This wind swept juniper tree is the symbol of El Hierro

Canary Island Hopping

January 3rd to 9th 2007 El Mocanal, El Hierro to Granadilla, Tenerife

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Day 57 January 3rd at El Mocanal, El Hierro

This week starts with a donkey. The management opened the curtains as he was getting the stoker's tea and there it was. The hill outside the casa is about 1 in 5 which is too steep to ride the tandem up. Up this hill came an elderly looking grey donkey being ridden by an equally elderly looking grey gentleman. The management exchanged 'buenos días' with them and felt sorry for the donkey.

From outside the casa runs a donkey trail down almost 500 metres to a small village on the coast. These paved paths connected all the villages on the island and now form a footpath network. They are far too steep and rough for the tandem. They would be a challenge to a good technical mountain biker.

We decided to walk down. It was very rough and we felt even more sorry for the donkey. Picking our way down the winding path confined within stone walls took about an hour and a half. It was only 4km. The stoker of course needs to be careful with her leg which does not always work properly. The management only has his pongy Shimano sandals with cleats which are not so good on rocks.

We arrived at the little village of Pozo de las Calcosas, three restaurants, no shops or people, in bright sunshine. Even though we had a picnic we were tempted by the smells to eat in. Just before doing this we looked over the cliff on which the village was perched.

Down below us at the foot of the cliff was another village but not a person in site. Intrigued by this, and the beauty of the lava pools and crashing surf, we walked down the steep zig zag donkey path.

The village was obviously very ancient but as far as we could see entirely unoccupied. It was not however uncared for. It had the look of the Portland beach huts, used for weekends and holidays. Its location indicates to us a community more dependent on the sea than agriculture. Then as now it is an extremely hard climb to the top of the cliff. The amazing thing is that there are still people here prepared to bring all supplies in by this arduous route.

The management ignored the village and made straight for the rock pool. Unfortunately he had to wear his knickers as there was another couple coming down the path. As usual here the water is at about English Channel summer temperatures. It is warm once in but not like the Med in summer. But once out there is no need for a towel, the sun does the drying in comfort and swimming in rock pools is even better than swimming off a beach.

Having eaten a late lunch as the surf crashed we went to a café at the top of the cliff for postré. This gave us sufficient energy for the long walk back up the donkey trail to the casa.

 The stoker climbing up one of the donkey paths

Day 58 January 4th at El Mocanal, El Hierro

If you are a purist cyclist you may prefer to skip today. We rented a car to see the rest of the island. The alternative would have been a three night trip away from the casa. We are comfortable here and from a stingy point of view did not feel like paying twice. Our children note that we do not always spend their inheritance without thought.

It is a great shame that the Spanish car hire companies don't take over their bureaucratic counterparts in the UK. Here as usual it took one phone call. The car was delivered and the paperwork done in 5 minutes. There was no tiresome inspection of the vehicle and we paid less than in the UK.

When we can't take the bike we do normally prefer to take the local bus. On this island if the buses run at all it is seldom possible to get back the same day. Because of this it is not even possible to take a bus through the stone walling tunnel. Taxis are available but more expensive and less flexible than car hire.

In ten minutes we were through the tunnel impassable by bicycle. Our first stop was the Lagartario where scientists are trying to re-establish the giant El Hierro lizard in the wild. For the whole of this trip almost the only wildlife we have seen has been lizards and a few birds. The biggest lizards we have seen were around 20cm but the ones here can grow to 120cm though the biggest they have is 65cm.

We saw some of them and are pleased they are being put back into the wild even if this does involve being microchipped. As far as we could tell man had played a major part in their endangerment. Doing something about it seems reasonable.

On the same site was a house museum which followed the same format that these places have wherever they are established. And the usual high boredom level for the management. This is actually a rather poor example but on the good side has no animation and no actors dressed up as peasants to harass you.

This island, including its ethnic housing, bears a very strong resemblance to the Outer Hebrides. Here it is much more vertically challenging and of course warmer. Surprisingly it often looks very similar with tiny black dwellings dotting the hillsides which run down to the same Atlantic Ocean. The houses themselves were similar to Scottish black houses. They have low stone walls and thatch tied down with locally spun rope. Mind you they need less rope here, the beasts lived outside and holes in the walls and roof were only a minor problem. Surprisingly however we think making a living would have been easier in the Hebrides. The Canaries are often barren and the seas inaccessible by boat. Scotland is of course teaming with life.

We went on to the far west of the island which is also the most westerly point in the Canaries. The narrow twisting single track road with no crash barriers would have taken us all day to ascend on the tandem. It took less than an hour in the car. We missed the bike and the opportunity it gives to experience what a place really feels like.

Prior to 1492 this place was the western limit of the known world. As such it was the start point for many early maps. They now say it was called the zero meridian, some 18 degrees west of the Greenwich meridian. This would however depend on acceptance that the world is round. We seem to remember from school history that the church had a problem with this. So what's changed?

We turned the car down a dirt track to the coast, lighthouse and meridian monument. Some of it was OK but these camis are really intended for tandems rather than modern minis. We were lucky to get back up, depending on skills gained by the management during his misspent youth driving the unmade coach roads and bridle paths in Surrey and Hampshire.

We need a sense of place to do these trips. The monument and lighthouse were insignificant in themselves. But we have the satisfaction of having been there.

The main symbol of this island is the appropriately windswept juniper tree. We now climbed again, mainly on dirt roads, to the top of the island to see a forest of these. They did look good but it is hard to tell whether that is because we have seen so few trees in the last eight weeks. The management will certainly think of them in future when he is squashing juniper berries into his cooking.

We completed our circumnavigation of the island with spectacular views of Tenerife and Mount Teide. According to the book this is pretty unusual. The management would have enjoyed it more if he had taken into account the fact that cars need fuel. And unlike the tandem the fuel they need is only available at petrol stations of which there are only three on the island. Running on fumes we made it and returned the car.

 A gift from a local neighbour on the eve of Epiphany, a traditional time to give small gifts in Spain

Days 59, 60 and 61 January 5th, 6th and 7th at El Mocanal, El Hierro

We have now been here longer than we have stayed anywhere on any of our tours. It was not planned that way but happened because of ferry timetables and public holidays.

We are beginning to treat here like home and there are worse places to be. The casa is a beautifully converted stone building, possibly a farm house. At 480 metres high we have a fine outlook over the sea towards La Palma and Tenerife. It is five minutes walk to the food shops and the locals are friendly.

It is however a big adjustment for us as Northern Europeans to live like the locals. That is what we really need to do to enjoy this house properly. Even though it has more windows than our neighbours it still faces north. It is dark and shady whereas our natural inclination is to seek the light and sun. The locals also live outside but take shelter in the afternoon. We still tend to live indoors even when the temperature is the same in or out and go out in the afternoon. The stoker is somewhat more affected. We suppose that may have something to do with Manchester being wetter and darker than the management's south.

During these three days we did some pleasant local walks and rides. We are on a crossroads of the local donkey paths which were once the main communication routes. They are hard walking but very quiet and give some great views.

The tandem has been a bit neglected. We were fed up with punctures and the management's inability to fix the cause of the problem. At home he would just put in another front wheel and if this did not solve the problem it would at least eliminate one of the possible causes.

Every ride we do from here involves at least 600 metres of climb and of course a similar descent. We did one very enjoyable ride to a local swimming place. In desperation, on the way down the management really laid into the drag brake. This is a small diameter traditional hub brake in the front wheel. He has been reluctant to do this in the past as it generates a huge amount of heat. He was concerned it would melt the hub dynamo and possibly damage the bearings. It did get incredibly hot and smelt awful but none of the above things happened. He did think of lighting the trangia with it but while it would singe sticks it would not set them on fire.

The place we found on the shore is one of the more incredible examples of EC funding. From the nearest village wound 6 or 7 km of hairpin bend road cut into the mountainside. It was mainly single track but well surfaced. It maybe served 5 or 6 houses, probably holiday homes. Where it reaches the shore there are some lovely natural lava pools washed by the Atlantic rollers. There is a car park, sheltered picnic tables, BBQs and a kiosk (closed). A series of walkways, railings and steps have also been provided to make it easy to swim in the pools.

One would expect such a wonderful and expensive facility to be busy. Sufficient to say that the management swam in the crystal clear water naked. The only other person in the whole place was the stoker who had plenty of opportunity to laugh at the effects of the cold water.

On the return ride we managed to find a route which was less extreme than normal. We still had to do the climb but after the return up the zig zags we had about 15km of almost normal riding. Not acting like a human winch was very enjoyable for a change.

We mentioned how friendly the locals are despite our very limited Spanish. On 5th December the children receive small gifts of sweets and things and on the 6th presents. On the 5th our neighbour brought us a couple of pineapples and a lovely bunch of bananas from his smallholding. There was no question of him wanting payment. The 6th here was like Christmas Day in the UK with kids in the street playing with new toys and riding new bikes.

It just remained for us to do chores and catch up with correspondence before we leave tomorrow.

Day 62 January 8th El Mocanal, El Hierro to Los Cristianos, Tenerife

The management was bad tempered as usual on moving on day. It is not clear why as he likes moving on. Perhaps it is because he is too lazy to want to pack.

There was no particular rush today as the ferry was not until 4pm. The management was up in time to wave to the donkey with the man on its back. They were late making their way up the hill at 8.45am but even so the stoker has never seen them.

We pedalled out of the village on the back road, past the open all hours. That's one of those shops which still exist here which is behind a normal house door. If the door is shut you would need to be a local to find it.

Once on the main road we soon crossed the low ridge and descended into Ville de Valverde. Having done a few small jobs and taken refreshment the stoker went to the tourist office. By some miracle of scheduling and the coincidence that we were there at the right time we found it open. The stoker was able to claim our certificate stating that we had visited the most westerly point of the known world as it was in 1492.

We then descended 500 metres to the ferry port, managing this rather more slowly than the management would have liked. We did not however have any punctures although the drag brake did get very hot.

Waiting to board the ferry we had time to reflect on El Hierro. It is a very strange place. The main reason to visit is for the peace and quiet and the walking. Otherwise it is your average Canary island with nothing really special.

The island population is only 10,000 with some 1,000 visitor beds. The locals have what some Hebrideans would love, an extensive, fast, well surfaced road system. We hope, along with many sensible Hebrideans, that the latter never get it.

The EC must have spent a fortune on the roads here. The island is administered by Tenerife who presumably throw in the odd 10 or 15% seed money to get the grant. It is also really funny to see how the traffic engineers sitting in their offices in Madrid have planned the roads. Bearing in mind that it is normal to see one vehicle about every 10 minutes there is a plethora of signs. 'No left turns' are common and equally commonly ignored. There are also lots of those quirky Spanish right turn lay-bys where drivers go, or don't go, to turn left.

The EC has not stopped there. They have built a port for cruise liners and swimming areas just for us. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any coaches on the island for liner passengers' excursions. Even if there were coaches it would be difficult to find anywhere to take the kind of people who go on cruises. What's even worse is that despite the huge waste of money from our taxes there isn't even a usable local bus service.

We enjoyed the island. We are pleased that there are few or no concessions to tourism. The people are still very friendly and genuine. The feel of the island is much like the Hebrides. There is nothing exceptional to put your finger on. Both are nevertheless very special places. They will only stay that way if we stop throwing money at them.

The contrast of arriving in the slime of Los Cristianos was even more unpleasant than previously. At least it is the last time we should experience this dump.

Day 63 January 9th Los Cristianos to Granadilla, Tenerife

We have just finished Sarah Winterton's book Fingersmith. We were very grateful to get out of the hotel, fearing it might resemble the book's lunatic asylum. It better resembled an old people's home and you would clearly need to be a lunatic to stay voluntarily in one longer than absolutely necessary. Just a prison with different drugs.

The management cheered as we past the Los Cristianos town limit. Nearby Germans walking with Leki sticks thought he was mad. Few English get this far and probably none on foot. It made little odds as it is well known that to ride a tandem here you have to be mad.

This back road of escape was very steep. And even steeper than steep in places. Even so it was streets and miles better than the main road which is the coach route to the airport.

All too soon we joined the old coast main road. It is really a misnomer to call it a coast road as it tends to follow the coastal ridge about 500 metres up. It was superseded by a motorway but as usual still carried a good deal of traffic.

As the road was once the main working highway on the east of the island it serves many towns and villages. We always enjoy this kind of cycling. It is interesting seeing real life going on in the towns and the traffic does not go that fast in between.

We stopped for a longish lunch at a fine viewpoint with lots of seats and a café. We did however disgrace ourselves though fortunately there were few people around to see. There was a pleasant warm wind blowing which fanned the trangia into life beyond its capabilities. The meths boiled and made a very nasty mess of the white concrete seat it was on. What was worse was that it set the cigarette lighter we use on fire which then exploded with a loud bang.

The management risked his nine week beard to snuff the trangia. He then flicked the lighter onto the ground where it fizzled, melted and burnt for about 10 minutes. The stoker meanwhile withdrew to a safe distance, fearful that having survived the bang she now might not get any tea.

She need not have worried. Once it had cooled down a bit the management lit the trangia again. Out of the wind it performed just as if nothing had happened. Needless to say however we both watched it from a safe distance.

Rolling into Granadilla we found a sign to the casa rural and easily found our new hoose. With the help of our new neighbour we disturbed the caretaker during siesta. These Germans are brave, helpful and friendly. We were soon very comfortably installed for our final week.

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