IT’S the sameness that gets to us – that sinking feeling on arrival at a holiday destination, that it’s as similar to home as makes no difference.
This doesn’t happen on the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Morocco. These islands are, after all, home to the Silbo Gomarian whistle – an ancient form of communication once used to warn of invasions and the approach of boats captained by slave-hunters.
Today, the haunting whistle primarily resonates from classrooms. But when used to announce important community news, it mimics a lonesome, birdlike call that resounds across fields, hills and vales, mingling all the while with the gentle tinkling of goat-bells on the wind.
Given its name and associated subtropical climate, you might imagine that Gran Canaria is called after yellow, Tweetie Pie-type birds, but it’s not. Historians believe it was called after the canines so beloved by the original islanders, the Guanches, who worshipped, then mummified the dogs in their care.
We didn’t see many dogs on the Canarian streets. Nor did we see swarms of sun-bed-grabbing tourists lining the beaches. What we did see was birds – cooing softly from the branches of white and pink blossomed almond trees, perched proudly atop clumps of half-ripened bananas, trilling excitedly while soaring between one date palm and another. They were everywhere, in all their multi-coloured glory.
On the islands, you’re likely to see parrots and parakeets. You might even spot woodpeckers, buzzards and vultures. But if you’re really lucky, you might spy a rosy-faced lovebird, a pink-footed goose, an Atlantic puffin, or even a black swan.
Of course, to see the natural beauty of the islands, you have to go off-road, and this we did. Driving upwards from our base in Puerto de Mogán on the south western coast of Gran Canaria, we took the narrow, windy roads that snake though the mountains towards the village of Tejeda . As we climbed, we felt a distinct chill in the air, as leaving blue skies and high temperatures behind, we ascended into cloud, mist and rain.
We glimpsed the Roque Bentayga – three towering monoliths of volcanic rock – considered sacred by the early inhabitants who approached only to bear offerings to the gods. Then, on arrival at Tejeda, sought shelter from the drizzle, at the meticulously maintained architectural gem that is Hotel Fonda de la Tea. Espressos sipped, we continued towards the summit of Pico de la Nieves, which at 1,949 metres is the island’s highest point.
Intrigued as to how this steep terrain could have been negotiated by those whose livelihoods depended on their ability to do so, we learned that their modus operandi was a pole-vaulting style manoeuvre known as the shepherd’s leap.
And leap they did, by taking hold of a long thin stick, with which they pierced the earth several feet ahead. Tightening their grip, they then propelled themselves forward by jumping then sliding down the pole. This series of moves – which doubtless made Tarzan’s tree-swinging prowess look artless in comparison – was repeated until the bottom of the ravine was reached.
While you’re unlikely to see modern-day shepherds leaping about, you will see plenty of inter-island wrestling; a sport that has been practised there for centuries and the traditional way in which disputes over land and other emotive conflicts were settled.
For those who love to hike and explore there’s plenty to discover: Teror, known for its exquisite colonial-style buildings, for being the pilgrimage centre of the island, and for being the gathering place for craggy but kindly old men who, under the shade of the towering basilica, sell their wooden crafts from makeshift stalls. Valleseco, which rather than being a dry vale as the name implies, is lush, fertile and verdant (or regularly sodden if you prefer),thanks to the rainclouds its high altitude attracts.
Cruz de Tejeda, the enormous stone cross that marks the geographical centre of the island; the steep and ancient tracks (Caminos Reales/royal paths) to which the Guanches once travelled, through picturesque hamlets interspaced with luscious lemon groves, along rugged trails and rough, rocky paths through sheep-grazed slopes and scrub.
We didn’t go to the Canaries in search of sun, sea and sand, but there was plenty of it. In research carried out at Syracuse University, Las Palmas was found to have “the best climate in the world”. Whether the weather was one of the reasons why Christopher Columbus anchored there in 1492 before sailing to America, we don’t know, but the Columbus House is worth a visit.
With balconies, fountains and courtyards, it’s romantic in a Romeo serenading Juliet way. It’s also intriguing, given that the explorer’s handwritten letters and maps are on display.
For sea and sand, you won’t find better than Playa de Las Canteras on Gran Canaria. But if you plan to camp there, bring a permit or risk being told to pack your bags by a forest ranger.
If that sounds tough, that’s because it is, but the thinking behind it makes sense. Officials want to know who’s camping so they know who to search for if fire breaks out in the night.
While fire is not something we tend to associate with Gran Canaria, it forms part of the very essence of Lanzarote, which is known as an island of fire.
Desolate in the extreme, the monstrous volcanic wasteland that comprises the area now known as Timanfaya National Park, once compromised some of the island’s most fecund land, prettiest homesteads and successful vineyards.
You can go camel-riding in the vicinity, but we didn’t.
The sight of the tethered animals, waiting not for escape (that hope seemed long faded from their heavily hooded, long-lashed eyes), but for fares, still haunts me. Something about the jaded resignation of it all.
Since camel-freeing wasn’t an option, we ate food cooked over a volcano and reminisced about the fine local wines we’d sampled at El Grifo Bodega and the Picasso sketches we’d seen at the entirely exquisite César Manrique art gallery.
But no matter the topic, our conversation constantly returned to the surreal-like quality of the lunar landscape that surrounded us, and we agreed that if the sheer force of nature shouts its dastardly victory from the volcanic, village-burying peaks of Lanzarote, its gentle whisper is carried on the breeze of La Grasiosa, the tiny neighbouring island that has no streets, no roads, no tarmacadam whatsoever, and is known locally as the island that time forgot.
* Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly directly from Ireland to Gran Canaria and Lanzarote.
* Staying/eating in Gran Canaria: Hotel Cordial Mogan Playa 4* – Close to the beach, harbour and outdoor market. Top notch food.
* Gloria Palace Amadores Hotel 4* – Built on a cliff face, great views to Tenerife’s Table Mountain.
* Seaside Palm Beach Hotel 5* – The foyer is the epitome of understated elegance.
* Restaurante El Encuentro – Great local food in an unpretentious eatery.
* Staying/eating in Lanzarote: Hotel Sands Beach Resort – Beach-side self-catering apartments set around swimming pools at Costa Teguise Seaside. Los Jameos Playa 4* – Beach-front hotel at Puerto del Carmen Qué Muac Edgy décor. Good food.
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