Chimneys here are very small and have decorative tops. Father Christmas comes over the balcony

Canary Island Hopping

December 20th to 26th 2006 Hermigua, La Gomera to El Jesús, La Palma for Christmas

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Day 43 20th December Hermigua, La Gomera to Santa Cruz de La Palma

We left Hermigua with mixed feelings. The casa rural had been exceptionally nice although he village and the area seemed oddly run down. It was not quite unspoiled ethnic but on the other hand the things aimed at tourism were in disarray. The pools were not functioning, cafés closed, etc.

The management has long been aware of the 'vertical' information on the GPS but had always assumed it was aimed at amateur pilots or mountain climbers. He now began to realise that in these mountains it was good for us too. When we have to climb a pass at, for example, a thousand metres the distance is not relevant. What counts is the rate of climb.

The GPS gives a figure for rate of climb in our laden state of between 7 and 8 metres a minute. From this the management can calculate how long the climb will take. Not only that but when the roads get very steep the distance falls and this is very depressing. But because the effort required is greater the rate of climb often increases. The result is high rather than low tandem morale.

Today it was a pleasant steady climb to the first tunnel. Once we had negotiated this it was down hill all the way to San Sebastian. We still had about four tunnels but these are easy when the tandem is going fast. The descent was one of the few on this trip which was easy and fast.

Going back into San Sebastian was pleasant. We enjoyed it on the way out and likewise on the return. It seemed almost a big city after Hermigua. Among the jobs to be done was the management's watch. As a dreadful clockwatcher even here he was lost because it had stopped. A replacement battery was not the answer so the stoker took the opportunity to buy him a new one, a much appreciated Christmas present. What with new glasses and a new watch this trip, all he needs now are good cycling legs.

During this tour we have seen very few other cycle tourists. And when we have they have usually flashed by in the opposite direction. We were therefore very pleased to have the chance to chat to a couple touring like us. They were on very well equipped solos carrying full camping gear. He was a Swiss house painter and she from Germany. He travels in the winter as no one wants their house painted in the cold.

We boarded the late afternoon fast trimaran ferry back to Los Cristianos. There is non of the faffing about we get in the UK. There is no problem, show your boarding card to the person directing the load and get straight on. As in the Scandinavian countries where ferries are a way of life the whole ship is loaded and away in half an hour. And all the engines work and are turned on.

As we left the ferry terminal we had to give way to a very elderly HGV in a very bad way. It was completely surrounded by clouds of black smoke and only managing to go at a jerky walking pace. The driver got down from his unmarked and shabby cab looking very upset. We had sad visions of a modern day version of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles being played out. We have a dead lorry instead of the horse dying in the shafts which indirectly caused Tess's ruin. Could something similar be happening to this driver and his family just before Christmas?

Fortunately for us Los Cristianos serves Outer London cuisine. That is, you can get any type of food you want at any time you want it. Like Outer London it is all perfectly edible but so bland and boring it is unlikely either to please or upset anyone. Our Chinese run Italian filled the gaps in our tums at a time when any respectable Spanish place would not be serving.

We were pleased to be out of the slime and back in the port and on the next ferry at 8pm. We arrived on the island of La Palma at about 10pm after a smooth crossing. Just to be on the safe side we had phoned ahead to book a hotel. We were there in five minutes and nearly as quickly fast asleep.

 All cyclists have their puncture picture taken when people stand around with nothing to do but take pictures. This is ours and let us hope it is the only one.

Day 44 21st December at Santa Cruz de La Palma

Much to our amazement, when the management made the stoker's tea on the balcony he found it was raining steadily on him. It took him a while to come to terms with this strange phenomenon. Further observation indicated that the sea was grey and the mountains inland shrouded in cloud and mist.

It had been our intention to cycle across the spine of the island and explore the centre for a couple of days. We put off making a decision until 10am as this is usually about the time when the sun is fully established here. As it did not show we decided to stay at the hotel another night.

Santa Cruz de La Palma is a very pleasant place, perhaps the size of Weymouth. It is a historic and very attractive town and feels like the capital of the island, which it is.

No longer in any kind of rush we made for the Tourist Office with a prepared list of the information we needed. The tourist office woman could not have been more helpful and pleasant. We were particularly impressed that when she did not know the answer to a question she said so.

We explained our intention to ride across the island. She said we would not be allowed to go via the long tunnel at the top by bike. After our experiences of the past few weeks we were very surprised and a little sceptical. However, this was later confirmed by the local cycle shop and others.

We were now in something of a hole. We did not have enough time to do an alternative route comfortably. This would not only involve a massive detour but some very long climbs. Even if we did we would then not be able to see the centre of the island which is both a magnificent and an interesting place.

The Tourist Office suggested that we put our bike on the bus to get through the tunnel. We were sceptical about whether a tandem would fit on a bus. The management was also generally unhappy about the whole idea. Taking a ferry is one thing but taking a bus when you have come for a bike ride did not appeal to him. Having established that there may be no alternative we assessed every bus we saw for its tandem carrying ability.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the town. Looking at the lovely old buildings could easily take a day on its own. We felt like wimps when we saw that the temperature was still 19 degrees and we were freezing. The town does have a fair number of tourists but its main purpose is to serve the local population. These, just as they would be at home, were Christmas shopping till they dropped. Even so everything still shut at around 1pm and did not open again until 5pm. It seemed very odd to us to see an empty high street at 2pm on one of the main shopping days of the year.

We shunned the hotel's buffet laid on for its mainly German and Spanish carnivore customers and went ethnic. We had a very good meal nicely rounded off by local singers. The troop stopped and gave a performance of Canaries music. We had heard recordings of this but the real thing was great. The band was strongly rhythmic, being led by the drummer supported by castanets. There were guitars, a double bass and a violin. We enjoyed it. It may have been the local equivalent of carol singing but sounded nothing like it, having more in common with Morris Men. They must also have been doing it entirely for their own and our pleasure as there was no money being collected or given.

Day 45 22nd December Santa Cruz de La Palma to Los Llanos

Editing the diary (we do check it, whatever our readers may think) we felt it lacked a certain degree of humour. This may be because the management's back is sore which makes him short tempered. This is of course mainly taken out on the normally placid stoker which then affects the diary. Suffice to say that while the management's back is painful it is always much less so when cycling.

We decided to go for the 10.15am bus to the tunnel. That way if the tandem would not go in we had time to dismantle it for the 11.15am bus.

There was a longish queue at the bus stop. Eventually we pushed in in a most unBritish way and asked the driver whether it was 'vale' to put the bicicleta in the boot. Amazingly it fitted across the bus with just a few centimetres to spare.

By now the weather had deteriorated back almost to yesterday's level of damp. The bus, mainly full of locals, took off up the mountain via a circuitous route. If we did not travel by bike then taking the local buses is the next best option. Real life is there and it's fun.

The biggest getting off and getting on place was at the hospital. Interestingly, most of those getting on there had senior citizen bus passes at the ready. In the hiatus of getting the tandem and bags on board we had forgotten to show our Dorset ones.

Mind you Dorset and Mr Prime Minister in waiting Brown could learn a lot from this. UK bus passes which only come into operation at 9.30am do nothing to reduce morning congestion on the roads. Neither do they get us elderly to Dorchester in time for our hospital appointments. They could also learn that people are more likely to travel on comfortable modern buses. Most of the local 30 year old Sureline buses in our area are so uncomfortable that they hurt your back. The newer First and Wilts and Dorset buses and modern trains have a lot in common with a public toilet. They are designed only to be used by those who have no alternative in the maximum discomfort the providers can achieve. No doubt that also gives them the biggest subsidy for the least investment. And what would be the chance of getting a bike on board a bus in the UK let alone a tandem?

The management had by now reconciled himself to the need to put the tandem on the bus. It was after all only 10 or 12km even if that was a climb of around 1000 metres. It was also what these hard persons on mountain bikes do all the time when they get uplifts in the hills.

When the bus stopped for us at the tunnel exit the rain was horizontal. Had our Spanish been any more than basic we are sure the driver said something like 'you don't really want to get off here do you, I can drop you at the visitors centre just down the road where you can shelter in the dry and warm'. With this he drove on and that is exactly what we did.

Fortunately for us the visitors on this island seem to be mainly Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians. Unlike most of the lazy British in these parts they come to do serious walking or bike riding. Perhaps that is why easyJet and Ryanair don't fly here much from the UK. The visitors centre is geared up for this with real information about where those who have not lost the use of their legs can go. Even the 20 minute video, shown specially in English just for us, dealt mainly with safe routes in the mountains of the country park.

La Palma has what looks like a huge crater like structure which makes up most of its centre. It is egg shaped with the pointed end coming down to the west coast. The walls of the crater rise to about 2400 metres. We should also say for accuracy that it is not actually a crater as such. The first scientists called it a caldera by mistake. It was caused by the erosion of volcanic material which is still continuing.

There are only two ways into the caldera. One is via the coast and called 'the Gorge of Fear'. It is almost impossible by bike and a very long way to walk. The other is via a gorge which has a col at around 1300 metres. From this one gets to the sissy viewing point. We were even bigger sissies than that, asking at the visitors centre whether it was worth going up in view of the weather. The warden at the top was radioed. We are not sure whether we liked the reply but it was fine.

The ascent is very steep through pine forest. It was very enjoyable, particularly before it got too steep. The sun shone through the trees and the vertical gorge walls had cloud cascading over and down them. The stoker enjoyed having time to stop and take photos without being got at by the management.

After a quick mountain picnic of dried fruit, nuts and of course bananas we walked the two or three km to a spectacular viewing point. We could see the whole vast caldera surrounded by its rocky walls, the tops covered in cloud. We enjoyed the silence and the spectacle.

By now it was getting on for 4pm and we needed to find a hotel. It seemed no problem with a 900 metre descent to a largish town. In the absence of a really effective third brake we have been relying on cadence braking. That is braking hard when we need to and running on when possible. This allows the rims the maximum opportunity to cool. It has served us well so far.

Fortunately the front tyre exploded on a straight bit and deflated at once. The management immediately let go the front brake and brought the tandem to a stop with the rear. We were very lucky not to crash and absolute credit is due to St John Street cycles for designing such a stable machine. It is a pity that they can't design a drag brake that works. But we guess there is 'no demand'.

Once over the shock it was quite pleasant changing the tube in the sun. It all takes a while but so what. And we were very pleased that the tyre did not seem to be damaged. Once going again we naturally took things rather more slowly. Even so it was less than a km before there was another loud explosion from the front tyre.

One puncture may be bad luck but two are normally carelessness and the stoker made her views clear. To be fair she did say that she could not see how the management stayed so cheerful. The second tube change was quicker. The only problem we could find was a slightly bent rim where the wheel had hit the road. This was straightened and we were again on our way. We now had no more spare tubes and we went very slowly.

We were very relieved to roll into the town of El Paso (not West Texas). The guide book was not complimentary and it was not where we wanted to be but it was help if we needed it. As it was we freewheeled as gently as we could down to Los Llanos.

Los Llanos is a largish working town surrounded by banana plantations. We found a pleasant enough and very cheap one star hotel and were soon settled in. We had another very good meal. The management is especially happy when he can get a couple of nice veggie tapas. The local restaurants are very happy to serve whatever is ordered with no pressure to go for starter, main course and postre. We also tried a bottle of the local La Palma wine which we can highly recommend.

By the time we were heading back to the hotel sometime after 11pm the Christmas concert was underway. A stage and full lighting had been set up in the town square which was full of noisy happy people of all ages. Chairs were set out in front of the stage and the local bars also had tables served by busy waiters. Even though this kind of big band Spanish music is not to our taste we enjoyed being part of the celebration. If only Weymouth and most other UK towns could have an atmosphere like this on a Friday night. Why do we allow the drunken yobs to take over?

 In reply to the hundreds who over the years have asked 'what do vegies eat for Chistmas dinner' here it is.

Day 46 23rd December Los Llanos to El Jesús, La Palma

The management was not feeling very bright when he woke up. Thinking maybe he had deprived the stoker of her share of the La Palma wine he got on stoically with his job. Breakfast needing serving to the sleepy stoker and then shopping.

The first port of call was the cycle shop. Hotel reception directed us and it was a bit more than a shop. It was a mountain bike centre aimed at providing led rides of all levels. While nothing like the size of some of the German based operations in other parts of Spain it was still pretty big. They had rides graded at all levels from 1 to 4. To get some idea 4 involves climbs of 1400 metres and is only suitable for those who confidently ride down the hotel stairs. Fortunately providing two tubes with presta valves was no problem.

We then had the real chore of food shopping for Christmas. We are booked into a casa rural 4km outside a village. We cannot be sure that the local shop will be open and if so what they will have. For the first time we dug out a stuff sack from the bottom of the pannier. This we filled with essential provisions and tied to the top of the carrier.

It was not far to the casa but involved a 500 metre climb. But first we had a 300 metre descent into the narrow bit of the caldera near the coast. As soon as we started the climb through the banana plantations the management's legs and not just those began to feel dodgy. Or you could say dogged stubbornness set in.

At this point the stoker has to take over the management responsibility. The unthinkable alternative is that the brain dead management will go on until he drops. Frequent stops and lots of water were called for and that is what we did. For those capable of looking the views into the caldera and towards the coast were spectacular.

We arrived at our nice little casa soon after 4pm. The management went straight to bed and hardly stirred till 8am. The stoker administered tlc and paracetamol and even had to get her own dinner. We think the management has picked up a bug somewhere and his bad back in La Palma was the first sign.

Day 47 Christmas Eve El Jesús, La Palma

On waking the still slightly fragile management had the opportunity to see what he had missed last night. The casa is situated almost 600 metres above the blue sea. The mountain side on which it is located shelves straight down to the coast only 2 km away. The view is completely unobstructed over the Atlantic Ocean. As far as we can see from the GPS the next land is Jacksonville in the pan handle of Texas.

Like everyone else in the western world we still had a few things to get before Christmas. After a slowish start we cycled to the local village of Tijarafe. Unlike most of the western world our requirements were few. Indeed we were not trampled underfoot and were able to say 'pasa' to the elderly villager in carpet slippers who had only one item to buy.

On our return the management had a good look at the tandem. Even though it had been no problem since the punctures he was not happy. Apart from the inconvenience those kind of blowouts are dangerous. Like most cyclists he is very reluctant to replace anything that is not worn out or can be repaired. You could just call him mean.

After much consideration, even though they had some life left in them, he replaced the worn brake blocks. It was a pleasant enough job to do in the sunshine on a warm afternoon. The replaceable cartridge system makes it easy to get right. Mind you someone who thinks of a better system than the silly fiddly little pins which get lost could make their fortune. To make up for the extravagance of new brake blocks he also repaired the punctured tubes. They really should be thrown away with such large holes in them but he could not bring himself to do it.

A lazy afternoon moved into a very relaxed evening. Before we went to bed we went out to look at the stars. They are amazingly bright here and there is very little light pollution. Up in the mountains there is one of the best observatories in the world with the largest telescope. We could do with their help in identifying the constellations. We recognise few of them and assume that the night sky is different here. But what a great unhurried way to spend Christmas Eve.

Day 48 Christmas Day El Jesús, La Palma

Before we were properly up we got Christmas texts in bed. It was nice to know we were not forgotten. The weather here had decided to do something even better than normal with a blue sky all day from the sea horizon to the mountain tops. There was an occasional slight breeze, just sufficient to make the day feel even more pleasant.

Having talked on the phone or texted, and sometimes both, all of our close family we went for a walk. A Christmas Day walk is a tradition. We walked down towards the sea, passing the scattered houses and smallholdings as we went. We saw no one to wish Merry Christmas and all we heard was the occasional dog bark and the ever present crowing of the cockerels.

Having reached the lower road we followed a long distance path back across the barranco. The few people we saw in the distance appeared to be doing normal things. The occasional pickup truck passed full of produce and washing was hanging out on the roofs as usual.

After a light lunch we sat in the sun till it disappeared. Fizzy wine, kindly provided by the casa's management, nibbles and sundown made its going easier. It was then the management's job to get our Christmas dinner. He feels he surpassed himself and sufficient to say a very happy and pleasant day was had by both of us. Like the rest of the western world we expect to be living on leftovers for the rest of our stay here.

Day 49 Boxing Day El Jesús, La Palma

To ease ourselves gently back into the cycle touring routine we got up late. The sun was already on the front stoop by the time the stoker had had her shower.

The management as usual had a plan. Before we left home he had found on Google Earth a route down the side of the gorge. This ended up at Puerto de Tazacorte via a huge number of zig zags. Those he had asked had told him it was a path unsuitable for a bike. He did not however get where is is today by believing everything he is told. This is especially true of non cyclists and loafers.

Before we came the management had not really taken on board what a 300 metre climb was like over a short distance. He has now learned the hard way not to underestimate the terrain here.

We freewheeled down to the start of the Google path. As we expected it was a typical mule track. It is very steep and roughly paved by uneven large rocks. It would only be passable by bike in an absolute emergency. It could easily have been the only access to the isolated but fertile north of the island in days gone by.

We walked down about a third of the way. It looked as if we could touch the roofs and vehicles below us. We could see people swimming from the wide black beach and the surf rolling in.

Even though an ice-cream and a beer beckoned we decided to go back up to the tandem. The management is treating the stoker with kid gloves today. We have both had something of a shock. Her blood test on the electronic machine indicated a level where our local GP goes into panic mode. We do the test about once a week and the result seems to depend on diet and general life style. Without the machine which adds to the baggage we would be unable to do these tours safely. She will now adjust the medication to bring her blood back to safe levels. In the meantime she and the management have to be extra careful.

After a pleasant picnic in the shade of some trees high on the cliff edge we cycled back to the casa. There was no way of avoiding the 300 metre climb but it was all on almost untrafficked farm roads through banana plantations. And the good news is that after their brief objection on Christmas Eve the management seems to have got his climbing legs back.

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