A Lazy Day in Las Playitas, Fuerteventura

I had no idea what sort of day I would be having when friends Gaynor and Paul invited me to lunch in Las Playitas, a tiny village on Fuerteventura’s east coast, a little north of Gran Tarajal. Mid-morning, we set off from Puerto del Rosario, taking an inland route to pick up another friend who was celebrating her birthday. First, we took coffee in Antigua. We were too late to enter the church but I was pleased to find the day clear and crisp for photos. Antigua is a charming village and easily my favourite on the island.

Antigua Fuerteventura

Later, as we drove through Tiscamanita, I asked for a short detour down a side street so I could see for myself the block on land where my character Claire restored an old ruin. I found the spot exactly as I’d imagined, only there was a lot of new development opposite. This is the view from Claire’s imaginary house in Clarissa’s Warning.

Tiscamanita Fuerteventura

From there we headed straight to the coast. As ever, I was enchanted with the mountains, the wonderful scenery we passed. We were on the plain heading to a beach so I had no fear that we would be traversing any narrow roads snaking up mountainsides.

I was wrong.

Gaynor wanted to visit the lighthouse. I, naturally, did not. But I knew it would be lovely up there and if I could manage to avoid looking at the sheer drop, avoid noting the lack of crash barriers, avoid picturing inordinately wide vehicles approaching and forcing us over the edge, I’d make it without succumbing to full-blown panic.

This is why there are no photos of the ascent. And why my photos of the view from the lighthouse are somewhat constrained. The others, of course, trotted off to the edge of the parking area and disappeared down a path.

I found out afterwards that the elevation is only 196 metres and I have stood on cliffs much higher. Maybe it is ageing increasing my fear of heights. But I am determined to at least partially conquer this fear. I don’t want to miss out on all the tremendous views from up high.

Faro de la Entallada was built in 1955 in Moorish style out of stone from the island village of Tetir. The brown ochre and white mortar make for a pleasing mottled effect. The lighthouse is the third highest in the Canary Islands and is the closest point to Africa.

Faro de la Entallada

This is where the others went, down this path, Gaynor no doubt hanging upside down off the railings at the end. She was rapt!

With Gaynor’s help and Paul’s excellent driving, I managed the descent without enduring too much terror and we were at last heading to Las Playitas where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of grilled fish and tapas. I love the way the houses are cut into the hillside. The one with the arched blue doors looks like it’s for sale.

More sculpture for visitors and locals to enjoy.

Las Playitas
Las Playitas

 

The water was pristine. I headed up a short quay…

and took some photos looking back at Las Playitas with its jumble of cuboid dwellings.

I think the food, the wine and the great company made me forget the all important food photo. So I pinched a photo of a plate of grilled fish off the internet for the sake of completion.

There is everything to love about this island, especially in the winter months when the days are cooler. Laid back and tranquil and very friendly.

(note my photos have not been colour enhanced – they are just holiday snaps):

Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of unique and engaging fiction. She writes gripping mysteries, dark psychological thrillers and historical fiction. She is the author of two novels set in FuerteventuraClarissa’s Warning and A Prison in the Sun.

A Day Out and About in Fuerteventura

When I planned to spend a month on this fascinating Canary Island, I imagined getting around on public buses and placing my faith in their esoteric timetables. Instead, my fabulous friends here are showing me around. Yesterday, photographer and artist JF Olivares took me south. The day proved hazy thanks to a strong easterly bringing with it Saharan dust. Which means my photos are not the best photos of these places, but they do tell a story. The photo below is a typical view of the island on the eastern seaboard.

After a late breakfast in a cafe near Gran Tarajal we turned inland, Oli always preferring the backroads. With him, I felt I was getting a glimpse of the real Fuerteventura. It is a privilege to know someone who has spent all his life in a place, seen the changes as the island transitioned from a forgotten backwater into a tourist mecca. He remembers the island when the population was small, when the development was just about non existent. I listened. I could feel his pain. Trouble is, you can’t undo time.

At first, as we drove into the interior, the mountains towered in the mid distance.

Before long, we were in amongst them. Their distinct formations cannot fail to grab the eye. Photos flatten a landscape. These old volcanoes rise up out of the flat plain in every direction. Monoliths, sculptural, as though the island itself was a vast exhibition.

On and on we went. We chatted about life, the island, the future, sharing the same passion, the same values, mourning what has been lost here. My Spanish had improved from the week before and I was able to communicate in full sentences, which only spurred Oli on, confident I could understand. Then, the landscape changed.

Montaña Cardón
Montaña Cardón

We’d reached a portion of the southern massif, where Montaña Cardón affords a stupendous view. The road was narrow, the bends many and sharp and Oli could see I was nervous. I have a terrible fear of driving on roads with a sharp fall to the side. I wish I could overcome it. Maybe with practice. The scenery all through this area is breathtaking. The short walk to the summit from the small parking area contained scores of tourists, all of them much braver than me. I did manage to take this photo of the undulating mountains.

It seems I am not the only person to remark on the femininity of the landscape, which Oli says resembles a heavily pregnant woman.

Our next stop was the coastal town of Ajuy, which took us past this mountain, which the locals have named La Teta de la Abuela, or Grandmother’s Tit.

A great disappoint to Oli and to me are the power poles. The government went for the cheap option of erecting towers to provide electricity to every region. They should be put underground. They graffiti the landscape.

The west coast of Fuerteventura is tremendous. The immense force of the ocean is felt here. For a long time, we stood on the low cliffs surrounding Ajuy with the wind blasting from the east and the Atlantic waves pounding the shore, waves much bigger than they look.

          

From there we headed down a back road to the water and this fabulous rock formation.

Oli was on the hunt for pebbles.

I kept one which fits in the palm of my hand.

I managed to take this photo without any tourists. Everywhere we went, on every single dirt track, someone was there before us. It was inevitable and yet disappointing as there are so few places locals can go to get away from holidaymakers, to gain a sense that the island still belongs to them. The roads here are terrific and they need to be; there’s a continuous flow of traffic on each and every one of them, sometimes a trickle, other times a steady flow, but always people, always vehicles, wherever you go. It is a pity, as this should be wilderness. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy, but how to control it when people do not like being controlled. Impose a rule and you can be sure the unreflective will march with their feet to other climes. How could I explain to Oli that it was the same the world over. Beside, I think he’s aware. Tourism is the modern version of colonisation.

Oli’s dog Rohn didn’t mind the presence of others. He swam about in the water, joining this tourist with his can of beer and his cigarette. The others are out of the frame. The guy in the water was on borrowed time; the tide was coming in fast.

We managed to have this secluded spring near Ajuy to ourselves, passing some other visitors exiting the barranco as we arrived. The water in this dam was stagnant and green. There’s been no rain here this winter. Rohn hadn’t a care and we enjoyed the smell of his coat all the way home.

photo JF Olivares

As we whipped through the inland villages Oli explained that Fuerteventura lacks the architectural restrictions of its sister island Lanzarote. I already knew. We both think local government zoning of residential land needs to be tightened to prevent a sprawl of scattered dwellings across the island. Fuerteventura is not an island of pretty villages, but there are exceptions. Páraja is a pretty town and Triquivijate too. Tiscamanita is charming due to its position in the landscape, as is Agua de Bueyes. But what the island majors in is landscape:

Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of unique and engaging fiction. She writes gripping mysteries, dark psychological thrillers and historical fiction. She is the author of two novels set in FuerteventuraClarissa’s Warning and A Prison in the Sun.

 

Drag over coals

Last month I found myself on a fast train from Edinburgh to London. Too tired to read, I spent the whole journey gazing out the window. Recollecting that journey, one memory stands out: the number of wind farms, none of them that far from residential areas. I mentioned this to the couple seated by me, and they said that people are used to them. They realise the necessity. I have no idea if that is true, but their comment had me thinking how absurdly precious Australia can be.

images

Also, we passed  a solar farm, tucked beside the railway tracks. Obviously someone decided those panels would generate enough power, despite cloud.

I know, as do many, that Australia could be 100% renewable so easily. We could be running all our vehicles off grid too. Wouldn’t that be amazing?!

So I ask myself, why is this country so embarrassingly backward when it comes to alternative energy? Is it because a small group of mining magnates have our politicians by the short and curlies? If so, then that is corruption, plain and simple.

Maybe we need a People’s Commission. Challenge these power-crazed dullards and their minions with their fracking and their blasting and their dredging. Drag them over their own hot coals.

A People’s Commission, now wouldn’t that be novel? But I doubt the citizenry of Australia is all that motivated. Too many are out to lunch on their sun loungers?

Well, on the up side, if you want a real estate bargain, buy a house in Toora, South Gippsland, a town situated near a wind farm.

http://stopthesethings.com/tag/toora-wind-farm/

http://waubrafoundation.org.au/resources/wind-storm-sixty-minutes-story-about-wind-farm-woes-at-toora-wind-farm-victoria/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-18/a-wind-turbine-at-toora-wind-farm-in-the-south/7180670

Good news is prices in Toora are low, they are right down there with properties in towns in decline due to the endless dry.

What a sight!!!

The penultimate day of our stay on the island proved to be intriguing.

Our first stop was Arrecife, the island’s capital famous for it’s warren of narrow streets. Until this day we had taken the ring road, avoiding the confusion. This time, on a mission to deposit copies of The Drago Tree at a book shop near the Castillo de San Gabriel, we had no choice but to enter the fray.

Somehow we found our way to the Cabildo, on the southern end of town, an impressive modern building constructed in Spanish colonial style and surrounded by car parks. Not wanting to re-enter the warren of streets, we parked and walked the promenade back to Calle Leon y Castillo.

Lanzarote

The day was sunny and warm and it was a pleasant walk, first through a neatly laid out cactus garden fringed with low stone walls flanking the sea, and then around the creamy sands and sapphire waters of Playa Reducto – my kind of beach too, shallow and still. There were couples, old and young, women with strollers, the people of the city walking leisurely, relaxed. It’s a vibe you lock into, immediately.

Once past the 5 star Gran Hotel, the promenade continued on to Castillo de San Gabriel. Here, major road works impeded the flow of our walk, but the view of the old fort and the shimmering sea drew our attention.

We found the Libreria El Puente, down a side street off Calle Leon y Castillo – Arrecife’s main thoroughfare – the owner happy to take our remaining copies of The Drago Tree, to sell on our behalf.

By now it was lunch time. We had to eat. After walking around a number of side streets, passing eateries either uninspiring and notably empty, or exciting and predictably overflowing, we ended up back at the bookshop, and the restaurant next door. A small, friendly affair, with original paintings for sale on the walls and fried rabbit on the menu. Irresistible.

Arrecife

I imagined intense conversations between leftist intellectual types over salami and hard cheese. And I wondered at who the two men were who ran the joint and whether they were really from Andalucia. I doubted it.

We ambled over to the old fort along a narrow causeway, pausing at the old drawbridge for photos, staring down into the tranquil water, watching a woman taking advantage of the warmer shallows and edged by basalt walls, little beaches, pebble strewn, appearing unexpectedly.

Arrecife

The fort was closed. So we posed by the cannons, had a snoop around and strolled back along the other causeway. I told Michelle I thought I could rent an apartment in Arrecife, one facing the ocean, and write a book or two. Something about the vibe of the city aroused me. Maybe all those narrow streets filled with secrets.

We stopped for gelato near the Gran Hotel. By the time we reached our car it was 4pm.

Perfect timing for a drive to Famara. I wanted to provide Michelle with a contrast.

El Risco

It took about 1/2 an hour to drive across the belly of the island. And there we were facing north, with the cliff of El Risco towering to our east, the low rollers pushing in the tide. So we walked along the beach, pebbly and not so easy on the feet (I had rather stupidly chosen sandals for the outing), and kept on heading east, hoping that the lower the sun, the less cyclists would be on the roads when we headed back to our farmhouse in Maguez. On and on we went, in no hurry to turn around. Then Michelle stopped and asked me if I wanted to continue. I said I didn’t care either way but sensed she wanted to head back. As I turned I saw a man, naked, heading our way.

His speed was greater than ours. I turned back a few times, to admire the cliffs, say adios, or hasta luego, and there he was in all his glory. So I said to Michelle, ‘He’s spoiling my view.’

‘Complete with his semi,’ she replied.

I have to admit it took me a while to connect his half-erect penis jutting out like those of the male figurines that sometimes appear above male ablutions, or indeed abound in my friend Domingo’s studio, with her comment – semi.

Harianovio del mojon

We laughed all the way home. I was still wiping away the tears as I set about making cauliflower soup. (We’re down to using up the scraps of the groceries we’ve been buying from the local supermercado in Arrieta. Tomorrow is chorizo day. Don’t ask.)

Michelle is happy to report that we walked 16,000 steps today. She has an app. What the app doesn’t say is that they were all steps of contentment.

Long gone the old ways …

As any anthropologist will tell you, the old ways of indigenous cultures the world over are always tramped on in the name of progress. Some are decimated, wiped from the earth like unwanted crumbs. Others allowed to exist on the fringes, tolerated, ignored and oppressed all at once. Then there are smaller cultures absorbed into a larger dominant culture, seeping into language and custom. And then there are those wiped away by the dishrag of colonisation, only to be resurrected as curiosities for the edification of tourism.

Lanzaroteview of Los Helechos through our front door

Here on Lanzarote, the indigenous people, the Conojeros, blended with their colonisers, through marriage, through birth. A new sort of traditional way of life, Catholicised, yet still seated in the old ways, endured for centuries. It was a culture of survival and resilience in brutal conditions. Here, dry land farming and ingenious water capture techniques kept a small population of about a few thousand from starvation.

LanzaroteAn alcogida

Swathes of the lower slopes of volcanoes were smeared with concrete (alcogidas), funnelling water into underground water tanks (aljibes); large fresh water ponds (maretas) were built along with wells and dams; in the 1920s, tunnels were gouged into the cliff of El Risco to access the water in the water galleries of the Famara massif; roofs of dwellings and patios built high, were designed to channel water into farmhouse aljibes – the people went to ingenious lengths to capture what little rain there was.

Up until the 1960s and beyond, farmers terraced the mountainsides right to the top to capture any water should it rain, creating moist micro-environments along the stone wall edge. The terraces also took advantage of the moisture provided by morning mist.

LanzaroteMaize growing in little cinder pits

The Conojeros were a people accustomed to breathtaking views, at ease in the wind, strong enough at times to knock you over.

The people built their farmhouses strategically, the north facing wall windowless, rooms inside facing an interior courtyard. Farmers lived alongside their animals. They grew what they could, hardy plants able to tolerate high amounts of wind. For a long time only two villages existed, Teguise and Haria, the other villages were more like localities where a few farmhouses, spread well apart, took advantage of a valley, a mountainside, a plain.

Fish were plentiful and a small fishing industry grew up around Arrecife. Some farmers grew prickly pear for cochineal. Salt works providing another source of income for a sparse economy.

In the 1960s up sprang a hotel. And then another …

YaizaCamel sculptures on a roundabout in Yaiza.

Now, the tourists can see the old ways, as displayed in museums courtesy of CACT (the local government’s Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism). Or they can visit the alcogidas, now in disrepair, or poke their heads down an abandoned aljibe, or well – the water below polluted by effluent and no longer safe to drink, or check out the dam at Mala, the wall now cracked and leaking, or puzzle over the site of the grand mareta at Teguise, and witness the erosion of the mountainsides where the terraces are crumbling away.

The government knows it has a problem. Residents are entitled to have 10,000 square metres of land to farm as they wish, with access to cheap water from the desal plants – but the young are not that interested.

You can still see the old farmers at work. Up in the north there are many small farms run by the old people. Little fields of black planted up with neat rows of maize, and not a weed in sight. A farmer harvesting potatoes by hand, his wheelbarrow nearby. They still farm right to the mountaintops and the cliff edge. It’s a privilege to behold.

Haria LanzaroteThe mother volcano, La Corona, as seen from our garden.

I am glad I decided to write a sequel to The Drago Tree. I want to be taken deeper into the story of this island. And the sequel will necessitate my return. For now, as our time here draws to a close, I feel just as Ann felt at the end of her holiday, still in awe of my surroundings, wanting to celebrate the traditions and mourn their passing, at odds with the very tourist industry that has allowed my easy passage to Lanzarote’s shores.

The fire mountains

What can be said about driving down a narrow road carved through a lava plain, a road that goes on and on and on? The basalt that covers the land in every direction, thick, crusty, alive with lichen. Volcanoes or calderas 500 metres high and about 1 or 2 kilometres in diameter, rising up like cone-shaped boils, some black, others brown or red. Then there are those calderas burst open, serrated at the rim, splayed where their lava spilled to scour the land.

Timanfaya

Everywhere you look on the island, there they are, some ancient, some young, the roads on Lanzarote coursing paths between.

Lanzarote volcano

The eruptions of Timanfaya that took place in the mid 1700s and lasted for 6 years, have resulted in a landscape not of this world. A spreading mass of impenetrable rock, about 15 kilometres wide and long.

Lanzarote lava

These volcanoes emerged in fissures in the land, once a wide plain perfect for grazing. Fissures bleeding rock, cleaving open as the pressure of the volcanoes beneath forced their way above ground. This is what I have read and imagine, a primordial groaning, perhaps deafening, definitely terrifying, apocalyptic. Livestock asphyxiated, fish boiled alive, the ocean steaming, the island showered with volcanic ash and smoke. You have to know all this, to appreciate the place as it is now. But it is still impossible to take in.

The speed limit of 50 kmh is too fast. We crawled along, fascinated, not wanting to reach the end of the road.

We went to where the lava met the ocean. The road snaking along, embedded in the lava, right beside the water’s edge.

Los Helechos

We parked at Los Hervidores, a site of extraordinary beauty, where narrow basalt paths have been created to allow tourists to get close and see that meeting of rock and water. The basalt is many metres thick, chunky, descending in a vertical cliff. The ocean swells and surges, blue on black, sending forth its spume. There are holes in the lava, like wells, places to get soaked when the ocean is angry.

No one speaks. The wind, that other element, blows and blows. You either get used to it, or you leave Lanzarote behind for another clime. I love this meeting of the elements, all of them present, in the wind, the ocean, the rock born of fire. Lanzarote is a powerful place, unspoiled, a place to be revered. And as Ann found in The Drago Tree, every tourist slips into reverence in the face of such a setting.

Nothing has changed…

Before I came here I was informed by one and all that Lanzarote had changed in the last twenty-six years, changed dramatically, for better or worse who can say. When I landed and saw the development, the mass of white cubes where once was rocky terrain, I had agreed, and when we headed north to the farmhouse we had rented for the 18 days, it was with some trepidation in my heart.

My companion and publisher Michelle was seeing all for the very first time. And I have witnessed her reactions, her awe, her growing affection for the island. With a smile.

Puerto CaleroMichelle Lovi, taken as we ambled along the strip of expensive designer boutiques of Puerto Calero.

For me, the north of the island – about 7 km long and 5 wide – is my old stomping ground. Every village and every road familiar. But I’d forgotten the three dimensionality, the way the mountains and volcanoes loom, the way the old crusty lava dominates. I’d forgotten the atmosphere, at once friendly yet private, closed. For millennia the people here have farmed this land. They’ve terraced the mountainsides as high as they dare to trap the water flow, on the odd occasions it rains. The way they’ve plastered slopes with a lime wash, and funnelled that water into underground water tanks (aljibes). The use they’ve made of the basalt rock and the volcanic cinders (picon), as wind break and mulch.

LanzaroteAnother view of La Corona taken fom our farmhouse.

Despite the explosion of tourism which now forms about 90% of the island’s economy, the old farmers can still be found, tilling their land. Not as many as I recall, and certainly not as many as fifty years ago, but some cling to the old ways, some see sense in the dry land farming techniques their ancestors created.

Not much development has occurred in the north. The villages are much the same, a mix of smart new villas, old run down farmhouses, ruins and vacant blocks. A few farmhouses here and there on the land around. The restaurants cater for the people more than tourists. The shops are few and largely invisible.

So, what has changed? My answer is simple. Nothing. Unless I reduce change to a mere matter of multiplication. The population has doubled. Expats from many nations comprise about 30%. Many from Latin America. Consequently, there are a lot more houses. Tourism has boomed. Consequently, there are a lot more hotels and apartments. The roads are wider and there are roundabouts everywhere. Supermarkets and petrol stations abound. Cyclists from La Santa, athletic types wearing the correct gear, hog the roads.

There is definitely a lot more money around, going into the pockets of some, and not the many.

And that’s it.

For me, Lanzarote is the same as it ever was. There is the same north/south divide, as if those choosing the south, where almost all the development has occurred, overshadowed by the rugged dry peaks of Los Ajaches, the young calderas of Timanfaya, a landscape conjuring a certain pioneering spirit in the soul, of the Wild West perhaps, somewhere on the edge, pervades the collective psyche.

imageA small creation by indigenous artist Domingo Diaz Barrios

Those choosing the north are influenced by the softer greener peaks of the Famara massif, drawing on the comfort of its sheltered valleys, the secret of the massif, its dramatic western cliff, always hidden from view. Here the artists and artesans live, here the politics of the Left can be found, here the traditions of old are honoured, championed, preserved. The old German bakery with its sourdoughs and ryes, still sells at the markets. The French crepe stall is also still trading. Little moments in The Drago Tree that I’d inserted from memory, suddenly made real. Along with the ceramicists, painters, jewellery makers, all still here…

imageA small work by indigenous artist Domino Diaz Barrios

In a restaurant in Arrieta, down on the waterfront, we were introduced to a desert made from Gofio (toasted maize flour), ground almonds, sugar (not much) and cream. It’s a children’s desert, made in large batches. I had the idea of adding Brandy to the mix to create an adult version. It turned out to be so good we went back yesterday for more! Simple pleasures. How we like it.

For me, nothing has changed. The tiers of locals, Spanish and ‘the strangers’ from other lands exist in much the same way as they did when I was last here. The lumbering edifice of Spanish bureaucracy is more or less the same. Opportunistic ‘fat cat’ businessmen wheeling and dealing, greasing the hands of officials with brown envelopes – how is that any different to anywhere else? And the easy going, accepting, tolerant locals prepared to make space for the temporary colonisation that is tourism, mirrors the attitude adopted by their ancestors of millennia past, in the face of conquest and piratical attack. This, after all, is an island accustomed to invasion.