The Canary Islands, of which Tenerife is the largest, bubbled up from beneath the sea in a series of violent volcanic upheavals that began 2 million years ago. Mt Tiede, the tallest mountain in Spain continues to brood but has not been active for many years, the last major eruption taking place over a hundred years ago.
The first inhabitants of Tenerife were the Guanches whose legacy includes the network of trails, paths and narrow cobbled roads that criss-cross the interior of the island. They were known to the Romans who called the islands canaria, or the islands of fierce dogs.
In 1492 Columbus, inspired perhaps by Galileo, set off for the new world. His discovery of the Americas suddenly gave Tenerife strategic importance as a staging post on the perilous journey across the Atlantic. In April 1494 sails emblazoned with the cross of the conquistadors appeared on the horizon to the North of Tenerife. They weren’t on their way to anywhere. They were here to invade. It took two years, the last of the Guanches kings surrendering on Christmas day 1496. The leader of the conquistadors, Alonso Fernandez del Lugo sited his capital at San Cristobal de La Laguna in the Aguere Valley. Today as you approach it seems like a modern metropolis but hidden away at the centre is one of Tenerife’s best-kept secrets. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, La Laguna has churches, museums and an other-worldly charm, particularly after dark.
Garachico, another of Tenerife’s old towns was buried by ash in 1706, afflicted by plague and devastated by floods. Despite these setbacks it’s one of the island’s most photogenic villages.
Part of the business of empire is trade. The Spanish Empire used Tenerife as a kind of greenhouse. Here you’ll see Tulip Trees originally from Africa, Hibiscus from the Pacific, Bird of Paradise flowers from Southern Africa, Jacaranda from South America and Flame of the Forest from Madagascar. Plant life in Tenerife isn’t all about immigration. Native to the Canaries is the Dragon tree, some of which are said to be over a thousand years old. Visit Ichod de los Vinos to see a species that looks like a living fossil. Also, if you’re sharp eyed, try and catch a glimpse of the Tiede violet, a tiny purple flower that grows on the slopes of Mt Tiede.
The equivalent of rice or cous-cous hereabouts is Gofio, a traditional Guanches preparation of pounded grains. It forms the basis of Puchero Canario, a dish which combines the flavours of chicken, chorizo, bacon, garlic, beef, chickpeas, saffron, vegetables and whatever else the chef finds handy. We’re out in the Atlantic here so of course fish feature large on every menu. Try spicing a plate of grilled sardines or squid with the local Mojo sauce, helped down with a side order of Papas Arrugadas, or wrinkly salt potatoes.
Away from the coastal strip of Tenerife there is another world. The explorer, von Humboldt, compared the island to paradise. Visitors who take the time to explore tend to agree.
Adriano Comegna writes on behalf of Thomson holidays, a leading travel operator specialising in Tenerife holidays.