Monday, September 9, 2013

One week off the coast of Africa in Lanzarote

Approaching the Canary Islands aboard IB 3854
The Canary Islands.... As a kid growing up in Germany, that place was about as far away as Hawaii, and just as exotic. Then mass tourism started, but "normal" Germans would travel to Mallorca, in the Mediterranean, and we were not even normal—we vacationed once or twice in Holland on the North Sea, once in Switzerland, a few times in Austria, and then about three times or so in what used to be northern Yugoslavia. Canary Islands? You gotta be kidding!
The H10 Timanfaya Palace, home for a week
But thanks to the fact that I own some "studio weeks" with H10 properties, it was time to check out one of their European resorts, and after looking at the various islands and the different resorts in the Canaries I had decided that the H10 Timanfaya Palace on Lanzarote would be just right. All it was going to cost to stay there was the all-inclusive fee, as the accommodations are part of my deal. Add to that the ease of access from Munich (and my desire to whittle down a few of my British Airways miles), and Sabine and I were all set to jet off to a new place. (As a matter of fact, she had been sailing in the Canaries about 20 years ago with a group of fellow Fullbrighters, but that was a long time ago.)
One of the adults-only property's pools
As you may have read in my last post, we stopped over in Madrid on the way to the islands that are situated about 400 miles south of the coast of Spain and just about 40 miles or so off the Atlantic coast of Northern Africa. Our flights were with Iberia (using said BA miles), and because of the lack of award flight availability in Economy we had to, ahem, settle for Business Class. You gotta love miles! After spending 48 hours—mas o menos—with Howard and family in Madrid we took the 2 1/2-hour flight to Lanzarote last Saturday (I'm starting this entry exactly a week later, on our return layover in Barajas). Sabine loves looking out of the window; as a landscape architect, she is intrigued by the patterns that she sees below. She was sure that she could tell when we crossed over from Spain to Portugal, while I could clearly tell when we were over the Atlantic.
Part of our daily lunch diet: pulpo, clams, and other poo-poos
Smooth flight, smooth airport/hotel transfer, smooth check-in. As I am a so-called Premium Privilege member with H10, the hotels always make an effort to place me in a room that's a bit nicer than those for non-owners, and we certainly couldn't complain about room # 353: It was an ocean front, third-floor (of three) affair with a beautiful terrace overlooking the premises and the strait across to Fuerteventure and the Atlantic. Spacious, bright, with an immaculate bathroom and comfortable beds and even an i-Pod docking station—this was our home for the week.
Not a bad view before having dinner
The time zone for the Canaries is the same as GMT, so one hour later than Munich or Madrid time, and it was a bit odd to wake up at 7:30 a.m. when it was just starting to get light. On the other hand, at night we were able to sit on the terrace until about 8:30 p.m., having a pre-dinner drink and watching the sun set over the farthest tongue of land. The temperatures were simply perfect, around the mid-70s during the day and around maybe 65 F at night, so that we could leave the door open at night and listen to the waves. I have to tell you: This hotel also has rooms toward the hills, with no view of the sea, and there are even some "cellar" level rooms—that's probably where they stick the Irish, who don't know better. But if I were to be in a room like that I'd ask myself, WTF? Thankfully, we had nothing to complain about.
The public beach at Playa Blanca
This part of Lanzarote (in Playa Blanca, which is pretty much a misnomer) has no natural beaches—the coast is rocky, volcanic. There are a few man-created sandy areas, but not where we were. Still, we had access to the ocean via a ladder, and we both swam on numerous occasions in the protected waters of the bay. Most of the time we lounged around the beautiful pool and its big waterfall, or we made use of the just-right hot-tub. The Timanfaya Palace is an adults-only resort, so there were no munchkins running around, screaming and toting water pistols. We enjoyed the peace and quiet, the immaculate landscaping, and the really good food and drink, or was it drink and food? OK, so I gained some poundage, but what can I say? When you can get fresh octopus, prawn, and all kinds of fresh fish whenever you want it's hard to say no. Same goes for the various drinks.
One of the garden areas of the César Manrique home
But it was not just float and bloat. One day we rented as car (30 euro, full insurance included) to explore the island on our own. Good German that she is, Sabine had scoured the Freising public library for guidebooks on Lanzarote, and thus we had a full-day program that included the must-see highlights. Neither one of us had heard before of the island's most important figure, artist César Manrique, who lived for the better part of the 20th century. So, the first stop on our 201-kilometer island tour was Manrique's former home, an amazing structure with 1,800 square meters of living and working areas plus another 1,200 square meters of terraces and gardens. What differentiates this house is that Manrique built it partially underground in old lava tunnels and bubbles, and the symbiosis between residence and nature is amazing. Shortly before his death Manrique started an eponymous Fundacion with his house as headquarters, and one can now tour the premises and view much of his other art legacy.
Manrique's pool, like an oasis
One level below the surface
Dining area next to the grill just outside of the pic
Photos showing Manrique and his wife entertaining demonstrate how liveable this unique home was. The use of water features, the roughness of the lava juxtaposed with the smoothness of the flooring, the unexpected hole in the lava ceiling that allows a palm tree to grow—wow, what beauty! And it was a novel experience to see modern artwork (Manrique worked pretty much with all media and in many styles) actually interact with its surroundings and not just look weird and out-of-place but rather like a symbiotic addition. We were totally enthralled.
Manrique's kinetic art can be found all over Lanzarote
Close to Manrique's casa is the area of La Geria, the Napa Valley of Lanzarote. But it doesn't look like any other wine-growing area that we had ever seen: The soil is barren, with black volcanic ash everywhere. So where are the vines? Slightly dug into the soil and hidden behind short stone walls, one vine at a time! There is no mechanical harvesting here, and the yields are rather modest, yet there are more than 100 wineries that put out whites and reds.
Yes, that's a vineyard!
The wall shields from the tradewinds, and the ash preserves moisture
Talk about an odd-looking countryside! Later in the afternoon, we went to four wineries but were hardly impressed with what we tasted. However, in all fairness to the plants it was probably more the vintners "style" than anyhting wrong with the fruit since we did sample one wine nice enough to buy a bottle to take back home; incidentally, it came from a winery (Bodegas El Grifo) that had won many awards.

Rustic-looking but foul-tasting—don't drink here
Other highlight's of our island tour were the Jameos del Agua, a spectacular semi-cave with a small lake of sea-water that is part of an old lava tunnel, as well as the Mirador del Rio, from where we had a spectacular view of one of the smaller neighboring islands and the ocean. We had bought a triple-ticket that gave us entry to not only those two points of interest but also the truly amazing Timanfaya National Park. At the Jameos we also had a look at a non-aqueous cave that is utilized for concerts and the like. The acoustics were out of this world, even with piped-in meditative music.
Tiny white crabs live in the Jameos del Agua, nowhere else on the planet
At the top of the 475-meter high Mirador we had a small lunch in the Manrique-designed dining room. It's hard to think of a more scenic spot to munch on a bocadillo!
At the highest spot of the island that's accessible by car
The final stop of our tour was the Montanas del Fuego, which are part of the Timanfaya National Park. Here, everybody has to park and pile into an expertly-driven tour bus that takes visitors into the back country of this volcanic wasteland. It was back in the 18th century (1730 to 1736) and then again in 1824 that various volcanoes erupted and covered most of Lanzarote with ash and other debris. The bus tour really was extraordinary, and it is a good way to make sure that visitors don't make off with the lava! There are ample of photo opportunities, and the bus windows are kept immaculately clean so that one doesn't feel the need to break them.
Lichen is about the only thing to grow here
Lava tubes, ash, and billions of rocks
Lava that froze in place after the last eruptions in 1824
This landscape is about as forbidding as it comes
So, that was about it for our excursion through Lanzarote and its many faces. No wonder that a huge Ironman event takes place here every year: I was reminded more than just once of Hawaii, where the sport of triathlon was invented. Indeed, many European triathletes and road cyclists come to Lanzarote every winter and spring for training camps, and we saw a number of tri-geeks battling the constant tradewinds.

This post turned out to be longer than intended, and not many of you will have read this far—I know there are time pressures and other obligations. But I wanted to post these pictures and impressions at least for myself to remember our holiday on this Atlantic rock just a little bit better. And if you did read that far, well, maybe you got the itch to see the Canary Islands for yourself one of these days. I certainly would not try to discourage you.


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