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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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“No Higher than a Palm Tree”

“No Higher than a Palm Tree”

A recent report that the London’s Shard still has ten exclusive apartments that remain unsold, at a mere £50 million each, did not come as much of a surprise. These apartments are situated somewhere between the 53rd and 65th floors, so just imagine the difficulties if you wanted to pop out for a pizza and the lift wasn't working! It takes all sorts and a great deal of money, of course, but I’m not sure that many people would fancy living in a building 224 metres tall. Imagine entertaining around 6000 visitors a day on the floors above the apartments; think of the sound of all those stilettoes clicking just above your head. Of course, the building was always intended to show off, and proudly proclaim that “we have the biggest one in the village”, but whether it contributes anything really useful or worthwhile to the quality of life for Londoners, I guess depends upon the size of your wallet. For many, at a time of a housing crisis for ordinary people in London, it is an extravagant and pointless waste of money; still, I guess the estate agents, developers and speculators have to do something with their time. According to some ‘in the know’, this expensive protrusion in the City is south of the river, and apparently anyone who is anyone wouldn't be seen anywhere south of the river anyway. In contrast, let us now take a brief step away from a bustling London, to the clean air and tranquillity of the Canary Islands.

One of my local heroes is the Canarian artist, and Lanzarote’s most famous son, César Manrique. He was not just an artist, but a painter, sculpture, architect, ecologist, planner of urban developments, as well as landscaper and gardener. Manrique was fascinated by man’s relationship with nature and became deeply concerned about the success and impact that mass tourism was having upon his beloved Canary Islands. He witnessed the construction of some of the hideous hotels in the south of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, and was determined that the same violation would not happen to the island of Lanzarote. Fortunately, Manrique’s fame and international acclaim meant that he was listened to.

Following a lengthy stay in New York, Manrique commented that “Man in New York is like a rat”, and concluded that man is not well suited to an artificial environment. Feeling homesick, Manrique returned to Lanzarote, with an intention to turn Lanzarote into one of the more beautiful places on the planet. After his horror at seeing the twelve storey Gran Hotel that had been built in his home town, Arrecife, he declared that no building on the island (except church buildings) should be taller that a Canary palm tree (Phoenix Canariensis), which grows to between 15 to 20 metres in height. Manrique became obsessive with surveying local architecture and the island’s traditional culture, which he saw as the interface between nature and man.

Much to the chagrin of potential developers focussed upon mass tourism and profits from the exploitation of the island, Manrique’s views prevailed and it is now impossible to visit Lanzarote without being aware of his overpowering influence. Tourism development does exist in several popular resorts, but in a controlled manner, and it is still difficult to find buildings that are taller than a palm tree.

Stepping back to London, I sometimes wonder what Manrique would have thought of the Shard, and enormous tower blocks housing hundreds of people within a heavily polluted city landscape. Although his remedy of “no building being taller than a palm tree” would not work in London, New York or Hong Kong, where space is at a premium, I cannot help thinking that he was right, and that the population would be much happier in lower buildings with more space around them. As for the apartments going for a song in the Shard, I think I’ll pass on that one.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

​Living in Caves

Living in Caves

“Top 20 Caves to Rent in the Canary Islands” screams one advertisement, followed by “Hundreds of Cave Homes to Buy in the Canary Islands” shouts another. Well, I guess it all makes good copy, but is living in a cave just another symptom of ‘reverse one-upmanship’, and something to brag about to colleagues at work? “Oh, I’m just off to the cave for the weekend.”

During the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, the native aborigines, the Guanches, were considered to be living at a primitive level by European standards. The Guanches wore animal skins for clothing, made stone tools for hunting and lived in caves. Well, if that’s not primitive, what is? It is strange how with the passage of time, reverting back to cave dwelling is seen as ‘cool’ (in more ways than one) and is now a highly desirable form of accommodation for some.

A few weeks ago, we visited a friend whom we have known for many years. He bought a group of caves in the Canary Islands before it became fashionable and at a knock down price too. He and his family were not living in exactly slum-like conditions, since our friend’s caves were well equipped with all modern conveniences. There is running water and mains electricity, although many cave dwellers prefer to rely upon their own solar installations, since it gives them a feeling of self-sufficiency. Beautifully designed bedrooms, fitted kitchen, sauna and games room would put most homes to shame, with the added benefits of fast Internet connection and cable television. Our friend’s home included a patio and delightful, well-stocked garden crammed full with unusual and native plants.

There are many such cave homes throughout the Canary Islands, with the most villages made up of cave homes located in Gran Canaria, where the excavation of cave homes into the mountain side remains a feature of the natural landscape. One of the most appealing features of cave homes is that it is unlikely that air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter are needed, since they remain at a steady temperature throughout the year. How’s that for energy efficiency?

Visitors to the Aguimes municipality in Gran Canaria will also find some of the best preserved cave dwellings on the island in the Guayadeque ravine. There are several cave restaurants and even a cave church that is open to visitors, which may help visitors to appreciate the sense of coolness and atmosphere of cave dwellings.

If we now hop over to another of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, visitors will discover a cave home in the middle of a remote lava field. This was the dream home of the renowned artist, César Manrique who utilised the simple idea of living in five volcanic chambers. This is not an ordinary home, but one lovingly created by a man who had the vision to develop Lanzarote’s unique volcanic landscape into an ecologically friendly dwelling. It is thanks to Manrique that regulations were brought into being to restrict tourism development on the island with any structure taller than a palm tree forbidden.

Homes are not the only use for caves in Lanzarote, with a cafe built into a rock on the island’s north coast and a theatre, swimming pool and nightclub built into another cave complex, which was hugely admired by Manrique as the world’s most beautiful cave adaption - praise indeed.

Of course, as time goes on, modern adaptions of original cave homes distort our vision of the lives and times of these early people. As a reminder, visitors to Gran Canaria may wish to visit one of the most important archaeological sites in the Canary Islands, the Cueva Pintada (the Painted Cave), which interprets life at the time of the Guanches. The original purpose of the cave is unknown, but it is decorated with red, black and white painted geometrical shapes and may have been used as a dwelling, a scared place or for funeral rites. This spectacular site is well worth a visit.

So, before you rush off to book your modern cave home experience with Airbnb, and yes, I have no doubt that a version of a cave home will be available on there too, do give some thought to these ancient people and the lives that the Guanches lived before the invasion by their Spanish conquerors and the genocide that was to follow. Personally, I’d rather book a nice hotel.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

El Hierro, Sailors and the Virgin

El Hierro, Sailors and the Virgin

I will shortly be making another visit to one of my favourite Canary Islands, the Island of El Hierro. Despite being the smallest of the islands in physical size, it is an island crammed with natural wonders, such as sea cliffs, lush forests and volcanic features to admire. Each of the Canary Islands is different, and El Hierro has become particularly special, and famous in environmental circles, due to its imaginative efforts in making the island self-sufficient from oil, relying upon water and wind power, of which it has plenty, to generate the electricity that the island needs.

Electric cars, complete with charging points, and free Wi-Fi across the island are both modern technological factors that add to the special appeal of this island, which is in sharp contrast to the ruggedness and remoteness of an island that appears almost untouched by tourism. Occasional volcanic eruptions can be a slight disincentive for some tourists, although I suspect that this will change rapidly following the introduction of a 75 per cent travel discount for all residents of the Canary Islands. Inter-island travel is usually quite expensive, and discounted travel is a wise initiative from the Canary Islands Government, which should assist both communication and tourism.

The Descent of the Virgin of the Kings (Bajada de la Virgen de Los Reyes) is celebrated on the first Saturday of July every four years. The procession carries the statue of the Virgin from its hermitage to the island’s capital, Valverde, a journey of around 29 kilometres. La Bajada is an extraordinary procession, accompanied by dancers dressed in traditional white and red dresses, wearing multi coloured hats, and accompanied by the sounds of many castanets and drums. The whole island joins in the celebrations, which begins at the Hermitage of the Kings, at the west of the island, followed by lunch at ‘The Cross of the Kings’, arriving in Valverde during the evening.

Celebrations take place during the entire month of July, with the statue of the Virgin visiting the most important towns and centres on the island, until the first Saturday of August, when it is returned to the hermitage. La Bajada is based upon a fascinating story that has become the focal point of the fiesta.

In 1546, a ship passed along the coast of El Hierro destined for the Americas. However, the ship could not leave the Sea of Calm due to a lack of wind, so the ship was forced to sail in a circle for several days. Finally, on January 6 the food on board had run out and the sailors were forced to ask the islanders of El Hierro for food. Shepherds willingly gave the sailors the supplies for the harsh journey ahead, and without accepting payment.

In return and in thanksgiving, the sailors gave the shepherds the only item of value that they kept on the ship, which was an image of the Virgin Mary. From this moment onwards, a gentle breeze began to blow in the Sea of Calm and the ship could recommence its journey. The shepherds carefully guarded the Virgin in honour of the day that the sailors arrived on the island. The carving was placed in a cave where she was venerated and offered gifts. The Virgin became the protector and patroness of the whole island.

It has occurred to me that having a celebration of this kind every four years is a rather good idea, and wonder if a similar pattern should be implemented for many other fiestas that seem to come around rather too quickly for me to catch up? Imagine Christmas, Easter, Halloween and the entire collection of fiestas taking place every four years; it would give us all much more time to catch our breath, as well as to save up for the big event. However, I guess that the Church and commercial interests, such as shops and manufacturers and children, would not be too keen. Maybe it is not such a good idea after all.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: and or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

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