153 – Is There Life on Mars?

Christmas blog in late February, sorry about that. This sentence has changed several times since I started writing this piece from late January to early and mid February. Let’s see if I can get it done by the end of the week. I’ve been busy. There are, surprisingly for some, still people who have a life, even with the n-th wave or strain of coronavirus and all that. Credit where credit’s due, my ongoing resemblance of life is merely a side effect of living in a region where the local government religiously favours economy over public health. While 2020 has certainly been a godawful small affair for many, it hasn’t been a bad year at all for me. Disclaimer: haughty sermon ahead. Let’s piss people off. First of all, I have never been more grateful to be single and childless, because by now I would be both and in prison. If you think that we have it bad because we are locked down, wait till the generation homeschooled by people who start drinking at 9 am is in charge. All those who have to juggle full-time jobs, children and a partner and manage to stay out of waiting lists for liver transplant and/or detention facilities, have my undying respect and admiration. Those who struggle because they lost their jobs or had to close down their businesses have my compassion (and the most sincere wishes that things pick up again once we get to some sort of normal). But people who are still doing ok, yet moan that there is nothing to do because the pub is closed, they don’t even have my pity. If you feel your fundamental rights are endangered because the only thing you miss are bars and restaurants (as opposed to cinemas, theatres, museums, concerts or God forbid walks in nature), you never had any life in the first place, freedom is wasted on you. 

Christmas Eve on an empty seafront promenade in Lanzarote. Here’s to a better 2021.

Good things happen all the time. Even in pandemics. Isaac Newton famously invented calculus, described gravity and formulated the laws of motion during the plague epidemics in the 17th century. He also stuck a needle in his own eye to understand how a lens works, which could be considered a consequence of the stir-craziness kicking in, so worry not if your confinement hasn’t been quite as fruitful. But then maybe the isolation suited Mr. Newton just fine. If I spent two years alone in the countryside staring at an apple tree, all I’d be capable of thinking about would be Eve, the snake, and all the deliciously dirty knowledge he must have shared with her. What makes the apple fall from the tree would be the last thing troubling my mind. Which is probably why I write a blog and Isaac Newton came to be the greatest mathematician of all times. So, let’s sum up the good things that happened in 2020. First of all, I am in the best shape since I was 18. With the possible exception of my liver. Fighting the confinement with physical activity on every occasion will do that to you. So will fermented grape juice. So stop whining the pub’s closed and go for a walk. And maybe bring a flask along. More importantly, I’ve finally accomplished some serious and long overdue housekeeping in my personal life. I will not share further details, as it’s not anyone’s business, let’s just say that all useless and testicle-free wankers who sink into an existential crisis every time a decision is to be made (even if the decision is as trivial as “shall we have sex now?” – come on, guys, there really is only one possible answer to that question)  have been dully dealt with. So if there is an intelligent, funny and cultured, but emotionally unavailable man with serious psychological issues, possibly too old, too married and/or unattracted to opposite sex among my audience here, now is the moment to try your luck, my heart is free! Just one thing, Tories please abstain. I wouldn’t want to fuck a Tory. I have low moral standards, but not as low as someone who votes for Boris Johnson. 

Caldera Blanca, Lanzarote

Thank to Covid I haven’t done much travelling this year, which wasn’t ideal because travelling is the only part of my job I enjoy. On the other hand, also thank to Covid, I was able to extensively discover the place where I live. Apart from spending one of the best summers of my adult life holed up in the mountains (this post and the following few), I hiked and cycled through every corner of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, within the borders of which I have been confined for the last six months now. I have still managed to meet friends, make new friends, and spend a lot of time outdoors doing exciting things and taking at best mediocre photos (which, apart from the constant ranting, would be the point of this blog). I am not boasting (well maybe a little), but what I am trying to say is that regardless how depressing the situation is for a lot of us (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume I am speaking to people who are not going through any dreadful family drama), the life needs to go on. And that it can go on, even within whatever restrictive measures and curfews your government is attempting to put in place this week. Also, Tinder still works. But about that maybe some other time. 

Between travel restrictions, unavailability and constant changes or cancellations of international flights, obligatory quarantine, the hassle of seizing a suitable PCR appointment, and persuading the border authorities that my reason to enter the country qualifies as essential, I was prevented from reuniting with my family this Christmas. Most of the world was in the same situation, so nothing extraordinary here. But I managed to navigate through the somewhat confusing internal measures (we’re in Spain after all, if they were clear and straightforward, where would be the fun?) and fly to Lanzarote for the holidays. Which was still a great way to do Christmas and I am going to tell you all about it now.

Lanzarote is the northernmost of the Canary Islands, and the most distinct in in the archipelago in terms of landscape, nature, vegetation and architecture. Possibly discovered by the Phoenicians and certainly known to the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, Lanzarote was “rediscovered” in 1336 by the Genovese navigator Lancelotto Malocello – by mistake, he most likely shipwrecked there, which explains why he remained on the island for further 20 years, until he was expelled by the Guanche, the aboriginal population. Can you imagine, a tribe so nice that they even build him a ship to get rid of him? Nonetheless, Malocello still named the island after himself. As one does. Since then it all went south for the poor Guanches, as Lanzarote became a frequent destination of raids of Castilian slave traders. Europeans started to settle the island from 1402 and the original population was swiftly wiped out (from the entire archipelago). Lanzarote became major exporter of wheat and cereals to its neighbours, but the series of unprecedented volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736 completely remodelled the island, creating over 30 new volcanoes. One fourth of the island’s surface and most of its fertile soil was destroyed by the hot lava. A bit unfortunate, but the result is just breathtaking.

Lanzarote discovered its touristic potential in 1960s (as the rest of the country, after all). What distinguishes it from other Spanish seaside resorts is the almost complete lack of architectonic eyesore (Benidorm, anyone?). There is that one high-rise building destroying Arrecife’s seafront (which also happens to be the most luxurious hotel in town, makes one wonder. Or maybe not.), but other than that, the island maintained an astonishing unity of style: whitewashed buildings with flat roofs and green finishing (window frames, doors, decorative details). This is mainly due to the life-long activism of César Manrique, a prominent architect who spent most of his life and career on Lanzarote, campaigning for sustainable development, which resulted in Lanzarote being awarded a UNESCO biosphere reserve protected status in 1993. Many of Manrique’s works are scattered around island: Timanfaya visitors centre, Mirador del Rio and Monumento al Campesino, to mention a few. I haven’t done a Manrique route, because this time I chose physical activity over culture. Cannot be a fine young lady all the time. 

Parque Nacional de Timanfaya – Montañas del Fuego: an absolute must when visiting Lanzarote. You’ll access the park from LZ-67, where you pay the entrance fee: 12 euro at the time of my visit, have it ready in cash, because cards are not accepted and the closest ATM is in Yaiza, as I learned at my expense, some 20 minutes drive away if you drive like a civilized human being familiar with road code. You´ll then proceed on roughly 3 km long access road to the visitors centre, where an explanation of the volcanic events that resulted in the creation of Timanfaya will be given and then you’ll be taken on an obligatory bus tour around the national park. Sit on the right hand side, the views are prettier. The photos came out rather well, considering they were taken through a window. Cycling up to the visitors centre is allowed, which I would have done had I been aware of that option. But then I’d have been really pissed off about cycling to Yaiza and back (which is a category 4 climb each way) for lack of liquid funds. Every cloud… 

However, admiring nature from a bus is not my strongest quality (although I do acknowledge that people are generally idiots, so not letting them wander around lava fields is for their own good, and possibly saves some money to the local rescue services, too), so if you fancy stretching your legs, hike the Caldera Blanca loop, just 10 minutes drive away on LZ-67 towards Mancha Blanca. There is a sign that marks the dirt road that will take you towards the starting point of the trek, and quite spacious (free) parking. I say spacious, because the island was basically empty due to worldwide travel restrictions, I imagine parking anywhere in the high season may be quite stressful, but then I’d struggle to park a Fiat 500 on an empty airport, so don’t take my word for it. The trail is pretty straightforward – mainly because everywhere else is covered with massive chunks of cooled lava, which makes inadvertently straying off the path impossible. It’s a fairly easy but tremendously rewarding hike. The overall climb is just over 400 m, half of which you’ll be walking on the edge of the crater. The view is extraordinary: the immense crater at your feet, the ocean in the distance, lava fields, Timanfaya and the Fire Mountains around you. Calima (the African wind charged with desert sand) was blowing for the entire time of my visit, hence the reddish haze in most of the photographs. Wikiloc for your convenience here

Visit the south of the island: I drove and was was quite grateful not to have attempted to ride the bike there, because it was so windy that I struggled to open the car’s door. There were still cyclists around, but they must have been either really strong, or really brave, or really struggling.  I didn’t have a plan in mind, I just headed south and stopped whenever something caught my eye. Salinas de Janubio is a natural lagoon created by volcanic activity, home to many species of birds who nest here and feed on the little crustaceous (artemia salina) that gives the characteristic pink colour to the water, much like the flamingos in South America. Janubio saltworks is also the island’s oldest industry (the salt was used for fish preservation) and the visit to the facility must be rather interesting, but it was closed at the time of my visit. From there I took the coastal road to El Golfo that has many viewpoints where you can park for a moment and admire the waves breaking on beautiful rugged cliffs. I stopped at black beach of Playa de Bermeja for a skinny dip (but two local girls explained to me when was the right time to get into the ocean and avoid currents, and it was just a dip, swimming is dangerous, so don’t try it), then continued to El Golfo and Playa de los Clicos to see the beautiful bright green lagoon there. There is a coastal trail heading north from the village that you can hike (about 5 km loop), but I figured that the views would not be substantially different to those from the road, so I headed back inland and hiked the Vulcan de los Cuervos instead. 

Vulcan del los Cuervos: super easy hike, children- and pet-friendly. Starting point is from the parking two thirds into the LZ-56 (southbound), it’s clearly marked. The trail will take you through the lava fields around the volcano and inside the crater, the whole hike is about 4 km long and possibly doable under an hour, it took me longer because I was either taking photos or waiting for people to piss off from my shots. I was there just before sunset, so some of the photos are rather bad, but you’ll get the idea. Wikiloc here

Lanzarote is a cycling paradise. Full stop. They are aware of it and they treasure the cyclists. Every road has a 60km/h speed limit, signs warning the drivers about the presence of cyclists and prompting them to drive as civilised human beings. There is brand new tarmac everywhere and the only motorway on the island has a purpose-built parallel road, so that the cyclists are safe from fast traffic. You are either riding uphill or against the wind (or both), but the scenery makes up for all the pain. Also, do not feel discouraged by all the super-strong men in lycra flying past you (and don’t try to draft, you don’t have access to the same pharma). They are most likely professionals, as many pro teams chose Canary Islands for their winter training. Renting a (very good) bike on the island is super easy, so if you are just heading over for a few days, flying your own machine may be an unnecessary hassle. I got mine at Papagayo Bikes, some brand I had never heard of before, but it was equipped with Ultegra 2020 and 30-11 cassette, which made my life a tiny bit easier on the climbs. One advice you’ll be glad you’d taken seriously: always, always plan your rides in the manner that you are heading south on your way back. You don’t want to be tired and riding into the wind. It’s not fun. For info and inspiration, my two stunning Lanzarote rides: north and centre. If you are staying in the north and planning to head south, get your bike in a car, drive there and do a loop, unless you want to torture yourself with riding into a strong headwind for 40 km of false flat. The landscape is pretty, but not pretty enough to distract you from that much pain. Alternatively, Papagayo bikes have offices in both Costa Teguise and Playa Blanca, so I’d consider arranging a transport back with them. However, note that bikes are now banned from the iconic Femés climb, so that would be the south’s major cycling attraction gone for the time being. 

To conclude, a friendly reminder: do not miss the local wine and vineyards. Each vine is planted singularly in a pit shielded from the wind by a semi-circular wall (also designed to retain dew), in holes sometimes several meters deep to reach the fertile soil below the lava gravel. I suspect all the vineyards were built without employment of heavy machinery and the fruit is harvested by hand. The fact that a bottle of local wine doesn’t cost like champagne is a mystery to me. Malvasia reigns supreme, and the dry blend is just divine. Have a lot of it. I did, but not nearly enough (but I tried my best). Cheers! Happy new year!

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