To the Gold Coast for Gold
By Richard F. Burton
Public Domain Books
TO GRAND CANARY–LAS PALMAS, THE CAPITAL.
At noon (January 10) the British and African s.s. Senegal weighed for Grand Canary, which stood in unusually distinct relief to the east, and which, this time, was not moated by a tumbling sea. Usually it is; moreover, it lies hidden by a bank of French-grey clouds, here and there sun-gilt and wind-bleached. We saw the ’Pike’ bury itself under the blue horizon, at first cloaked in its wintry ermines and then capped with fleecy white nimbus, which confused itself with the snows.
I had now a good opportunity of observing my fellow-passengers bound down south. They consisted of the usual four classes–naval, military, colonial officials, and commercials. The latter I noted narrowly as the quondam good Shepherd of the so-called ’Palm-oil Lambs.’ All were young fellows without a sign of the old trader, and well-mannered enough. When returning homewards, however, their society was by no means so pleasant; it was noisy, and ’larky,’ besides being addicted to the dullest practical jokes, such as peppering beds. On board Senegal each sat at meat with his glass of Adam’s ale by his plate-side, looking prim, and grave, and precise as persons at a christening who are not in the habit of frequenting christenings. Captain Keene took the earliest opportunity of assuring me that since my time–indeed, since the last ten years–the Bights and the Bightsmen had greatly changed; that spirit-drinking was utterly unknown, and that ten-o’clock-go-to-bed life was the general rule. But this unnatural state of things did not last long. Wine, beer, and even Martell (three stars) presently reappeared; and I noted that the evening-chorus had preserved all its peculiar verve. The fact is that West Africa has been subjected to the hateful espionage, that prying into private affairs, which dates in Western India from the days of a certain nameless governor. Every attempt at jollification was reported to the houses at home, and often an evil rumour against a man went to Liverpool and returned to ’the Coast’ before it was known to himself and his friends in the same river. May all such dismal attempts to make Jack and Jill dull boys and girls fail as utterly!
Early in the afternoon we steamed past Galdar and La Guia, rival villages famed for cheeses on the north-western coast of lumpy Grand Canary, sheets of habitation gleaming white at the feet of their respective brown montañetas. The former was celebrated in local story; its Guanche guanarteme, or great chief, as opposed to the subordinate mencey, being one of the two potentates in ’Tameran,’ the self-styled ’Island of Braves.’ This, too, was the site of the Tahoro, or Tagoror, temple and senate-house of the ancients. The principal interest of these wild people is the mysterious foreknowledge of their fate that seems to have come to them by a manner of intuition, of uninspired prophecy. [Footnote: So in Candelaria of Tenerife the Virgin appeared in effigy to the shepherds of Chimisay in 1392, a century before the Norman Conquest, and dwelt fifty-four years amongst the Gentiles of Chinguaro. At least so say DD. Juan Nuñez de la Peña (Conquista i Antiguidades de la Gran Canaria, &c., Madrid, 1676); Antonio Viana (Antiguidades de las Islas Afortunadas, &c., Seville, 1604) in his heroic poem, and Fray Alonzo de Espinosa (Historia de la Aparicion y Milagres de la Imagem de N.S. de Candelaria). The learned and unprejudiced Canon Viera y Clavijo (Noticias de la Historia geral de las Islas de Canaria, 3 vols.) bravely doubts whether reason and sane criticism had flourished together in those times.]
In the clear winter-air we could distinctly trace the bold contour of the upper heights tipped by the central haystack, El Nublo, a giant trachytic monolith. We passed Confital Bay, whose ’comfits’ are galettes of stone, and gave a wide berth to the Isleta and its Sphinx’s head. This rocky peninsula, projecting sharply from the north-eastern chord of the circle, is outlined by a dangerous reef, and drops suddenly into 130 fathoms. Supported on the north by great columns of basalt, it is the terminus of a secondary chain, trending north-east–south-west, and meeting the Cumbre, or highest ground, whose strike is north-west–south-east. Like the knuckle-bone of the Tenerife ham it is a contorted mass of red and black lavas and scoriae, with sharp slides and stone-floods still distinctly traceable. Of its five eruptive cones the highest, which supports the Atalaya Vieja, or old look-out, now the signal-station, rises to 1,200 feet. A fine lighthouse, with detached quarters for the men, crowns another crater-top to the north. The grim block wants water at this season, when the thinnest coat of green clothes its black-red forms. La Isleta appears to have been a burial-ground of the indigenes, who, instead of stowing away their mummies in caves, built detached sepulchres and raised tumuli of scoriae over their embalmed dead. As at Peruvian Arica, many remains have been exposed by modern earthquakes and landslips.
Rounding the Islet, and accompanied by curious canoes like paper-boats, and by fishing-craft which bounded over the waves like dolphins, we spun by the Puerto de la Luz, a line of flat-topped whitewashed houses, the only remarkable feature being the large and unused Lazaretto. A few barques still lie off the landing-place, where I have been compelled more than once to take refuge. In my day it was proposed to cut a ship-canal through the low neck of barren sand, which bears nothing but a ’chapparal’ of tamarisk. During the last twenty years, however, the isthmus has been connected with the mainland by a fine causeway, paved with concrete, and by an excellent highroad. The sand of the neck, thrown by the winds high up the cliffs which back the city, evidently dates from the days when La Isleta was an island. It contrasts sharply with the grey basaltic shingle that faces the capital and forms the ship-building yard.
We coasted along the yellow lowland, with its tormented background of tall cones, bluffs, and falaises; and we anchored, at 4 P.M., in the roadstead of Las Palmas, north of the spot where our s.s. Senegal whilom broke her back. The capital, fronting east, like Santa Cruz, lies at the foot of a high sea-wall, whose straight and sloping lines betray their submarine origin: in places it is caverned for quarries and for the homes of the troglodyte artisans; and up its flanks straggle whitewashed boxes towards the local necropolis. The dryness of the atmosphere destroys aerial perspective; and the view looks flat as a scene-painting. The terraced roofs suggest to Britishers that the top-floor has been blown off. Las Palmas is divided into two halves, northern and southern, by a grim black wady, like the Madeiran ribeiras, [Footnote: According to the usual law of the neo-Latin languages, ’ribeiro’ (masc.) is a small cleft, ’ribeira’ (fem.) is a large ravine.] the ’Giniguada,’ or Barranco de la Ciudad, the normal grisly gashes in the background curtain. The eye-striking buildings are the whitewashed Castillo del Rey, a flat fort of antique structure crowning the western heights and connected by a broken wall with the Casa Mata, or platform half-way down: it is backed by a larger and stronger work, the Castillo de Sant’ Ana. The next notability is the new theatre, large enough for any European capital. Lastly, an immense and gloomy pile, the Cathedral rises conspicuously from the white sheet of city, all cubes and windows. Clad in a suit of sombrest brown patched with plaster, with its domelet and its two towers of basalt very far apart. This fane is unhappily fronted westward, the high altar facing Jerusalem. And thus it turns its back upon the world of voyagers.
In former days, when winds and waves were high, we landed on the sands near the dark grey Castillo de la Luz, in the Port of Light. Thence we had to walk, ride, or drive–when a carriage was to be hired–over the four kilomètres which separated us from the city. We passed the Castles of San Fernando and La Catalina to the villas and the gardens planted with thin trees that outlie the north; and we entered the capital by a neat bridge thrown over the Barranco de la Mata, where a wall from the upper castle once kept out the doughty aborigines. Thence we fell into the northern quarter, La Triana, and found shabby rooms and shocking fare either at the British Hotel (Mrs. Bishop) or the Hôtel Monson–both no more. Now we land conveniently, thanks to Dons Santiago Verdugo and Juan Leon y Castilhos, at a spur of the new pier with the red light, to the north of the city, and find ourselves at once in the streets. For many years this comfortable mole excited the strongest opposition: it was wasting money, and the stones, carelessly thrown in, would at once be carried off by the sea and increase the drenching breakers which outlie the beach. Time has, as usual, settled the dispute. It is now being prolonged eastwards; but again they say that the work is swept away as soon as done; that the water is too deep, and even that sinking a ship loaded with stones would not resist the strong arm of Eurus, who buries everything in surf. The mole is provided with the normal Sanidad, or health office, with solid magazines, and with a civilised tramway used to transport the huge cubes of concrete. At the tongue-root is a neat little garden, wanting only shade: two dragon-trees here attract the eye. Thence we pass at once into the main line, La Triana, which bisects the commercial town. This reminiscence of the Seville suburb begins rather like a road than a street, but it ends with the inevitable cobble-stones. The trottoirs, we remark, are of flags disposed lengthways; in the rival Island they lie crosswise. The thoroughfares are scrupulously named, after Spanish fashion; in Fernando Po they labelled even the bush-roads. The substantial houses with green balconies are white, bound in brown edgings of trachyte, basalt, and lava: here and there a single story of rude construction stands like a dwarf by the side of its giant neighbour.
The huge and still unfinished cathedral is well worth a visit. It is called after Santa Ana, a personage in this island. When Grand Canary had been attacked successively and to scant purpose by De Béthencourt (1402), by Diego de Herrera (1464), and by Diego de Silva, the Catholic Queen and King sent, on January 24, 1474, Don Juan Rejon to finish the work. This Conquistador, a morose and violent man, was marching upon the west of the island, where his reception would have been of the warmest, when he was met at the site of the present Ermita de San Antonio by an old fisherman, who advised him of his danger. He took warning, fortified his camp, which occupied the site of the present city, beat off the enemy, and defeated, at the battle of Giniguada, a league of chiefs headed by the valiant and obstinate Doramas. The fisherman having suddenly disappeared, incontinently became a miraculous apparition of the Virgin’s mother. Rejon founded the cathedral in her honour; but he was not destined to rest in it. He was recalled to Spain. He attacked Grand Canary three times, and as often failed; at last he left it, and after all his campaigns he was killed and buried at Gomera. Nor, despite Saint Anne, did the stout islanders yield to Pedro de Vera (1480-83) till they had fought an eighty years’ fight for independence.
The cathedral, which Mr. P. Barker Webb compares with the Church of St. Sulpice, is built of poor schiste and bad sandstone-rubble, revetted with good lava and basalt. The latter material here takes in age a fine mellow creamy coat, as in the ’giant cities’ of the Hauran, the absurd title of Mr. Porter. The order is Ionic below, Corinthian above, and the pile sadly wants a dome instead of a pepper-caster domelet. One of the towers was finished only forty-five years ago, and a Scotch merchant added, much to his disgust, a weather-cock. In the interior green, blue, and yellow glass tempers the austerity of the whitewashed walls and the gloom of the grey basaltic columns, bindings, and ceiling-ribbings. Concerning the ceiling, which prettily imitates an archwork of trees, they tell the following tale. The Bishop and Chapter, having resolved in 1500 to repair the work of Don Diego Montaude, entrusted the work to Don Diego Nicholas Eduardo, of Laguna, an Hispano-Hibernian–according to the English. This young architect built with so light a hand that the masons struck work till he encouraged them by sitting beneath his own creation. The same, they say, was done at Belem, Lisbon. The interior is Gothic, unlike all others in the islands; and the piers, lofty and elegant, imitate palm-fronds, a delicate flattery to ’Las Palmas’ and a good specimen of local invention. There are a nave and two aisles: four noble transversal columns sustaining the choir-vault adorn the walls. The pulpit and high altar are admirable as the choir; the only eyesores are the diminutive organ and the eleven side-chapels with their caricatures of high art. The large and heavily-railed choir in mid-nave, so common in the mother country, breaks the unity of the place and dwarfs its grand proportions. After the manner of Spanish churches, which love to concentrate dazzling colour at the upper end, the high altar is hung with crimson velvet curtains; and its massive silver lamps (one Italian, presented by Cardinal Ximenes), salvers, altar-facings, and other fixings are said to have cost over 24,000 francs. The lectern is supposed to have been preserved from the older cathedral.
There are other curiosities in this building. The sacristy, supported by side-walls on the arch principle, and ceilinged with stone instead of wood, is shown as a minor miracle. The vestry contains gigantic wardrobes, full of ladies’ delights–marvellous vestments, weighted with massive braidings of gold and silver, most delicate handwork in every imaginable colour and form. There are magnificent donations of crucifixes and candlesticks, cups, goblets, and other vessels required by the church services–all the result of private piety. In the Chapel of St. Catherine, built at his own expense, lies buried Cairasco, the bard whom Cervantes recognised as his master in style. His epitaph, dating A.D. 1610, reads–
Lyricen et vates, toto celebratus in orbe, Hic jacet inclusus, nomine ad astra volans.
A statue to him was erected opposite the old ’Cairasco Theatre’ in 1876. Under the grand altar, with other dignitaries of the cathedral, are the remains of the learned and amiable historian of the isles, Canon José de Viera y Clavigo, born at Lanzarote, poet, ’elegant translator’ of Buffon, lexicographer, and honest man.
Directly facing the cathedral-façade is the square, headed by the Ayuntamiento, an Ionic building which would make a first-rate hotel. Satirical Britishers declare that it was copied from one of Day and Martin’s labels. The old townhall was burnt in 1842, and of its valuable documents nothing was saved. On the right of the plaza is an humble building, the episcopal palace, founded in 1578 by Bishop Cristobal de la Vega. It was rebuilt by his successor, Cristobal de la Camara, who forbade the pretty housekeeper, prohibited his priests from entering nunneries, and prescribed public confessionals–a measure still much to be desired. But he must have been a man of extreme views, for he actually proscribed gossip. This was some thirty years after Admiral van der Does and his Dutchmen fired upon the city and were beaten off with a loss of 2,000 men.
South of the cathedral, and in Colegio Street (so called from the Augustine college, [Footnote: There is still a college of that name where meteorological observations are regularly made.] now converted into a tribunal), we find a small old house with heavily barred windows–the ex-Inquisition. This also has been desecrated into utility. The Holy Office began in 1504, and became a free tribunal in 1567. Its palace was here founded in 1659 by Don José Balderan, and restored in 1787 by Don Diego Nicholas Eduardo, whose fine fronting staircase has been much admired. The Holy Tribunal broke up in 1820, when, the Constitution proving too strong for St. Dominic, the college-students mounted the belfry; and, amid the stupefaction of the shuddering multitude, joyously tolled its death-knell. All the material was sold, even the large leather chairs with gilt nails used for ecclesiastical sitting. ’God defend us from its resurrection,’ mutters the civil old huissier, as he leads us to the dungeons below through the mean court with its poor verandah propped on wooden posts. Part of it facing the magistrates’ chapel was turned into a prison for petty malefactors; and the two upper salas were converted into a provisional Audiencia, or supreme court, large halls hung with the portraits of the old governors. The new Audiencia at the bottom of Colegio Street, built by M. Botta at an expense of 20,000 dollars, has a fine court with covered cloisters above and an open gallery below, supported by thin pillars of basalt.
Resuming our walk down La Triana southwards, we note the grand new theatre, not unlike that of Dresden: it wants only opening and a company. Then we cross the Giniguada wady by a bridge with a wooden floor, iron railings, and stone piers, and enter the Viñeta, or official, as opposed to the commercial, town. On the south side is the fish-market, new, pretty, and gingerbread. It adjoins the general market, a fine, solid old building like that of Santa Cruz, containing bakers’ and butchers’ stalls, and all things wanted by the housekeeper. A little beyond it the Triana ends in an archway leading to a square court, under whose shaded sides mules and asses are tethered. We turn to the right and gain Balcones Street, where stands the comfortable hotel of Don Ramon Lopez. Most soothing to the eye is the cool green-grown patio after the prospect of the hot and barren highlands which back the Palm-City.
Walking up the right flank of the Giniguada Ribeira, we cross the old stone bridge with three arches and marble statues of the four seasons. It places us in the Plazuela, the irregular space which leads to the Mayor de Triana, the square of the old theatre. The western side is occupied by a huge yellow building, the old Church and Convent of San Francisco, now turned into barracks. In parts it is battlemented; and its belfry, a wall of basalt pierced with a lancet-arch to hang bells, hints at earthquakes. An inscription upon the old theatre, the usual neat building of white and grey-brown basalt, informs us that it was built in 1852, ad honorem of two deputies. But Santa Cruz, the modern capital, has provided herself with a larger and a better house; ergo Las Palmas, the old capital, must fain do the same. The metropolis of Grand Canary, moreover, claims to count more noses than that of Tenerife. To the west of the older theatre, in the same block, is the casino, club, and ball-room, with two French billiard-tables and smoking-rooms. The old hotel attached to the theatre has now ceased to exist.
On the opposite side of the square lies the little Alameda promenade, the grounds once belonging to St. Francis. The raised walk, shaded by a pretty arch-way of palm-trees, is planted with myrtles, dahlias, and bignonias. It has all the requisites of its kind–band-stand, green-posted oil-lamps, and scrolled seats of brown basalt. Round this square rise the best houses, mostly new; as in the Peninsula, however, as well as in both archipelagos, all have shops below. We are beginning to imitate this excellent practice of utilising the unwholesome ground-floor in the big new hotels of London. Two large houses are, or were, painted to mimic brick, things as hideous as anything further north.
In this part of the Triana lived the colony of English merchants, once so numerous that they had their own club and gymnasium. All had taken the local colouring, and were more Spanish than the Spaniards. A celebrated case of barratry was going on in 1863, the date of my first visit, when Lloyds sent out a detective and my friend Capt. Heathcote, I.N., to conduct the legal proceedings. I innocently asked why the British vice-consul was not sufficient, and was assured that no resident could interfere, alias dared do his duty, under pain of social ostracism and a host of enmities. In those days a man who gained his lawsuit went about weaponed and escorted, as in modern Ireland, by a troop of armed servants. Landlord-potting also was by no means unknown; and the murder of the Marquess de las Palmas caused memorable sensation.
Indescribable was the want of hospitality which characterised the Hispano-Englishmen of Las Palmas. I have called twice upon a fellow-countryman without his dreaming of asking me upstairs. Such shyness may be understood in foreigners, who often entertain wild ideas concerning what an Englishman expects. But these people were wealthy; nor were they wholly expatriated. Finally, it was with the utmost difficulty that I obtained from one of them a pound of home-grown arrowroot for the sick child of a friend.
On the other hand, I have ever met with the greatest civility from the Spanish Canarians. I am especially indebted to Don J. B. Carlo, the packet-agent, who gave me copies of ’El Museo Canario, Revista de la Sociedad del mismo nombre’ (Las Palmas)–the transactions published by the Museum of Las Palmas. Two mummies of Canarian origin have lately been added to the collection, and the library has become respectable. The steamers are now so hurried that I had no time to inspect it, nor to call upon Don Gregorio Chil y Naranjo, President of the Anthropological Society. This savant, whose name has become well known in Paris, is printing at Las Palmas his ’Estudios Historicos,’ &c., the outcome of a life’s labour. Don Agustin Millares is also publishing ’La Historia de las Islas Canarias,’ in three volumes, each of 400 to 450 pages.
I made three short excursions in Grand Canary to Telde, to the Caldera, and to Doramas, which showed me the formation of the island. My notes taken at the time must now be quoted. En route for the former, we drove past the large city-hospital: here in old times was another strong wall, defending the southern part, and corresponding with the northern or Barranco line. The road running to the south-south-west was peculiarly good; the tunnel through the hill-spur suggested classical and romantic Posilippo. It was well parapeted near the sea, and it had heavy cuttings in the white tosca, a rock somewhat resembling the calcaire grossier of the Paris basin. This light pumice-like stone, occasionally forming a conglomerate or pudding, and slightly effervescing with acids, is fertile where soft, and where hard quite sterile. Hereabouts lay Gando, one of the earliest forts built by the Conquistadores. We then bent inland, or westward, crossed barren stony ground, red and black, and entered the pretty and fertile valley with its scatter of houses known as La Vega de Ginamar.
I obtained a guide, and struck up the proper right of a modern lava-bed which does not reach the sea. The path wound around rough hills, here and there scattered with fig-trees and vines, with lupines, euphorbias, and other wild growths. From the summit of the southern front we sighted the Cima de Ginamar, popularly called El Pozo (the Well). It is a volcanic blowing-hole of oval shape, about fifty feet in long diameter, and the elliptical mouth discharged to the north the lava-bed before seen. Apparently it is connected with the Bandana Peak, further west. Here the aborigines martyred sundry friars before the Conquistadores ’divided land and water’ amongst them. The guide declared that the hole must reach the sea, which lies at least 1,200 feet below; that the sound of water is often to be heard in it, and that men, let down to recover the corpses of cattle, had been frightened away by strange sights and sounds. He threw in stones, explaining that they must be large, otherwise they lodge upon the ledges. I heard them dash, dash, dash from side to side, at various intervals of different depths, till the pom-om-m subsided into silence. The crevasses showed no sign of the rock-pigeon (Columba livia), a bird once abounding. Nothing could be weirder than the effect of the scene in clear moonlight: the contrast of snowy beams and sable ground perfectly suited the uncanny look and the weird legends of the site.
Beyond the Cima we made the gay little town of Telde, which lodges some 4,000 souls, entering it by a wide fiumara, over which a bridge was then building. The streets were mere lines of scattered houses, and the prominent buildings were the white dome of San Pedro and San Juan with its two steeples of the normal grey basalt. Near the latter lay the little Alameda, beggar-haunted as usual. On the north side of the Barranco rose a caverned rock inhabited by the poor. We shall see this troglodytic feature better developed elsewhere.
To visit the Caldera de Bandana, three miles from the city, we hired a carriage with the normal row of three lean rats, which managed, however, to canter or gallop the greater part of the way. The boy-driver, Agustin, was a fair specimen of his race, obstinate as a Berber or a mule. As it was Sunday he wanted to halt at every venta (pub), curioseando–that is, admiring the opposite sex. Some of the younger girls are undoubtedly pretty, yet they show unmistakable signs of Guanche blood. The toilette is not becoming: here the shawl takes the place of the mantilla, and the head-covering, as in Tenerife, is capped by the hideous billycock. To all my remonstrances Don Agustin curtly replied with the usual island formula, ’Am I a slave?’ This class has a surly, grumbling way, utterly wanting the dignity of the lower-order Spaniard and the Moor; and it is to be managed only by threatening to withhold the propinas (tip). But the jarvey, like the bath-man, the barber, and generally the body-servant and the menial classes which wait upon man’s person, are not always models of civility.
We again passed the hospital and ascended the new zigzag to the right of the Giniguada. The torrent-bed, now bright green with arum and pepper, grows vegetables, maize, and cactus. Its banks bear large plantations of the dates from which Las Palmas borrows her pretty Eastern names. In most places they are mere brabs, and, like the olive, they fail to fruit. The larger growths are barbarously docked, as in Catholic countries generally; and the fronds are reduced to mere brooms and rats’-tails. The people are not fond of palms; the shade and the roots, they say, injure their crops, and the tree is barely worth one dollar per annum.
At the top of the Cuesta de San Roque, which reminded me of its namesake near Gibraltar, I found a barren ridge growing only euphorbia. The Barranco Seco, on the top, showed in the sole a conspicuously big house which has no other view but the sides of a barren trough. This was the ’folly’ of an eccentric nobleman, who preferred the absence to the company of his friends.
Half an hour’s cold, bleak drive placed us at the Tafira village. Here the land yields four crops a year, two of maize and two of potatoes. Formerly worth $100 per acre, the annual value had been raised by cochineal to $500. All, however, depends upon water, which is enormously dear. The yelping curs have mostly bushy tails, like those which support the arms of the Canary Islands. The grey and green finches represent our ’domestic warbler’ (Fringilla canaria), which reached England about 1500, when a ship with a few birds on board had been wrecked off Elba.
[Footnote: The canary bird builds, on tall bushes rather than trees, a nest of moss, roots, feathers and rubbish, where it lays from four to six pale-blue eggs. It moults in August and September; pairs in February, and sometimes hatches six times in a season. The natives declare that the wild birds rarely survive the second year of captivity; yet they do not seem to suffer from it, as they begin to sing at once when caged. Mr. Addison describes the note as ’between that of the skylark and the nightingale,’ and was surprised to find that each flock has a different song–an observation confirmed by the people and noted by Humboldt (p. 87).]
The country folk were habited in shirts, drawers derived from the Moors, and tasseled caps of blue stuff, big enough for carpet-bags. The vine still covered every possible slope of black soil, and the aloes, crowned with flowers, seemed to lord it over the tamarisks, the hemlocks, and the nightshades.
Upon this monte, or wooded height, most of the gentry have country-houses, the climate being 12 degrees (Fahr.) cooler than by the sea. La Brigida commands a fine view of the Isleta, with its black sand and white foam, leek-green waters upon the reefs, and deep offing of steely blue.
Leaving the carriage at the forking road, I mounted, after a bad descent, a rough hill, and saw to the left the Pico de Bandana, a fine regular cone 1,850 feet high. A group of a few houses, El Pueblo de la Caldera, leads to the famous Cauldron, which Sir Charles Lyell visited by mistake for that of Palma. Travellers compare it with the lakes of Nemi and Albano: I found it tame after the cup of Fernando Po with its beautiful lining of hanging woods. It has only the merit of regularity. The unbroken upper rim measures about half a mile in diameter, and the lower funnel 3,000 feet in circumference. The sides of piedra pomez (pumice) are lined and ribbed with rows of scoriaceous rock as regular as amphitheatre-seats, full 1,000 feet deep, and slope easily into a flat sole, which some are said to have reached on horseback. A copious fountain, springing from the once fiery inside, is collected below for the use of the farm-house, El Fondo de la Caldera. The fields have the effect of a little Alpine tarn of bright green. Here wild pigeons are sometimes caught at night, and rabbits and partridges are or were not extinct. I ascended Bandana Peak to the north-north-east, the piton of this long extinct volcano, and enjoyed the prospect of the luxuriant vegetation, the turquoise sea, and the golden sands about Maspalomas, the southernmost extremity of Grand Canary.
Returning to the road-fork, I mounted a hill on the right hand and sighted the Atalaya, another local lion. Here a perpendicular face of calcareous rock fronts a deep valley, backed by a rounded hill, with the blue chine of El Cumbre in the distance: this is the highest of the ridge, measuring 8,500 feet. The wall is pierced, like the torrent-side of Mar Saba (Jerusalem), with caves that shelter a troglodyte population numbering some 2,000 souls. True to their Berber origin, they seek refuge in the best of savage lodgings from heat, cold, and wind. The site rises some 2,000 feet above sea-level, and the strong wester twists the trees. Grand Canary preserves more of these settlements than Tenerife; they are found in many parts of the island, and even close to the capital. Madeira, on the other hand, affects them but little. We must not forget that they still exist at St. Come, within two hours’ rail of Paris, where my learned and lamented friend Dr. Broca had a country-house.
Descending a rough, steep slope, I entered the upper tier of the settlement, where the boxes were built up with whitewashed fronts. The caves are mostly divided by matting into ’buts’ and ’bens.’ Heaps of pots, antiquated in shape and somewhat like the Etruscan, showed the trade of the place, and hillocks of potatoes the staff of life. The side-walls were hollowed for shelves, and a few prints of the Virgin and other sacred subjects formed the decoration. Settles and rude tables completed the list of movables; and many had the huge bed affected by the Canarian cottager, which must be ascended with a run and a jump. The predatory birds, gypsies and others, flocked down from their nests, clamouring for cuartitos and taking no refusal.
It occupies a week to ride round the island, whose circumference measures about 120 miles. I contented myself with a last excursion to Doramas, which then supplied meat, cheese, and grain to Tenerife. My guide was old Antonio Martinez, who assured me that he was the ’most classical man’ in the island; and with two decent hill-ponies we struck to the north-west. There is little to describe in the tour. The Cuesta Blanca showed us the regular cones of Arúcas. Beyond Tenoya town I inspected a crateriform ravine, and Monte Cardones boasted a honeycomb of caves like the Atalaya. The fine rich vega of Arúcas, a long white settlement before whose doors rose drying heaps of maize and black cochineal, was a pleasant, smiling scene. All the country settlements are built pretty much upon the same plan: each has its Campo Santo with white walls and high grey gate, through which the coffin is escorted by Gaucho-like riders, who dismount to enter. Doramas proved to be a fine monte, with tree-stumps, especially chestnuts, somewhat surprising in a region of ferns and furze. Near the little village of Friga I tasted an agua agria, a natural sodawater, which the people hold to be of sovereign value for beast as well as man. It increases digestion and makes happy mothers, like the fountain of Villaflor on the Tenerifan ’Pike ’-slope. I found it resembling an eau gazeuse left in the open all night. We then pushed on to Teror, famous for turkeys, traversed the high and forested northern plateau, visited Galdar and Guia of the cheeses, and rode back by Bañaderos Bay and the Cuesta da Silva, renowned in olden island story.
These three days gave me a fair general view of Grand Canary. The Cumbre, or central plateau, whose apex is Los Pexos (6,400 feet), well wooded with pines and Alpines, collects moisture in abundance. From this plateau barrancos, or ravine-valleys, said to number 103, radiate quaquaversally. Their bottoms, becoming more and more level as they near the sea, are enriched by gushing founts, and are unrivalled for fertility, while the high and stony intervening ridges are barren as Arabia Deserta. Even sun and rain cannot fertilise the dividing walls of the rich and riant vegas. Here, as at Madeira, and showing even a better likeness, the tierra caliente is Egypt, the mediania (middle-heights) are Italy, and the upper mesetas, the cloud-compelling table-lands, are the bleak north of Europe plus a quasi-tropical sun.