Hola amigos! We're home from a last minute escape to the sunshine. Did you even notice that I'd gone?
The Canary islands, although part of Spain, are closer to Morocco than Madrid. With a sub-tropical climate (the all-year average daytime temperature is 22°C) , the islands have been a magnet for tourists since the wealthy Victorians arrived by ship to spend months in the lush mountain villages, enjoying the temperate weather and clean air.
Back in the 1990s, before the internet made independent travel a viable alternative, Jon and I took package holidays to the islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, staying in tourist complexes in the purpose-built beach resorts which sprung up in the 1970s. We travelled the islands by bus, searching but failing to find signs of the Canaries' fascinating history or much in the way of Spanish culture. Although both islands had their charms, we decided that they weren't for us and never returned. A quarter of a century later and in need of some winter sunshine, I found return Ryanair flights from Birmingham to Gran Canaria for just £38 each - cheaper than staying at home and switching the heating on. With less than a week before departure, we booked. This time we didn't bother with the tourist hotspots and headed to Las Palmas, the island's capital and Spain's ninth largest city. Described as cosmopolitan with a Latin American vibe, from the windows of the guagua (pronounced wah-wah, the island's public buses), the view certainly looked more Brazil than Benidorm.
After the invasion of Gran Canaria by Spain, Las Palmas was founded by the Castilian army's leader, Juan Rejon on 24th June, 1478. Rejon and his soldiers settled at the mouth of the Guiniguada ravine, now known as the district of Vegueta. The war against the island raged for another five years until, in 1483, the native Aboriginals were finally subjugated.
Awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1990, staying in the heart of historic Vegueta was a no brainer. Our compact studio apartment, located within three hundred year old townhouse, was the only holiday rental in a building occupied by two local families, set on a quaint cobbled street a stone's throw from the 15th Century cathedral and, at £270 for the week, an absolute steal.
Although I'd not recommend it to anyone with mobility issues - negotiating the ladder to the mezzanine bedroom after a few beers took nerves of steel!
Unlike our previous trips to the Canaries we saw so much culture and history during our seven night stay that I'd be boring you for weeks if I wrote my usual post-trip daily travelogue so, instead, here's our Top Ten Las Palmas Highlights.
1. Casa De Colon
In 1492, Christopher Columbus (or, as he's known in Spanish, Cristobal Colon) anchored in the port of Las Palmas en route to the New World where, hoping to find a shortcut to India, unwittingly stumbled on America instead. Whilst his ship, Pinta, underwent repair he stayed with the governor of Gran Canaria in his luxurious home in Vegueta, now a museum dedicated to the explorer.
2. Catedral de Santa Ana / Plaza de Santa Ana
Dominating the city's skyline, the cathedral's twin bell towers are the most recognisable landmark of Las Palmas. Construction started in 1497, but additions continued to be made late into the 19th Century. The result is a microcosm of Canarian architecture: Gothic, Neo-Classical, Renaissance and local styles are all represented. Although this massive edifice differs wildly from the original, remnants of the 15th Century structure are still visible.
Flanking the cathedral are the handsome bronze hounds of Santa Ana Plaza, Vegueta's main square where dogs are walked, romances flourish, children learn to cycle, the elderly practice Tai-Chi and neighbours exchange gossip until late into the night.
3. Museo Canario
Since they died soon after the Spanish Conquest, little is known about how the Canarii (the early Canarians) lived although this fantastic museum, founded in 1880 by the marvellously titled Dr. Chil, offers everything from Aboriginal ceramics, traditional pottery, leatherwork, basket weaving and pintaderas (ceramic stamps) to mummies, funeral rites, burials, skulls and bones accompanied by a downloadable audio guide - hoorah for smartphones!
4. Parque de San Telmo
The park offers a leafy respite from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping district of Triana and the breathtakingly lovely Art Nouveau kiosk alone is worth a trip across town - not to mention the iced cappuccino it serves. As a fully paid-up member of the Bandstand Appreciation Society, I was more than happy to strike a pose.
On our previous Canary Island holidays the food on offer had been of the English All Day Breakfast, burger 'n' chips and Tex Mex variety and we'd struggled to find an olive, let alone any authentic tapas. In the chic cafe bars of downtown Vegueta we were spoilt for choice, Canarian cheese, papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes with Mojo sauce), tomato salads, tortilla, empanadas (flaky pastries) and all manner of vegan and vegetarian delicacies assembled before our very eyes.
6. Playa de Las Canteras
Although we'd not come to Gran Canaria to sunbathe, we walked from Vegueta (and back) to have a look at the city beach, a round trip of just over eleven miles. Playa de Las Canteras is made up of three kilometres of fine sand, sandwiched between a wide promenade and the Atlantic Ocean. The Western end, known as Le Cicer (or Surf City) has been a destination for surfers since 1960.
Having worked up an appetite crossing the city, we treated ourselves to some amazing Canarian food in a hip cafe bar we discovered hidden amongst the high rises.
Jon had pan-fried chicken with rice and vegetables, I had plantain tortillas with alfalfa sprouts and local vegetables...yum!
7. Espiritu Santu
In palm-tree lined square flanked by grand mansions, stands the Holy Spirit Hermitage, where Columbus is said to have prayed before setting off on his voyage. With the porticoed fountain in the centre, it's a wonderfully tranquil spot, day or night.
So many amazing buildings in a myriad of styles. It took me an absolute age to walk anywhere as I had constantly had to stop, get my camera out and capture something.
9. Free Art
Whatever your tastes, there's a plethora of free art in and around Las Palmas, from Goya's lithographs of the Peninsular War, digital watercolours and graffiti to sculpture, textiles and recycled metal. Housed in post-modern exhibition halls, 18th Century mansions, the artist's childhood homes or just out in the street, there's barely a corner of the city without something interesting to look at.
10. City Vistas
The colourful barrios of San Nicolas and San Juan situated on the cliffs overlooking Las Palmas were the first on the island to be inhabited, the irregularity of house shapes due to the fact that the majority were self-constructed. A bit of a climb to reach them but the panoramic views of Las Palmas are incredible.
Still with me? More winter sunshine to follow shortly....I'm off to find out what my friends in Blogland have been up to in my absence.