Santa Cruz is picturesquely tucked below the mountains

The Beautiful Island of La Palma History and Heritage – Part 1

We are aware that presently there are travel restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak, so here is some inspiration for the future.

La Palma is a superb all-year round holiday destination and easily accessible by air from Lisbon via Tenerife.

La Palma is the fifth largest and most northwesterly of the seven main Canary Islands. The Romans were probably the earliest Europeans to discover the archipelago, but it was the Genoans, reaching La Palma in 1341, that provided the first documentary evidence of its existence.

The island’s inhabitants were then the Benahoritas, cave dwellers of Berber origin, who were quick to expel these unwelcome intruders. Early in the 15th century, the Spanish began a more ruthless invasion of the Canaries, but it wasn’t until 1493 that they conquered La Palma, as the belligerent Benahoritas put up a stiff resistance! These ancient and enigmatic people have left their mark all over the island’s landscape in the form of rock petroglyphs and paved stone paths carved through the mountains.

It was no coincidence that it was 1493 when La Palma fell to the Spanish. This was immediately after Columbus discovered the Americas and the Canary Islands became a vital provisioning stop for ships travelling to the New World.

The N.E. trade winds brought the caravels, the small sailing ships of that period, from Spain to Tenerife or La Palma in 1-2 weeks. A further 4-6 weeks later they would reach the Caribbean Islands. Santa Cruz, picturesquely tucked below the mountains on the N.E. of the island, became La Palma’s capital and was rapidly colonised by Spaniards, Genoese, Portuguese and the Flemish.

Agriculture became increasingly important and, for the next two centuries, La Palma’s settlements became rich as the island served as a trading post to the New World. Export of sugar cane was one of the key foundations of the island’s economy and shipbuilding became increasingly important.

Sugar cane production declined due to American competition but was replaced by viticulture for the manufacture of Malvasia wine (Malmsy) – particularly popular in Britain. In the 16th century, the entrepreneurial islanders introduced mulberry trees and began silk production. In 1830, they started to manufacture cochineal dyes (made from drying and processing the insects that feed on prickly pear cacti), but this was short-lived due to the discovery of cheaper synthetic alternatives.

It was then, in the mid-19th century, that bananas were introduced, an important crop that is still grown today. Large swathes of the island are now covered in banana plantations, some of them inside huge plastic greenhouses. Water for their irrigation comes through tunnels and canals from the mountains. The people of La Palma are noticeably proud to preserve their rich cultural heritage, which makes it such an authentic place to visit. The towns have splendid architecture; there are unique festivals, some tasty food, interesting wines and a host of handicrafts.

Both Santa Cruz and the island’s second city, Los Llanos de Aridane, have historic areas with beautiful buildings and attractive squares. The old town of Santa Cruz has churches, palaces, and aristocratic mansions built over 300 years ago, connected by a maze of narrow streets and alleys.

We thought that the quiet Plaza de San Francisco was particularly appealing, overlooked by the ‘Museo Insular’ contained within the walls of the old Franciscan Convent. The interior of the convent is beautiful and the museum displays an eclectic range of exhibits, including the history of La Palma’s windmills.

The Avenida Maritima, along the seafront, is famous for its original dwellings with their ornate wooden balconies – said to be of Portuguese design. The covered end of the balcony was used as a toilet. Gravity effectively disposed of fecal waste that was then shovelled into the sea!

The Plaza de España dominates the centre of Los Llanos. This beautiful square is home to the city’s elegant town hall and mother church. Behind the church is the peaceful tiny Plaza Chica with a fountain that supplied water to the town centuries ago.

The rural town of Villa de Mazo has many aristocratic buildings and perhaps the finest is called Casa Roja. This splendid residence is home to the Museum of Embroidery and Corpus Christi. Every May, Mazo hosts the biggest Corpus Christi fiesta on La Palma. The whole town fills with colour as skilled local artisans create carpets of flowers and triumphal arches lavishly decorated with flowers, plants and seeds. The most original artwork from each year is later displayed in the museum.

However, the island’s most unique and spectacular celebration occurs every five years (next one is July 2020) and is called the ‘Bajada de la Virgen de las Nieves’. A much revered 17th century icon of ‘The Virgin’ is carried down to Santa Cruz from her normal home, a peaceful hermitage up in the mountains. She arrives first at the ‘Santa Maria’, a full-sized replica of Columbus’s flagship, and is then paraded ceremonially through the city streets.

The land-based ‘Santa Maria’ sits on the edge of the old town and houses an excellent naval museum describing the maritime age of discovery. The Bajada festivities continue for days and the most eagerly-awaited event is always the extraordinary and hilarious ‘Dance of the Dwarves’!

The residents are skilled in many other traditional handicrafts as well as embroidery. The complete cycle of ancestral silk technology is still practised in the town of El Paso where high quality woven silk garments such as skirts and shawls are produced. Basket ware is of outstanding quality and uses local materials like rye straw and stalks from indigenous bushes. Handmade palm cigars are perhaps the most unexpected local product, and made following techniques handed down by returning emigrants from Cuba.

La Palma cheese, made from goat’s milk, is of exceptional quality and also its honey – dark, finger-lickingly delicious and not too sweet. As in other Canary Islands, Gofio (roasted maize meal) and Papas Arrugás (wrinkly baked potatoes) are an essential part of the staple diet. Fiery green and red Mojo sauces are served to accompany most dishes.

Wines have been made here since the Spanish conquest and the quality was a pleasant surprise. As well as the Malmsy, we tasted some smooth and very quaffable wines at the Bodega de Teneguia in the south of La Palma – made from the Negramoll, Albillo and Listán Prieto grape varieties. The Listán Prieto was of huge historical importance as it was the first European grape variety to travel, via the Canary Islands, to the New World. Once there, it rapidly spread across the whole of South America and, for over 300 years, dominated that continent’s viticulture.

The friendly folk at this Bodega are expanding their business rapidly and, by promoting wine from an old ‘colonial-era’ grape variety, have added something entirely new to La Palma’s considerable cultural heritage. We were easily persuaded to buy a bottle!

In Part 2, we enjoy some of the best of La Palma’s beautiful landscape.

By Nigel Wright

Santa Cruz is picturesquely tucked below the mountains
Attractive narrow street in Santa Cruz
The quiet Plaza de San Francisco
The seafront has ancient ornate wooden balconies
Los Llanos has an elegant Town Hall
The aristocratic Casa Roja in Villa de Mazo
The Santa Maria houses an excellent naval museum
The ‘Dance of the Dwarves’ is the most eagerly awaited Bajada event
The image of the
‘Virgen de las Nieves’