Thursday, December 3, 2015

Gran Canaria Day 12: The Finale: Burial Mounds and a Small Mound of Fish

“Whilst the wolflets bayed,
A grave was made,
And then with the strokes of a silver spade,
It was filled to make a mound.
And for two cold days and three long nights,
The father tended that holy plot;
And stayed by where his wife was laid, In the grave within the ground.”
Roman Payne, Cities & Countries

The native Canarian burial grounds at Malpeis. Such a beautiful setting beneath the volcanoes. Reminds me of where my dad is buried in Bledsoe County...peace in the valley.

Paul and I visited the northwest coastal city of Agaete about a week ago and were regretful that we did not know it held Europe's only coffee plantation in Valle de Agaete, a few kilometers north of where we visited. We were told the plantation and vineyards closed at 1:30pm. So it was too late to visit that day, but we were determined to come back. And today, we did just that by bus.

We caught a taxi in front of the church in Agaete (the taxis seem to congregate in every town just in front of the main cathedral) and hired the guy to take us to the coffee plantation and the Guanche native Canarian burial ground of Malpeis (it means badlands). The taxi driver was great and he was very proud of his town and his heritage. He was very good to us, just because we showed some interest in something besides the beaches of the Canaries. 

I'm posting this for two fold reasons. 1. This is the taxi we took 2. I had an uncle named Jumpy!

The Malvasia white wine of the plantation. It was really tasty. The wine tastings always include way too much food here.

Paul enjoys the rose.

Although Paul says the coffee tasting was great, we were never offered the opportunity to see the actual plantation. :(
The tasting was nice. We could see the vineyards on the drive up, but if anyone is hoping to go there and get the full tour of the coffee plantation, we never figured out how to make it happen. My advice: skip it. We are told there is another coffee plantation nearby that does offer an actual glance at the coffee plants, so with some research, that might be worthwhile. It was nice to taste the wines, so it wasn't a total bust, but it wasn't what we hoped either. 

The small chapel of the plantation.Yes, we prayed for that certain house to sell.
From here we proceeded to the highlight of the trip: Malpeis. This is a burial ground of the native Guanche and many of the tombs were up to 1300 years old.
The volcanic field of tombs covers several acres

The tombs were mounded stones around the bodies. You can see a round one at the middle left section of the photo, but there were numerous shapes.

Bones in the bottom of the tomb.
Ancient Berber Canarians buried most of the dead in caves, but this large necropolis is in a field of volcanic stone.  The bodies were wrapped in jute or leather or both, bound and then a vault of stone was formed around it. Above it, multiple layers of stone were laid, often is a circular pattern. However, there were other patterns as well. Some circular graves had a capital as well. Often graves contained multiple bodies. It is estimated that there were 700 bodies in this stone volcanic yard between the volcanic peaks.  Due to weather, insects and reptiles, these bodies were not mummified like the ones we saw in Museo Canario a few days back, but deteriorated. Some did contain long bones in decay.  The park itself is very impressive with many signs printed in English, Spanish and German to help you understand the sophisticated burial practices. Interestingly, early Spanish visitors stated that anyone who handled dead bodies, animal or human, were actually living on the outskirts of the community and somewhat ostracized. From a health standpoint, this actually makes quite a bit of sense, but it is a little sad as well. Eight bodies were found just outside the walls of this cemetery. It is not known why they were not buried within the entombments. Overall, though,  a really interesting visit. Not quite the pyramids of Giza, but a great anthropological find and well worth a visit.  We are glad we went back to see it.

From there it was lunch at the beach in Puerto de Nieves, back to the bus, and a rest in the hotel before dinner.

Food porn alert. We ate again at Hotel Santa Catalina at La Terraza. The chef here is very innovative and a lot different than most of his Canarian peers. This is probably the only "fine dining" experience we had, although all the food has been tasty.

Stuffed mushroom amus bouche

My hake entree

Paul's fish prepared in the Thai manner

Hot fudge sundaes bring a smile

The lobby of Hotel Santa Catalina. It's beginning to look alot like Christmas!

We have had a wonderful vacation here. We have seen mountains, beaches, valleys, big rocks, big sand dunes, nice hotels, nice people...the works. Gran Canaria has it all!


In this high field strewn with stones
I walk by a green mound,
Its edges sheared by the plough.
Crumbs of animal bone
Lie smashed and scattered round
Under the clover leaves
And slivers of flint seem to grow
Like white leaves among green.
In the wind, the chestnut heaves
Where a man's grave has been.

Whatever the barrow held
Once, has been taken away:
A hollow of nettles and dock
Lies at the centre, filled
With rain from a sky so grey
It reflects nothing at all.
I poke in the crumbled rock
For something they left behind
But after that funeral
There is nothing at all to find.

On the map in front of me
The gothic letters pick out
Dozens of tombs like this,
Breached, plundered, left empty,
No fragments littered about
Of a dead and buried race
In the margins of histories.
No fragments: these splintered bones
Construct no human face,
These stones are simply stones.

In museums their urns lie
Behind glass, and their shaped flints
Are labelled like butterflies.
All that they did was die,
And all that has happened since
Means nothing to this place.
Above long clouds, the skies
Turn to a brilliant red
And show in the water's face
One living, and not these dead."

— Anthony Thwaite, from The Owl In The Tree” 

Paul's Ponderings:  Our sojourn here is nearly over and we've had a great time.   We feel like we've really seen the island from all angles.   The burial ground today was pretty stunning and the pictures don't do the setting or the historical context justice.   It is quite stunning and unique.   I can't say I've seen anything quite like it anywhere I've visited over the has a slightly out of this world character in a dramatic setting.   

We followed that with a return to La Terraza to eat....of the places we've been here, it is by far the best, followed by Allende, Astoria, and Rio Minos in terms of interest in my view.   With respect to wines, we've not had a bad one....the "Crater" red we had both nights at La Terraza is oustanding.   Everything else is quite good and rivals quality tinto and blanco wines from other parts of the globe.   Too bad we can't get these at home.  We are managing to bring back nearly a case in our checked luggage (including some for you, Roy King, if you are reading this entry).   

I would highly recommend this island if you get the chance.   As our hiking guide Bert said, it has it all....mountains, sea, city, history, food, wine, etc.   And it is very affordable once you are here.   We hope to return to visit the other islands in coming years.  Todo esta bien....

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gran Canaria Day 11: Dunes and Moons, So to Speak

Maspalomas Sand Dune Natural Area: 
A couple of days back, Paul and I were headed to the Maspalomas Sand Dune Park when we found out we were there on the wrong day for the tour. Last evening, one of us was not feeling all that well (you guess who it is!) and we decided riding around in a bumpy 4X4 might not be a wise choice. But we still wanted to see this 1000 acre sand dune park in the southernmost stretch of Gran Canaria. We heard the dunes are really spectacular and with the deep blue ocean contrasting behind it, made a lovely place to walk and enjoy nature. So we caught the #30 bus right outside our hotel and off we went for a "tamer" version of travel...transportation wise. Not necessarily a tame location however!

We were aware that Gran Canaria is a popular destination for gay travel, but we didn't know why--other than it is sunny and warm most of the time. And like most of Europe, there are some naturalist beaches. But it is much more than that, it seems, for us prudish white people from America.

To access the dune park, you basically walk through the lobby of the hotel Riu and out to the dunes. There is a visitor center as you reach the dunes, but the hours are not regular and the helpfulness factor is basically zero. That said, the initial sight is lovely.

A fully clothed white North American tourist prepares unknowingly to enter the world of dunes and "moons."
We were forewarned by our guidebook that a stroll through the dunes might include an encounter with a partially or fully unclothed European. Of course, I see naked people all the time, so this was not a big issue. But here, I saw naked people everywhere! The beach was expected. Also, not an issue, but not expecting that many naked folks walking or standing around on dunes. Apparently, I did not really understand the hierarchy and process in the dunes.

Yep, naked people are walking around pretty much all over the dunes.
After we left today, I looked up the dunes from a non-scientific viewpoint to see what this was all about. The dunes are a "cruising" beach. There are many sections, dependent on your persuasion. There is a young gay section, a mixed gay section, a  middle aged gay section and even an old codger or shall we say "mature" area. After making the walk from the beginning of the dunes to the lighthouse, it seems to me it is basically divided up by the distance between your testicles and the sand. The mature section definitely had a higher heft and hairiness count. The area with mature men is called the thornbush. We literally saw men just standing around advertising the wares. There was also a section called "P hill" for swinging couples. We did not see anyone in corpus delecti, mind you, but reading about it, it is okay if you watch. We didn't stand around much--just kept trucking through the couple of miles of dunes out to the beach. This a culture  I knew existed, but haven't been in the middle of before.  Frankly, it is so hot amongst these dunes, I cannot understand why the beach isn't a better alternative. There are cops on patrol in the dunes, but only to keep "distracted" sun worshippers from having their belongings stolen during periods of "inattention."

The shrubby "thornbush" area. Not sure why this would appeal to a naked person, but whatever.
We did conclude our educational experience by going to the non-nude beach (because I just wouldn't subject my fellow humans to it), and getting a gander at the lighthouse...which now seems much more like a giant phallic symbol than anything else.

Faro Maspalomas 
We did spend an hour or so sunbathing on the beach and reading books which was quite delightful. We didn't want to go home from the Canary Islands and have anyone find out we never went to a beach. Peer pressure.
Sunbathing Paul Parris style
From here, it was just hanging out at the hotel and then off to dinner at a place we are told is highly rated by the locals, Allende.It's more or less a high end snack/tapas place. Food porn alert!
Allende interior

Three hummus platter

A lovely temperanillo

Carpaccio with mushrooms and arugula

A man who is serious about hamburgers...eating them with a fork! He did this exact same thing a year ago in Oregon and I took a photo of that too. Isn't there some saying about those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it?  :)

Torta Allende. A serious chocolate bomb!
The meal was really nice and a great end to a very educational day. Gotta love it!

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon.

Paul's Ponderings:   A late start due to yours truly not feeling well late last night, but an interesting day nonetheless.   We bussed our way over to Maspalomas/Playa Ingles and strolled about the dunes a bit as noted above.   We don't have that experience at home as they say....but it's all good.   I'll say that if you are hanging around out there naked, you need a lot of sun protectant.    Very warm and very sunny and hot.

After that, a low key day hanging around on the beach ourselves followed by dinner at Allende, which was pretty darn good and near the gin bar we have found a few blocks from the hotel.

Gran Canaria Day 10: Wine and Dine are Mighty Fine

Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.”
Paulo Coelho, Brida

Bodega Las Tirajanas in Gran Canaria near St. Bartholeme
Today started with the alarm clock...but not until 8:30AM. A late start here in Gran Canaria! At 9 am, we met a local tour guide named Mase who specializes in "handmade tours," the name of her private business. It's even on her car!

Mase is a native Gran Canarian who has spent some time out of the island, is vivacious, good humored and loves showing people Gran Canaria. And she will custom make a tour dependent on your interests. Someone in our group who will remain unmentioned has affection for wines, so Mase took us on a gastronomy tour of St. Lucia and St. Bartholeme, two small hamlets, tucked prettily away in the mountains.  We were happy to go, since we have circumnavigated the entire island, but missed a couple of interior locations, and these two towns were new to us.

En route to vineyards. The lower peak at the middle left is called Forteleza. It has a tragic story.
On the way there, Mase took us to the viewpoint to Forteleza which is seen behind this photo of Paul and I and to the immediate left. This is the site where a large number of native Berber Canarians gathered in the 1500s. At that time, Spain had essentially "captured" Gran Canaria. In a maneuver somewhat reminiscent of some of today's religious fervor, the natives were asked to surrender, accept the Spanish crown and convert to Catholicism...or be sold as slaves and exported. A group escaped to the peak seen called Forteleza and opted to throw themselves off rather than submit to the Spaniards.  Not a happy ending. It is considered the "last battle" that Spain "fought" with the Canarians whose only weaponry were sticks and stones.

After that happy little wakeup story, Mase took us to the village of St. Lucia for breakfast.

Pumpkin and sphagetti squash empanadas and the special St. Lucia sugar cookie
The town of St. Lucia is very quaint and apparently it is where local Canarians come on the weekends to get away from the city and the beach. It's set high in the mountains and is near the vineyards of La Tirajana, the winery we were visiting.
The vineyards. Olive trees surround them.

Juan the caretaker of the vineyards and fields of white grape.

The vineyards were reached after a bumpy ride down a road I wasn't even sure anyone should drive on. Interesting things about Gran Canaria wines. 1. There is only one denominacion de origin (D.O.) for all of Gran Canaria. 2. White grapes are grown in the South of the island and red in the North predominantly. 3. The soil is volcanic . 4. Most of the varieties grown, such as bermejo, malvasia volcanica, etc are unique to the islands. 5. The wineries were established in the 1500s. 6. Only Gran Canaria and Chile have actual original root stock with non-grafted vines, because in the 18th century nearly all world wide wine stores were knocked out by the phlox plague obliterating the crops of Europe.  Gran Canaria exported wine at that time (it does almost none of that now), and even William Shakespeare wrote about Canarian wine. 6. Almost none of the Canaries wine is (a) stored in oak barrels for more than 6 months (i.e, no crianzas,etc.), (b) nonorganic (c) exported or (d) drunk more than a day after it is purchased.
The bodega of La Tijaranas built into a local cave

Their "red selections"--a rose, and three malvasia volcanicas, all of which are barreled for different lengths of time.

The whites. They even have a semisweet and a dessert selection

What comes with a wine tasting. Too much food, but it's a gastronomy tour. The olive oil was great too. It is a local product.
From the vineyard, we progressed back out the rocky narrow road to the bodega built into a local cave and a nice 60 degrees or so at most times. Their wine tasting was quite elaborate with many local foods. We did meet the winemaker, Uve, who is German. We were very impressed with their wines and the tastes. Much better overall than we were expecting, since Canarian wines are really not something we can access in the US.

From here, we took a glance at the largest remaining palm forest in Gran Canaria, which admittedly isn't very big. We are not sure what the fate of the other palm forests were.
Gran Canaria's last palm "forest"
Then it was off to a big lunch in a small town--a sampler plate of cheese, fava bean soup, goat, lamb and black footed pig slow roasted in salt.

The appetizers included goat cheese purses in prickly pear jam and tomatoes with oceanic snails.
It was really a nice sampling, but we were getting really full, even though we didn't come close to finishing a single sample.  While we were up high we noticed a haze which Mase told us was sand off the Sahara desert. The satellite photos of this weather process were really amazing.

The haze in the distance is sand from the Sahara desert.
Overall, it was a really nice tour and we enjoyed experiencing the local wines and cuisine...although it was too much food and wine.  If you are in Gran Canaria, we highly recommend touring with Mase and Handmade Tours. She is a local gem who makes the island sparkle.

From there we were off to dinner at a "fancy restaurant" of Castillian cuisine called Ribero de Rio Mino. We believe we crossed this river during our St. James Way hike. The chef is from there and imports many of the ingredients. More food porn ahead...

Canarian gin and tonic. It's a craze here, although they said vodka is becoming the "it" spirit!

Simple and delicious avocado and shrimp salad


Reflections of empty glassware on the table.
I am sure that despite attempts NOT to eat/drink heavily, Paul and I probably both gained a pound today. A special unintended gift, but that shouldn't surprise anyone.

“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”
John Keats

Paul's Ponderings:  We had a full dance card today, with our trip out to the vineyard, some sightseeing, lunch, and more.   The wines here are quite interesting and in general pretty good.   We've had more reds than whites, but we had a particularly good red with dinner last night called "Crater" from Tenerife.    Since Canarian wine is pretty much unavailable in the US and really even in Europe, we are going to take back a case or so to enjoy at home.   The D.O. of Gran Canaria appears to mainly produce for local consumption.   For sure, you would not see vineyards like this at home...very rough and inaccessible to reach.   The actual barrel room and tasting area was similar to what you would see in the US.   

The haze was pretty weird yesterday....did not realize it was Saharan in origin, it seemed like normal overcast until our guide told us about it.   You won't see that at home as they say, but such is island life I suppose.  

The good news is that with the visit to a more central area on the island, we truly have done Gran Canaria justice as far as seeing the towns, mountains, coasts, etc, all around the entire space in nearly two weeks.   It has been a great experience.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gran Canaria Day 9: False Start, Perfect Ending

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Alan Bennett, The History Boys

8th century native Canarian carving
This morning, we rose literally in the dark and made our way to the intercity bus terminal. Destination: Playa de Ingles, the super touristy beach town overrun we are told by Germans, Scandanavians and UK folks escaping the cold of their native lands. Who can blame them? Guilty as charged!

Reason for going: There are some nice sandy beaches, theoretically the warmest year round in "Europe." But also there are some high sand dunes that apparently make for a lovely landscape. We were going for reason #2.
Did we make it? Yes. Did we see them? No.
Seems someone who will remained unnamed (like me, for example) did not read the final date on the final booking. Sigh. 
Choice: Stay and enjoy the Daytona beach in the middle of spring break atmosphere vs. go somewhere else...anywhere else.

So despite an early departure from Las Palmas, we got back on the bus and came to Las Palmas to visit two of the three museums we had earmarked to tackle during our time here. We had already seen the Museum of Modern Art, so that left Casa Colon (No, not a  giant version of your large intestine that you can actually walk through. Disturbly,  that also exists, but in the Canaries.) Casa Colon, ala Las Palmas,  is the governor's house which was present in 1492 when Christopher Columbus stopped in Gran Canaria. He is thought to have visited in the house and asked for help with final provisioning of the ships and also to repair the Nina, which had a broken rudder.  The governor himself, Juan Rejon, had been in command of the fortlike center city dwelling since 1478.  The Canaries were a frequent stop for ships after the discovery of the New World, because they are pretty much the last stop before the Caribbean on the trade winds. The Azores are out there, but they are more northerly and along different currents. Modern day Las Palmas has turned the house into something of an homage to Columbus and his voyages.

Entry to Casa Colon

A replica of the Admiral Columbus's quarters on the Santa Maria. Unlike the sailors who slept on the boards of the deck or below during inclement weather, Chris had a small room with a bed, desk and chair.

One of four open courtyards in Casa Colon.
The museum gave some perspective to the world in which Columbus launched from complete with incomplete world maps, beliefs about world flatness, an idea of the skimpy navigation equipment available, and some idea of how the Canaries were instrumental in making that trip a success. The ships would stop and equip themselves with fruit, potable water, hard tack, fat, and they would include cured meats and livestock, as they couldn't reliably get meat onboard.  All four of Columbus's voyages are well mapped out for one to marvel. As we recall from our grade school lessons, Columbus was trying to reach India and find a new way there for spices. The Ottoman Empire essentially controlled the spice trade at that point in history and the Spanish royalty was looking for a path AROUND the rulers of Turkey.  Columbus was a pretty ingenious guy, reaching the New World in a little over 6 weeks. Sure, the sailors grumbled and there was talk of a mutiny, but he prevailed. Without any modern navigational equipment.  He managed not to lose any of his sailors, however, which gives you some clue as to his experience as a captain and seaman. But also, he was stubborn. In some ways, this helped his cause. In others, it did not. Columbus died an embittered man in the Spanish city of Valladoid at age 55 still refusing to believe his discovery was anything other than India. His corpse has been exhumed and reinterred multiple times, but is now in Seville.

Paul enjoys a topographic map of Gran Canaria, one of many maps throughout the museum.
There were numerous exhibits pertaining to the New World, and even one section of the museum dedicated to the treatment of natives of the Caribbean. Although the Europeans virtually wiped them out, they did eventually grant them a bill of rights of sorts via Spain. I am not sure they have much to brag about overall regarding their treatment, but the same could be said for most "exploring nations." At least the Vikings never pretended they were being "fair."

There were also exhibits regarding the Spanish immigrants to and from  the Canaries. Initially, the locals in the Canaries were forbidden to leave to seek fame/fortune/whatever in the New World. Later, they were forced to emigrate to the New World, including to various US places such as Florida, Texas and Louisiana. At one point, it was decreed that for every 100 tons of provisions leaving the Canary Islands, five Canarian families were required to accompany them. And we complain about the government now! Apparently, immigration laws have been a sore spot for centuries.

We truly enjoyed this museum. They did not try to glorify Cristofori Colon, but they did point out some of his achievements, which were amazing for his time.

Paul threatened mutiny if I did not buy him a pizza between museums.

From this museum, we spent a while wandering about searching for pizza per Paul. We did eventually find it and it was tasty. We love the super thin crusts and skinny cuts of jamon iberico. We then strolled over to the Cathedral Santa Ana which was unfortunately closed. It is the "biggie" in town. We were lucky to have caught a glance inside during mass on Sunday. Our next goal was Museo Canario, a museum dedicated prinicipally to the original Berber inhabitants. This museum displayed many artifacts from the 20+ settlements about the island. The means of livelihood of the different settlements varied, as does the geography and microclimates of this small island. Some were farmers, others hunter/gatherers and most were along the coast and subsisted on fishing and some agriculture. There were an estimated 20,000 or so people living here when the Spanish arrived to "settle" it.

A replica of cave dwellings inhabited by the Guanaches. We walked past some on our hikes. There are numerous ones that are still in use by modern Canarians.

Ceramic ware. There were many items of this ilk, some beautifully decorated and suitable for use today.

They believe this to be a female fertility idol. There are many such artifacts in this shape found all over the Canaries. This emblem is ubiquitous in the form of replicas, Tshirts, postcards, and everything else known to man in souvenir shops.

Ancient porno??? This figure is fairly large, about 3 feet high and the female genitalia, which I intentionally pictured at an obtuse angle are quite graphic and carved from wood. Hugh Hefner would have fit right into the 9th century!

This room contained excavated skulls. There were hundred in this room as well as the mummies you see in the cases to the left. They were very good at mummification and placed many in caves, which help for preservation. They wrapped them in animal leathers and jute.

A case of skulls. We were fascinated by their teetch. Most had quite a few gone, but the top shelf third from the left had nearly a full set and we saw that sporadically.

Some of the bodies were buried in what amounts to a casket carved out of a log.

An attestation to their mummification abilities is this skull which still has intact skin on the nose and eye socket, despite most likely being from the year 900AD

We were very impressed with the mummies. They were often buried in caves and this helped to preserve them.
A replica of a funerary cave with real skeletons. The museum had this in the dark and you had to push a button to get the light to turn on for a few seconds. I have to admit it was somewhat eerie.
This museum is a must for visitors here who are history buff, anthropology lovers...or if you are nuts for Halloween. You will definitely get the creeps after hanging around with so many dead ancient Canarians who have been snatched from their graves.

From here, it was a long walk back to the beach area near our hotel, and a gelato. We figured we deserved it after about 10 miles of padding about. Here is the beach view.

Overweight Europeans in bikinis and speedos! Cracks exposed!
From here, we were off to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Asturia. This has, no surprise, Asturian cuisine. We ordered seafood paella. The ordering was funny because we asked for fava bean stew as an appetizer, then seafood paella. The waiter said, "No. If you order paella, you can only have paella. It takes an hour to make and if you eat the stew, you cannot eat the whole paella."  This was hysterical, but good advice.
Restaurant Asturia. Not fancy but very good food.

Seafood paella Asturia style
The seafood paella was delicious and absolutely worth the one hour wait. I don't know how they made the stock, but it was outstanding. Also, as you see this is a deep cast iron pot and not the usual this metal pan. It was also brothy as opposed to the usual dry and stuck to the pan versions we saw in Madrid.

By the way, the waiter refused to offer us dessert.  :)

Overall, a very good day with an unnecessary trip to Playa de Ingles, but all's well that ends well.

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
Michael Crichton

Paul's Ponderings:   A bit of a bust to start the day due to the problem with the dune ride schedule, but at least we completed our circumvention of the island of Gran Canaria!   Not quite a Columbus-like outcome, but we'll take a small victory!

The visit to the other museums was great and we had a sunny and hot walk back to our hotel to end up about 10 miles of walking for the day.   

The paella was a real treat and quite different than anything we are used to....certainly it's not like the paella we had in Madrid three months ago (see previous blog entries).   It was accompanied by a lovely white wine from Lanzarote, our first Canarian white wine of the trip.