Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


Exploring the Surprising History of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

“Rule, Britannia,

Britannia rule the waves.

Britons never, never, never

Shall be slaves!”

The stirring words echo tunelessly around the walls of Tenerife’s Military Museum, and I glance around in embarrassment. I can’t help but wonder if someone is going to come thundering out of an office to whisk me away as an enemy collaborator or some such. (The chorus is pretty tame … check out the full lyrics for the arrogance of the time!)

Nelsons flag

The captured British flag from the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1797

Our group has had a brief tour of the museum as a final stop in the inaugural Living Tenerife Tours excursion around island capital, Santa Cruz, and I have been cajoled into my rendering by our host Jorge Ballesteros, creator of this excellent outing.

Jorge is a fascinating and gracious guide. Insights into those points where Tenerife’s history intersects with that of Great Britain flow like Canarian wine. These links have long-fascinated him, and now, retired from full-time work, he is realizing his dream of creating this excursion, aimed directly at this common history.

But I am already “ahead of myself.” Let’s begin at the beginning. We met with Jorge in the city’s remodelled Plaza de España. Early morning here is my favorite time of day. If I were you, I would arrive early, grab a coffee, watch city life begin to unfold, as the waters of the pool reflect the skyline. If you arrive by car there is ample parking in the car park under the plaza.

Living Tfe Tours luxury travel

When our transport arrived, it was a good indication of how the day was to go. A sleek, Mercedes mini bus drew up, and we clambered happily into the air conditioned comfort, as the day began to warm up. I am a great fan of city walking tours, but to combine the best of both worlds, some walking with retreats into this kind of luxury, complete with a fridge and coffee, was perfect.

The car purred through busy city streets to our first destination. Recent visits to Santa Cruz have revived my curiosity about the period of history this tour covers, so I had been delighted to accept this invitation from Living Tenerife Tours. The city boasts some beautiful, colonial-era architecture, and I’ve been wondering about the people who built and lived in these grand houses, and the gap between what was clearly enormous wealth and the agricultural life, whose history is more familiar to me. I was about to learn the history of one such house, built by an “expat,” one Henry Wolfson.

casa de henry wolfson santa cuz

Wolfson arrived in Tenerife in 1886 on a stopover on his way to South Africa, where, at the age of 29, he was intending to make his fortune. The stopover proved to be his destiny. He stayed, and he made an enormous fortune, investing in the cultivation of tomatoes and potatoes, purchasing land in the south of Tenerife, and establishing The Tenerife Gas & Coke Company. He was a shining example of the type of entrepreneur today associated with tech, and he built a magnificent house on a hillside overlooking the city capital. The impressive building, now almost hidden, unless you are quite close, resembles a castle, with turrets, and an ornate façade. Over time, the house became a hotel, and popular stopover spot for world travellers and visiting merchants. Now it is a private school, and as such we were able to visit the exterior, where Jorge, an old-boy, pointed out features, including the expansive view over the modern city, and regaled us with other interesting facts about the original owner.

iglesia san jorge santa cruz

Jorge kept up the flow of information and pointed out other points of interest as our car glided to our next stop, the pretty Church of St George in the “Plaza de los Patos.” Originally built in the late 19th century as an Anglican church, it was sold to the Catholic Church a little less than 100 years later, as numbers of Anglican faithful declined. Jorge’s description of its history and that of its surroundings was comprehensive, but I am not going to tell you more ….. you will need to take the tour to discover all of that.

canon military museum santa cruz

After a brief stop at Calatrava’s magnificent Auditorium on the seafront, we arrived at the Military Museum and my pitiful rendition of Rule Britannia …. bleeding-heart liberal that I am, yet those words still send a little shiver down my spine. They take me back to a childhood steeped in the sort of chauvinistic version of history that the British education system taught in the 1950s. Horatio Nelson has been a hero of mine from that time, so some years back when I learned that there was an important connection between the Admiral and my chosen home, the island of Tenerife, there was that little thrill again. Sadly for my English teachers the Battle of Santa Cruz was the only defeat in his glorious career. The museum has an extensive exhibit about the battle, including captured, British flags and a model with audio describing how the battle unfolded. We concentrated on this aspect of the museum’s collection, because this was the theme of our jaunt, but I noted that there are plenty of other interesting exhibits. This was the only museum on the island I hadn’t visited before, and I will be returning to explore it fully.

And so we returned to the Plaza de España where Jorge fed us more fascinating, historical tidbits, and we posed for the now-obligatory photo op next to the newest piece of street art next to the pool. Here I have to confess that a sloppy wave of huge affection for my adopted island almost overcame me, but in true stiff upper-lip fashion I took a deep breath and posed for the photo.

I love Santa Cruz

Thanks to Canary PR for allowing me to use their photo, because, of course, I am not in the ones I took!

I loved this tour. History has always been a passion for me, and moving to the Canary Islands, and discovering the things which unite us, rather than things which divide us, has been a delight over the years. Living Tenerife Tours taught me new things, and confirmed my passion ….. and it was about to cater to another – the island’s food and wine.

Santa Cruz skyline

Santa Cruz skyline and harbor

Jorge steered us in the direction of the prestigious Real Casino de Tenerife, which occupies an appropriate position overlooking the Plaza de España on one side, and the Plaza de Candelaria on another. Built in the early 19th century, it isn’t actually a casino, but the type of gentlemen’s club where you might expect to find the likes of James Bond, except that it is very much now for both men and women. Entering, you are immediately struck by two imposing murals by Canarian artists Néstor Martin Fernández and José Aguiar, and I gather that other gems of local art are housed here. We were able to have a brief look around, including a spectacular view over the Plaza de España, where Jorge revealed a little-known fact about the pool below us (No, not going to tell you …. you need to take the tour!).

Plaza de Espana Santa Cruz

Plaza de España

mural tfe real casino

Detail from one of the beautiful murals at the entrance to the Real Casino de Tenerife

Afterwards we were ushered to the library where Jorge outlined his plans and hopes for his new venture, before having lunch in the exclusive restaurant.


Jorge fills us in on all the details of his plans for this new venture

This was a great privilege, being open only to members and their guests, and it showcased the very best of modern and traditional Canarian cuisine, presented in beautiful style. We feasted on award-winning goat cheese from neighboring Fuerteventura, gofio mixed with honey and almonds, the famous black potatoes with a texture like satin, a fusion dish combining local tuna with seaweed in Japanese style, and, a special treat, cochinillo negro, a breed of pig which dates back to pre-Hispanic times on the islands, but which was in danger of dying out until a big effort was made to revive it in recent years. Other delights were too many to name, and all washed down with perfect Canarian wines. My love for Canarian wines is, I believe, well documented on my social media, so I will just say that I sampled both white and red and both lived up to my high expectations!


First course – delicious tasters of Canarian Cuisine

Lunch Real Casino Tfe

Another thanks to Canary PR for the photo … I was much too busy enjoying the food and wine to take as many photos as I should have!

So – now for the full disclosure. As you will have gathered already, I was invited on this excellent excursion by Living Tenerife Tours but I promise you, hand on heart, that I was asked only to write my personal impressions – which you have here. I’ve always loved history, and since immigrating these links which bind UK and Tenerife have fascinated me. It’s partly the history of trade, and how it binds us …. hmmm, topical.

The tour I did was designed for six of us, although the bus would have seated more quite comfortably. Jorge’s idea is to tailor-make tours to fit clients, so a party of two, for instance, would have a smaller vehicle. Clients with specific dietary needs will be catered for. That will also be a part of the booking process. There are also tours to La Laguna, Puerto de la Cruz and Orotava planned, all with the same attention to details and respect for personal tastes. Take a look at the Website or Facebook Page for full details, or follow them on Instagram. I am very grateful to both Living Tenerife Tours and Canary PR for inviting me on this trip, which revealed much I didn’t already know about Anglo-Tinerfenian history, and which I will long remember.


Where Admiral Nelson Lost His Arm

Horatio Nelson is one of the great heroes of English history, and one of the few who has remained so, despite the uncomfortable truths which have come out about other historical figures, who were equally famous in my school day, but whose reputations seem a bit murky these days.  Even his scandalous love life seems to have been forgiven in view of his overall gallantry. That he combined all the characteristics we crave in a hero speaks volumes about how the battle of Santa Cruz was conducted and its aftermath.

Few people here today, of any nationality, realize how heavily fortified the city was back then, so little of the ramparts which extended from more-or-less where the Parque Maritimo now is right along the coast to the edge of what is now Las Terresitas Beach, remain, but the Museums of Tenerife resolved to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and do so very ably, and it is a tribute to Lord Nelson that the guide, on a recent Saturday when I went with some friends, on “La Ruta de los Castillos”,  spoke of him with what amounted almost to affection……….if only today’s leaders and generals were such gentlemen, were so intelligent or so well-mannered!

La Ruta de los Castillos is a fairly recent addition (2,000) to the network of activities and museums administered by the excellent Museum service of the island.  The advantage of taking “the tour” was going to be that we would have access to places which were not open to the general public, and I should add right here, before going any further, that on telling a Canarian friend of a friend about the excursion the following day, she laughed at the name, and indeed, it is misleading.  These buildings were not, actually, castles in the medieval sense of the building, where people lived, but a fortification to protect the port of Santa Cruz from invasion from the sea.  So, that point clarified, one recent Saturday we met our guide outside the Auditorium, having booked the tour most efficiently over the phone.

Our tour began at the Castillo de San Juan, or the Black Castle, as it is nicknamed, where my second myth was shot down.  I’d been told the nickname came from the fact that slaves had been kept there en route to the Americas, but Omaira, our lovely guide, explained that that was just a rumor, and the name came from the color of the stone used in its construction.  These days it sits quietly between Calatrava’s magnificent Auditorium and the Parque Maritimo, where the city dwellers while away their summer weekends.

It is, arguably, the only feature which really still resembles anything like a castle, with turrets on the landside where shooters could take cover to fire below should a boat make landfall, and easily identifiable positions where cannon were placed.  There are also, now here’s a historical note I’ve never considered in touring an ancient building before, latrines (i.e. holes in the wall)  up on the ramparts, because, as the guide said, there isn’t exactly time to go to the bathroom in the middle of a battle!  It was much smaller than it looked from the outside, and was used mainly for storage of arms, although the gunpowder, for obvious reasons was kept in the close by Casa de Pólvora, which we weren’t able to inspect because the locks had been changed and Omaira didn’t have a key.

From there we were bussed in air conditioned splendor to El Castillo de San Cristóbal. Again, it was, simply, a part of the massive ramparts, but perhaps the most interesting because it was the nearest to the city of San Cristóbal de la Laguna, which was then capital of the island, and was the largest part of the structure. The outline of the original walls has, very cleverly, been preserved in mosaic form by the architects of the ornamental pool which is now at the heart of La Plaza de España.


If you look at the edge of the pool here, you can see a black line, which meets with another one at right angles in the water, these lines denote where the original walls of the fort were.

What we saw were the foundations, now buried beneath the Plaza. We descended a short staircase to the small museum, which opened to the public this summer. Here we could see parts of the original walls, a video and lots of pictures and information, which I resolved to go back another time to see in-depth. Taking a tour like this is useful, but your time in contemplating anything, let alone taking snaps, is limited. Had we been alone and non-Spanish speaking then, as English speakers, it would still have been interesting as translations were good, and the staff charming.

It was in attempting to land and take this part of the fortification that the British fate was sealed, and the big draw here, is El Tigre, reputedly the very same canon which separated Lord Nelson from his arm. Whether true or not, the canon is in a grand state of repair, and makes a fine exhibit as the centerpiece of this little museum.

From San Cristóbal the next stop is just outside the modern city limits – Castillo de Paso Alto, from its top, an impressive view of the Atlantic, which must have been even more impressive back when, before all the industrial units of the modern port were there. This was the point at which the British forces were first supposed to land, under cover of darkness, signalling the beginning of the Battle of Santa Cruz. However, Spanish vigilance prevented their first attempt, and the second attempt the following day, though, successful, was a disaster in terms of how much the British were able to transport from ships to shore.

Thence to the final stop – el Castillo de San Andrés, just before the celebrated Las Terresitas beach. Cordoned off and tumble-down it’s just a shadow of its former splendor, as, were all of these buildings. Nevertheless, back in July of 1797 they were so well-organized and defended that they handed Nelson the only defeat of his illustrious career.

Such was the gentlemanly state of play in those days, that after the truce was signed by triumphant Spanish General Antonio Gutiérrez and his foes he made a present to them of a cask of my favorite tipple – Malmsey. The British, it is said, responded with a keg of fine ale, and Gutiérrez asked Nelson if he would kindly stop off in Cadíz on his way home to report the state of play. Wouldn’t it be nice if the world was still like that?!

Re-enactors recreate the Battle of Santa Cruz

The tour wasn’t all about Nelson, the “father” of the British Royal Navy, Admiral Blake had had a more successful visit in 1656, when he destroyed 16 Spanish ships, and Admiral  Jennings in 1706 had been rebuffed by Spanish defences, though that battle is far less known than Nelson’s attempt. For this reason the shield of Santa Cruz shows three lion heads, symbolizing the three triumphs over the English enemy……ok, they don’t look like lions to me either, but I Googled griffins to be sure, and they’re not griffins.

More about that shield and more about Santa Cruz in general another day, this one was about the tour, which concentrated mainly on that period of the island’s history. Marks out of 10? Hmm, that’s a hard one, let me describe it this way:

Guide 11 out of 10
Driver and bus 10 out of 10
Information supplied 10 ut of 10 (there could have been more but it would have been too much and the tour was just the right length).
Delivery of information 11 out of 10. The guide was interactive, encouraging us to answer questions and using modern, teaching techniques to explain the information.
Castillo de San Juan 7 out of 10. It’s well preserved and should, really be the best exhibit, but is clearly used as a rubbish dump by the local population, and the ayuntamiento can’t be bothered to clean it up, regardless of the impression it gives to tourists. It was full of plastic bottles, broken glass, the usual.
La Casa de la Pólvora Can’t say, because  the locks had been changed (by the ayuntamiento and they had failed to liaise with the museum service to make sure they had the new keys).
Castillo de San Cristóbal 10 out 10. Nicely restored, pleasant staff, translations, good info why on earth couldn’t the rest be this standard confounds the imagination!
Castillo de Paso Alto 6 out of 10 Even more rubbish than in Castillo San Juan. Absolutely disgusting.
Castillo San Andrés 7 out of 10. I can understand more easily why this might be perceived to be a suitable repository for rubbish (not that ANYWHERE outside of the correct containers is correct), because it’s very tumble-down, nevertheless the sheer AMOUNT of rubbish was amazing and sad.

Our guide was obviously distressed and embarrassed by this use of historical sites as dumping grounds for rubbish (most of which should be in the recycling bins anyway), and I felt for her. The museums seem to be making the most of what they have here. It’s an interesting story, especially if you are either Spanish or English, and the service is to be highly, highly commended on what they do, and how it is organized. From first ringing to book, when they kept me in touch with an unexpected change in date, to the guide’s refusal of a tip everything apart from the rubbish was first class. How the Ayuntamiento can either allow this to happen in the first place or not get the places cleaned up amazes me.

I’m a bit of a history buff, so I still felt it was worthwhile, but one of my companions was really put off (the other two I haven’t really had chance to chat with since then) and I had the impression that the Spanish people who comprised the rest of the group were pretty disgusted too. There was talk of complaints. Shame to end on that note. The Ayuntamiento of Santa Cruz is a weird thing. It can organize something as magnificent as the annual Carnaval, but can’t clear up its streets.  It can commission something as outstanding as the Auditorio, but can’t get its shops to open up on a Sunday for cruise visitors (whose business, supposedly it is trying to encourage).

I don’t want to jump on that whinging bandwagon.  I try to look at this as if I was a tourist, and I would have a pretty bad impression of the population of Tenerife from this tour, but an excellent impression of the museum service.