Lost for Words – La Orotava, Tenerife.
¿Puedo ayudarte, cariño? – Can I help you, Darling?
I was stunned. No one on the Spanish mainland had ever addressed me as such, least of all a stranger in a sports shop. “¿Tenéis bañadores?” I asked. In my haste to come I had forgotten to pack a pair of swimming trunks. She sauntered over to a nearby clothes rack and pointed to a trio of brightly coloured briefs. “We only have these ones…”
The red one in the middle caught my eye and I took it to the changing room to try it on, much to the amusement of my travel companions. It was only our first night in Tenerife and we were already feeling the sheer distance between mainland Spain and this magical island.
Our Canarian adventure began the moment we turned off the highway into La Orotava. Under a darkening blue sky we drove past rows of colourful houses, their facades softly lit by the delicate glow of the street lamps. We went down a main road and made a sharp turn up a sloping street. I gasped. At its end there stood a cluster of majestic date palms and the floodlit dome of the main church. Without realising it, we had booked ourselves for 5 nights in the most beautiful town on the island.
Despite its close proximity to Puerto de la Cruz – the main seaside resort of the north – La Orotava is still a relatively well-kept secret. It’s easy to spend a whole afternoon wandering the streets with a camera, photographing carved wooden balconies and shutters set against gentle splashes of colour. Pastel blues, yellows, reds and oranges, greens and pinks… and then there are playful combinations of white paint and black volcanic stone.
After a round of exploration nothing beats a breather at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, La Orotava’s civic heart. Built like a sort of giant viewing terrace, it proved to be the ideal place for people watching over a bag of chips and some fresh mandarins. Around us the entire square was decked out with a life-size nativity scene – a major draw for local families and their immaculately-dressed children.
Manfred had given us a hand-annotated map of the town, a tool which was indispensable the time we were there. With arrows and little squares he marked out all the neighbourhood hangouts: places for cheap eats, live music and great atmosphere.
Our absolute favourite was Los Compadres, a family-run tavern just down the road from the hostel. This was where we had our first real experience of Canarian hospitality just hours after arriving in Tenerife.
We had eaten our way through 2 portions of conejo en salmorejo, the local rabbit stew, and one of chocos – grilled cuttlefish seasoned with a pesto-like dressing. Everything was exceptional until it was time to pay the bill: Caroline had misplaced her purse (we were to find it the very next morning) and Bas had left his wallet in the hostel. We scrounged together all the money we had left but it was still 5 cents short.
“Is there an ATM nearby?” We asked the head waiter. “¿Porqué?”
When we explained our situation he began to roar with laughter.
“Tranquilo, tranquilo… all that trouble for only 5 céntimos?! The money doesn’t really matter!” The old man gave Caroline a vigorous hug and disappeared off to the bar. When he returned, our mouths dropped straight to the floor. In his right hand he held a tray laden with shot-glasses of aniseed liquor. “This… is for you.”
After clinking glasses we hugged him and introduced ourselves. It turned out that his name was Juan, and together with his wife and daughter he was the owner of Los Compadres. We migrated to the bar and Juan poured us free glasses of local wine. “This is Tajinaste. It’s grown in the surrounding valley. It’s all natural… there are no preservatives!” He turned the bottle and pointed to a shiny round badge on its side. In bold black letters, it read: GOLD MEDAL, BRUSSELS 2008. And then, as a grandfather does to his grandkids, Juan narrated little anecdotes from his own life story.
“I was in Germany twice, and when I went to the bar they kept giving me free drinks. I tried to pay, but they wouldn’t accept it – “Just drink,” they said, “and we’ll take care of the rest.” Juan lifted his fingers to his eyes and moved them downwards in the shape of a boomerang. “lloraba, lloraba.” (I cried, I cried). He smiled and paused to pour us another glass. “So now, when I see people from outside [the island], I try to treat them well.”
We looked around the room and realised that it was decorated with souvenirs from all across Europe. An entire shelf of mugs from Germany, cow bells from Switzerland, and a vast assortment of plates in beautiful porcelain. “You see all these plates?” Juan mused, “They were given by people who visited and came back a second time.”
Caroline couldn’t help grinning. “The next time I return, I will give you a plate from Denmark. It’s a promise.” We raised our glasses and wished each other health.