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The Canaries – Enchanting Islands of Myths and Legends

posted on: Nov 27, 2019

The Canaries – Enchanting Islands of Myths and Legends

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Described by the ancient Greeks and Romans as ‘The Fortunate Isles’ and at other times as ‘Isles of the Blest’, the Canary Islands were, for countless centuries, a mysterious part of the world.  Shrouded by an aura of myth and romance, their history became wrapped in fiction and legends. Homer and Herodotus talked about their gardens of great beauty and others like Strabo and Pliny alluded to their captivating charms.

The ancients presumed them to be vestiges of the lost world of Atlantis.  It was believed that when this legendary civilization sank into the Atlantic Ocean it left behind the Canaries, an archipelago of seven large and a number of smaller islands.  The peak of the highest mountain on Tenerife, the largest of the islands, was believed to be the Mount Atlas of mythology.

In Roman times, King Juba II, 25 B.C. to 25 A.D., a satellite monarch, sent an expedition to the islands.  It found them to be uninhabited, but this raid left a lasting imprint on the Canaries. The islands were named Canaria, from the Latin canis (dog), after the huge wild dogs brought back by the expedition.

In the ensuing centuries, the Canaries returned to the mythical world until, in the early Middle Ages, they were briefly rediscovered by the Arabs who named them Juzr al-Khalidat (Eternal Isles).  In the year 1000 A.D. the Arab geographer al-Idrisi describes a voyage made by Moorish adventurers from Lisbon to the islands. For a period of time, the Arabs traded with the islanders, but the Canaries were soon again lost to the medieval world.

When the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the 15th century they found the archipelago inhabited by the Guanches, a race of tall light-skinned people who lived in the natural caves and practiced a primitive form of agriculture.  These regal troglodytes worshipped the summits of mountains and knew the art of mummification. Historians believe that they were of North African Berber origin and their ancestors had some contact with ancient Egypt.

For near a century, with clubs and sheer valour, they bravely fought the Spaniards.  Eventually, they were subdued and subsequently became extinct. Today, fro these first inhabitants of the islands there remains only a number of place names such as Tenerife, Timanfaya and Dorames; Lucha Canaria (Canarian wrestling); and gofio, a grain staple.

The ships of Columbus stopped in the Canaries before they sailed off to the great adventure across the then Mysterious Sea.  Later, due to their strategic location, they served as an important transportation link to the Americas and were used by the Spaniards as a base for their colonization of the ‘New World’.

Located less than 100 km (62 m) from Africa, the Canaries are geographically part of that continent but politically they are divided into two provinces in Spain – Las Palmas which includes Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote; and Santa Cruz de Tenerife which consists of Tenerife, La Palma, Gomera and El Hierro.

All the islands which millions of years ago arose from the ocean depths in a series of successive volcanic eruptions have a captivating beauty.  Their settings invoke, partially, memories from all parts of the globe – equally the pine or the palm and the chestnut or the cactus are to be found in the majority of the islands.  The stark contrast between lush fertile valleys, dense forests, volcanic mountains and sand dunes which resemble those of the nearby Sahara has earned each island in the Canaries a reputation as a ‘continent in miniature’.

Their agreeable and gentle subtropical climate with a high percentage of sunny days has ensnared countless travelers who have labeled them ‘the islands of eternal spring’.  On the other hand, the weather can change drastically from island to island, but overall in spring, summer, and autumn the weather is warm and delightful. However, in winter, if one is unlucky enough to hit a cold snap, for a few days it can be chilly, gray and damp.  Generally, the average temperature for the whole year is around 25oC (76oF).

The Canaries’ fascinating landscape and pleasant weather have not been overlooked by the 20th-century traveler.  In the last few decades, tourism has flourished, becoming a big business.  The islands have become a tourist haven for millions of Europeans and to a much lesser extent, North Americans.  All-year-round they are inundated by masses of sun-starved northerners.

The vast majority of tourists come to the two islands, Gran Canaria and Tenerife.  The 2,053 sq km (792 sq m) Tenerife is the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands.  It offers enormous contrasts and a great variety of scenery. Through its center, like a backbone, runs a mountain range atop of which is located Las Cañadas, a gigantic natural amphitheater 20 km (12 m) in diameter.  From its center springs Teide, the imposing 3,718 m (12,198 ft) mountain of ancient mythical lore. The Guanches believed that their god of hell, Guayota, made his home inside this snow-covered highest mountain in Spain.

From its top, where the view of the foothills is incomparable, to its very foot, it has shaped the entire topography of the island.  Below its peak, it is surrounded by thick pine forests which to the south give way to an arid landscape and to the north a land covered with rich subtropical vegetation – the most outstanding part being the lovely Orotava Valley.  The variety of climatic zones, each one defining it own landscape, gives the island an aura of a large continent.

The northern valleys with their banana plantations and flowering shrubs complemented by the south coast’s perpetual sunshine and the alpine landscape topped by volcanic mountains combine to make Tenerife were for years the number one resort – it was where the island’s tourist success story began.  The town’s modern eye-catching structures and setting, ringed by the lush Orotava Valley and over-shadowed by the majestic Teide, imbue it with a seductive atmosphere unequaled by most other resorts. A very attractive pleasure spot with a network of luxury hotels, discotheques and bazaars, it has been a tourist base for Europeans since the turn of the century.  Yet, the town has always had a major drawback. It has virtually no beaches. However, to eliminate this great seaside stumbling block, a huge artificial man-made lake on the waterfront with swimming pools and beaches edged by restaurants has been constructed. In marvelous fashion, it has given the resort what nature had neglected.

In the last two decades, Puerto de la Cruz has gradually been overtaken by other resorts, the top of these being the twin holiday spots of Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos in the south.  Once a barren stretch of rocky coastline, this part of Tenerife has become Europe’s fastest-growing pleasure center. The once inhospitable oceanfront has been transformed by the hands of man into a touristic relaxing shoreline.  A lava desert landscape where only scattered fields were cultivated now supports hotel and apartment complexes complete with tropical gardens ad palm-studded promenades.

Entertainment and food establishments, hotels and sports facilities galore crowd these resorts and their outskirts.  In the last few years, Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos have become Tenerife’s thriving holiday paradises. With over 100,000 beds, double those in Puerto de la Cruz, they draw the majority of the 2,500,000 tourists who annually visit the island.  The year-round eternal spring, cool and virtually insect-free nights, good communication with the outside world, top-class tourist amenities, reasonable prices and, above all, 360 days of sunshine – a slightly exaggerated figure given out by tourist officials – draw the visitors, mostly from Europe – the majority from the British Isles.

Gran Canaria is the second most important and the third largest of the Canary Islands.  Its 1,532 sq km (592 sq m) is often described as a paradise-like compendium of all the islands in the archipelago.  There is no similar tiny part of the world with such a diversity of landscape and climate. The island encompasses sand beaches, arid areas, rugged ravines, volcanic heights and tropical lowlands – more than most of the other islands – a ‘miniature continent’.

Las Palmas, its capital is the busiest and the most populous city in the archipelago.   With over 400,000 inhabitants – more than half the population of the island – it is the cultural and industrial centre of the Canaries and thee most bustling port in Spain.  A prosperous and beautiful capital, its streets hum with frenzied commerce and fun-loving Europeans bent on having a good time. Known as the pleasure capital of the archipelago, it offers for sale everything tourists are seeking, including sex.

However, even though the capital has much to offer the vast majority of tourists come to Gran Canaria to enjoy its resort area of Maspalomas.  A few decades ago this southern part of the island was only a bare coastline. Today, the 10 km (6 m) long beaches of San Agustin, Ingles and Maspalomas – collectively known as Maspalomas – with their large residential complexes of apartments, bungalows, hotels and shopping centres are now top-class world holiday spots.  Their wide golden sands are crowded the whole year with tourists from the north. On their palm rimmed Saharan-like dunes, a few metres from the sea, people walk amid the sands or slide down the dunes. For those who want to romanticize, there are camels for rent in this make-believe oceanside desert world. Unlike on neighboring Tenerife where large beaches are rare, this island has some of the best sands in the world.

Of the 5,000,000 tourists who travel to the Canaries every year, 2,000,000 come to Gran Canaria.  Of these 1,000,000 journey to relax in the Maspalomas area with its ideal year-round climate and never-ending sunshine lasting over 300 days.  Along with the sun and sand, visitors can play golf on a magnificent course among the dunes, partake in every kind of water sport or make excursions to the countryside and the other islands in the archipelago  For ones enamored with the culinary world, restaurants, found in large numbers, offer at reasonable prices some of the best seafood in the world. At night there are diversions galore. A casino, bars, discotheques, pubs and folkloric entertainment cater to every taste and pocketbook.

The other five islands in the archipelago have their own uniqueness but are much less important than Tenerife or Gran Canaria.  Fuerteventura, only 87 km (54 m) from Cape Yubi in Morocco, is the second largest island in the canaries. Its 1,725 sq km (666 sq m) of mostly extinct volcanos and sand dunes with cacti in bloom and palm trees give it a desert atmosphere of emptiness and solitude.  Its great attraction is an almost unbroken stretch of beaches along the longest coastline of all the islands. Corralejo in the north and Jandia in the south are the most developed of these sands and the best places in the world to windsurf, dive or snorkel. They are oases of tranquility on an island with a touch of the Sahara.

Known as the ‘fairest of jewels in the Canaries’ crown, La Palma, 728 sq km (281 sq m) in area, is the most northwesterly of the archipelago’s island.  The abundance of water creates from its mountains and valleys a sea of greenery making it the most beautiful isle in the Canaries. Around its highest point 2,400 m (7,500 ft), is an area of volcanic scrubland in the center of which is the largest crater in the world – 27 m (17m) in circumference.  Below are thick pine forests followed by sub-tropical palm and banana plantations. As yet, masses of tourists have not inundated the island. Only a few seek it as a remote hideaway.

Much different than La Palma is the 813 sq km (313 sq m) Lanzarote, the most northerly of the Canaries.  Hardly any rain falls on its eerie lunar landscape which was created in the 18th century by tremendous eruptions that covered the island with layer upon layer of lava and volcanic ash.  Today, sparkling whitewashed houses stand out starkly against this parched barren landscape. Tourist-rented camels plodding through the ash with the tiny minarets on the homes in the background give a magical and mysterious desert African feel to this moon-like island.

La Gomera’s surface contrasts vividly with that of Lanzarote.  A small 378 sq km (46 sq m) circular island, it is a land of craggy peaks and deep valleys covered with luxuriant vegetation.  Its greatest claim to fame is that Columbus in 1492 set out from its shores on his historic voyage of ‘discovery’. The island’s rugged grandeur of mountains and deep valley forced the Guanches to evolve a whistling language, which still survives today, for communicating from one mountain top to the next.  With no airport, its only connection with the outside world is a twice a day ferry from its capital San Sebastian to Los Cristianos in Tenerife. Hence, it is largely unknown to outsiders and there is little tourist activity. This has kept it the most Canarian of all the islands.

The last and the smallest of the canaries is the triangular-shaped El Hierro.  The most southwesterly of the islands, its 278 sq km (107 sq m) surface is a mixture of bleak volcanic badlands and beautiful landscape of pine forests and banana plantations.  Its great charm is that it is the least visited and least known of the Canary Islands. A great haven for the discerning traveler, life for its 7,000 inhabitants who are like one large family moves at a leisurely pace.

Synonymous with holidays for the mainland Spaniards and the hundreds and thousands of foreign visitors, every one of the islands is like a small tropical paradise.  ‘Isles of the Blest’, ‘The Fortunate Isles’ or ‘Lost Content of Atlantis’ to the ancients, they are today tourist meccas to much of western mankind.