You arrive at the estate and green surrounds you. Without limits. Wherever you look, the foliage of the plantation extends to the blue horizon of the ocean. You feel the humidity rise as the trade winds blow, and the sun’s warmth from time to time becomes scorching heat. You can smell the fruit, hear the vegetation, touch the air. Nature at its most primitive sharpens your senses. This, as we discover later, is how the Canary Islands begins to work its magic. Sensations come one after another, each more intense than the last. The estate is located in the north of Tenerife, the island of eternal springtime at its most rural. A place of exotic plantations, where houses are painted in bright colors, villages are trapped in time, and balconies are carved from wood. Where the people live at a gentler pace, and speak Spanish with the soft accent of the far side of the Atlantic. You realize that you’re in a tropical Spain, close to the coast of Africa, nostalgic for the colonies in the Antilles. An archipelago of fortunate isles, whose original culture has blended with European and South American influences. Where skillful hands tend banana plantations, but also coffee, mangos, guavas and avocados. Where cigars are rolled by hand, dried banana leaves are used for weaving, and lace-making is almost an art form. Pedro García’s Tenerife.
From Indonesia toHawaii and Polynesia.From the Canary Islands and West Africa to South America. In search of the tropics.
The banana leaf is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, reaching up to nine feet in length. This was the flexible, aromatic surface chosen by many Southeast Asian cultures on which to etch their first written symbols. Characters were designed not to damage it, and the veins – long and straight – made perfect guidelines. Banana leaves were such a strong influence on writing that when wooden tablets were adopted, they continued to draw the horizontal lines of the banana leaf on them. Primitive memos.
A pale pink contrasts with two shades of green and a terracotta red; cobalt harmonizes with apple green alongside a soft gray… It’s a typical sight in many neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, La Laguna and La Orotava. The vibrant façades of Tenerife could almost persuade you that you’re in the Caribbean: the architecture of both places shares this surprising use of color. The two cultures are linked by history and migration, but also by the climate, the landscape and the light: they expertly translate their surroundings into color schemes, and apply them to their buildings. Tropical colors, picturesque neighborhoods, streets full of life and unique buildings.
Not blue. Not green
¡Ay, Santa Cruz! mi tierra morena y brava, el valle de La Orotava que tiñe de verde el mar.
¡Ay, Santa Cruz! is a popular Latin bolero dedicated to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, joint capital of the Canary Islands together with Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It’s a classic that has been recorded countless times, and was written by the prolific composer Fernando García Morcillo, a celebrity in Spain in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His boleros have been performed by scores of artists, including Frank Sinatra.
La Quinta Roja
The sweetest bananas
We head for La Isla Baja, the “low island,” as the people of Tenerife call the volcanic coastal strip of black sand beaches situated at its north-westernmost point. We bid farewell to the south and its shorelines of fine white sand. As we left the tourists behind, traveling deeper into the most rural part of the island of eternal springtime, the view from the car windows was of luxuriantly-forested hills, saturated colors and houses with balconies of carved wood. The warm, humid air wafted aromas of tropical fruit. We arrive in Garachico, once the island’s main port and today a perfectly preserved village, an Atlantic jewel with a romantic past, dominated by a small island: El Roque de Garachico. The village has been declared to be of national cultural interest, awarded a gold medal for its fine arts, and nominated for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A little further on, on the main road between the villages of San Pedro de Daute and Las Cruces, we came to our destination: La Quinta Roja - the red villa.
We’d been told that this aristocratic estate was unique, and was formerly the country residence and summer retreat of the Marquis de la Quinta Roja. “One of the best examples of a traditional Canary Islands country villa,” we’d learned, as we read up on it before we arrived. But the reality was very different from the mental image conjured up by the description. “La casona,” as these huge stately residences are known in the Canary Islands, is a mansion with colonial airs, blinding whitewashed walls, and roof tiles as red as its name, surrounded by a leafy green sea of banana plants, and framed by the intense blue of the ocean, with the Roque de Garachico as a backdrop. Crossing the centuries-old main gate, a cobblestoned courtyard opened up before us, around it the splendid, two-story, U-shaped house, enclosed by crenellated white walls. A true Canary Islands welcome, which immediately evoked the Antilles. The San Cristóbal chapel and the “rum room,” which once housed a sugarcane press, completed the Caribbean atmosphere.
According to an ancient legend, when a dragon dies, it becomes a drago. Probably because the tree’s spiky foliage recalls the silhouette of the terrifying mythological reptiles; because the trees can reach a height of almost 65 feet; and because they were believed to live for four or five thousand years. But the main reason why the original inhabitants of the island thought these were magical trees was their sap – a vivid red, like no other in the world. In fact, it turns this color when it comes into contact with the air, which is why it is known as ‘dragon’s blood.’ It has been traded since ancient times, due to its supposed medicinal qualities, and because it makes an excellent varnish. Drago sap preserves the wood of Antonio Stradivari’s famous violins, the Stradivariuses, giving each instrument its special beauty, its individual timbre and unique sound quality. The drago is the natural symbol of the island of Tenerife, as recognized by local law, and over the years many historic specimens have become famous for their enormous size. The only one of these to survive today is the thousand-year old drago of Icod de los Vinos, the oldest specimen on the archipelago and a living National Monument.
on the ball!
Although it’s approximately the size of a soft ball, for years this was a soccer ball – and probably the most treasured possession of a group of boys from the north of Tenerife. At the beginning of the last century, the unreliable roads made transport to the north of the island difficult. The region was practically cut off from the outside world, although the fertile soil ensured a comfortable, if simple, life for the inhabitants. Since shop-bought toys were a rarity, craftsmen wove balls like this one for children to play with. They used badana, which is what Canary islanders call the dry leaves that fall from banana plants and blanket the area around them. Weaving the leaves together to make sections like those of an orange, they then joined them all up to form a rough sphere. This example was made ten years ago in a village in Los Silos, by perhaps the last craftsman who remembered the technique. The children would wet the balls before they played with them, and were able to achieve high speeds and surprising trick shots. Stay on the ball!
Light and shade. Intense green.
Defined lines. Only the essential.
Trabaja el herreño en la fragua el carpintero en el banco, el marinero en el mar, el labrador en el campo.
El canto de la arada is just one of the many kinds of work song that are part of the Canary Islands’ rich folklore. The island’s traditional music is usually a mixture of native percussion, Spanish sounds and Caribbean chords, but the ancient cantos de arada – songs sung by laborers from the Spanish mainland while they worked the fields – are simple verses, with repetitive melodies and slow rhythms that have remained unaltered by the passage of time. Like other work songs – songs for driving mules, herding, threshing and eel-fishing – they survive thanks to the work of folklorists, who rescued them from oblivion by talking to the few people whose memories kept them alive.
Blending in with
round and round
“You arrange the pins to make the shape you want, and then, with the thread on the needle, you start to fill in the radial threads, working from the inside to the outside”. This is how Candelaria, a craftswoman from the village of Vilaflor, a “rosetera” like her mother and her grandmother, explains how to make a “roseta” - a lace medallion. It’s a delicate piece of needlework, always made from white or ecru cotton thread as is typical in Europe, and it represents the only Spanish contribution to the Western lace-making tradition. Centuries ago, “rosetas” from Tenerife – in the shape of dahlias, jasmines, daisies, spikes of wheat, leaves, ribbons or stars among many others – were sold in all the world’s great cities. Today, however, only a few lace-makers keep the tradition alive. A craft with hundreds of years of history, it was known as “Teneriffe lace” in English-speaking countries, and became a popular handicraft and pastime among the upper classes. Artisanal lace travelled to the Americas with emigrants from the Canary Islands, where as well as being re-christened in each country it arrived in, it began to be made in brighter colors. The ‘rosetas’ found a new life, full of color, on the other side of the Atlantic.
a little bird told me…
Canaries are named after the archipelago where they originate, the Canary Islands, and the history of these little songbirds is full of curious facts and legends. Stories that, while not all true, are full of poetry, especially those inspired by the musicality of its trills and chirps, one of the best-loved of all birdsongs. The first naturalist to describe the bird scientifically, Conrad Von Gessner, encountered it in a Parisian market. In his work Historiae animalium, he writes that in those days the tiny bird was known as auricula sachar, ‘the sugar bird.’ At that time the Canary Islands were famous for sugar cane - on some maps they were even labeled ‘Sugar Islands’ or ‘Land of Sugar.’ It was thought that, living in the cane plantations, canaries fed mainly on sugar. As part of their sales pitch, merchants claimed that it was their sugary diet that made the little birds sing so sweetly.
the spice of life
Where there’s no fresh water, saltwater will have to do. The ability to adapt defines all the world’s cuisines, and “papas arrugás” are no exception. This simple Canary Island dish, made of potatoes boiled in their skins and served with a “mojo” sauce for dipping, is the happy result of a brilliant adaptation. Along with many other treasures – including green beans, tomatoes and cocoa – potatoes arrived from the New World, and the islanders adopted the Latin American term for them, “papas.” The shortage of fresh water meant they were cooked in seawater, which left a crust of salt on their wrinkled skins. The last component came from the mainland. The word “mojo” comes from the Portuguese “molho,” and is used to describe several of the island’s traditional cold sauces. “Papas arrugás” are served with a red or green dip, both made with olive oil and vinegar as basic ingredients, but whilst the former is spicy, with cumin and dried red pepper, the latter takes its color from minced cilantro. Break them open by hand and dip them, skin and all… Bon appétit!