Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Canary Islands the Fortunate Isles

A cluster of seven major and six minor islands in the Atlantic Ocean, which mix European, African, and even American influences, the Canary Island archipelago lies about 65 miles off the northwest coast of Africa. The Canaries are aptly called "the Fortunate Isles"; bathed by the Gulf Stream and ruffled by the trade winds, they are spread out in a line only about 4° north of the Tropic of Cancer, at roughly the same latitude as Florida, and in general enjoy a spring-like climate throughout the year, with tempera­tures mostly in the 70s F.

Yet physical contrasts are dramatic, from verdant tropical vegetation to Dantesque, lava-covered lunar landscapes; from towering, snow-capped mountains to rolling desert dunes; from ultramodern tourism complexes to quaint, whitewashed hamlets and recondite valleys populated with ter­tiary-era flora and fauna. Las Islas Canarias attract an ever-increasing num­ber of tourists, but most never venture far from the beaches, leaving the rugged wonders of the hinterlands for more intrepid souls.

There are 13 islands, but only Grand Canary (Gran Canaria in Spanish), Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Gomera, El Hierro, and La Palma are of any significant size. Born of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, the Canaries are dotted with hundreds of volcanoes, and one or two are still smoldering. Because of variations in altitude and climate, some islands have justly been described as miniature continents. On the heights, the veg­etation is alpine, and includes Canary pine and broom. On the lower slopes, irrigation of the rich volcanic soils produces an astonishing abundance of tropical and semitropical fruits. Scorching African winds from the Sahara create desert conditions on the easternmost islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, as well as along the eastern coasts of Grand Canary and Tenerife. But lofty volcanic peaks block clouds rolling in from the ocean and create damp, luxuriant conditions elsewhere.

These isles have piqued the imagination of man since the beginning of recorded history. Homer spoke of them as a privileged kingdom devoid of winter, and Herodotus identified them as the site of the mythical garden of Hesperides (where Atlas stood supporting the weight of the heavens). Plato believed the islands were the remains of the mythical lost continent of Atlantis, and Ptolemy, the 2nd-century geographer, situated his first meridian-0° longitude-at El Hierro, the most remote of the islands. There are canaries in the Canaries, but the archipelago's name comes from another source. Pliny wrote of an expedition sent to these legendary isles by the African king, Juba. The explorers returned with huge, wild dogs; hence the name canarias, from the Latin canis (dog). Even today a local breed of fierce gray dogs called verdinos, or bardinos, still roams some parts of the islands.

When the Spanish attempted to take the islands in the 15th century, they had problems not from canines but from the original human inhabi­tants, the Guanche cave dwellers, who put up fierce resistance and were not conquered until 1496. Little is known about where the Guanche peo­ple came from or how. Shepherds and rudimentary farmers, they practiced a cult of the dead, developing a complicated mummification process sim­ilar to that used in Egypt. Carvings at the Cueva de Be/maca (Belmaco Cave) in La Palma, yet to be deciphered, promise to reveal much more about this fascinating people. But the recent discovery of a stone with ancient Berber inscriptions supports the prevailing theory that the Guanche were descendants of North African tribes and may have emigrated from the mainland sometime around 500 Be. As the Spaniards established them­selves on the islands, the Guanche who were not killed off by disease, famine, volcanic eruptions, or slavery were absorbed into the Spanish culture. Some of the local people retain the physical characteristics of their forebears (they were tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired), and traces of their existence remain all over the archipelago in the form of ceramics and leather arti­facts, geometric cave paintings, mummies, remnants of their traditions and language (in place-names such as Timanfaya and Tenerife), and their food. Today's islanders have a newly awakened interest in their ancestors, partly in reaction to what they feel is neglect from distant Madrid. From time to time throughout the islands, slogans appear on posters and walls saying "iGodos fuera!" ("Goths"-as in Visigoth, the islanders' pejorative name for a mainland Spaniard-"go home!").

For most of their early history, the Canaries depended on agriculture as the mainstay of their economy, with their aromatic ma/vasia (malmsey) wine gaining wide favor in European courts during the 16th century (Shakespeare had Falstaff call for a "cask of Canary Jack"). During the 18th and 19th centuries, sugarcane, muscatel wine, and a tiny red mite called the cochineal insect brought wealth to the Canaries. The natural dye obtained from the insect, which lives off the islands' cacti, was exported in large quan­tities to Britain and France until the invention of artificial colorings. Later, the Canaries prospered with bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. For a long time, trade was monopolized by British firms, which also made the towns of Las Palmas on Grand Canary and Santa Cruz de Tenerife on Tenerife important coaling stations for their ships.

Wealthy Europeans began spending winters in the Canaries during the late 19th century. Today five million tourists visit the islands annually, and although there are now more than 300,000 hotel beds, it can be extremely difficult to get a room in the better resorts during high season, from December through Easter.

The Canary archipelago is one of Spain's 17 autonomous communities. But since 1927 the islands have been split into two provinces, and there is ongoing rivalry between the ports of Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Las Palmas is the provincial capital of the eastern islands: Grand Canary (the most populated), Fuerteventura (a virtual desert), and Lanzarote (which has the most impressive volcanic scenery). Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the capital of the western group: Tenerife (the largest island), La Palma (the green island), La Gomera, and El Hierro. The archipelago has its own parliament, and each island has its own cabildo (council) to look after local affairs.

A mixture of cultures influences Canarian food, which tends to be hearty and simple. Gofio, a filling paste made of flour, water, and milk, is an island staple from the Guanche. Sancocho canario is fresh fish cooked with both sweet and regular potatoes and served with kneaded gofio and mojo, an essential Canarian seasoning made with oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and vari­ous spices such as paprika, coriander, and pepper.

Mojo picon is a hot sea­soning made with peppers; watch out, because it's ubiquitous, and its benign aroma belies its true incendiary nature. Papas arrugadas (literally, "wrin­kled potatoes"), potatoes boiled in their skins and served with mojo, are a popular snack. Some of the world's richest fishing grounds lie between the Canaries and the African coast, a plentitude that yields such specialties as stuffed chicharros (mackerel) and Tenerife-style cazue/a canaria, a delec­table casserole of fresh or salted fish. Common meat dishes include roast chicken in banana cream, tender cabrito asado (roasted kid goat), and jaba/i (wild boar) from Gomera. Most red meat is served with sa/morejo, a sauce of vinegar, garlic, and assorted spices. Vegetable dishes and stews are usu­ally made with bubangos (summer squash), cabbage, and watercress.

The tropical and subtropical climate of some of the islands has produced such fresh fruit as avocados, bananas, mangoes, cherimoyas, and papayas. Equally enticing are the desserts, includingfrangollo, a sweet made of corn, milk, and honey, andgofio turron, a nougat candy. Cheese aficionados have a wide variety of cured, raw, and smoked goat and sheep cheeses from which to choose. Meals are often rounded off with ronmie/, a punch made of dis­tilled sugarcane and palm sap; miste/a, coffee laced with sugar and brandy; banana liqueur; or the renowned malmsey wine, which can be a young verde (green),purpura (purple-red), seco (dry), or dulce (sweet), depending on the harvesting period.

Today's Canary Islanders make their living farming, fishing, and pro­ducing handicrafts-as well as by working at various jobs in the modern resort developments. They speak Spanish with a musical accent reminis­cent of Latin America (to which many Canarians have emigrated over the years). Their folk music also has a Latin American rhythm; folk groups play flutes, drums, guitars, and the timp/e, a small stringed instrument. Visitors to the Canary Islands will be charmed not only by the rich tapestry of music, landscape, history, and gastronomy but also by the warm inhabitants.

Keep in mind when planning visits that in the Canary Islands, as in other parts of Spain, churches, museums, historic sites, and other places of touris­tic interest usually open from 9:30 or 10 AM to 1 or 2 PM, and then again from around 4 or 5 to 7 or 8 PM; schedules may change with the seasons.

Labels: ,