Pleasure Islands

The Canaries offer different visions of the sublime

In other times travelers would get down on their knees and pray. In ours they stop and take out cameras. They must do something in the face of Timanfaya National Park, a vast scar on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, seventy miles from the western shoulder of Africa. If human beings had made this desert of cinders, Timanfaya would show rage enough to curse the world. Even as geology, not history, this black chaos inspires dread. From horizon to horizon nothing grows, no insect moves, no bird sings. The wasteland glowers, but I found it exhilarating. What a tantrum! Although the seven Canaries remain volcanically active (the most recent eruption was in 1971, in La Palma), the volcanoes on Lanzarote don't faze anyone, for they have done little more than sulk for the past 260 years. The earth in Timanfaya is still too warm for plants, but at one of the few human structures in the park, a restaurant designed by the artist and visionary César Manrique, locals treat the volcano as so fully domesticated that they use its fire, in an open pit, to broil meat.

Last spring I visited Lanzarote to see this restaurant and other works by Manrique. The park itself was created at his suggestion. Manrique's intention was to harmonize history, culture, and economic needs with the natural environment, and his vision of development stands apart from the usual zero-sum conflict between birds and jobs. Lanzarote was Manrique's birthplace, and people now call the whole island his greatest work of art. Declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1993, Lanzarote has won recognition as a model and an inspiration. Manrique's architecture, mobiles, and influence are visible everywhere on the island; he used volcanoes, pools, cliffs, buildings, institutions, and public opinion to achieve his goal.

The Canaries are to Europe as the Caribbean is to the United States -- a warm haven, sought by millions of visitors a year. Even before the 1400s, when the Spanish landed, fought the native Guanche people, and conquered the islands, classical and medieval texts referred to them as Enchanted Isles and Isles of the Blessed. Although the Canaries remain a Spanish possession, and Spanish is the principal language, most visitors are from northern Europe, and those locals involved in the tourist trade tend to be able to talk with them in both German and English. The high season is the Northern Hemisphere's winter, but the islands are attractive all year round. The Canaries never get hot; the temperature ranges from about 62° to 78° Fahrenheit. Snow sometimes adorns the upper slopes of Teide, the volcanic mountain that dominates Tenerife and the highest peak in Spanish territory. There are no hurricanes. The cliché is eternal spring, although winds blow cool and wet from the northwest in spring, hot and dry from the Sahara in fall.

The islands, from treeless Lanzarote to lush La Palma to undeveloped Hierro -- a span of about 275 miles east to west -- vary greatly in rainfall, vegetation, and social climate. Just five percent of the Canaries' population of 1,471,500 lives on Lanzarote, and so it was comparatively easy for Manrique to shape this small island. Almost half the population lives on Tenerife, the largest island, which I also visited. Tenerife's sunny south is known for beaches that attract raucous and drunken young tourists; the northwest coast draws more Atlantic rain and a more sedate crowd. I flew there to see the town of Puerto de la Cruz. Puerto, which has no beach, commissioned Manrique in 1970 to design Lago Martiánez -- eight acres of pools, fountains, gardens, and terraces that in effect substitute for surf and sand. In Tenerife, Manrique's work harmonizes with Spanish colonial architecture and twentieth-century buildings; in Lanzarote it dominates and sets the tone.

CÉSAR Manrique was born on Lanzarote in 1919 or 1920 (biographical texts disagree) and died there in 1992. As a young man, he studied art and painted in Madrid, becoming a friend of Joan Miró and members of the Spanish royal family, and representing Spain at the 1955 and the 1960 Venice Biennale. In 1964 Nelson Rockefeller invited him to New York and bought a painting from him. Soon Manrique was showing at New York galleries, and when BMW commissioned artists to paint a series of cars, it invited him to paint one, along with Richard Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and David Hockney. Still, his paintings look dull to me. He is far less well known for his two-dimensional canvases than for his multi-dimensional work on Lanzarote; in 1968 he returned to the island to live and set about saving it from both poverty and ugly development. He devoted the last two and a half decades of his life to this work.

The house he built for himself soon after his arrival is now a museum. Within its white walls Manrique's imagination guided me like a good host. Sinuous passages plastered by hand lead to three bubbles of lava he used as living rooms, surprising and comforting spaces, and then to a fourth bubble, open like a cup, that holds a garden and a swimming pool. The house seems a sensual organism that fuses the earth with human purpose. It drew me from globes to vista, up and down, from light to shade, and into attending to movement, texture, and color. White walls alternate with walls of black lava. Doors and window frames are painted brown and green. Green plants grow in black lava. In this restrained spectrum a red geranium blazes like a fanfare.

The house shows eloquently what Manrique must have longed for in Madrid and New York. It speaks of homesickness for earth close enough to touch, for space, quiet, sun, breeze, fire, and the sound of water -- delights I also long for in dark winters and closed buildings. In Manrique's architecture Lanzarote's traditions, such as low white silhouettes and green doors, harmonize with International Style glass and simplicity. Even Manrique's bold use of volcanic bubbles suggests that he took inspiration from local people: Canary farmers use natural caves as storerooms.

The house embodies Manrique's principle of preserving scenery while meeting the needs of people. Thousands used to emigrate each year, out of economic necessity. Canary wine failed against sherry and Madeira. Cactus farming for cochineal beetles failed against synthetic dyes that replaced the insects' red. In 1968 tourism seemed the only hope, but -- as Tenerife even then demonstrated -- tourism could pollute Lanzarote's air, blast its quiet, clutter its vistas, and tart up its beaches.

Manrique sought to attract tourists who would appreciate what he loved, and set out to persuade Lanzarote's residents to hew to their white, green, and black, and to shun noise, neon, and garish advertising. Now, faithful to his vision, the island has prospered -- its permanent population has doubled since 1968, to 75,000 -- even as it preserves its dignity. A few years ago Renault put up billboards. Negative publicity brought them down.

It probably helped Manrique's cause that he worked with, not against, the tourism industry and the government, designing or helping to design hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, roads, and even the airport. The village of Puerto del Carmen, along miles of sandy beach, has a strip dense with boutiques, camera shops, and eateries. Manrique's influence here shows as some restraint in style -- there are no big bright signs -- and density. Compliance with Manrique's vision is now a matter of zoning regulations as well as of true belief, but Lanzarote could not be as architecturally integrated as it is without broad popular support.

RESTRAINT, of course, can be boring, so Manrique designed some awesome and fascinating spectacles -- among them El Diablo, the restaurant in Timanfaya that sits on a live volcano. As I drove toward it, I passed a string of dromedaries about to carry tourists into the lava dunes. The dromedaries knelt in a line, the tourists mounted, the beasts stood, and nervousness gave way to giggles.

Soon I came to an iron sculpture of a devil -- he did not seem really bad -- and parked. To visit El Diablo and see more of the surrounding Montañas del Fuego -- seventy-seven square miles of spectacular lava, calderas, volcanic rocks, and dunes -- tourists must board either a camel or a bus. But first I followed a group to where a ranger was pushing brush down into a pit. In seconds smoke heaved and a dragon clawed out with orange flames. Another ranger poured water down a pipe and then counted to three; a geyser exploded, and cameras clicked. The dragon does stupid pet tricks.

The glass restaurant seemed too small and perky for its surroundings -- 360 degrees of burned wasteland. It encloses an atrium containing a dead tree and a grim line of bones. No green. To relieve this funereal landscape Manrique offered a joke, lights set in big frying pans, called caldera, but the humor seemed silly to me. Caged by the clichés of taped commentary and movie music on the hour-long bus tour, I was beginning to feel dragonish myself. Manrique's house had deepened my senses. Here the glass flattened them, making the world a photograph.

Unwilling to eat in the glass cage, I drove to Yaiza, one of the inland villages that Manrique's foresight preserved from degrading exploitation. In a homestead that survived the eruptions of 1730-1736, which covered a quarter of the island with lava, a restaurant served me good Canarian food -- small pimientos stuffed with cod, a meat-and-vegetable stew called puchero, and a fried banana that had probably been grown on Tenerife. After lunch, strolling through the courtyard garden and past a sweep of bougainvillea to a plaza stilled for siestas, I heard my own footsteps.

In sympathy with Manrique again, I was ready for another place he loved. To reach it I drove through the weird landscape of La Geria, where grapevines, each in its own crater of crushed lava, pattern the hills. The craters look like a moonscape, but this is earth -- black, fertile, and farmed for wine. At the Jardin de Cactus, my destination, Manrique paid homage to the tradition of planting in craters. Here one large bowl cradles bizarre rocks and a thousand varieties of prickly leaves and snake and barrel shapes. Ferocious spines protect blooms as tender as silk, and when a woman said that one of the fuzzy creatures, with pink buds, was so cute that she was tempted to hug it, I laughed. The painful bristle did look cuddly.

THE high point of my visit came the next day, at Jameos del Agua. This was a dumpsite before Manrique found it, in 1968, and made it into a tourist attraction. Where a natural volcanic tube holds two seawater pools, he created a place for people to descend into a dark tunnel, pass a dark pool, and then climb into gardens and up stairways that lead back to the surface and the light.

Entering through a doorway in white walls, I stepped down a zigzag stairway to the tunnel and the pool, which harbors a unique species of blind crab. In a space that opens out from the tunnel, seats and a café invite visitors to stop and reflect. From that vantage point the arch of the tunnel and its reflection in the water formed a circle in which I saw luminous people moving and plants on the other side answering the breeze. A bird flew toward the tunnel from a rock near my shoulder, and I thought of a kaleidoscope, making pattern from chaos. To reach the reflected garden on the other side I joined the file of tourists and followed a tight path past the water. There was a balustrade -- with, as in the handrails on the stairs, deliberate gaps. A touch of danger in this underworld. I glimpsed light through a small hole in the tunnel roof. When I looked back from the other side of the dark pool, the place I had come from glowed like a rose window.

Tables, a dance floor, and a stage equip Jameos for evening shows and parties, and the reflections add glamour. At the second pool sunlit blue water and sheltered plants softened the rocks. The stairs climbed to a level where I could see, outside the tube, gardens and a wide valley sloping down to a blue bay and a white village. Up more stairs the tube reached the surface and the view repeated what I had seen before, now with a wider vista and ocean on two sides. Echoes and reflections. Smoke and mirrors, I thought: Timanfaya and Jameos del Agua. And everything in dynamic balance.

I wonder whether the balance can survive success. Tourists throw coins into the dark pool, where signs explain that metal endangers the blind crabs. And though Lanzarote still has hideaways, preserved by poor or nonexistent roads and high property values, the thousands who visited in the 1970s are now millions. Indeed, in 1996 arriving tourists outnumbered the residents by twenty to one. We fill the hotels, condominiums, and restaurants; we want roads, and make the traffic circles that center on Manrique's mobiles more dangerous. It was at one of these that Manrique was killed, in a crash.

LANZAROTE is faithful to the vision of one artist, but Puerto de la Cruz, on Tenerife, flirts with many -- Manrique included, of course, but especially Impressionists in love with color. Not restraint but excess is the watchword here. Flowers, scents, and birds multiply like dreams; blossoms fill the eye, from pansies below to jacaranda above, and yellow snapdragons, red cannas, pink oleander, white datura, blue plumbago. In the plaza I breathed sweet stocks, in the steep streets roses. In the botanical gardens canaries sang overhead. The wonder is that Puerto's sweetness is not cloying.

Manrique's brilliant series of pools, restaurants, and gardens attract visitors to spaces that feel almost secluded from the busy town behind. Tenerife's tourist trade, which started in the late nineteenth century, surged when passenger planes began making direct flights from Europe to the island, in 1959. By 1968 Tenerife was already heavily developed and set on its course.

Today sleek five-star hotels throng near the Atlantic, but most of Puerto feels nineteenth-century. A short walk leads from the esplanades, where breakers thrash, to tiers of apartments, each with a verandah and geraniums. Behind them vines robe cliffs in morning glories. Within easy walking distance of the tiny harbor, cafés, restaurants, and shops border plazas, and musicians fill the streets with songs my mother used to hum. My hotel in the old center, the Monopol, which opened in 1888, offered violin concerts and kept its two threshold steps decorated with fresh flowers. One day I stepped over a lace of fern and gladiolus, the next over hibiscus and bougainvillea. Delicious monsters in the atrium grew five floors high, and I overheard a guest on an interior verandah exclaim at a basket of orchids: "They're real!"

On Tenerife I visited Spanish churches; took the bus to colonial towns; ate delicious fresh-caught fish and "wrinkled potatoes," boiled in salt water and served with two sauces, one red and hot, the other green and cool; and considered a day trip to Gomera, the next island west, where Columbus stopped in 1492. Next time. This time I was made uneasy by the sentimental waltzes and lieder pitched to German guests nostalgic for the good old days. Were they longing for the 1930s? The 1940s? After one meal I rejected the hotel's basement dining room, with its steam tables, northern food, and hawk-eyed maitre d', who seated me facing a pillar because I was a woman traveling alone. I found instead a restaurant where a guest celebrating her birthday sent me champagne. But I had found flaws in paradise and was ready to leave.