One of the things that had drawn me to Lanzarote of all the Canary Islands was Arrecife born artist César Manrique. For many years I’d admired his work and been fascinated by the influence he’d had on the island of Lanzarote. It was he who lobbied to ensure development and tourism did not spoil his beautiful homeland and, because of him, there are no high rise hotels on the island. Our first visit of the holiday would be to his home at at Tahíche, Teguise, which was also the scene of his death in a car accident in 1992.
17 October 2013
Ok so I’ll gloss over breakfast except to say wholemeal croissants sprinkled with seeds are way too delicious and, in my defence, the fresh, melt in the mouth, pineapple, melon and orange may have cancelled them out. Well, I’m hoping anyway. Today’s mission was Taro de Tahiche, the astonishing house built by artist Cesar Manrique in 1968 on the lava fields just outside Costa Teguise.
From the rather basic map we had it seemed it was only about six or seven miles. We asked the very helpful concierge if it was walkable and, although he looked a little surprised that anyone would think a six or seven mile was was walkable anyway, he said it was possible, not too hilly, not too hidden away. He even showed us on the map where it was and what route to take. It all seemed fairly straightforward, what could possibly go wrong?
Stupid question, with me getting lost is always a possibility and, of course, that was precisely what happened. Commando and I set out with our, frankly rubbish, map, plenty of water and some sun cream. At first things were looking good. The problem was the map only showed the main roads and there were lots of little roads in between, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t really to scale either. Anyhow we were doing fine until we came to the part where we had to turn off, there were several possible choices of road and we took the one that ‘felt’ about the right distance compared to the map, what we should have done was walk way further before turning but we didn’t know that at the time obviously.
The lava fields were created by volcanic eruptions in the early 1730’s and, once you are away from the little white houses of the towns, they stretch ahead like a barren alien landscape with a backdrop of brooding volcanoes. The occasional tenacious cactus is about as near as anything gets to green, the only sign that this is really planet earth are the ribbons of road and the odd signpost. There is a harsh, minimalistic beauty to the place.
Everywhere you look is black, brown, reddish or grey rock. The earth isn’t earth at all, it’s tiny, sharply angled, black or red volcanic stones the size of a pea, similar to the stones used to make roads and pavements in England. These are the tiny lapilli, formed when the volcano erupts, the liquid lava partially cools in the air and turns to hailstones made of light, bubble filled rock. Lanzarote is covered with them, everywhere you walk, all the gardens, are a sea of these small, sharp lapilli.
After around three miles or so we knew we were going the wrong way. The road swung right when it should have been left, the sign we found was pointing to a place that wasn’t Tahiche and wasn’t anywhere near it. We sat by the side of the road and tried to work it out from the map. The siren song of the wind creating an eerie musical wail all around us like the sound you get from blowing over the top of a bottle. There was nothing for it but to turn back and start over.
Back at the hotel we decided that a taxi would be the most sensible thing to do, once we got there, if it seemed simple enough, we could walk back. Being sensible, we checked out the probable price with the concierge, who by now obviously thinks we are stark staring mad, and he ordered one for us. The journey showed us exactly where we’d gone wrong and I, for one, made mental notes of all the landmarks along the way. If only we’d kept on going across the little bridge we’d have been fine. If only the map had been better…
The house was worth every second of the first journey and every euro of the second. Above ground it has the white, cubic appearance of a typical Lanzarote house, the dark green doors and window frames. There are palms and cacti, the whitewashed walls, when you look closely, are peppered with tiny holes. This is volcanic rock just like everything else, solid and heavy looking but, more air than rock, it weighs next to nothing.
There is a garden, of sorts, behind the outer wall, black lapilli studded with rows of horseshoe shaped constructions made of black igneous rock pieced together like a puzzle. These are called zocos, normally built for growing grapes, here used to protect the plants in Manrique’s garden. For wine cultivation a single vine is planted in a hollow in each semi circle to protect it from the ever present Lanzarote wind. Farmers discovered that the lapilli, also called picon, absorb moisture from the air and release it into the ground below, they use it as a mulch to overcome the lack of rain in Lanzarote. This method of dry cultivation is called enarenado and is unique to Lanzarote.
We paid our eight euros each and set off through the curved gate. Cesar Manrique was a man of many talents, painter, architect, town planner and also a sculptor, we’d seen his quirky mobile of wire spheres, moving every which way with the Lanzarote wind on the roundabout just before we reached his house. Sculptures are a feature everywhere you look. A rusted metal tower riddled with curious shaped holes stood on a lava pedestal. It made me think of a strange butterfly or the contorted, hole riddled rocks we’d seen all around. The brightly, coloured, almost garish mobile of dish shaped balls and circles, yellow, red, orange, blue and green, twirling with the wind, was never the same from one minute to the next.
As we walked towards the arched gate, I noticed how the shape mirrored the volcano behind. If you stand in just the right spot, the volcano disappears in an architectural magic trick. Inside, water trickles into a square lava bowl in a courtyard walled by the ubiquitous black rock puzzles. Mounted on one wall, behind a pod like white bowl, the bleached bones of animals make a macabre statement. Looking inside the bowl there’s a view into another world. Deep beneath the ground there are rooms made from lava bubbles filled with cacti and plants pushing ever up towards the light.
We came to an airy white walled room where a structure of curved glass lozenges with an opalescent sheen turned our reflections into upside down slices. Walking on, we looked down into a turquoise pool, cool water and lush vegetation in stark contrast to black and whitewashed lava. Huge windows look out over the lava flows and volcanoes beyond. The shapes in the rock were fascinating, ridges and contours show where solid rock was once flowing liquid fire.
There are five volcanic bubbles, formed naturally in the solidifying lava, each about sixteen feet across. Manrique has connected these with tunnels hewn from the lava. We descended a staircase through the jagged grey rocks into our first lava bubble room where water gurgled through a smooth brown stone and greenery took advantage of the moisture and the light coming from above.
The tunnels we walked through now were painted white to waist level, making this journey to the underworld bright. The next room was furnished with a semi circle of white seating and soft lighting. A palm grew in the centre, up towards the daylight from the hole at the top of the bubble. Maybe I’d seen it from above, I couldn’t be sure.
Another room had a tree as its centrepiece, hung with little baskets shaped like fat birds and circled by a wheel of dark wood. Red cushions and another of Manrique’s strange sculptures added colour. This was the room we’d seen when we peered down into the white pod bowl from above.
When we came out beside the turquoise pool, the cool water and the green plants created an air of calm. Across a lava bridge we found a garden, cacti and palms growing from the black lapilli gravel and grey volcanic pebbles. A little white hut hid a barbecue and, a little further on, an oval table, orange ceramic lamps hanging above, provided a dining room.
Through another tunnel corridor we came out, briefly, into daylight and a view of the sky and the white building above. Monstera crowded in on the path, contained by low lava walls and one tall, thin tree thrust its way towards the light above. On we went, through the tunnel corridors to the final bubble room. Here a fig tree takes centre stage, hung with strange gourds and woven baskets it bursts up into the room above. Half hidden behind the trunk is a sculpture, black metal with two eyelash fringed eyes.
We climbed one more white staircase and found ourselves back where we began in a white walled room filled with huge, statement, paintings. The influence of the landscape was as unmistakable in these dark, three dimensional canvases as it is in his sculptures. We strolled around looking at paintings, drawings, plans and then we were outside again with the white clouds and blue sky above, the white painted walls and lava below an echo of the pool bubble room.
The garden is an extension of the house. White paths, black stone walls and cacti, some the size of trees, succulents and figs grow in beds of black lapilli. Behind a pool, studded with lava rocks, one white wall is a massive mural, black lines and segments filled with coloured tiles in a crazy mosaic that reminded me of Gaudi. Beside the cafe exotic blooms caught my eye, pale pink hibiscus trumpets with dark red centres that could have been painted there and a complicated spike of stamens and anthers that might have been the inspiration for one of Manrique’s sculptures.
In the cafe we bought cafe con leche and two huge chocolate muffins to fuel us for the walk back to the hotel and sat in a shady little nook to enjoy them. The view was breathtaking, looking out over the courtyard and the volcano shaped arch we’d walked through right at the beginning. We lingered over our food, enjoying the peaceful surroundings. Before we left there was the obligatory toilet stop. There are no ladies and gents signs in Tahiche, instead little works of art, a green metal picassoesque man and woman hang on Swiss cheese grey black walls. He may have modelled the female on my hips.
My overriding impression was what an amazing place to live, and Cesar Manrique did live here for thirty years before he donated it to the Fundacion Cesar Manrique. The foundation, created by Cesar and a circle of his friends aimed to promote architecture in harmony with the environment around it. I’d say Tahiche is the embodiment of this, a fitting tribute. Manrique died in 1992, the result of a car accident, but Lanzarote is his legacy an island filled with his ideas and designs.
This was not the end of the adventure by a long way. There was still the walk back to the hotel, but it’s getting late now and the wifi is dodgy making everything take forever, so I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow when I’m sitting by the pool.
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