The Canary Islands are technically Spanish, but when you disembark at the airport, a different pecking order is immediately obvious:
It’s mildly shocking to see the indigenous language in third place, and the world’s lingua franca in second (though I suspect we’d better get used to that. Sic Brexit gloria mundi.) Buying a bottle of water from an airport café, I’m asked if I want it mit oder ohne Gas, and told that it costs ein Euro.
The Canaries are an archipelago of seven volcanic islands in the Atlantic, off the coast of southern Morocco. The Romans called them the Fortunate Isles, but never bothered to invade. A Genoese explorer made landfall on Lanzarote in 1302; a Norman adventurer mounted an expedition a century later; the Spanish conquered the islands at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1821 they became a province of Spain, which means no roaming charges. What else? Nelson lost an arm attacking Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, and Franco launched the Spanish Civil War from Las Palmas in 1936. Not fortunate for everyone then. These days the islands’ main claim to happiness is as a refuge for the deprived peoples of northern Europe, desperate for sun. The Canaries have near-perfect temperatures all the year round.
My friend Julianne and I chose Tenerife as our destination based partly on personal recommendations, and partly on tantalizing hints of cultural sightseeing, which is rare in mid-Atlantic. We are keen on culture. Avoiding the south of the island where the packagistas are reputed to go, we head for Puerto de la Cruz in the north-west, which Lonely Planet says is the “grand dame” in the island family. A friend assures me, with exquisite tact, that it caters for the more “mature” tourist. He’s right about that: at least three-quarters of the visitors in the streets and in the hotel are well over sixty.
Sticking with the “grand dame” theme, we have opted for the Hotel Monopol, built in 1742, which has traditional Canarian architecture, wooden balconies, and an elegant palm court with a covered roof.
The Monopol has good points and bad. Since 1742, the hotel has been updated with a few modern conveniences, including swimming pool, sauna, sun terraces, and bars. The public spaces are fine, but the rooms are disappointing. “Starting to look a shade worn,” observed Lonely Planet in 2016, and three more years of wear has not improved them. Our double room, Number 25, at the end of a long cold corridor, is small and shabby. The grand dame has fallen on hard times, and the penny-pinching is frankly annoying. One keycard for two people, no free toiletries, prehistoric hairdryer, limited wifi. The water is barely lukewarm. Apprised of our unsatisfactory showers, Reception asks blandly if we’ve tried letting the water run.
Puerto de la Cruz is a pleasant town built around a series of rocky coves and inlets. On one side lies the old fishing village with traditional architecture, narrow streets, and a leafy plaza. On the other side, the newer hotels and flashier restaurants sprawl along the coast. A boardwalk overlooks the sea, the Atlantic breakers, and the rather alarming black sand beaches.
The Monopol has an excellent location on the main pedestrian street, opposite the church and the Plaza de la Iglesia. Next door is Starbucks, which has taken over a cavernous seventeenth-century building with an authentic wooden balcony.
The first day of our stay does not go well. It’s windy and cold, the sea is rough, the waves are spectacular, and the clouds are low. In the morning we trudge dutifully round the town in our fleeces and padded jackets, but after lunch we admit defeat and retreat indoors to speculate gloomily about prospects for the rest of the week. The pool bar is deserted and drafty. Julianne reads something by Colleen McCullough about ancient Rome, and I read a book by Alan Bennett entitled, oddly but aptly, Smut. At the end of the afternoon we venture out for tea and cake. Cake is the best thing about the German invasion. All the cafés have a gorgeous array of gooey, creamy treats. The highlight of my week is Schwarzwaldtorte.
By the next day, the wind has dropped, the sun is out, and we take the bus a few kilometres inland to La Orotava, where there’s a well-preserved old quarter with cobbled streets, sleepy plazas, and traditional Canarian mansions like the Casa de los Balcones where the rooms open off a central patio and the galleries rise to the roof.
The day after, we venture further afield to a town called La Laguna. In the historic centre, brightly painted mansions line the narrow streets that lead off the central plaza.
This grid layout was carried over to colonial towns of South America, such as Salta in Argentina and Oaxaca in Mexico. Behind imposing wooden doors, we glimpse luxuriant plants and charming hidden courtyards.
But the excursion is marred by a mix-up with buses. On the way out of Puerto de la Cruz, the bus goes round and round the mountain in a spaghetti of slip roads, overpasses and underpasses to reach the autopista that runs along the spine of the island, heading for Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital. Passengers for La Laguna are supposed to alight at a roadside exchange stop and take a tram into town. Not realizing this, we overshoot, end up in Santa Cruz, and have to go back. The return is no less fraught. The bus is late, and when it comes it’s packed.
This deters us from further excursions outside the town. Too much time spent on transport, and not a whole lot to see. There’s no scenery to speak of. Whole hillsides are covered with seaside apartments, plastic restaurants, and amenities such as Deutsche Frisur and Deutsche Zahnarzt. All along the coast there are buildings. Plus there are churches. There’s a Finnish church, a Scandinavian church, a Lutheran church, and of course the Anglicans and the Catholics are out in force. Tenerife caters not just to the bodies of northern Europe, but to their souls.
The pursuit of culture is starting to seem like hard work. And besides, we’re developing a taste for long lazy afternoons by the hotel pool, which is quiet and sunny. Every day we encounter the same seventy-ish German couple with an unvarying routine: loungers by the pool in the morning, a table in the sun at lunchtime, Scrabble in the shade in the afternoon, loungers again at four p.m. to get the last of the sun. She sometimes takes a swim. He never does. (The pool is supposed to be heated, but it isn’t. As for the sauna, that’s closed.)
By the end of the week, we have our routine down too. In the morning we take a walk around town: once to the port, once to the Botanic Gardens, once to the archeological museum (closed for renovation). Our walks get shorter and shorter and by noon we’re at our usual table by the pool. I read a very long book by Rosamunde Pilcher, and Julianne knits. Culture be damned! Around two we order lunch. We’re too lazy to go elsewhere. Why get dressed and go out and look for tapas when you can just stay in the sun and eat cosmopolitan stodge?
By midweek Paris is starting to seem like an improbable dream. How can there possibly be a place so cold and grey and damp? After only three days, my winter aches and pains have vanished, my sinuses are behaving and so is my skin. I could stay here forever, doing nothing, reading trash – well, another week anyway. “I read, much of the night, and go south in winter.” Discovering T.S. Eliot at seventeen, this struck me as a civilized way to spend one’s life. Now I have proof! Around five, when the sun slides down behind the new wing of the hotel, we relocate to the square across the road.
This is where the natives hang out. Old ladies chat in Spanish, and children play. It has benches and patches of grass and dusty red and white poinsettias. When the sun goes from there too, it’s back to the hotel for an aperitivo on the sheltered terrace before setting out for dinner.
Dinner is a bit of a problem. Puerto de la Cruz has a great many restaurants but many of them serve only tapas and cakes, which isn’t really a balanced diet, and most provide menus in six languages with plastic pictures of the food, which is also a no no. We deduce that most visitors come on a package, take the evening meal in their hotel, and eat only snacks in the town. We consider attempting the hotel buffet, but our nerve fails us.
One night we try a place called Mil Sabores (one thousand flavours), which is alleged to be a temple to modern Mediterranean cooking. The food is fine, but the waiter is a stout, black-shirted man who disapproves of unescorted older ladies defiling his temple, and addresses us sneeringly as “chicas.” We are alternately patronized and ignored. He gets no tip.
Another night we eat in the Don Carlos bar at the hotel. Julianne has ropa vieja (a kind of stew) and I have gambas with garlic. The food is good and so is the wine, the waiter is friendly, and talks to me in German, the chef comes in to chat and explain his methods.
But our canteen becomes El Pescador, which has fresh fish on ice in a glass case, inventive green salads, papas, which are local potatoes cooked in salt in their skins and served with green or red mojos (sauces), a nice white wine, and a truly wonderful selection of obscure American pop music from the 50s and 60s. We go back three times in one week.
Back in Room 25, after three days of planet endangerment backed up by systematic prodding (it helps that Julianne can prod in Spanish), Reception sends a plumber to change the taps. The water becomes semi-hot. No one else has ever complained, says Reception self-righteously, but I discover that isn’t quite true. Back in Paris, I find a TripAdvisor review of our very room from a lady who stayed over Christmas 2018, complaining of the exact same problem. Reception has a short memory. Then again, TripAdvisor is clear: if you can’t complain to Reception in Spanish, you won’t get results. The Germans get cake, the Brits get bacon and egg for breakfast, but only the Spanish get hot water.