Lanzarote: Uncovering its hidden charms
Away from the commercialised parts of Lanzarote, it's easy to see what seduced Omar Sharif in the Seventies, says Adrian Bridge .
There is a legend told in Lanzarote involving Omar Sharif, a game of bridge and a wonderful house full of curves and caves that transported all who entered it to Arabia and the 1,001 nights.
Sharif, at his heart-throb prime at the time, caught a glimpse of an imposing house built into a rock face above the village of Nazaret during a stay on Lanzarote for the making of the 1973 film The Mysterious Island. It was love at first sight, so the legend runs: as soon as he saw the house, referred to thereafter as LagOmar, he bought it on the spot.
His ownership was to be short-lived (and never actually consummated). Sam Benady, the British developer behind LagOmar, was determined to get it back and, knowing of Sharif’s passion for bridge, challenged him to a game, during the course of which the actor recklessly gambled the house away.
The tale is undoubtedly apocryphal. But that house still stands, is still rather wonderful – and is now quite shamelessly marketed as “Casa Omar Sharif”, a treasure trove of a museum that still transports all who enter it into a world of folly and fantasy.
My own flight of fantasy began in the stylish restaurant/bar overlooking the mini-lagoon at the base of the rock face on which LagOmar is built. Beatriz van Hoff , my hostess, told of the time she and her husband first saw the house in the mid Eighties – and of how they too were smitten. Unlike Sharif, they resolved to live in it for real – and to add the bar/restaurant which in time would be turned into a venue for jazz concerts and art displays.
There is a funkiness and sophistication here sharply at odds with the more heavily commercialised, touristy parts of an island which, since Sharif was here, has claimed a very special spot in the hearts of holidaymakers. There is fun, too: secret stairways and alcoves; a walkway over running water; exotically carved chimney pieces and artworks fashioned from old buoys rescued from shipwrecks. And around each corner is a new and surprising vista: of palm-tree-filled courtyards and architectural quirkiness; of sand and red-hued rocks; farther afield, of silently majestic volcanic peaks; of the blue shades of the Atlantic itself.
For a moment I saw Lanzarote as Sharif himself might have done: an island of mystique indeed – and of extraordinary energy, light and power. Mass tourism had undoubtedly left its mark (for every LagOmar there are 10 “Snoopy’s Bars” offering Sunday roast and curry and chips and live karaoke) but there are moments when the raw beauty of the island still shines through.
Inevitably, the house above Nazaret bears the imprint of the man who even today, nearly 21 years after his untimely death in a road accident, remains the colossus of Lanzarote: César Manrique , painter, sculptor, architect, gardener, photographer – and impassioned crusader for the preservation of the unique landscape from which he drew inspiration all his life.
Manrique had offered advice on how best to build a house that “followed the curves” of the rock face, introducing man-made artistry into a dramatic natural setting. But then Manrique himself had pioneered the genre just a few miles down the road with his own home – an extraordinary construction in the middle of the lava field left from the huge series of volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736 that so transformed Lanzarote and which still, geologically, define it today.
His home and former studio – the César Manrique Foundation at Taro de Tahiche – is one of the island’s greatest sights, a genuinely awe-inducing demonstration of what can be created from the most inhospitable of terrains. Split over two levels and surrounded by harsh, black rock, the house, even 50 years after it was built, still has a futuristic (albeit slightly retro) feel. There are large glass windows and huge spaces, spiral staircases and rooms in which Manrique lived and painted; there are areas in which he entertained and dined, cosy corners with white leather seating. And in addition to Manrique’s own largely volcano-inspired artworks, there are sketches by Picasso and Miró .
If Lanzarote – an island which now attracts two million visitors a year – can be said to have been spared the worst of overdevelopment, it is largely due to Manrique, a man who railed against the iniquity of “massification” and who persuaded the powers that be to forbid the building of high-rise hotels and the display of advertising billboards.
That said, those who knew him say he would be horrified to see what the island has become – and would object in particular to the sprawling development around the southern resort of Playa Blanca and the encroachment into the justly celebrated beaches of Papagayo , supposedly a protected area.
But it could be so much worse. There are far greater eyesores in the south of Tenerife and other parts of the Canaries; and there is nothing here to compare to the ravages of the Spanish coast in the Sixties. And while there has been a phenomenal amount of building, dwellings on Lanzarote retain a minimalist simplicity, externally, being painted only in white, green and blue.
I noticed this in the course of a whistle-stop tour I took the following day with Jon, a local guide, originally from the mainland. “If you move away from the obvious tourist areas there is a beautiful simplicity to the buildings on Lanzarote,” he said. “They are so clean, so distinctive, so harmonious.”
Jon’s mission was to convince me that there are still barely discovered beauty spots on the island; that, despite the volume of visitors, there are still areas in which you can feel alone. He wanted to show me the “real” Lanzarote.
He waxed lyrical about the geological treasures of Timanfaya , the national park containing the volcanoes which erupted so violently in the early 18th century, creating the moonscape-like terrain that was one of the key reasons the island was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 1993 .
“Those eruptions may have happened 276 years ago but it looks as though it was yesterday,” he said. “But incredibly, there is life even here – the tiny lichen plants that can grow in the lava.”
We were on our way to the little-visited north-eastern stretch of coast where you can still find remote, secret coves. We stopped at one, the Charco del Palo (frequented primarily by German-speakers for whom clothes are considered surplus to requirement). In glorious sunshine, I swam out from a rocky inlet which I had all to myself.
From there we headed towards Mirador del Río , right on the northern tip of the island. Here there is far less traffic than in the south, and far more vegetation – so much so that the area around the town of Haría is known as the “Valley of 1,000 Palms”. The volcanoes here erupted 3,000 years ago, Jon explained. “Things have moved on in the north; this is green Lanzarote.”
Nearby we stopped at an almost deserted cliffside spot to peer at the long beach at Famara – Manrique’s personal favourite. We looked down at an almost pristine scene of sand, rock and sea (Famara is another part of the protected area), marred only slightly by the presence of what looked like a large mobile-home site. Jon pointed out the distant sports complex of Club La Santa , an increasingly popular destination for cyclists, runners and surfers. Then we stopped talking and listened – to the unmistakable roar of the Atlantic.
On the way back south, we called at a vineyard – a surprise on an island strewn with black volcanic ash. Some time after the great eruptions of the 1730s, the people of Lanzarote discovered that, if they covered the ground with a layer of volcanic ash (picón ), what lay beneath retained its moisture and could be cultivated. They grew crops – tomatoes, melons, figs and sweet potatoes. They also grew grapes and began what is now a long tradition of winemaking .
We stopped at the El Grifo winery, where a mixture of mainly dry whites and delicious sweet dessert wines have been produced since 1775. Regina Mendiono showed us around a fascinating collection of antique barrels, wine presses and distilling equipment before taking us outside to see how the grapes grew in the picón. “This,” she declared, “is where you find vineyards created from the impossible.”
From the oldest we moved on to the newest winery on the block: Stratvs, a gleaming creation carved Manrique-style into the vine-bearing hillside. Visitors can tour the state-of-the-art production facilities before settling in the shaded courtyard area with tapas and a glass of malvasia white, followed by a rich dessert involving malted bread and cinnamon ice-cream. The contented hum of conversation was broken only by the clinking of glasses and quiet murmurs of satisfaction.
“A lot of people have a love-hate relationship with Lanzarote,” said Jon. “The island may not be the prettiest, but it catches you. It draws you back.”
I could drink to that.
Adrian Bridge Telegraph.co.uk