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


2013 Re-enactment of the Battle of Santa Cruz

On a warm July night in 1797, with a high swell running,  British ships  were anchored off the coast of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. One of them, the Theseus, was the flag-ship of Horatio Nelson, recently promoted to Rear Admiral of the British navy, under orders from Admiral John Jervis  to attack the fortifications in Santa Cruz, which protected the port and thence the inland city of La Laguna, the island’s capital. In total, between all the ships, they counted on 400 guns, and 4,000 fighting men.

The Battle of Santa Cruz Re-enactment 2013

Silently, boats launched from the ships under cover of dark on July 22nd, but the high swell proved too much and they had to turn back, but not before they had been spotted by sentries on the watchtowers of the long fortification, which ran the length of the town and beyond, from the Castillo de San Juan at one end, now dwarfed by Tenerife’s iconic Auditorium, to Castillo San Andres at the other end – now a tumble-down ruin in the village of the same name, next to the much-photographed beach of Las Teresitas.

General Antonio Gutiérrez, commander of the Spanish troops in the Tinerfeñan capital had had ample time to prepare a strategy, and gather a force of some 1,700 men, less than half that of the British, and made up of local militia and hunters as well as regular troops. The British had executed a lightning strike on Santa Cruz in April, and Gutiérrez had taken heed of the necessity to prepare for another, more ambitious attack.

Battle of Santa Cruz

He cleverly moved his forces around, fooling Nelson into believing that there were more men and gun power than there actually were. He thwarted a second attack, and Nelson withdrew along the coast to plan a new strategy.

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Steve McCurry Exhibition Santa Cruz de Tenerife

It’s happened to me before, but only a handful of times in my life; being aware that I am in the presence of greatness, someone of talent so far above the norm that I want to hold my breath. It’s happened to me with musicians and singers, activists and speakers, even from time to time with politicians, and last night it happened with photographer Magnum Steve McCurry. He who is best-known outside of people who are interested in photography, travel or news stories, for his picture of the striking Afghan girl with the haunting, green eyes, and most famous for his work with National Geographic perhaps. That’s  a wonderful portrait, but only one of many in this exhibition,  which is clearly a work of love, from the heart as well as the camera of a man in love with life and all its variety.

Caja Canarias is hosting another of its wonderful spring seasons of exhibitions, debates, talks and movies, this year entitled, as last year, Enciende la Tierra (which probably best translates as Light on the Earth, or Focus on the Earth perhaps) and a retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work is a part of it. It opened Tuesday night, and last night McCurry gave a talk with slides of his work.

Seeing these pictures, some of which are so familiar, in life size is an inspiring experience, hearing some of the stories which lay behind them is fascinating; like that the iconic Afghan girl was very shy about being photographed, and how her teacher persuaded her to pose. How it is forbidden to photography women once they reach puberty, which accounts for the tender age of many of his subjects.

He says that he doesn’t consider himself to be a “color photographer” and yet he uses color in ways in which no other photographer I know does. It seems as if he seeks it out, but he denied it, more than once. Between his words in the exhibition and the spoken word last night emerged the image of a man on a mission to celebrate the world, even, very often in its squalor, or at least what seems to us in the “West” as squalor.

His portraits of grubby children, wizened men and women, or shy young girls are, simply,  without compare.  They capture the essence of the subject so strikingly, and you focus first on the character in the faces, and then, after looking for a long while, you are aware that the child has a runny nose, or the old woman’s skin is smeared with dirt……so you see the beauty first, and the poverty second. They are people and not statistics. His own quote on this subject?  “If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”

His landscapes almost always include people, and you wonder at how he managed to be there at just the right moment to capture the light or a particular movement, and then you hear that he traveled for days with a caravan of camels or repeated a boat journey day after day, until he got the shot which has become iconic, and you can only wonder that a normal mortal has that kind of patience.

His speaking style is very, very informal, more like chatting than lecturing, and almost nervous. He was gracious in his thanks to everyone, not forgetting the translators and backstage workers. I felt it when he didn’t immediately elicit the audience response for which, I think, he hoped. That was because the audience was mostly listening to the translation on headphones, so however good the translation there were seconds of delay in the meaning of what he said being clear. Most of the questions in the question and answer session afterwards were fairly predictable, like how did he feel about taking photos of suffering. The answer is that it’s his job to tell us about it, to tell the story for people who can’t tell if for themselves, to bear witness. Or how often had he been in danger, he actually, modestly played that down if you know anything about him.

One answer I liked was that he thought the internet, modern communications, mobile phones etc were great; that if a photographer could use the internet to promote their work and bring it to the world’s attention, then that was cool, and not an insult to traditional photojournalists. I had to stifle a cheer for that of course. He has his own blog  which is .

He also doesn’t appear to be nostalgic for film. I had the feeling that perhaps the questioner was expecting a different response, a sadness at the change of direction in photography, a longing for the past, but no, he works exclusively in digital mode now, and loves its convenience and versatility. These were really refreshing answers from a guy who is, end of the day, a baby boomer! No dwelling on days of yore but a enthusiasm for the present and the future. You could say I was in double heaven, two of my favorite themes, photography and ageism being addressed in one!

The other thing which emerged, and which some friends will cheer, is that he considers himself in equal parts nomad and photographer. There was a quote to that effect alongside some his photos, but in Spanish I can’t remember exactly how it was, but that is the essence. He considers himself born to travel, and even if he couldn’t take photographs any longer he would still travel. Butterflies in my stomach at that!

Today I’m still a little on cloud 9, wondering if he really was just a few feet away from me last night; resisting the temptation to drive up into the mountains today (because he mentioned that he might be going up there with a view to coming back one day to take photos) in case I might “bump into” him, because last night I just dried up at the thought of asking him a question, although I had a half dozen whirling around my head. I tend to get all tongue-tied, and to do that in front of an audience would have been a killer!

One thing for sure, I’ll be returning to the exhibition a few more times before it finishes! If you’re interested in photography, travel or curious about how others live, or simply about life the exhibition is on until the end of June at the Caja Canarias in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.


Walking Tours: Are They Worth It?

Hands up if you’ve ever made fun of a group of folk trailing along behind a guide carrying aloft a flag or an umbrella, or just a folded pamphlet.  It’s so easy, especially if you’re in a familiar place to put down walking tours, but they’re growing in popularity all over the world.  There aren’t now many cities which don’t boast some form of tour.

I’m one of those with my hand in the air.  Until recent years I considered it extremely embarrassing to be found trooping along the streets  being mocked by the sophisticated locals. Two things made me change my mind. One was a visit to Rome a few years back.  It was my third visit, and I was chuffed to find that I remembered how to get around to the main sights quite well. I was with my friend, Maggie, and it was her first visit, so it was fun to act as our own guide, but when she mentioned wanting to visit Tivoli I knew that it was beyond my capacity to get us there without a lot of hassle, and we plumped for an organized tour recommended by the hotel.  It turned out to be a great idea.  The tour included a visit to Hadrian’s Villa too, and our totally entertaining guide was full of the sort of anecdotes you don’t find in the official brochures.  On the bus back he sat with us, and it turned out that he’d worked in Tenerife, so we had some repartee on that account.  I don’t remember his name any more, but I do vividly remember the visit, and lots of the information he gave us because he did it in such an entertaining way.

I don’t have any pictures from Hadrian’s Villa or Tivoli because I dropped my camera and broke it, but here I am a couple of days before that, throwing my obligatory coin in the Trevi Fountain – managed to get close enough despite the usual hoards because it was (as you may be able to make out) raining! Note to the gods of the fountain: it’s time I was back there!

The second mind-changing event was actually two events, and happened here in Tenerife.  One, which I blogged last year, was a tour euphemistically named La Ruta de los Castillos (Route of the Castles) in Santa Cruz, and the other, lead, as it turned out by the same guide, was a nocturnal museum tour followed by a walking tour of La Laguna, which I didn’t blog.  Both of them organized by the Museums of Tenerife, and both very informative and entertaining, full of stuff I didn’t know before.

The other thing which surprised me and gladdened my heart was that most of the folk on the tours were actually interested in knowing more about the places they visited, and didn’t fit the “ugly tourist” mold at all.

Visiting any city is overwhelming if you’re going for a short stay, unless you’ve done a lot of research first, and know exactly what aspect of the city to concentrate on, so a guided tour of some sort isn’t a bad starting place to get your bearings.  You can always pick out the places which really interest you and return later to find out more.

So then, in Sevilla Maria and I opted to take the tour.  Actually, we took two.  One was a short river cruise, which was fairly cheap (and appealed because of the breeze too – we went in a heat wave, remember!).  There was a constant commentary, so we could scurry from side to side snapping away to our hearts’ content and know what we were seeing!

This was one of the buildings from the 1929 Iber-Americano Exhibition, which, I learned had a huge influence on how the city looks today.  

The pictures above are of the simply stunning Plaza de España, which also dates from the  Iber-Americano Exhibition, although it’s also a beautiful reminder of typical Andalucian architecture and the debt it owes to the Moors. Many of the buildings we saw on the tour dated from this exhibition, without the delightful Filipo explaining everything I wouldn’t have known that.

The other reason we opted for this, particular tour was that it was free.  Of course, at the end we could give or not, as we chose, based on how well we thought Filipo had done.  Some of the sites we saw we’d already seen, so to begin with we did wonder, especially considering the heat again, whether it was a good move or not.  Turned out it was.

There had been a choice of tours, and we opted for one called something like “Myths and Folklore” partly because we both like the old stories and partly because it included the barrio (neighborhood) of Triana, across the river from where we were staying, and said to be the Flamenco heart of Sevilla, so we were sure that the stories would be rich and colorful.  It turned out that the tour company considered that too far to walk in the heat – they were almost certainly right, it definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea for some in our group – so that was a bit disappointing, but what we did get was a tour which was flavored with quirky stories rather than dry facts, and Filipo made sure that wherever we stopped it was in the shade!

Triana, seen only from the opposite river bank, and a reminder to return to Sevilla

We were a very varied group, both in age and nationality, and only one couple dropped out, despite the heat. Our guide turned out to be funny and friendly, but not over-flamboyant, and  the experience was definitely positive.  I’d do one again for sure – although I did chicken out on the Ghosts of York tour I planned to do the following week in England.  It was just too bl**dy cold to be tramping the streets at night!

If you’re travelling alone, walking tours would also offer a great way to meet people, and if you’re nervous of cities of course there is safety in numbers.  It was suggested that we might  join an evening tour too, but we’d already made our own decisions based on our budget for that.  As it turned out we’d chosen one of the bars which Pancho Tours with whom we’d gone, visited and we bumped into one of the guides we’d seen that morning with a good-natured crowd in tow.

Shady avenue of the Parque Maria Luisa in which is situated La Plaza de España.

As always, recommending Pancho is something I’m doing because I enjoyed their tour and the friendliness of the service, not because I’m receiving any payment for giving them a plug, in fact, of course, they have no idea I’m doing it. They picked us up at the hostel and then we trotted around to various other locations, picking up folk as we went, like the Pied Piper. At the end we were left in no doubt that we should only give according to our feelings and pocket, there was no hassle at all.  As well as the tour we did they do a historic walk, bike tours and tapas tours.  If you look at the pictures on their website it might look as if it’s all for the young folk, but, as I said, we were a very mixed group.

So – walking tours, worth it or not?  End of the day it depends. Definitely they are probably the most in-depth “snapshot” you’ll get of a city if you’ve got limited time.  You can wander around and ogle gorgeous buildings for hours and not appreciate what you’re seeing.    Knowing the history, myth or tradition of a place brings it alive.  That said, next time in Sevilla, having now, after a couple of visits, got a sense of the city, I’d research first and then choose specific places to visit…..I would also spend longer – city breaks are great, but always leave you wanting more!


Tenerife’s Rival to the Sydney Opera House

As an utter contrast between my last post, about the abandoned goatherd’s cottage, I offer you the totally modern and completely stunning Auditorio de Santa  Cruz de Tenerife Adán Martin.   

The Auditorium dominates the seafront of Santa Cruz, rising, like a powerful wave, curling over the sea wall next to el Castillo de San Juan, where once fortifications stood to repel the British navy. It is graceful, it sparkles in the sunlight or the atmospheric spotlights at night, and it’s a world away from crumbling cottages on a rural hillside.

I’ve never been satisfied with any photos I’ve taken of it, including these.  I suppose that I’m there to enjoy myself, and when a concert is in progress there are all sorts of distractions! I’ve never been around there before with the sole intention of taking photos, and this wasn’t the best time, under a fierce sun, but I had time to spare before an appointment, and nothing better to do, and that old cottage was still very fresh in my mind – I was thinking about the diversity of architecture here.  Could there be two buildings more dissimilar: the cottage tired, dusty and in ruins, and the Auditorio gleaming, sparkling and stylish?

It was designed by the amazing Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava (think the 2004 Olympic stadium in Athens or the new World Trade Center Transport Hub in New York just to name a couple).  His buildings have flowing lines which, for me, put them in harmony with Nature, rather than at odds with it, unlike so many buildings, which thrust aggressively upwards challenging the Earth. It opened, as a performing arts center in 2003.  Until then the island’s culture vultures had struggled with uncomfortable seats and poor acoustics in the Teatro Guimerá, which is a lovely wee theater, whose classic 19th century décor reminds me of the theatres you see in movies set in gold-rush San Francisco, but not really up to modern musical performance.

The Auditorium is home to the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra, the annual Heineken Jazz Festival (or some of the festival’s concerts), and an annual, far-too-brief Fall opera season. During the yearly MUMES World Music Festival in August it hosts outdoor concerts on its spacious Plaza Alisios, with stalls around the perimeter offering foods and drinks from different countries. Los Alisios are the trade winds, which brought, over history, so much prosperity to the islands, so meaningful naming.

Since it opened, I’ve seen acts from Youssou N’Dour to Michel Camilo, from Paco de Lucia to Madeleine Peyroux, and there have been so many others I couldn’t afford, and yet loads more that weren’t for me.  The Auditorio is nothing if not versatile and can cater for a huge variety of entertainment. It’s also used for conferences and such like. Even Bill Clinton has spoken from its stage.

Inside it is as striking as outside, with a decent view from every seat, although the stage is an awful long way from the back!  What looks like decorative ceiling can be changed according to the type of acoustics necessary to the type of performance.

Although it’s been around for a few years now its striking lines still wow me, when I arrive in Santa Cruz…….wonder what that goat-herd who occupied the cottage in Vilaflor would have made of it?


Island Grafitti

Banksy eat your heart out, the art is alive and well here in Santa Cruz de Tenerife! I’ve been snapping and collecting these for a while now, probably time to share them I think.

The five to follow are near to where my son lives on the edge of Santa Cruz, almost in La Laguna, and they certainly make the walk to the garbage and recycling bins more fun than the average. It’s all part of the same mural on the wall behind the bins, and those bins got in the way, so there is a section I couldn’t get to, but it appears left to right in the order these pix appear:

Tenerife is rich in street art of all varieties, that commissioned by town halls and local governments, temporary exhibitions by prestigious artists and sculptors, creative use of discarged things (more about that another time), buskers and mime artists, and this grafitti, especially in the capital, Santa Cruz.

Grafitti (well, good grafitti created by someone with artistic talent) isn’t just art, though, it’s a social commentary, it’s the raised middle finger to convention and often a sign of rebellion.

And other times it might be quite conventional.

In the town at the heart of the island’s religious beliefs, Candelaria, even the grafitti is sacred!

In La Laguna they run to whimsy rather than history though.

In the next photo I’m not sure which appeals to me most, that wonderfully-rotting, old door or the modern artwork!

And the next, well, I’m not entirely sure if it’s advertising work that goes on behind that locked door, or a warning to motorists that your car will be towed if you overstay your welcome.

I now find, to my digust, that I’ve somehow lost my very favorite, but a close second was this very simple one. I liked them both for the same reason. They take advantage of a natural form. Someone saw something different in the form and created a a little fantasy. My favorite, the one I lost, was painted on a large boulder on the roadside, a comical face, which made me smile when I drove past. This one is far simpler, but it begs the title “Fish out of Water”, and the lesson is to sometimes look at things in a different way – stand on the desk. for those of you who understand that rallying cry!

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Postcards from the Island

I have a certain mental lethargy at the moment.  Recent days have been full, and dictated by events and necessities other than exploring or writing or photography.  My son, Austin, has been in hospital (successfully and he’s now recuperating at home), and boring stuff like dental appointments and car checks are driving my life, so for now here are just a few glimpses of the island I’ve had in recent weeks, things I want to know more about, places I want to revisit and some food for thought.

Las Teresitas. Probably the most photographed beach on the island, because of its beautiful, golden sand, imported many moons ago from Western Sahara. Something which is now forbidden, I understand. Often overlooked by the run-of-the-mill tourists who favor the more predictable weather of the south of the island. Las Teresitas lies about ten minutes from Santa Cruz, and was quite breezy on the day we passed by, killing time between appointments.

From the same vantage point, overlooking the coast on the other side from Las Teresitas, where you can see almost to the tip of the island.

Las Teresitas lies just a heartbeat outside of the village of San Andres, and this, so far as I can make out, is the local graveyard.  It’s quite a contrast with the one in Santiago del Teide which I photographed last month, which was colorful and pristine, but it looks as if it has a multitude of stories it might tell.  Many of the graves were unkempt, even tumbledown, and some were unmarked.  I’ve asked some questions about it, but not as many as if I were going to write something in detail about it, so it remains a bit of an unsolved mystery for me, although one fact which has emerged is that it was used by U2 on an album cover.  A quick search didn’t find it, but maybe someone who’s more of a U2 fan than I can tell me more?

I often remark on what a fascinating little city Santa Cruz is.  Of late the city part has seemed more “real” to me, being there for business or appointments I’ve felt something of that  city vibe one gets in London or Madrid, but having an hour to spare on day I strolled a bit in Parque García Sanabria in the heart of the mini-metropolis, and found that same sense of peace one finds in pretty city parks the world over.  This one is especially tranquil, and, of course, in this climate, always green and shady.

Finally, just to prove two things:   (1) That even a pretty city has its ugly side, and (2) that there is some drama and beauty even in that ugliness, I snapped this picture from the roof of a shopping mall the other day.  Over the top of the smelly Cepsa refinery on the very edge of the city, the sun, almost ready to bid  goodnight to the earth, breaks through the clouds a last time.

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Island of Cultural Variety : Robert Capa Retrospective in Santa Cruz

And tonight a cultural treat far removed from the world of folk music, plaster saints or island flora, the Caja Canarias is hosting a retrospective of Robert Capa’s work over the next couple of months.  As with other sociocultural projects in the past, like the magnificent Enciende Africa in 2008, there are other events based on the same theme.  In the case of this exhibit, a series of movies based on the theme of photo-journalism.  I can’t help thinking that a debate, like the ones we had at Enciende Africa,  on this subject would be fascinating.  The theme of when or if it’s morally correct to continue to take photos in tragic or dangerous situations is ongoing and very interesting. These islands are home to and/or have produced an amazing amount of talent in this area, and I don’t doubt that a lively debate could have been had.

I have to admit to a certain bias and no disinterest on the subject or in the work of Capa and those who came after.  The image of the  devil-may-care (and of course devastatingly handsome) war correspondent has always stirred my soul, and Capa could have been the mould from which Hollywood crafted all such characters.  Other heroes of mine include Don McCullin and Tim Page, and I think it’s safe to say that had there been no Capa they might never have attained the heights they did.

Capa, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour founded the photo agency which became the byword for excellence and professionalism in its field, Magnum.  Back in the days of video tapes I had programs about Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold over which I used to drool, and which, honestly, put me off buying a proper camera for years!  I also weaned myself on Hemingway in my teens, so that era and that lifestyle, were the stuff of my dreams.   I wasn’t in the least surprised, therefore, to learn that not only was Capa a contemporary of Hemingway, but also a colleague and friend, as was my greatest literary hero, John Steinbeck.

It is this quote from the exhibit by Steinbeck about his friend’s work which has stayed with me:

‘John Steinbeck once wrote that his friend Robert Capa knew that “you cannot photograph war, because it is largely an emotion.” However, continued Steinbeck, “he did photograph that emotion by shooting beside it. He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child.” ‘

Capa is best known as a “war photographer”, and he died, doing what he loved. He  stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1954.  In later years war photography became much more graphic, until in the present day, we think nothing of the sight of mutilated corpses and grieving parents along with our breakfast cereal.  Maybe we became so immune to photos like Capa’s, which portray powerfully the anguish of the victims of war, but  actually show us little of what being in the midst of it was like, that the art (if that is the right word) had to move up a notch, and then another and another.  Capa’s photography captures history, and has become history itself.

For this reason the exhibition can be viewed on different levels, and I fully intend to go back to take it in more deeply,  not only to admire Capa’s mastery of his craft and the window into the past, but as an insight into the history of photo-journalism.  Despite that most of the photographs depict some aspect of war, they belong to a time when a veil was drawn over the worst atrocities.  I’m not sure whether that was better or not.  It’s true that the excruciating photos both Page and McCullin, amongst others, shot in Vietnam fuelled anti-war feeling in the US, which possibly brought about a speedier end to the conflict, but, a generation on, it doesn’t seem as if reportage from Afghanistan has had a great deal of effect on us.

Tonight’s film “Triage” starring Colin Farrell highlighted the moral dilemas which journalists and, in fact, others  face in war zones, as well as the brutality and horror.  I’m newly a fan of Farrell, after seeing The Way Back (twice in one week actually – something I haven’t done since I was in my teens!), and his performance is excellent, and the movie’s message is clear, but it’s not a great film.  It lacks pace and from my limited knowledge of movies I can only blame the director.  Still, as a follow up to the exhibition it gave us plenty of pause for thought.