Island Of The Moon
It was early autumn 1730 when the once fertile island of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, was rocked by a violent volcanic eruption near the town of Yaiza. The stunned local people couldn’t have possibly known it would be the first in a series of eruptions that would last until April 16, 1736—more than five and a half years! Don Andres Lorenzo Curbelo, the priest of Yaiza, wrote this terrifying eyewitness account.
"On September 1st, 1730, between 9 and 10PM, at 11 Kms. from Yaiza, the ground close to Timanfaya suddenly opened up. In the first night a huge mountain grew out of the ground and, from its peak, enormous flames that kept burning for 19 days could be seen. On the 18th of October, three new cracks appeared on the top of Santa Catalina; from them thick clouds of smoke emerged and spread over the whole island, accompanied by great amounts of cinder, sand and ashes that fell to the ground covering a large area."
Over the next five years more than 100 volcanic peaks, ranging from small hornitos to major volcanic cones, emerged from the land. Seen from the air today, they appear as a string of lunar pearls creating the spine of this island that measures only 35 miles by 15 miles. It was the longest-lasting volcanic event in recorded history. And it left behind not a wasted and uninhabitable land, but rather an island of striking natural beauty, utterly unlike its neighbors. From this rattling destruction emerged a thriving, carefully preserved infrastructure.
The entire country of Spain has only fourteen national parks. Four are in the Canary Islands. Montanas del Fuego (Mountains of Fire) form the central core of Timanfaya National Park, one of the must-see stops when exploring the island. The park can be enjoyed on foot, by vehicle or, most uniquely, by lurching camel. The presence of camels on the island is variously ascribed to the original inhabitants who may have been related to the Berbers of Morocco, and to the first conquering army of Juan de Betancourt who claimed the island for Spain in 1402.
In the 18th century, camels were used like tanks in defense of the island against pirates. Driven forward in ranks abreast, they simply pushed the invaders back into the sea. As recently as fifty years ago there were over 6,000 camels on the island, but the decline in agriculture and the arrival of other conveyances has reduced their number to a mere 300.
However they arrived, camels are a most appropriate means of conveyance in this volcanic desert. And those who choose to travel by camel will be further pleased by the adoption of the “English Chair”, a rather friendly wooden saddle with a seat on each side of the camel’s hump that accommodates two passengers at once.
Of the more unusual visual aspects of Lanzarote, the vineyards would rank first, surely. You see, the volcanic eruptions buried forever the soils that once supported a robust grain growing industry. The availability of grain had made Lanzarote a necessary provisioning stop for ships heading from Europe to the New World. Following the eruptions, resilient islanders discovered their new volcanic soil was ideal for wine grapes.
It has long been known among vintners that grape vines benefit from a good struggle and the granular volcanic rock provided plenty of that. Ingenious farmers soon realized it also acted as a porous mulch, capturing the sparse moisture in their arid land and feeding it to their vines before it could evaporate. They further protected their vines from wind and dust by planting not in the rows typical of vineyards the world over but in shallow round pans dug out of the black soil. These pans were then surrounded by low, rock walls and the effect is one of thousands of little craters polka-dotting the hillsides, each with a lonely vine at its center.
The result was Malvasia or Malmsy, a sweet, fortified wine that traveled well in ships and was most popular in Elizabethan England. Three hundred years later, these same wineries produce dry wines that are more in keeping with today’s wine drinkers’ tastes.
If there is a “father” of modern Lanzarote, Cesar Manrique must be it. Their George Washington. As the rest of the Canary Islands (along with much of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline) were succumbing to the rapid build up of high rise tourist hotels and budget attractions that began in the 1960s, Manrique, through his own and his family’s interests and connections, was able to successfully lobby for local regulations that prevented tall buildings, outdoor advertising, and other man-made “offenses” to the natural attractiveness of his native island.
As an architect, interior designer, painter and sculptor, Manrique’s imprint can be seen everywhere. He was a one-man architectural committee who persuaded homeowners to paint their homes with harmonious colors. The artist’s house and studio were created out of five volcanic “bubbles” in solid rock and is another of Lanzarote’s must-sees. Manrique’s efforts helped Lanzarote become the only island ever named as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.