Friday, January 20, 2006

Tenerife: South vs North

Like many countries and Islands, Tenerife has a north – south divide. In this case it's separated by Spain’s highest and most imposing mountain: Teide.

The south has better weather, more sunny days: a warmer climate and less rain. Consequently, the south is where the tourists flock in greater numbers. Tourist towns cling to the southern coastline, concrete complexes populated by pink people smothered in suntan lotions. Full English breakfasts and burgers jostle with Chinese ‘eat as much as you want’ buffets and fish ‘n’ chips. A stroll along southern promenades is interrupted by timeshare touts desperately scratching together their commission by proffering ‘prize winning’ scratch-cards to anyone they can find with a visa card. The predominant language is English with a smattering of German and Dutch. The ‘lookie-lookie’ men speak all three as they work the restaurant tables with their Arnani sunglasses and Ropex watches. Bazaars overflow with Moroccan leather and ‘lovely jubbly’ salesmen, the perfect place to pick up your Praba handbag for less than €20. And weaving drunkenly through it all, the package holiday bar crawlers shout their ‘ogi ogi ogi’s’ to numbed bartenders till the sun rises and the fun starts again.

But now in the south, the winds of change are blowing. The timeshare crimelords no longer dominate the local economy, superseded by slick estate agents and corporate business. Five star hotels are springing up, with private security firms to keep the touts and hawkers at bay. Manicured stretches of promenade replace the battered beachfronts. New shopping centres boast retail outlets where products spell their designer names in more conventional ways than their predecessors used to. Restaurants serve foie gras instead of fry ups… Tenerife has even made the Times, who call it the ‘makeover island’… a far cry from the articles of yore that were found exclusively in the gutter press. The south is crawling out of that gutter.

While this metamorphosis is overtaking the south of island, the north remains immune to such evolution. Originally settled by the Spanish back in the days when the island was the trading stop-over from the new world, a completely different atmosphere pervades these more fertile and verdant slopes. Rain brings life to this region, vines bear grapes that produce the island’s wines, farms flourish with fresh produce. The original settlers were not sun seeking tourists, but real people who survived and prospered. They are still alive in the architecture they leave and in the faces of their descendants. The character of the towns and cities in the north is much more genteel, more sophisticated. Not for them are the foibles of fashion that remould the south. These towns were the original tourist destinations, but not for the charter masses of today. This was the exclusive getaway for an affluent Victorian to winter. Here, there is tradition, stability… ah but no, I speak of the past. Here is tragedy. Here the process of modernisation is not one of improvement. The old fincas are making way to housing developments and the unrelenting process of urbanisation has blurred the borders of towns and villages until it is all becoming one suburban sprawl. The old are nostalgic and the young are full of property price rises and investment opportunities.

But, ever the optimist, I know that this desecration cannot last. Like the rape of the environment in the south, there must be a reversal, a rethink. Soon must come a time when the value of the north’s inheritance will be realised, and as in the south, change will be for the better. And when it happens, I have every confidence that the north will reclaim its pride and splendour, and once again will become the envy of the Canary Islands. Until that time, the north still has many, many treasures to offer those who are inclined to look for them. And for those without the time or motivation to explore, then the south can pamper and cosset in multi-starred luxury… and maybe even flog you a genuine Chamel pair of shoes.

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