Postcards from La Palma

February 2015

It's become my usual routine to take a holiday in January or February, a chance to get some winter sun and outdoors time as the British winter grinds on & on. In recent years this has been reinforced by my employer's 'vacation year' running from March to February, meaning I have to take any outstanding holiday at the end or risk losing it. This year I once again joined up with my dear friend Saille and decided on a week in La Palma, one of the Canary Islands that neither of us had visited before.


I'm normally pretty good at travel planning but for some reason everything went awry this time around. Having decided on our destination I then worked backwards, discovering that the only usable direct flights to La Palma left from Gatwick on a Friday and that we could just about connect with them by taking the first train from Bradford on Avon (5:42 in the morning!) and spending twelve hours in transit. Sigh! On top of that our accommodation wasn't available until the Saturday, meaning we'd need a night in a hotel and another transit after that.
As it turned out the journey went fairly smoothly, up until we arrived at the hotel and found it closed. Luckily the taberna on the corner was open for coffee and the hotel receptionist arrived a few minutes later to let us in and show us to our room.
After a shower and some post-travel unwinding we took a stroll around the town, finding that our home for the rest of the holiday was only a short distance away and could be reached on foot, even with our luggage wheels struggling on the cobbled streets.

Holiday home

For the rest of the week we were renting a 17th century traditional house in the old town of La Palma. Despite being much bigger than we needed - there were four bedrooms! - it looked so quirky & interesting on the web that I couldn't resist it and despite some confusion over the booking process we'd eventually got everything sorted.
When we arrived it turned out to be more exotic than I'd imagined, there was no sharp division between inside and out with the main staircase open to the sky and a central shaft bringing light & air down through the middle of the house to a fern-filled room on a deeper level. The few outside windows had wooden latticework & shutters rather than glazing and the ceilings followed the roof lines in dark wood. All the mod cons were present but in a setting from centuries past. Wonderful.
The house also had it's own mineral water on tap. The water (from an undisclosed source) was filtered through a big chunk of volcanic rock and collected in an earthenware vessel below it, apparently an old, traditional method of purification. It was delicious!

The uphill road

Setting out to explore the town we found ourselves following a steep, cobbled road up and away from the sea front. This turned out to be the old road that led to the interior of the island and as we climbed we were rewarded with picturesque houses and ever-changing views over the town. The sharp incline meant that buildings were creatively constructed, often over several levels, and were tucked into all sorts of unexpected corners & angles.
As we rose higher the shape of the terrain became clearer with a gentler (although still appreciable) incline lying above the sharp descent to the coast. Above this were green-clad hills, vanishing into clouds that wreathed the top of the island.

Santa Cruz de la Palma

The guide books had been generally dismissive of Santa Cruz, saying there was no point in staying there or visiting it as there was nothing much to see, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find that it was actually rather nice. Old buildings lining narrow streets that were either pedestrianised or had very light traffic, it was a great place for just wandering around and seeing what we found. And the combination of Latin culture and established tourism meant that there were places to eat and/or drink all through the town, from street bars filled with locals to fancy restaurants where a host of languages bubbled around each other.

Santa Maria!

In amongst the tourist leaflets I'd picked up was mention of a replica of one of Columbus' ships in the town but I hadn't found it during my wanderings along the seafront. This was because it stood encased in concrete, facing out to sea but needing to go down the Avenue las Nieves and across the traffic lights at the bottom to get there.
The ship contained the Naval Museum which turned out to be a small collection of old maps & charts along with some nautical paintings and model boats - it seemed to be catering for the student of navigation rather than the casual tourist.
But a small (and very wobbly) staircase led up into the rear cabin and from there you could walk out onto the deck and get a feel for the size & human scale of the vessel.

Into the countryside

La Palma had a reputation as a great place for walking and we'd come equipped with sturdy boots, lots of layers and a book of routes. On a grey morning we made our sandwiches, loaded our backpacks and took the bus out to Breña Alta from where we headed off into the countryside.
The route, well signposted like all of the ones we found on the island, led us out from the town and up into the hills. Within a mile we'd left houses & buildings behind and were surrounded by tall trees and a thousand shades of green.

A wayside shrine

Halfway along our walk, miles from anywhere, we came across a small space sheltered by a rock overhang. Inside were dozens of small crucifixes, each made from two sticks tied together with a strip of white cloth. A small sign gave a name for this spot (which I sadly failed to write down) but there were no other details about its significance or meaning. Some of the stone had been worked to provide a bench to sit on but this was placed so that you sat with the crosses looking out rather than outside looking at them.
With rain drizzling down and a long walk still ahead of us we didn't spend a lot of time at the shrine but I enjoyed our short pause there. With no explanation of its history or purpose it became just a shared human space, deep in the countryside. Maybe all holy places started off this way?

The rain

One of the main reasons for a February holiday was to get some winter sun but in that respect La Palma was failing us miserably. From intermittent sunny intervals the weather descended into drizzly rain with occasional heavy showers, all under a low, slate-grey sky. The temperature dropped in solidarity with the precipitation and our open plan house, undoubtably superb at fending off relentless summer heat, began to feel a bit cold & draughty. My waterproofs, brought along to fend off the occasional light shower, proved woefully inadequate and several days saw the bannisters outside my bedroom bedecked with (slowly) drying clothes before I finally succumbed to the call of the tumble dryer.
Despite the wet conditions I remained in remarkably good spirits. Being forced to lay on the sofa and read wasn't such a hardship and it did relieve the (purely self-inflicted) pressure to plan & organise trips to see the rest of the island. Santa Cruz was still fascinating to wander around, we had everything we needed within a couple of minutes walk and my Kindle was fully loaded with holiday reading. And surely the rain couldn't last for much longer...?

The forest of men

In an attempt to escape the rain we decided to try to rise above it - literally. A local tour company offered several guided hikes including 'Top of the Island', a walk along the rim of the caldera (extinct volcanic crater) at the centre of the island where several observatories were sited. We booked our places and, after some confusion about the bus pick-up stop, were riding up into (and hopefully past) the clouds.
Halfway up the coach pulled over for a short break where people could adjust their clothing layers (the temperature was changing rapidly as we rose up the mountain) and relieve their bladders - men to the left of the road, women to the right. Within minutes the men had spread out and each had claimed their own individual tree to water, very territorial.

Above the clouds

Finally we emerged from the clouds to a dazzlingly blue sky. As the road continued to weave its way up we started to pass the island's observatories, mostly huge white domes but some in silver and some in strange & bizarre shapes. They sat on a line just above the cloud level, presumably no higher up than they needed to be.
The coach finally reached the muster point and then disconcertingly reversed back off the road and towards what looked like a sheer drop. Once disembarked we were divided up into language groups and set off on our walks, firstly up to a viewpoint (more on that below) and then along the ridge where the observatories stood.
Although the air temperature had dropped there was hardly any wind and the sun beat down on us strongly. Before long I had my coat, fleece and t-shirt in my backpack and was strolling along quite comfortably in shirt sleeves, despite the clumps of ice crystals along the path.

Walking in the mist

In theory we would be enjoying views both out to sea and down into the huge volcanic crater at the centre of the island but in practice the clouds had stayed just where they were, now sitting below us rather than above us. Instead of looking far, far down into the bowl of the caldera we were presented with rolling patches of mist, rising up out of the crater and cloaking the landscape around us. Which, after the initial disappointment, was quite atmospheric it its own way.
As we walked along we descended into the milky gloom and then reemerged into patches of sunshine as the path rose and fell among the rocks. At one point we were led off the path to see a petroglyph drawn by the Auaritas, the native people who inhabited the island before the Spanish colonisation.

Time for a selfie

Our tour guide on the walk had recommended going over to the West side of the island to catch the best weather so we jumped on a bus and passed over (and through) the central volcanic spine to Los Llanos de Aridane, the largest town. The sky was still as much cloud covered as not but the day was warm and the journey quick & easy.
Our first stop was the archaeological museum which had lots of interesting & well laid out information about the geology and the native people of the island. More engaging for me was a display of old photographs where faces, often not of the primary subjects, were enlarged to give some less posed portraits. And finally there was a spiral design on the pavement outside the museum that provided a nice backdrop for a selfie.
Los Llanos was a nice enough town (although not as pretty as Santa Cruz) and a burst of sunshine made us consider lunch there but instead we found our way to the bus station and headed off for the coast.

By the seaside

We'd intended to go to Tazacorte where we'd been told there were good places to eat but instead we stayed on the bus a bit longer to reach Playa Tazacorte on the coast. Here we found the typical Canarian beachside experience - black sand, a sheltered bay and a string of cafés & restaurants along the seafront. Naturally we'd both forgotten to bring our swimsuits.

Festival of something

Santa Cruz seemed busier than usual on my last morning there with most of the activity around the small central square in front of the cathedral. There seemed to be hundreds of children around, collected into groups that were in all sorts of fancy dress styles. Some, like the clowns shown here, seemed straightforward enough but others were harder to fathom, most notably a line of children wearing horn-rimmed glasses, huge fake cuffs (with stylised cufflinks), collars & ties, and brightly coloured crucifixes. Very odd.

A final taste of cheese

One of our unexpected discoveries on La Palma was its goat cheese, a light, usually smoked product that was available almost everywhere and was generally delicious. We'd stocked up with a round of it from the market on our first day and had been slowly eating our way through it as the week progressed.
On my final day (Saille had left to stay for another week on the other side of the island) I had a couple of hours free between vacating the house and catching my flight so I trundled my suitcase round to our favourite café and treated myself to the cordon bleu version - garnished with the local red, green and sweet mojo sauces. With a roll on the side and a glass of mineral water it was the perfect light feast before setting off on the long journey home and I languished in the sun while the minutes ticked away.

Despite the poor weather (all the locals we spoke to said it was worse than they'd known for years) I'd had a very good holiday. La Palma had proved to have exotic & unexpected attractions, certainly enough to make me consider a return visit, but equally importantly I'd enjoyed becoming familiar with Santa Cruz itself and comfortable with just strolling around its streets. Being 'trapped' indoors wasn't great but it was fun to flop around in this quirky old house and to balance museum visits with shopping at the local Spar. The long and (somewhat) gruelling journey getting there & back would need some thought but with all things considered I suspect I'll be heading out there again before too long.