pate among the starters. That’s okay then. We also eschewed the delights of Rancho Texas, the Canary Islands’ ‘authentic’ Wild West restaurant replete with gunfights, rope shows and line dancing. Somehow it didn’t quite fit within our plans for this holiday.

Oddest brand name? I was going to go for a local brand of bread called Bimbo but it was pipped at the post by an ice cream made by the Kalise company. It looks like a Cornetto but is called Pivot. The strangely incongruous name reminded me of that old Monty Python sketch where Michael Palin is doing a voice-over for a bizarrely named lager called Treadmill’.

I can’t leave Lanzarote again without mentioning the art. As I have previously explained, the whole island is a shrine to one man – the late Cesare Manrique – a native Lanzarotean and contemporary of Picasso whose touch can be seen everywhere; even down to the logo for the local car hire company. And being in a part of Lanzarote that we hadn’t visited before meant that we found lots of new sculptures and ‘wind toys’; Manrique’s childishly delightful kinetic constructions that spin and twist and flip as the warm breezes come in off the sea. The very look of the island has been moulded by the man and every care has been taken to make the walls, the buildings, even the pavements look part of the natural environment. Everything is made from the local bubble-filled, honeycombed, volcanic rock slotted together like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle. The island is one enormous mosaic of basalt and pumice.

So, two excellent weeks of sunshine and relaxation; two fantastic weeks’ worth of writing under my belt (while Dawn pampered herself in the pool, on the beach or by catching up on her reading) and a fortnight mercifully free of mosquitoes. This little volcanic island has no natural water supply (hence the lack of soil and grass – all water comes from desalination) so there’s nowhere for the little buggers to breed. Hoorah! It was also blissfully free of pollen as I don’t think that there’s a deciduous tree or a blade of grass on the island. But a little hay fever is a small price to pay for being home. You forget just how green a garden can be.

Footnote: Our flight home was delayed by two hours which meant that we were in Arricife airport during the final of the Euro2008 football tournament. No nation celebrates quite like Spain when they win. The atmosphere was electric throughout the match and absolutely ecstatic afterwards. You couldn't help but get swept up in the euphoria, even if, like me, football is meaningless. Free drinks? Of course I'll drink to your fine country's win ...


The Factory said...

Welcome back, you've been missed.

Couldn't agree more about the Euro, you're all getting killed over there with the exchange rates.

As for the football, it was very exciting wasn't it ? Round here they were dancing in the streets, setting off thousands of fireworks and staying up until 6 a.m. Marvelous country.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Cheers Jed - glad to be back. It was lovely hearing my neighbours talking about it being 'a scorcher' today 'cos it's 23 degrees. When I left Arricife yeasterday it was 46 ... exactly twice the temperature. And, yes, the footie was great fun, the result even more so. They do know how to celebrate don't they? And not a drunken brawl, bin through McDonald's window or pavement piza to be seen.

The Factory said...

The heat is something that Brits don't really understand. It needs to be respected, but few of them do. But after a while your body does get used to it, and although you feel the heat, you don't feel quite so hot, if that makes sense.

A couple of English friends visited me last weekend and we went out to a concert that started after midnight. By two, everyone had had a bit to drink, but the atmosphere was nothing but friendly and warm. They were amazed that no-one was being obnoxious and that they felt perfectly safe. Just shows that alcohol and 'a good time' can be combined quite pleasantly.

Stevyn Colgan said...

I've always said the same ... guns don't kill people, people do. And alcohol doesn't cause violence ... it's the attitude of the drinkers.

Michele said...

Welcome back, Steve! Glad you and your wife had a marvelous time.

By the way, I knew I liked you...You're a Mac Guy! We're a total Mac family. Just can't do PCs. :-)

Oh, I'm sure you're happy you don't have to convert Dollars to Pounds, though, huh? Dollars must seem like "funny money" to the British right now. LOL

We just returned from 10 days in London (a few other places) on Saturday night and had a wonderful trip! We absolutely love England. And I hear you on the Hayfever...I didn't realize I had it until we explored the parks of London, but it was worth the sneezing and watery eyes--such beauty!

Enjoyed this post very much, and as always, your pictures. I'd never heard much about Lanzarote before reading it on your blog, so thanks for all the wonderful details!


P.S. Hey, I finally saw "QI" on the BBC--Friday night! I really hope it makes it to the US. What a fun and truly informative show. I've already signed the petition. :-)

Me said...

Great your home - and your account was funny :)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Michele - I love the Macbook but I also have a PC laptop. The difference between them showed itself tonight. The Macbook has worked 100% in the Lanzarote heat. My PC was on for six hours today, overheated and needed a reboot. Says it all, doesn't it? Shame we crossed holidays - would've been nice to meet up for a tea. And glad you caught QI at last. Nice to hear from you.x

Me - Missed you too. x

Michele said...

Stevyn, we'll meet up next time! We love England too much not to return...Besides, there's so much left for us to see and do.

And hey, maybe the Am. Dollar will have gained some by then? Ha!


Stevyn Colgan said...

Michele - I expect I'll still be here when the US dollar once again peaks. I just hope that airplane fuel will still be affordable. It might be cheaper to just run the buggers on Chanel No 5. They'd smell nicer too.