It was the indigenous hunting hounds with their long-eared lugubrious expressions that gave the Canary Islands their name, and not the little yellow bird. Around the year 80 A.D., in ancient Rome, author Pliny heard tell from explorers of the Atlantic Ocean of the archipelago and adopted the Latin word for dog, Canis, by which to identify them.
There are seven main dots of land in the complex lying about one hundred miles west of Africa, roughly level with the Sahara in Morocco. Indeed, Saharan sand has drifted further west and now forms the extraordinary golden dunes of Maspalomas, the ten-mile beach with its highrise hotels, villa, and general holiday paradise on my island, Gran Canaria.
In the fifteenth century, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, whose fleet already controlled the Atlantic, conquered the Canaries, realizing with their favorable trade winds, currents, and remarkably agreeable subtropical climate that the islands were a strategic prize worth fighting for. Spain has governed them ever since, the language is Spanish, and their seaports are among the largest linking America with Europe.
As every one knows, “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and “discovered” America. On the way, he spent sleepovers in the Canaries, both to fuel and provision his ship on the way out, and after failing to fall off the edge of the known world as had been predicted, he stopped again on the way back, staying with the governor of Las Palmas in a palace. The royal domain has now become a fascinating maritime museum, Casa Colon, in the old town of Vegueta, the capital, just beside its mighty Gothic-style cathedral, Santa Ana.
The streets of the old town are lined with impressive fifteenth- and sixteenth-century palaces, where grandee families having frequently married heiress daughters of the Conquistadors grew rich themselves exporting sugar from their cane plantations.
Wealthier people live in the hills above Las Palmas where three-lane highways and tunnels soon give way to lanes twisting with hairpin bends while passing beside estate walls festooned with flowering climbers. The architecture is a mind-blowing mixture of exotic fantasy or classical old Spanish style.
Prosperity these days centers on the tourist trade, cruise ships as large as apartment blocks sail in and out with relentless frequency and the modern airport teems with tourists and other groups seeking guaranteed sun and sea—especially during European winter months. These arriving hoards soon melt away to the one or two areas devoted to five-star hotels, villas, cafes, restaurants, condos, bars, pubs, and beach beds that are dedicated to seaside fun and are seldom seen anywhere else on the rest of the island.
More intrepid travelers are discovering the recent development of small boutique hotels dotted about in hill villages, often converted from wonderful old family houses that typically include wooden verandas and courtyard gardens. Due to the astounding variety of mini climates here, these are the former country houses to which the nobility would move for a few months to escape what they considered to be an excess of either heat or chill in their main abode a mere couple of miles away.
The hilly village where I have a house is the very opposite of city bustle and vacation fun. We have no hotel, few restaurants, and seldom see a tourist. The older generation still nurtures productive vegetable plots, the occasional cow, goat, or pig, and they make an endless variety of cheeses, and eat what they grow. The bread boy down the hill from me has been up since dawn shoveling on a long wooden paddle the delicious small loaves in or out of his domed oven of the kind that can get red hot on a wood fire of a few twigs. The fishermen venture out by moonlight in their blue painted rowing boats, and fishwives sell the catch on the beach the moment they land. Lobsters, crabs, and other special fish end up live in nearby fishmonger Estevez’s tanks waiting for customers, while ripe local cheeses are distributed by the wholesaler Bolanos.
A little way above my village lies Guayadeque, a verdant winding and climbing ravine so beautiful it has been designated a national park where wild flowers, succulents such as aloe vera, palms, cactuses, and almond trees grow. Beehives share the cliffs and rocky floor with pre-historic cave dwellings, where Guanches, who were the original population of the islands used to live, now used by village families who come to cool off in a heat wave. Half way up is a tiny church carved into the cliffside and at the top a cave bar and restaurant, Tagoror, which as trade increases simply hacks out another room deeper into the rock. Serrano hams hang maturing above the bar and round the corner one can buy the best of honeys collected by the bees from either almond blossom or cactus flowers depending on the season.
Paco’s bar, in my street opposite the church, is the village hub and my local go-to place. Here I buy the newspaper Canarias 7 in order to brush up my Spanish, drink coffee, meet the neighbors, and get to grips with political gossip.
Further down the hill live my great friends, the Banus family from Barcelona. Brothers Esteban and Fernando, having inherited an alcoholic drink producing plant from their father and being a go-ahead pair, decided to branch out from the types of rum and gin they had been making. They developed an ultra-high-quality vodka named Blat; their ingredients and distillation techniques are held in such secret that the workforce is temporarily ejected when the brothers prepare a new batch. It remains the only vodka on the market always tested in American laboratories to prove it contains zero impurities. I can also claim it is hangover proof.
Gran Canaria is roughly circular in shape and one can drive its perimeter in a day and take in lunch in one of the little beach restaurants on the way. To give each municipal department access to the sea, the land is divided into segments like a cake. In my case we have a couple of sandy beaches, the rough tracks leading to them are of the potholed variety only to be attempted in a hired car.
To venture inland is invariably to climb. The sparsely populated mountains and valleys are truly magnificent, with strange outcrops of rocks, and vistas to take your breath away round every sharp bend in the road. One can easily be lured off piste (track) down narrow roads to find isolated farms growing olives, mangos, papayas, avocadoes, tomatoes, or oranges, for which the islands are renown.
You could also encounter a flock of goats or film crew shooting one of the many Westerns made here amongst the crags and sometimes the whopping great crater of a dead volcano. They are full of surprises, the Canary Islands. I live here and I continue to be surprised.
This story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of MILIEU. To purchase this issue in print, visit the MILIEU Newsstand. To purchase in digital format, visit zinio.com.
WRITTEN BY MIN HOGG
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIGUEL FLORES-VIANNA