James Jeffrey

The Canary Islands are a Mecca for Europe’s lockdown escapees

The Canary Islands are a Mecca for Europe's lockdown escapees
Fuerteventura (iStock)
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Those looking for ancient culture will find it in abundance on Fuerteventura – a canary island known more for its beaches than its heritage. I’d ended up in a hostel run by an Italian couple deep in the island's outback. Looming over the hostel was the holy mountain of Tindaya, on whose summit indigenous islanders once left their dead. It also has the most important set of podomorph engravings in the world — 300 pairs of foot-shaped engravings, the left and right soles with attendant digits flush together, carved into the rock.

These simple and rather touching imprints struck a particular chord with me after my extended Camino across the Iberian Peninsula following the steps of previous pilgrims. In the hostel bookcase a book about the mountain contained illustrations of a giant hidden chamber at the heart of the mass of rock and tunnels toward it, à la the Pyramids.

Ten miles to the south of Lanzarote across the Atlantic Ocean, Fuerteventura offers a larger version of the same mix of volcanic surprises and impressive beaches. While the latter element of the Spanish-African hybrid mix that characterises the eight Canary Islands gets increasingly noticeable. Once you reach the popular resort town of Morro Jable at Fuerteventura’s most southern point, you’re on the same latitude as the Western Sahara 90 miles to the east.

Before catching the three-hour ferry to Gran Canaria, I tried to relax at one of Morro Jable’s beaches despite the sand being blown into my teeth. Fuerteventura’s gusty winds make it a Mecca for windsurfers and kite surfers. The naked Germans striding around me didn’t seem to mind the increased potentialities of where the wind could blow the sand. Waiting to board the ferry dockside, three young German men offered to make me a sandwich with contents from a vagabond pile of shopping bags, rucksacks and suitcases. They’d left Germany due to Covid restrictions, spending the last three months on Fuerteventura sleeping in hostels, on the beach and on the street, while 'smoking a lot of marijuana.'

Kite surfers make the most of Corralejo beach, Fuerteventura (iStock)

As the ferry was approaching Gran Canaria, the sun was setting, Venus was visible in the sky and the three Germans were drunk, one of them riotously so. Hence he may have missed how the island’s entire profile, from the raised centre to the tapering diameter, was silhouetted against the darkening winter sky. That volcanic centre was shrouded in low-level cloud, while the lights of resorts shone along the coastline to crescendo at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the capital city where we docked at the island’s most north-eastern point. The island is described as a mini continent due to its variety of landscapes. Down south, the giant sweeping sand dunes of Maspalomas next to Playa Ingles — English Beach — are a favoured haunt of nudists and swingers. 'People really enjoy themselves down here,' a Welsh man told me with a knowing wink at a nearby beach bar. He explained he’d arrived last December for a two-week break — and hadn’t left.

At Tejeda in the island’s centre, you could be amongst the Caucasus Mountains. I got there thanks to the impressive network of public buses that crisscross each island. Hats off to the Gran Canaria bus drivers who deftly handle cumbersome buses around hair pin turns straight out of Switzerland as narrow roads ascend into the interior. There’s fantastic hiking around Tejeda. One of the most popular trails heads to Roque Nublo, a giant rocky protrusion atop a mountain that, in polite company, could be said to resemble an enormous muffin.

Gran Canaria's impressive volcanic landscape at Puerto de las Nieves (iStock)

In Las Palmas I was treated to an evening of the finest Canarias folk music thanks to a pre-recorded televised concert for New Year's Eve. It was held in the grounds of a small church opposite my hostel, whose owners said that you wouldn’t find such variety and quality of singing elsewhere. Hence they made the most of watching the spectacle from the hostel terrace with glasses of fine Canaris wine, as I did from a balcony above, which included 'New Year's Eve' fireworks exploding 'at midnight' above the church. The local audience clapped along wearing a mixture of party and Santa hats, and, of course, face masks. Occasionally during my time on the islands, the television news broke the non-stop Covid coverage to show eruptions and lava flowing on the island of Las Palma, the most north-westerly island. All very Biblical.

The islands attract plenty of free spirits, including — as on the mainland during the Camino — many channelled there by the fallout of the pandemic and lockdowns. Buddha statues and dream catchers adorn many hostels, spas and restaurants. On the ferry away from the island to Tenerife, I went to join the other foot passengers waiting to disembark and continuing — while we are still allowed — that tradition commemorated at Tindaya of pairs of feet trampling around this intriguing little planet.