A couple of weeks ago The Times Online picked up on a survey by the online travel agent sunshine.co.uk which stated that Brits were shunning Spain because it no longer felt ‘foreign’ enough and last week I posed the question ‘How far do you have to travel before you feel ‘foreign’?
Oddly enough, barely had that question left my keyboard when I found myself on the end of a commission that required me to travel to the capital city of Las Palmas on the neighbouring island of Gran Canaria, and I’m ashamed to say that this was my first visit there.
Sitting on the BinterCanarias inter-island plane as we skipped across the small gap that separates the islands, I tried to analyze why it was that, in over six years of living and working in the Canary Islands, I had become so familiar with the Western Isles and yet remained a virtual stranger to the eastern island of Gran Canaria.
There has always been rivalry between the Eastern and the Western Canary Islands. Tenerife, once capital city to the entire archipelago, now heads up the four Western Isles while Las Palmas de Gran Canaria heads up the Eastern Isles of Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuertaventura. The Cabildo (Island Government) may divide its time and its residence equally between the two cities but there, the sharing ends. In terms of their populations, the 62km between them might just as well be 6,000km and for the fans of their rival football teams, that still wouldn’t be far enough.
So it seems that on some sub-conscious level, I’ve been sucked into this inherent division, always looking to the west and never to the east. Until last week.
The journey was so short that it didn’t feel as if I’d left Tenerife at all and yet, when I landed in Las Palmas, I felt I’d arrived in a foreign city.
The first thing that struck me was the shabbiness of its airport which was in stark contrast to the style and elegance of Tenerife’s North Airport. Even as the bus pulled out of the airport, the landscape was barren and unwelcoming. As first impressions go, this wasn’t a good one.
But by the time we reached the city, my impressions had been turned around.
The first thing that struck me was the vibrant yet laid back atmosphere and its multi-cultural and predominantly younger, more Bohemian population than the more business-oriented Santa Cruz.
Next came the diversity of snack bars, restaurants and shops. To me, it seemed like there was a reverse ratio of traditional Canarian cuisine to International menus with its neighbouring capital. Here, I could see a proliferation of Japanese, Italian, French, Belgian, Venezuelan, Cuban restaurants and many, many more interspersed with a smattering of traditional restaurants.
The sounds were different too. Instead of every doorway emitting Latino sounds, Jazz, Blues, Classical, Rock and even Indie joined the Latino ranks.
In the old quarter of Vegueta I found a city older than its years with more beautiful architecture crammed into one small space than I’ve seen in much of Santa Cruz. A maze of narrow cobbled streets lined with tall, grand houses spiral out from the Santa Ana Cathedral concealing hidden gems of boutiques and jewellery shops and joining leafy plazas like dot to dots.
But it wasn’t until I reached the 9km golden stretch of Playa de Las Canteras that I got a real feel for this exciting city as there, shimmering in the heat haze was Las Palmas’ pulsating urban beach. Like a mini-Copacabana, the sand thronged with city dwellers and workers enjoying the warm winter sun while behind them, the endless promenade buzzed with café life.
It seems to me that Playa de Las Canteras is one of the main factors that make Las Palmas feel so very different from Santa Cruz. The presence of a beach within the city itself gives the place an entirely different ambience; a place which blends work, relaxation and tourism in a way that’s not possible in Santa Cruz.
And it makes this city neighbour of mine feel very foreign indeed – a feeling I intend to rectify, even if my fellow Tinerfeños cast me as a traitor!