What I Did On My Holiday
It seems inevitable that after failing to check my calendar we should arrive on a quiet week away in the middle of Mardi Gras, and that our hotel would be at its epicentre.
This is a quick look at the island of Gran Canaria from my perspective, being that of a middle-aged man who does not want to slam vodka shots at 3:00am while listening to ‘Despacito’. It’s a cliché I know, but many of us avoided visiting these islands off the coast of West Africa because they became synonymous with cheap British package tours.
Then I talked to a Spanish family who explained that the assumption is only partly true. Visit La Gomera for hiking, they said, or in Gran Canaria head away from the two big tourist resorts to visit the national forest, unspoilt villages and Las Palmas, the world heritage site filled with unspoilt architectural gems. So I picked the latter option.
I stayed at Vientiuno, a small 11-room 2-star hotel with great staff, fair prices, Norwegian design and no restaurant. What it lacked in room size and facilities it made up for with a killer city roofscape. Down on the coast they’re isolated in tourist hotel communities; here you are free to roam.
The island is famous for star gazing, as it gets some of the clearest nights in the world. The city’s Old Town is complete, street after street of buildings you can date between 1750 and 1930, filled with museums, elegant squares, small restaurants and (best of all) no tourist tat. The two best museums were one dedicated to life here before the Spanish invasion, and one to Christopher Columbus and his voyages.
Since the 15th century the islands have been the most frequently crossed spot between Europe and America, and were inhabited by various aboriginal cultures. The Canarian museum has Mayan relics and artefacts, and has recreated faces from skeletons via 3D mapping developed in the UK. They also feature a disturbing diorama of corpses in a cave that plunges the room into darkness and made the school party of small children ahead of us scream. The Columbus museum recreates his four voyages and even reproduces the night skies he saw.
Inevitably there was folk dancing. Yet this was not for tourists – no selfie sticks here – and hardly anyone attended. Las Palmas is a working town first and a visitors’ destination second. The maze of pedestrian streets, alleyways and narrow courtyarded houses offer plenty of surprises for the curious walker, while the spectacular cathedral gets visited every now and again by Chinese tourists from a cruise ship, although they stay on proscribed routes.
Las Palmas is justly celebrated for its food, although I did make one mistake, translating ‘Yemas de erizon’ (rightly as it turns out) as ‘hedgehog eggs’. Asking the waiter about this I was ensured that yes, these were the tender parts of hedgehog, so I ordered them, obvs. When the dish arrived smelling of the sea, I thought to myself ‘What else is covered in spines?’ and realised it was the colloquial translation for sea urchins, which I detest.
Other meals, like this piquant octopus, prawn, egg combo worked brilliantly. One speciality is wrinkled potatoes dyed in squid ink, which are amazing.
And then off into the backstreets to hunt out art nouveau, deco and much earlier buildings, many with ornate wooden balconies and shutters, very much with their own distinctive architectural style. This square was surrounded by green statues of dogs for reasons I couldn’t fathom.
The weather is famously an unchanging spring-like 20-22C all year round – actually, not quite true as February is usually the coolest month, although we barely saw a cloud in the sky (locals, of course, were wearing scarves and puffa jackets). Go for a week and you won’t have to see a single bangin’ beach club.