Myths, Monoliths and Markets

The Gran Canaria coast is at once majestic, destructive, soothing and deliciously appealing, but venture to the island’s interior and you’ll find another world away from the sea, sun and sand, says Ross Clarke.

‘As islands go, this is not large, and the tremendous variety of scenery in Gran Canaria, and the extraordinary ferocity of so much of the landscape are, therefore, all the more remarkable’ or so says Elizabeth Nicholas in her 1958 book Madeira and the Canaries.

She’s right, of course. Many people know the famous dunes of Maspalomas – beaches and sand often go hand in hand with descriptions of this little piece of paradise (and rightly so) – but have never heard of Roque Bentayga, chorizo de Teror or Negramoll red wine. It’s the reason I’m here in the Atlantic archipelago for a few days – to explore the interior of the island and learn about its views, vines and volcanoes.

Elizabeth Nicholas’s description is still ringing in my head as I’m met by my guide for my trek into the mountains. Guillermo looks a bit like a park ranger dressed head to toe in khaki and olive-green hiking gear – and in some ways he is.

A naturalist with a degree in environmental science and (as I learn) an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds, butterflies and blooms, he echoes familiar thoughts as we begin our long, winding drive to the island’s sunken centre. ‘It’s a bit cliché, but it’s true when people describe it as a miniature continent.’ Gran Canaria is about 15 million years old, but its current volcanic landscape was created by multiple eruptions over millennia, the last of which was some 2,000 years ago.

‘The south is arid and hot, reminiscent of Saharan Africa; there are lush parts such as the valleys and ravine floors of Fataga and Agaete, and a lot of the north coast.’ He explains that it’s to do with the trade winds, the clouds of which get stuck on the high volcanic ridges.

‘It’s a collapsed volcanic crater,’ says Guillermo, who, without taking pause for breath, interrupts himself to point out plain swifts and Canary birds (which are in fact a sort of lime colour), ‘and is pretty much the centre of the island.’ The giant eruption here was so quick and explosive that it destroyed itself.

We’ve picked a great day weather-wise and as we drive higher, we catch glimpses of El Teide volcano on neighbouring Tenerife, Spain’s highest peak. It’s almost inconceivable that the cone of the crater we’re skirting could have been as tall as Teide.

‘Where exactly are we going?’ I ask as we wind up precariously narrow roads that cling to the mountainsides. ‘Roque Bentayga. Have you ever been?’ asks Guillermo. I admit that I haven’t. Even when I lived here many years ago, I never managed to tick this soaring monolith off my list.

With each hairpin turn we climb a little higher and the views get more impressive. Gently swaying Canarian palms are replaced by sturdy and fragrant pines, vibrant poppies and bright (Canary) yellow broom. It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this mountain and ravine landscape that’s been forged by fire and unsympathetically carved by water and wind.

Unsurprisingly, the whole landscape has protected Unesco status: El Paisaje Cultural de Risco Caído y las Montañas Sagradas de Gran Canaria – the Cultural Landscape of Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria. And they do give a certain scared majesty and awe as I look up, down and as far into the distance as I can and am greeted by undulations of reddish-brown rocks peppered with sage-green foliage. It’s easy to see why these peaks were revered by the island’s original inhabitants.

Roque Bentayga was one of the main settlements of Gran Canaria’s indigenous peoples. They were cave-dwelling people and from across the caldera (crater) Guillermo points out the cave openings carved into the cliffs. ‘It was one of the biggest settlements and there is evidence showing dwellings, burial chambers and grain stores.

Roque Bentayga was in some ways their last stronghold. A natural fortress.’ Rising up out of the centre of the crater on a sort of pedestal, it wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy-tale or a Tolkien-inspired fantasy film.

It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this mountain and ravine landscape that’s been forged by fire and unsympathetically carved by water and wind.

We climb the rocky path on foot and Guillermo points out a nearby plateau that was likely used for growing grains and cereals, and the Roque Nublo in all its grandeur. Standing at nearly 262ft tall, with its top point at 5,948ft above sea level, it seems to reach up into the sky. ‘Don’t just look up and out,’ says Guillermo as we reach the summit. ‘Look at the floor here. It’s been levelled out and there are the markings and holes where perhaps there would have been wooden poles.’

I ask what this sort of key-shaped carving means. ‘The truth is that no one really knows. It could have been for defensive purposes and held some sort of weapon, it could have been ritual or spiritual, a sort of altar…’ Guillermo trails off. ‘That’s the mystery and what makes all of this landscape so interesting. There are still many unknowns. But what I will say is that at a certain point, the sun perfectly aligns with the rocks and projects light right here where we’re standing.’ It’s not the only place this happens.

Guillermo knows of at least five sites where on the solstices the light enters a tomb, illuminates a particular carving and structure or even tells the story of fertility – as is the case of the Risco Caído cave. It’s not unfathomable to believe that the original inhabitants had a particular connection to the sun, moon and heavens; these sacred monoliths reaching up and projecting them closer to a higher being.

It’s market day in Teror, and the normally rather quiet town in the northeast of the island is awash with people. The stalls are set up around the imposing church Basílica a la Virgen del Pino that’s dedicated to the island’s patron saint, and sell everything from miniature statues of the Virgin to bright bougainvillea plants.

I’m in search of many things but mainly I’ve come for the chorizo. It’s not like a solid sausage, but rather a spreadable paste made with pork, garlic, spices and paprika, which helps give it its shockingly orange colour. It has a deep, rich meaty flavour and contains the right amount of natural fats to melt satisfyingly on the tongue.

Every stall seems to have some in either its traditional string-of-sausages form or is selling bocadillos (rolls) spread thickly with the unctuous pate and paired with soft, white queso tierno (fresh cheese). I snap up a roll and instantly devour it as the bright sunshine radiates off the traditional Canarian buildings that surround the square.

There are lots of cheeses on offer too, many from nearby Valsequillo and Guía, ranging from fresh to crumbly cured varieties, their rind often rubbed with pimentón or gofio (a toasted flour that’s possibly the most Canarian foodstuff you’ll find).

If you say something in local dialect, people will often tell you that you’re ‘más canario que el gofio’ – more Canarian than gofio. I also bag Canarian black pudding. It’s different to what you might know, as it contains warm spices and nuts that makes it taste like Christmas when fried in slices, or baked whole in the oven or over the wood-fired grill.

Suitably stuffed with savoury goodness, my eyes and mind turn towards pastries, which are plentiful and varied. The towns around the north are particularly known for their sweet treats, possibly because of the proliferation of almond trees that grow in these parts.

Truchas de batata (sweet potato pasties) sit alongside bizcocho de Moya (a crunchy, light, dry biscuit laced with lemon and sugar), various queques (this comes from the English word ‘cake’ and is a remnant of the British influence on the island back in the late 1800s) and bollos (fried crunchy rings of dough often flavoured with matalauva – aniseed), and my favourite, pan de huevo (a soft, sweet bread that tastes a bit like a Chelsea or hot cross bun but without the dried fruit, and covered in crunchy sugar).

I’m not sure I need lunch, but I can’t resist popping into one of the local restaurants thronging with jovial diners to get my fill of beloved Canarian classics such as gofio escaldón – the aforementioned toasted flour mixed with potent fish stock and served with mint and red onion ‘spoons’ for scooping the umami mix into your mouth.

Most of the restaurants around here are family-run affairs and have always had a zero-mile food ethos, as they’ve never needed to go far for fresh ingredients. That microclimate comes in handy for growing pretty much anything – from tropical fruits to coffee. Time for a siesta, I think.

If yesterday were about food, today is all about drink and my guide is Maria, who greets me with a ‘You’re a lot younger than I thought you’d be’. I reassure her that I’m plenty old enough to enjoy the wine we’ll be sampling. We’re heading to Bandama in the northeast where there’s a giant volcanic crater but also several vineyards.

As we drive, Maria explains that Canary Island wine used to be famous across the world, especially in the UK. Shakespeare even mentions it in Twelfth Night: ‘Thou lack’st a cup of canary!’ The wine then was likely more fortified than present day, but thankfully the Canaries are reclaiming their status using native grape varieties and the incredibly fertile volcanic soil to produce some standout wines – even Spanish footballer and Canarian native David Silva has got in on the act, with his vineyard Bodegas Tamerán.

We won’t be seeing David today though as we’re off to one of the oldest wineries on the island, Bodega San Juan, which was founded in 1912. It forms part of the new Ruta del Vino de Gran Canaria – a self-guided wine route encompassing wineries, restaurants and more.

It’s a grand estate and we enter through a large, pillared gateway. ‘We’ll jump out here,’ Maria says, ‘it’s a great walk.’ She not lying: the tree-lined drive is grand and impressive. The vineyard also has a small wine museum and we see implements of yore (wine presses, bottles etc) perfectly preserved in their wonderfully well-used state.

The vineyard is naturally organic, planted with wildflowers between the rows of vines to distract insects from the grapes, and everything is harvested by hand. After a history lesson, it’s time for a tasting and we take our seats on the patio terrace next to the red-washed buildings that were apparently inspired by the British.

The bright cherry-coloured wine glugs into the bulbous glasses in a considerable measure. It’s a blend of Negramoll and Listán Negro grapes and is fresh and fruity, with red-berry flavours and just a hint of the volcano. It slips down rather easily, but I daren’t have another as the alcohol level is about to take an upward turn as we jump back in the car and head north to Arucas – a rather grand looking town with a mighty Gothic-style church.

Arucas once had huge wealth due to the 19th-century cochineal industry. Gran Canaria was the ideal environment for the little cochineal bugs and the islands bet their lives and livelihoods on it. Sadly, artificial dyes put paid to the lucrative trade. But another product was also grown here – sugar cane. It’s said that Columbus took the cane with him to the Caribbean, and the rum tradition was born. However, I’m here to learn about what happens to the sugar still grown in these parts at the Arehucas rum distillery.

The bright cherry-coloured wine glugs into the bulbous glasses in a considerable measure

The distillery opened in 1884, and has been producing the famous ron (rum) ever since. These days, they also make a range of liqueurs and spirits but the rum is what brings up to 95,000 visitors here every year. There’s a little tour to show you the process and I’m lucky to be here in sugar-cane harvest time (March to May) to see the long spindly canes get crushed and extracted of their precious juice.

With one of the biggest and oldest rum cellars in Europe, there are barrels signed by famous names stretching back decades (as a proud Welshman, I’m delighted to see Sir Tom Jones has been here). At the tasting rooms housed in the former on-site home of the founder, I’m offered multiple measures of the warming, dark amber liquid. ¡Salud!

Watching the sun set over the banana plantations that surround my hotel, a glass of slightly chilled tinto – this time from Bodegas Bentayga – in my hand, my mind comes back to those words by Elizabeth Nicholas.

Flicking through the images on my camera from the last few days – of vertiginous precipices, gargantuan ravines, heaven-scratching nature-made sculptures, and passion-filled products made with the best of the land and ancestral know-how – it strikes me that this island, particularly its interior, is both tremendous and remarkable in gloriously generous equal (Canarian) measure.

Need to know

Getting there: Flights from all over the world arrive into the island’s only airport (LPA). There are also ferries from Cadíz and Huelva in mainland Spain to Las Palmas port.

Best time to go: Anytime: Las Palmas de Gran Canaria claimed the title of the city with the best climate in the world for many years thanks to its year-round temperate climate, though be aware that summer temperatures can soar.

Currency: Euro

Time zone: GMT

Food: Canarian cuisine is a bit of a mishmash, with influences from mainland Spain, Africa, Latin America and northern Europe. Basic Canarian food is farmer’s food, with vegetables, stews and meat cooked simply. Seafood and shellfish are of the best quality and freshness.

Where to stay: Opt for boutique or rustic hotels for something a bit different, such as Hacienda del Buen Suceso near Arucas or Be Cordial Malteses in the old town of Las Palmas.

How to do it: Hiring a car is the easiest way to get around. Guided tours with Guillermo Bernal can be booked via Gran Canaria Sightseeing on Facebook or Tours by Locals.

Must-pack item: Gran Canaria’s unique microclimate means you can experience all the seasons in one day depending on where you are on the island. Pack sun cream and hiking boots for trekking the mountains.

Why go: It sounds clichéd but there really is something for everyone, from mountain peaks to sand dunes, secluded coves to vibrant city neighbourhoods.