Cesar's Empire

By Nick Ball

For centuries philosophers and geographers have debated whether the Canary Islands are the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis. According to Plato civilization here was wiped out and the inhabitants had “fallen prey to the worst vices", he said.

Today these seven islands off the coast of North West Africa still have a slightly uncivilized image. They are often regarded as just a cheap and chirpy holiday destination. Four-hour flights, year-round minimum temperatures of 20C and tax-free prices attract huge flocks of migratory northern Europeans every year. Their nesting grounds are well established. Especially on Gran Canaria and Tenerife, the two largest and most populous islands. Here the full-English experience has long since eroded any remnants of authenticity. Much of the countryside wears more concrete than a Mafia victim.

But if that is enough to deter you from visiting the Canaries, think again. For these islands are not all birds of a feather. Unlike its Canarian cousins the easternmost island of Lanzarote remains largely untouched and boasts a primeval natural beauty. The volcanic interior and lush palm-packed valleys in the north of the island are breathtaking. Rural tourism is growing and small chic hotels are taking root in the countryside. But possibly the biggest surprise of all is this little island is earning a growing reputation for its cultural attractions. After all, this is the place Monty Python’s Michael Palin once dubbed "Lanzagrotty". Famously Lanzarote was partially buried beneath a sea of lava in the 1730's by the world's longest ever volcanic eruption. It lasted six years. The eruptions dramatically reshaped and remodeled one third of the island. They created raw, eerie landscapes often likened to the surface of the moon.

In the late 1960's Lanzarote faced another burial. This time beneath a sea of four-star hotels. Package tourism was starting to take off in Spain and property developers smelt profit. Fortunately Lanzarote had a saviour waiting in the wings. An island-born artist and architect called Cesar Manrique. As the Costas and Canaries ran headlong into the arms of mass-market, high-rise development, Manrique counseled caution and restraint. "I believe that we are witnessing an historic moment," he outlined. "Where the huge danger to the environment is so evident that we must conceive a new responsibility with respect to the future". This sort of ecological approach was revolutionary in Franco's Spain in the 1960´s. But Manrique had just returned from exhibiting his surrealist paintings in the US. There environmentalism was becoming as fashionable as dope and long hair. Manrique, then in his mid-forties, was hardly a hippy. But he did share some of their guiding principles. Paramount of which was to work in harmony with nature.

From a young age he was totally consumed by the beauty of his birthplace. This passion sparked both artistic inspiration and a determination to fight for Lanzarote's preservation. He successfully marshaled his friends in local government. He campaigned constantly against any body or institution that threatened the islands ecological structure. Today the benefits of his activism are evident everywhere. The vast bulk of the island stays as nature intended. The three main tourist resorts are well contained. Advertising hoardings are banned. High-rise developments are outlawed. Even local homeowners are encouraged to get in on the act. They eschew more colourful palettes for traditional white walls and green woodwork. All of which creates a pleasing, island-wide aesthetic harmony. Manrique's vision also extended beyond just conservation alone.

Whilst other Spanish sunspots built golf courses and water parks to attract visitors, Cesar rejected this route. Instead he planned to fuse art with nature and create unique cultural attractions. Most islanders thought he was crazy. What could possibly be forged from the lava? Who was going to visit this volcanic rock? But by 1968 they were forced to think again.

Manrique´s first major project was the creation of the incredible Jameos del Agua. Here, in a neglected part of the island, he turned a giant collapsed lava tube into a stunning, subterranean auditorium. Tropical gardens, bars and a restaurant surround an underground lagoon. The atmosphere is hushed and cathedral like. Blind albino crabs glisten in the water like pearls.

Movie legend Rita Hayworth declared the Jameos del Agua "the eighth wonder of the world." To the amazement of islanders she was one of a legion of rich and famous admirers drawn to Lanzarote by Cesar's growing reputation. Many of them beat a path to Manrique´s front door. In Tahiche he created an amazing underground home, constructed from five interconnecting volcanic bubbles. Visitors were simply blown away. The famous actor Omar Sharif was so impressed he commissioned his own island retreat on the spot. Manrique built a stunning house for him into the side of a partially collapsed volcano. But the inveterate gambler then promptly lost it in a game of bridge. Today LagOmar (right) is home to a fashionable restaurant and bar.

Lanzarote´s real star turn though is the Timanfaya Volcano Park. This is the most popular attraction on the island. It also best epitomizes Manrique's philosophy. Here he framed Mother Nature's own work of art by devising a pathway through the volcanic structures. This allows visitors today to view the exhausted cones and twisted lava flows up close. The textures and patterns here can often be found in Manrique's paintings.

Apparently he discerned the optimum route by attuning with nature and walking naked through the lunar terrain. On an isolated volcanic peak he built the El Diablo Restaurant. This low circular, glass fronted building enjoys panoramic views of the lava scape. The food here is cooked on huge grills by the intense heat emanating from two miles below the earths surface.

Manrique created eight of these unique attractions until his untimely death in 1992. All of them are still enormously popular tourist sites today. In addition he designed hotels, bars, restaurants and undertook many other private projects on the island.

As a result his influence is visible everywhere. Lanzarote became his canvas. Even roundabouts on the island are adorned with his giant wind sculptures. In recognition of his achievements UNESCO declared Lanzarote a protected biosphere in 1993. It was the first island in the world to achieve such status. Thanks to Manrique´s endeavour and vision Lanzarote avoided the fate of other Spanish sunspots. Emerging instead as a surprisingly civilized destination.

Nick Ball has lived on Lanzarote for five years and is the editor of online island magazine, Lanzarote Guidebook www.lanzaroteguidebook.com


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