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Archive for February, 2010

It’s not often that I get assignments quite so glamorous as last week’s: fly to Gran Canaria for a day to interview rising stars of the Spanish Indie Rock scene and get photos of the city. I didn’t need to be asked twice.

I’m very used to seeing the small inter-island aircraft of BinterCanarias that pass by on the blue horizon out to sea several times a day between Tenerife North Airport and La Gomera, but I’ve never actually been on one, before last Thursday that is.

The first surprise for me was the ease of their online booking service; Internet-based services are still something of a rarity here in the Canary Islands and ones that actually work are even scarcer. I booked the tickets and even checked in online, printing off my own boarding cards.

The vast majority of visitors to Tenerife fly into its South Airport so most of them never get to see the elegantly sophisticated North Airport. Light and airy with panoramic views over the Anaga Mountains on one side and the runway on the other, the airport is mainly geared towards domestic, Spanish clientele. It’s a lovely place to linger over coffee even if you’re not flying!
We parked the car and headed into the terminal for the 10am flight to Gran Canaria. As I’d already checked in, we simply went straight to gate where, after a cursory glance at passports and resident’s certificates, we were onto the runway bus with the day’s assorted commuters, most of whom were glued to their mobile phones. Just before the bus arrived at the aircraft there was a chorus of jingles as mobiles were switched off.

Most seats on the small, turbo-prop aircraft were filled as we settled down and within minutes were airborne and heading out over La Laguna. The stewardess came round with complimentary daily Spanish newspapers, then a chocolate BinterCanarias biscuit which was possibly the best choccie biscuit I’ve ever eaten and finally a glass of water just in time before we began our descent. It felt like we’d only been flying for ten minutes and here we were, banking over Las Palmas on our descent into Gran Canaria!

Mission completed, we returned to the Gran Canaria airport (not a patch on Tenerife’s airports!) for the 9pm return flight which was filled with (mainly male) commuters. Once again, barely had we swallowed our lip-smackingly good BinterCanarias biscuits and glass of water when we were landing at Tenerife North Airport and transferring to the runway bus amidst a chorus of mobile phone jingles as personal communications were restored.

The only blip on the otherwise seamless and efficient airport experience came when we had to pay the €10.60 all-day ticket for car parking. The machine only took €5 and €10 notes and we only had a €20 so we had to pay at the cashier. Unfortunately, most of our fellow passengers were using credit cards to charge their parking to the company expenses account which meant we spent almost as long in the queue as it had taken us to fly back from Gran Canaria!

For anyone considering island-hopping in the Canaries this year, I can unreservedly recommend BinterCanarias; they’re efficient and friendly and twice as fast as, and only marginally more expensive than, the ferries.
I can also unreservedly recommend Las Palmas de Gran Canaria…but that’s another story.

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There were lots of great costumes at the high heels marathon (mascarita ponte tacon) on the penultimate night of carnaval in Puerto de la Cruz. But for me the best of them was this guy – at least I think it’s a guy – Shiva. I just love the beer can in one of his hands.

Many Hands Make...Holding the Beer Easy

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Anyone who knows the Canary Islands will affirm that Carnaval (carnival) and bad weather are inextricably linked. So when the Spanish Met Office showed the island this week – Carnaval week – to be on orange alert status, no-one was really too surprised.
Thankfully Opening Night Parades (where they actually happened…) passed off without weather incident but Sunday night was a bit of a wash out here in Puerto de la Cruz and lacking a Paddington Bear outfit, I didn’t bother venturing down to the Plaza. But after a damp start, Monday turned bright and sunny and the traditional Monday night party looked good to go.
Tuesday is the Gran Coso Apoteosis (closing) Parade in the capital city of Santa Cruz and so naturally, the entire island is given a Public Holiday in order to attend (this is a very civilised island as far as workers are concerned and Public Holidays are declared at the drop of a sombrero). Consequently, the Monday night street party is usually one of the best.

We’d heard reports of bad weather starting to come in from other parts of the island during the evening; strong winds mainly with some early reports of heavy rain, but here in Puerto de la Cruz we set off to walk the 3km into town at around 11.30pm beneath clear, starry skies in a balmy 21°C, sweating considerably by the time we reached Plaza Charco.

Marge Simpson and her twin sister, out on the town without Homer...d'oh!

Despite fewer numbers than in previous years, the atmosphere was buoyant and the standard of costumes was, if anything, better than ever. Almost entirely absent were the all-in-one Dalmation costumes which have dogged us (ouch!) for many years, particularly amongst the young. There were fewer gangsters too and those that did wear the black trousers, white T shirts and braces, added some excellent facial designs to lift the effect. Pirates were still strongly in evidence but the authenticity of costumes (well, Hollywood style) was very high.
My favourites amongst the rest of the highly original, witty and professional outfits were the N’avi, who looked nothing short of sensational; two Marge Simpsons and Shrek and Fiona – all incredibly authentic looking.

Somewhere around 3am/3.30am – it’s difficult  to be exact, time has a way of skipping continuity at the Carnaval street parties and you can lose entire hours amongst the madness – we noticed that the breeze was starting to pick up. By 4am it had turned into a decent wind, gusting plastic beer cups and debris all around the harbour. The gusts grew stronger and the atmosphere took on a hurricane party feel with groups of revellers climbing onto the wall of Casa Aduana and dancing into its headlong blast.
A male Marilyn Monroe who had spent the entire evening swishing up his dress to reveal his underwear suddenly went into reverse mode as he reproduced the famous ‘Seven Year Itch’ scene to brilliant effect.

The atmosphere took on a distinct 'hurricane party' feel - madness.

At around 4.30am we left the party and headed home. As soon as we moved away from the coast the wind dropped and we were back into sultry, still, clear night that left us once again sweating by the time we reached home. Lengthy make-up removal meant that it was 5.40am before we finally got to bed and at 7am I was woken by the sound of the wind howling around the house and sending debris from the trees smashing against the patio doors.
By 7.30am all was once again still as the grave.

When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed at 10.30am, it was to clear blue skies, unbroken sunshine and barely a flutter of a breeze but reports showed that much of the rest of the island was being lashed by heavy rain and strong winds.

The orange alert remains in place for the foreseeable future; of course it does, it’ll be here as long as Carnaval is.

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Meson California - possibly the best Carnaval street food in the world

Last night was opening night of Carnaval in Puerto de la Cruz and we headed down to the town to catch the Opening Parade which was scheduled to begin around 9pm.

Walking down Calle La Hoya we passed the usual smattering of visitors who’d made some sort of effort to get into the Carnaval spirit; the occasional feather boa slung around the neck, a neon wig or flashing sunglasses. But we were still firmly in ‘civvies’ hours – the fancy dress brigade wouldn’t begin to appear for another 3 hours or more.

On Calle Quintana the first of the food smells assailed our nostrils; the sweet, sticky smell of candy floss being spun and rolled onto a wooden stick and the perfumed almonds roasting brown in their crunchy sugar coating.
Reaching Plaza Charco, the sweet smells were replaced with the unmistakeable smoky aroma of Mesón California, possibly the best street food stall in the entire world.
As much a part of carnival tradition in Puerto de la Cruz as the High Heels Drag Marathon, Mesón California is in effect a huge Guachinche set up every year in pole position between the main stage and the harbour. Kitchen, larder, shop front and restaurant all rolled into one; a dozen men in matching T shirts cook, take orders, serve and clean up in full view of diners. It’s a magnet for foodies, photographers and everyone passing by – all are drawn to its visual, audible and olfactory presence.

Surrounded by tables and chairs with dainty red and white chequered tablecloths, the all-in-one food market takes centre stage, its rafters adorned with hanging strings of salchichas (sausages), chorizos and Jamon Serrano (cured hams).  High stools sit around a counter packed beyond capacity with glass display cabinets filled with tapas and topped with sample dishes from the inexhaustible options of available things to eat. Crates of dishes lie ready to be laden with food, flanked by towers of upturned plastic glasses, condensation covered Dorada hand pumps, loaves of bread the size of small islands, whole cheeses and row upon row of wine and spirits

In the centre of the stall is a long work-station piled high with ready-prepared food; four different types of sausages, morcilla (sweet black pudding), pinchos (kebabs of savoury pork), chips, papas pobres (poor man’s potatoes – a savoury potato, onion and pepper stew topped with fried eggs), fried green peppers, tortillas (Spanish omelettes), calamari Romano (crispy fried squid rings), croquetas (breadcrumb-coated rolls of potato with cheese or cod), chocos (cuttlefish), pork chops, chorizos and sardines.
Along one side of the work-station a small army of cooks prepare dishes for orders taken and shouted from the other side of the bench by two servers who patrol the counter like linesmen at a football match.
Two waiters move between stall and tables shouting and collecting orders from the tables.
It’s a whole carnival in its own right.

The 'tapa catalan' - just a light bite!

We grab two high stools at the counter and immediately the order-taker arrives. We order a couple of beers while my decision-making skills phone for a therapist. The beers arrive, Jack places his order and my brain is still a riot of indecision fuelled by succulent aromas and frenzied by the bewildering choice. I want to order everything. After what seems like a couple of days, I make a decision and the order is snatched from my lips and thrown across the stall.

Within minutes the food arrives. Mine is a huge chunk of bread the size of a doorstop, toasted and spread with savoury garlic and tomato paste (a tapa catalana) and topped with sausages and morcilla. Jack’s is a catalana topped with three fat, sizzling chorizos. A large, fried green pepper sits alongside each catalana, showered in chips. The side order of chips arrives and we think “D’oh!”
I’m pretty sure we make that mistake every year…

As we eat, the Latino band strikes up, vibrating the Plaza with its volume and sending shock waves up through the legs of the stool and into our throats. It’s that carnaval moment when the atmosphere suddenly hits you, a broad grin fixes itself onto your face and the adrenalin starts to pump.
The Opening Parade turns out to be a complete non-event but it doesn’t matter. In a few hours the opening party will get into swing, thousands of people in fancy dress will descend onto the beer kiosks and food stalls like locusts on ecstasy and a week of hedonistic overindulgence will begin.

For tonight our bellies are sated, ready for the party, but we’ll be back to Mesón California; Carnaval street food is just too good to resist.

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There’s a wonderful scene in Master and Commander where Captain Aubrey (Russell Crowe) asks Doctor Maturin (Paul Bettany) which of two biscuit weevils he would chose to survive were he to illustrate Darwin’s theory. After much deliberation, the Doctor chooses the weevil that looks slightly bigger and stronger than the other. Aubrey tells him that clearly his choice is incorrect as one is taught in Naval matters always to choose the lesser of two weevils (lesser of two evils – get it?).
Well Aubrey would do well on Tenerife where that’s precisely the criteria by which most decisions are made.

My life is a constant battle between two diametrically opposed forces. On the one hand I am forced to be as productive as is humanly possible in order to generate enough income to continue to live and work on Tenerife. The opposing force is my Internet signal. I have what is possibly the weakest router ever produced and if someone in Puerto switches a light on, my four green lights turn to red.

T S Eliot wrote: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons”, well I have measured mine out in green lights.
I sit here for what must cumulatively be hours every day staring at the router and willing it to go from red, to one green light, then to two, then to three. Then an interminable wait while it decides, in between filing its nails and plucking its eyebrows, whether to bother getting to four or not. Sometimes it simply can’t be arsed and goes back to red where it plays traffic lights for a while; red, green, red, green, red.

When four green lights finally appear it’s frantic Googling and WordPress posting for as long as the window remains open. Efficient it is not; conducive to creativity it most certainly is not;  extremely frustrating is what it is.
This week has been worse than ever; I can count on one hand the number of hours of uninterrupted Internet access I’ve had so far and yet I’m paying for 24/7 broadband.

Well, enough is enough, it’s time to bite the bullet and move away from Europa Network. Their overseas phone call rates may be excellent but their router belongs in the toilet.

And with whom must I now contract? Telefonica.
The lesser of two weevils.

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I love Puerto de la Cruz, that’s why I live here; it’s like living in Party Town.
As far as I’m concerned it’s got everything – a beautiful beach, glorious weather (occasional winter rain and all-year sun), lush tropical vegetation , a picturesque harbour, great restaurants, plazas, bars and a fiesta or several pretty much every month of the year.

But if you were to ask me to name the town’s Achille’s Heel, it would have to be its hotels, most of which fall well below the standard expected by today’s travellers.

  • Facades are old and tired and very few people now welcome high rise anything, even if it’s nice inside.
  • Décor is at best old fashioned and at worst downright depressing. Even hotels which have recently been refurbished are entirely lacking in any kind of character or charm.
  • Food is at best indifferent and at worst disgraceful. The same goes for service.

I can easily name hotels which I consider to be worthy of their place in Puerto (the Tigaiga Hotel and the Botanico Hotel are two which spring to mind) but the fact that there are few enough for me to name them is a sad indictment of the situation.

pool with a view

Then yesterday I met John Beckley at the Las Aguilas Hotel and was impressed to the point of feeling the need to blog.
I look at this place atop the hill every time I drive to La Villa shopping centre but until yesterday, I’d never actually been up to it and that has proved to be an oversight.

The Las Aguilas oozes quality, charm and character. Its décor is modern and eclectic with stylish features and cosycorners giving the place a very intimate atmosphere. The rooms have beautiful balconies with stunning views over Puerto and the Atlantic; the grounds are simply but immaculately landscaped; the food was delicious, plentiful and excellent value for money and the staff were smiling, friendly and efficient.

If, like me, you’ve never been to the Las Aguilas, check it out; it’s a real find.

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Barranco de Santo, Santa Cruz

We set off down south yesterday at 1.30pm to go to a meeting in Los Cristianos. It had been a drizzly morning in Puerto de la Cruz, nothing particularly spectacular, just showers and the occasional bright interval.

As we drove through Tacoronte the sky looked as if the end of the world was nigh. Nothing unusual there, this is Tacoronte. But as we continued into La Laguna it was really strange to find that we were driving through thick bruma (low cloud), or at least, that’s what we thought it was. The further we drove, the thicker the cloud became and we realised this was actually fog – a real pea-souper of a fog, the kind I haven’t seen for many years.
Traffic crawled through the slip road from the TF5 to the TF1 and gradually the fog lifted.

Passing through Candelaria in steady rain we could see gushing torrents of water cascading over the side of the road bridge and strewn rocks over the hard shoulder where they’d fallen down the cliff sides.

We continued through the rain, commenting on the amount of debris that was filling the hard shoulder and the inside lane of the motorway and realising that there must have been a helluva lot more rain on this side of the island than we had so far witnessed in Puerto.

When we reached Arico the mobile phone went. It was John Beckley, the guy whose office we were heading to for the meeting. John told us that the Cabildo (Island Government) had issued a severe weather warning and were advising people to switch off all their electrical appliances and to avoid all travel. Schools had been closed and the island was on full alert. John advised us to turn back.
We’ve seen storms on Tenerife before and knew that this was sensible advice.

Taking the next exit we headed back up the TF1 towards Santa Cruz. The sky grew progressively blacker and raindrops the size of small swimming pools began to hit the windscreen. I knew we were in for an outburst. Within a minute the heavens opened and torrential rain lashed down onto us obscuring visibility and sending all the traffic into a braking frenzy. We slowed and left a vast distance between us and the car in front, the wipers on top speed trying to keep the windscreen clear. In seconds the surface was covered in water which was spraying up from lorries and a Titsa bus in front of us causing even worse visibility.

As we approached the turn off for the TF5 at Santa Maria the traffic ground to a crawl. Through the driving rain we could hear sirens but couldn’t see anything until they were almost on top of us and we had to pull as far into the side as we could to let Policia Local pass by. We crawled all the way onto the TF5 until past La Laguna when the rain began to lighten a little and we finished our journey without incident.Back in Puerto it had rained, but it was nothing like we’d witnessed on the east side of the island.

Within minutes of returning, the thunder and lightning began and we

Avenida Venezuela, Santa Cruz

unplugged all our appliances and went back to good old fashioned pen and paper to work. But the storm never really came very near us and after a couple of hours we plugged everything back in and turned on the news.
We were horrified to see the devastation in Santa Cruz. By 4 pm the island had been put onto a level 2 alert, more than 25,000 homes were without electricity and almost 130 litres of rain had fallen in a single day. Avenida Venezuela was under water; the trams were swimming; people’s houses were flooded and the Barranco de Santo was a raging torrent.

This may be the island of eternal spring but when the weather hits, it’s a small island in an archipelago which is exposed to Atlantic storms. Thankfully they don’t hit very often but they’re no stranger. In the six plus years that we’ve lived on Tenerife we’ve seen plenty of tropical storms.

Last week the British Guild of Travel Writers was on the island and Tenerife was courting their good impressions. When I spoke to several members they were complaining that the weather in the south had been quite cloudy since they got here and it wasn’t as good as they’d been expecting. They went home on Sunday…phew, that was close!

Photos from La Opinión

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