Exploring Lanzarote

Thu 25 Oct 2012 10:45
The folk aboard Moon Rebel, who I replaced the spray hood windows for, invited us to join them for the day exploring Lanzarote in a car they'd hired. My goodness, it's beautiful.

It may be hard to imagine how a relatively barren Island, covered in grey, black, and red volcanic debris can be beautiful. The island has a chain of volcanos running down it's backbone, so wherever you are, if your back is to the sea, you see them against the skyline. Some perfect cones, others having lost a section to erosion on their windward side, some elongated where 2 or 3 smaller cones ran into each other. But each with their own distinct shape. I can imagine that the people who live here never get lost, as they only need to look up to get their bearings from the two or three always in sight. 

Huge areas of the North Western landscape consist of fantastically twisted lava fields, pumice that had been thrown out of the volcanos, cooling in the air to create unimaginable contortions. Most of these volcanos aren't that old, the eruptions took place between 1730 and 1736, imagine returning to your land after having escaped the terrifying devastation to see this where your farm was:

It's hard to imagine even being able to walk across these areas, let alone make a living from them, yet right in the middle of a lava field you come across the startling vibrancy of growth where someone has laboured to reclaim some of the land.

The 'soil' seems to be made of tiny grained gravel, not very conducive to agriculture one would think, yet if you scuff an inch away the grey gives way to black, showing how good it is at retaining what little moisture is about. Although we passed fields of courgettes, small fruit trees, aloe vera and copious prickly pears, the main yield is grapes, for wine. Each vine is painstakingly tended, to protect it from the desiccating prevailing wind and to provide it with as much moisture as possible. For each vine a pit is dug, or sometimes the natural volcanic lava caves, with the roof collapsed, are used, and a semi-circlular dry stone wall is constructed from the rocks that have been moved to clear the ground, or dig the pit. Thus each vine is sunken, sheltered from the wind yet in the sunshine, and holding on to every drop of moisture, which would naturally accumulate in the pit. 

We stopped at a vineyard which has been in business since 1770, to taste the good wine and look around. They've replaced all the old barrels and tiled stone tanks with stainless steel vats now, but they've kept the old barns as they were as a museum. As the vines grow they are supported by wooden beams, sometimes the 'spears' from aloe are used, to keep them off the ground. Each vine must be picked by hand by climbing down into the pit. This vine makes use of a lava caves for its pit, you can see the wooden beam supporting it. Look at the lines of lava flow, like giant roots or knotted cords, there's no way you'd be able to dig into that!

Originally, camels were imported to work the land, used for ploughing and for loading the grapes into panniers on their backs to bring them in. Now they sit in rows chewing the cud waiting to take coach loads of tourists for rides up the volcanos, bused in from cruise ships or the resort areas like Costa Teguise that we discovered last week. High up in the volcano range there are reds and ochres mixed with the grey, and where the camels sit the yellow of their dung stripes the ground.

Up on the far North of the island there's a black precipice, fringed with scree, dropping into the straights between Lanzarote and Graciosa so we were able to look down on our beloved Graciosa anchorage and get an overview of the entire Island. Funny to think that the volcanos we were driving through earlier that day were the same ones we looked at every evening, black against the sunset, sitting in pools of yellow sand, when we were at anchor in the bay.

Since we arrived in the Canaries we've been reading of and hearing about a chap called Cesar Manrique. In fact, on our first attempt at landing, when we entered Caleta de Seba harbour in Graciosa, instead of the regular lateral marks either side of the entrance we saw that the red and green were mounted on iron work sculptures: Manrique's work. He was hugely influential in ensuring that Lanzarote and Graciosa remained largely unspoilt when the wave of tourists hit: all new building being low rise and in keeping with the traditional design, using local volcanic stones and white plastered curves. We had heard that he'd built himself a remarkable home, based on five giant underground lava bubbles, and that it had been converted into a showcase for his work. We'd been wanting to see it since we'd arrived in Lanzarote, planning a cycle ride out to find it. 

Manrique's key idea was creating harmony between the natural and the man made environment, and, having spent the day being wowed by the beauty of the island, seeing his work made a perfect close to a lovely day. The house is stunning. It sits on the edge of huge lava field, with ripples and layers and curves and pools, backed, of course, by the cones of volcanos. 

The grounds are engaging: peaceful but vibrant, decorated by Manrique's wind sculptures and mosaics. We realised that many of the sculptures we had admired around the streets were Manrique's, that he was responsible for the the conversion of the castle above our anchorage to the contemporary arts museum and restaurant that we'd so admired, and even the litter bins in Arrecife were his design.

The spacious light rooms lead down by stone steps and wooden circular staircases to cool bright living spaces, open at the top, allowing light and air to flood in,

and linked together by narrow tunnels cut into the lava, drawing the eye as well as inviting you to explore

The last bubble is completely open to the sky and had been converted into a sunken garden living space, complete with pool, stone built barbecue oven, built in benches and table to eat at...

We've found the house we want to live in! What I particularly loved was the way the outside and the inside are linked together: are the underground bubbles inside or outside the house? Is the room that's open on one side to the sunken garden inside or outside? Is the bubble whose roof opens into garden, with a palm tree growing out like a living pillar, outside, but the one that opens into a room above with a huge light tube above it, inside? It's not clear but the transitions from one to the other are flowing and natural, like this window into Manrique's old studio:

We've discovered so much more to this Island than first meets the eye and we're starting to understand why so many people love it.