What now seems an awful long time ago I used to like going on holiday to the Canary Islands, that agreeable part of Spain which is located just off the north-western African coast and in December 1983, before I was even thirty years old, I flew to Lanzarote with a group of friends with the intention of having a pre-Christmas party week in the sun.
We landed at a sunny but windy Arrecife airport around about mid-morning and the Cosmos holiday transport then drove us the short distance to our accommodation in the resort of Puerto del Carmen. I liked it immediately with its low level construction, natural building materials and the paintwork everywhere a uniform green, in complimentary harmony with the environment and the landscape. At this point my only previous visit to Spain had been to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca and this place was in total contrast to the high rise world that I was to a certain extent anticipating.
The explanation for this building restraint is the achievement of the artist and architect Cesar Manrique who was born in Arrecife in 1919. He was passionate about his island and successfully lobbied the local authorities to introduce building controls which prevented the excesses of neighbouring Gran Canaria and Tenerife which from the 1960s on were busy trying to emulate the costas of the mainland in an orgy of high rise concrete and steel construction. Manrique had a major influence on the planning regulations in Lanzarote, when he recognised its tourist potential and lobbied successfully to encourage sympathetic development of tourism.
As a result of this sustainable development, ten years or so after my visit, Lanzarote was named a UNESCO biosphere site which is a status that is awarded in recognition that a place can demonstrate a balanced relationship between people and nature and of the 621 biosphere sites around the world, Lanzarote is the only entire island to win the prestigious classification.
The UNESCO website praises the island’s ecological charms, including a profusion of unique and endangered species and it praises the way that “…the idea of mass tourism was rejected and, under the influence of the celebrated local artist César Manrique, priority has been given to blend tourist infrastructure with the beautiful but inhospitable environment.”
I am going to fast-forward now for a short while because sadly there are always corrupt people who are prepared to take advantage of these opportunities and recently Lanzarote has been rocked by building scandals and corruption and since May 2009, police have arrested at least twenty-four politicians and businessmen, including the former president of the Lanzarote provincial government and the former mayor of Arrecife in connection with illegal building permits that have led UNESCO to threaten withdrawal of the status if the concept has been compromised. The Canary Island Supreme Court has declared that twenty-four hotels have been illegally built in coastal resorts such as Playa Blanca, eight of which are modern luxury hotels that qualified for a total of €23.6m in EU grants, partly thanks to the biosphere status. The EU anti-corruption office has demanded the money be returned.
Anyway, back now to 1983 and after we had settled into our first floor apartment we wasted no time in getting familiar with the bars of Puerto del Carmen and we took a stroll along the rather untidy promenade behind the black sand beach and found somewhere for lunch and in the afternoon, encouraged by the fine weather we made our way to the sand and spent some time swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. I expect Puerto del Carmen has changed rather a lot in thirty years but then it was small and friendly and we enjoyed ourselves there.
After a couple of days of visiting the beach and sitting around in bars we decided to do some sightseeing around the island so we walked into the commercial area of Puerto Del Carmen and found a car hire office with the sort of prices that suited our budget – cheap – and you only get what you pay for of course because being at the lower end of the scale we were allocated a clapped out old grey/blue Daihatsu Jeep which regardless of the fact that it was completely worn out seemed perfect for what we had in mind.
First things first though and after taking possession of the rattling bone shaker we had to quickly find a garage because the fuel indicator needle was hovering menacingly somewhere just below empty! This seemed to irritate my brother Richard more than the rest of us and he immediately declared an intention to take it back in the same state. We found a petrol station put a small amount of fuel in the tank and drove out of the town towards the arid stretch of black lava fields, glittering salt marshes and sweeping coastal mountains beyond.