San Cristóbal de La Laguna: Tenerife’s first capital

A stepping stone for travellers to the New World, San Cristobal is a little-known Rennaissance gem

William Cook,

San Cristobal de La Laguna seen from Parque Rural de Anaga. Photograph: Piai Arcangelo/SIME

San Cristobal de La Laguna seen from Parque Rural de Anaga. Photograph: Piai Arcangelo/SIME

“It all looks the same,” says a Brummie on the plane as we touch down. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Tenerife has always been a popular tourist destination, but most Britons only know the southern resorts, like Los Cristianos and Playa de las Americas. But few Britons think to venture over to the north side of the island, where Spaniards have been living ever since the 15th century, and where the more discerning tourists have always come.

Tenerife has two contrasting climates, on account of Spain’s tallest mountain, Mount Teide. This colossal volcano is so big, it splits the island into two. The south is a virtual desert, the north is green and balmy. It gets the odd spot of rain but it’s still sunny, with milder temperatures. Since it was the first place the Spanish settled, it boasts several surprisingly historic cities, and the most historic of them all is San Cristóbal de La Laguna.

La Laguna was founded way back in 1496. As the capital of the island, it rapidly became a boom town. Adventurers flocked here from all over Europe, eager to get a slice of Tenerife’s new-found wealth. The result was an abundance of Renaissance architecture built with riches from Tenerife, and the island’s growing trade with the New World.

If La Laguna had remained the capital, its Renaissance treasures might well have been obliterated by the usual urban sprawl. However in 1833, nearby Santa Cruz became the capital, and so La Laguna retained its historic core. Today it’s a thriving cultural centre, and even though Santa Cruz is only a few miles away, the two conurbations are still entirely separate. Santa Cruz is a port, La Laguna is on an inland lake, and though some of Tenerife’s best beaches are only a short drive away, its sheltered position has protected it from the brashest tourist traffic. It’s a lively university town, and although there’s no shortage of sightseers, its student population makes it a living city, rather than a petrified theme park.

For those arriving here for the first time, La Laguna feels curiously modern, not because of its buildings (which are almost uniformly ancient) but because of its street plan. Since they were starting from scratch on virgin soil, La Laguna’s founders were able to try something completely new.

La Laguna is the first city in the world built on a geometric grid. And since this was the departure point for colonists setting off for the New World, it became the model for virtually every city in South and Central America.

Despite its global influence, La Laguna was largely neglected by the outside world until 1999, when it was granted world heritage status by Unesco, and during the last decade this unique city has really taken off. A new tram line links it with Santa Cruz, Tenerife’s second airport is just a couple of miles away, and after a century in the doldrums La Laguna is finally getting the attention that it deserves. Its belle époque theatre has been restored, and its cosmopolitan palaces (the Genoese Palacio Lercaro, the Burgundian Palacio de Nava) bear comparison with some of the most ornate in mainland Spain. The proactive local tourist office provides free guided tours.

Yet despite its tourist trappings, parochial life prevails. I stop for lunch in the Tasca La Carpintería, a classic taverna, pleasant and unpretentious, with tiled floors, painted furniture and faded old photos on the walls. The place is full of locals, eating, drinking and gossiping. Mainland Spaniards often mistake these folk for South Americans. La Laguna didn’t just export its street plan – it even exported its accent.

La Laguna is an ideal base for exploring northern Tenerife. Founded in 1506, Puerto de la Cruz is nearly as old as La Laguna, and the tranquil town of Orotava is almost as well preserved. Established by wealthy merchants in the 17th century, it’s full of handsome haciendas built with riches from the Americas, and the sea views are sublime. Standing on this lush hillside, looking out across the Atlantic, you wonder why those conquistadors bothered going all that way, with so much to detain them here.

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