Like most places on the island the coffee in the hotel was unpalatable. I don’t mean ‘not good’ or ‘it was alright’ and nor do I mean ‘could have been better’. It was simply undrinkable. Mission Control thinks I get snippy when I don’t have coffee in the morning and I dispute this in the strongest terms. Nonetheless, she was hesitant about getting in the car with me and embarking on a journey that would take us along precipitous and dangerous [according to the concierge] mountain roads without me getting a caffeine fix beforehand. She hasn’t yet accepted that all men complain about women’s map-reading and that it is not an idiosyncrasy relating to a lack of coffee before the trip starts. I’ve never been able to convince her of this and couldn’t convince her then so we walked the few kilometres across to Los Abrigos in the hope of finding somewhere that could deliver. One restaurant proudly displayed signs indicating that it was in the Michelin Guia Roja and that it did, indeed, offer good Italian coffee. But it opened only in the evenings so we tried the local bar on the main road, which was open, busy and looked a likely candidate.
Well, we did get coffee that was drinkable. The dark-eyed but grim-faced beauty who was serving listened intently with disinterest to our pleadings for an excellent drink and tried to impress us by capping the grey-coloured offering with cream from an aerosol. We stopped her just in time. It wasn’t enjoyable and, once again, you have to ask yourself why a country with such a sunny climate has so many freaking tables dotted about on pavements, under sunshades, surrounded by potted hedges and otherwise perfectly located when it can’t produce a decent cup of freaking coffee.
A few days in Tenerife and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. If, like me, you believe that travelling to foreign climes is about immersion in another culture, experiencing local character or enjoying cuisine and places that are different, this is not for you. Of course, on the largest island in the group some parts do remain unspoiled and they are frequently visually stunning but, in its headlong rush to attract and exploit the tourist, Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls. There were some pleasant surprises tucked away in a destination that attracts twelve millions sun-seekers annually but, for the most part, it’s sad and breathtakingly awful.
Our rural retreat on the banana plantation was located in the north-west corner of the island; an area that has the least tourist development and which consequently retains the last remnants of the pre-Thomas Cook Islas Canarias. But we’d decided to take it slowly and see something of the south side first. The convenient overnight stay near the airport was in San Miguel de Abona, an urbanización comprising holiday rentals, a golf course, clubs, retirement villas, timeshares and shopping facilities. Oh, and several Indian restaurants.
Have you ever read reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor or similar sites? As most people are only motivated to set the record straight when they have a grievance it has always been enjoyable to read about hapless holidaymakers blaming hotels for swollen feet, holes in the road, insects on the lawn or surly staff that don’t acknowledge a birthday. These days you can’t always trust the reviews as there is more than a little suspicion that ‘good’ reviews have been planted. They can, however, give you some insight into what to expect and so it was at the Vincci Hotel Golf, where we’d planned to crash. One positive ‘reviewer’ has photographed the newly-made bed, the bathroom and poolside sunbeds, which was useful if completely unbelievable, but less convincing was another eager contributor who enthused about the sight and sound of aircraft passing overhead on approach to the adjacent airport. Nonetheless, the hotel was clean and comfortable if a little run-down. In true Spanish tradition builders were sanding and varnishing the decking around the roped-off pool but I guess they have to do it at some time. When I first went to Spain I was fascinated by how inept the maintenance work was and how low the standard. Now, a career in construction and too many years to mention later, I’m left scratching my head at why that hasn’t changed. Pepe was not only sanding down the decking in a wind that blew the dust into the pool but was also splashing varnish onto newly-painted white walls. The electrician attending to the poolside lights had the air of someone unaware that touching two wires at once might kill you and I suspect he was the guy who wired the telephones into the rooms; it wasn’t until I had paid for access to the internet and plugged in the cable they kindly provided that I was told by the reception staff that ‘the signal didn’t reach up as far as the eighth floor’. I didn’t see mention of that on TripAdvisor.
The perpetual dilemma suffered by the expatriates we saw in Tenerife is how to live in a foreign country without it being, well, foreign. After all, in seeking an all-year tan and a cheap lifestyle there are so many things to avoid quite apart from the smell of the sewers – language, poor driving, that funny food, strange habits like keeping out of the sun and those little dark houses with small windows. Developers, being a clever sort, know about these things so rows of speculative ‘villas’ and apartments are built in the international ‘turret and pergola’ style, simultaneously presenting eye-wateringly poor design with the promise of a utopian lifestyle to an undiscerning clientele.
Our surroundings reflected just that; the accommodation cramming the urbanización Del Sur had at its centre, the heart of the development no doubt, the shopping plaza – a parched and shadeless citadel holding fast against all and everything Canarian. This soulless expanse of cheap bars, restaurants, empty units and peripheral expatriate services was as depressing as the couples wandering slowly through it with miniature dogs, cheap wine and cheddar cheese slices. With the developer long gone – I couldn’t help wondering if he had retired not to his own place in the sun but to a house in Hampshire or the Cotswolds – the paint was beginning to peel, the roads and footpaths were cracking and the ‘for rent’ signs in the empty shop units were bleaching in the sun. The area was livelier in the evening, but there was nothing Spanish about what was on offer – Asian favourites, tandoori specials and English beer. There was one Spanish outlet that sold souvenirs to holidaying northern Europeans; the owner was British. This was a microcosm of awfulness.
A little research provided us with the details of a local restaurant at a pretty village in the mountains called Valle San Lorenzo. The Mesón Era Las Mozas is well off the beaten track in the back streets and served a late lunch in a shaded courtyard. It is patronised by local people and survives because the food is excellent. We drank Canarian red wine – Tacoronte-Acentejo – from the oldest wine-producing area on the island and which is surprisingly good, local ham and cheese, a hot dish of beans cooked with pork and a vast salad. The drive takes you out of the tourist areas and up into the lower slopes of the mountains so your journey has the added advantages of spectacular views, greener surroundings and cooler air.
In the evening we drove to Los Abrigos, a traditional but now slightly fake fishing harbour a few kilometres to the east of the hotel. We didn’t know that we could have walked along the rocky shoreline to it. It holds a few little restaurants, each claiming to sell the best local fish, but it was the temperature rather than the ambience that made it pleasant. Again the Canarian wine was excellent; a chilled bottle of Tierra de Frontos blanco from Granadilla de Abona was near perfect. The view took in hotels and apartments stretching away to the Costa Del Silencio and, beyond, Playa De Los Cristianos; inland and between unfinished concrete buildings that might be apartment blocks or might be hotels there was more development encroaching on the backdrop of the mountains. There was a pervading sense of sadness about it all – a feeling that perhaps the island had lost its soul and was still in mourning.
Autumn breaks are a double-edged sword. On the one hand places are often less crowded, kids are still in school and the drunken revellers are at home, their sights set on Christmas lunches. On the other hand, however, if one wants to avoid long-haul but still get some sunshine then the options are limited. So, after casting around the supplements and trying hard to believe the cautious encouragement in Condé Nast Traveller, we’ve settled on Tenerife.
This will be a new experience for me as I like to keep at least one international border between me and tourist resorts with their Irish pubs and tattooed inhabitants. I also enjoy my food too much to work up any enthusiasm for Spanish cuisine and read today that the island’s chef of the month runs a successful Greek restaurant, for heaven’s sake. So as I write this and while the car rental voucher prints, I am anticipating the next few days with some trepidation.
The weather forecast is good – 22C and sunshine – but apparently the garbage workers are on a ‘go slow’ because their wages are late and there are muted concerns being raised again at the levels of organised crime on the island. We’re staying on a banana plantation; perhaps the wine will be good.
The weather outside is frightful – well, in this part of England it is; strong winds, low temperatures, driving rain. These are dark days made for staying warm, enjoying big soups and good books; for taking the time to listen to the complete Beethoven string quartets [sixteen in all, so you need to take an occasional break] and for planning the next trip. The thought of sun on my back is becoming more appealing by the day
Dark evenings also mean a little TV, where I’m selective even though the number of available channels and the consequent amount of mind-numbing cack make sitting in front of the screen feel increasingly like letting sand run through an hour-glass. When I do watch it I lean towards science-based programmes and documentaries that I’m slightly embarrassed about being a fan of; I’ve seen part of The History of the National Grid and one episode of Birds Britannia on BBC, both of which are superb in the way that only the BBC can be. Wallander is also a must, not least because it’s based where we stay in Sweden and sometimes our garden features in the background. Then there’s News – I’m an addict to keeping up with current goings-on – and reruns of Frasier, comedic writing at its best.
But when it comes to watching TV on a regular basis I’m simply incapable of organising my life around a specific broadcast or following a series from start to finish. In fact, it’s taken me nearly thirty years of unstinting enthusiasm [not to mention stamina] to see all the Star Trek episodes. As someone who longed to be beamed-up and boldly go wherever a starship could take me I’ve been dilatory at keeping up my Trekkie credentials. Nope, I’ve not been a good target for weekly episodes, cliff-hanging endings or targeted advertising.
Not, that is, until now. With pervasive and sublime submission I’ve become addicted to Mad Men; the series now in its fourth season on BBC4 that transports you to the sixties and into the ad agency world of Madison Avenue, New York. The style, attention to detail and – perhaps more importantly – the nostalgia have caused me to break the habit of a lifetime and buy the preceding three series as a DVD boxed set. I’m absorbing every nuance; the clothes and style of antiquated innovation, cringing with each shot of bourbon and sexist put-down, wincing at the racist slights and the hierarchical rivalry. It’s unnerving how significantly our conduct in daily life has changed in less than a generation. The Mad Men of the sixties smoke in the office, drink hard liquor as part of the working day and dismiss female colleagues and partners with casual sexist asides. This, of course, is all part of the theatre of the production but two things stand out in my view – the sheer style of the sets and the fashions together with the astute observation of a political and cultural backdrop. These were days of gross inequality, the Cold War, segregation and the rise and rise of consumerism.
The sixties were the first time that fashion became a part of the lives of those that didn’t have access to the haute couture of French [and expensive] fashion houses. Mad Men captures the essence of the sixties look and, even if you didn’t punctuate every appointment in your office then with a double shot of J&B, you are convinced by its authenticity. It’s certain to continue raising the profile of the era; my only concern is will the ‘Porkpie Trilby’ hat make a comeback?
Even though I’m in England just now it’s been hard to avoid noticing stuff happening in Sweden. Last week was all about individual protest against society and crystallised in two events.
In the north the small town of Ytterhogdal received a protest from one of its local bears. Clearly dissatisfied with the municipal facilities provided by the local council it left the woods, the usual repository for the aftermath of an afternoon spent gorging itself on lingonberries, worms, snails and the like, to take a huge dump on the town hall steps. I’ve often had cause to berate my local councillors for poor service but haven’t yet summoned up the courage to show them exactly what I felt about them so Ursus arctos arctos has become something of a hero to me. Local experts believe that the bear was, indeed, a very large one and confirmed that they usually do their business in the woods. Something must have upset this one to make it change its routine. There are about 2000 bears in Sweden and if they are all upset we’ll have to wear rubber boots when we visit the council offices so I am eagerly watching to see if the municipal services in Ytterhogdal and elsewhere improve. By the way, the pic is of an American Brown Bear that I took in Canada last year – I wonder how they view municipal facilities in Vancouver.
In the south it was far more serious. The pleasant but sleepy Malmö is our nearest city and is normally pretty quiet. Just recently, however, it has been likened to Chicago in the 1920s. The slight shift in the political climate at the recent general election saw the ascendancy of the right-wing Social-Democrats, whose anti-immigration views have been used to explain, with questionable conviction, the possible reason for a series of shootings that have occurred over the past year or so. The ‘perp’, thought to be an individual with a personal view on Sweden’s relaxed attitude towards immigration, has been randomly shooting at people of Asian and Middle-Eastern appearance. This resulted in a death and several injuries together with headlines about residents and visitors to the city living in fear of their lives. To be honest, walking across Stortorget was more about avoiding detritus from McDonalds and Burger King than dodging sniper’s bullets, but nonetheless, the story provided a sinister backdrop to parochial life. A suspect has been arrested, apparently after an anonymous tip-off. Perhaps that came from the local underworld, characters from which have been working in parallel with the police in hunting down the gunman. I assume this liaison was a temporary arrangement arising from the underworld’s belief that it has sole rights over dispensing suitable justice on its patch and that it will now get back to controlling the taxi service, kebab-stall franchises and immigrant gangs that are a part of daily life in Malmö.
Reports in the local press have surprised me. There has been mention of ‘racial tension’ but this doesn’t seem apparent from the point of view of a casual observer over twenty-something years. The population certainly has a high proportion of immigrants – I’ve heard 50% reported but once did a headcount from a downtown café and reckoned on it being higher – but the ‘tension’ and trouble seemed to be confined to internecine disputes.
Of course, Sweden is rightly held in high esteem for its tolerance as well as its adoption of an open immigration policy and tolerant it is. But tolerance should not be confused with integration. Despite the population of Malmö having such a high number of non-Swedish inhabitants there is a sullen and silent resentment among the natives. It’s civilised and cultured to be racially tolerant and that’s how Swedes want to see themselves but scratch the surface and a very different complexion is apparent, unless they’re talking about an international footballer or cash-in-hand labour, that is. In the past few days the Malmö Police issued a statement stating that the suspect was being questioned about a series of immigrant shootings and that they had ‘no explanation for why they were shot’. Er, nothing to do with their ethnicity, then? A Professor of Criminology, would you believe, was quoted as saying that the debate about the Social-Democrat’s views could destabilise those who were suffering from ‘mental illness, on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ and who might go off on a shooting spree as a result. That appears to me to be a typical Swedish rationalisation of the first magnitude.
Isn’t the first step of recovery from being alcoholic admitting you’re a drunk? Why hasn’t anyone said out loud what Swedes in Malmö whisper – that they generally resent the number of immigrants and, right or wrong, that in itself might be the shooter’s justification. Perhaps some more honesty is needed and perhaps a process of integration, as opposed to immigration, is required. The Malmö district of Rosengård has a lot to commend it but nearly all its inhabitants are of a non-Swedish background and it has frequently been the scene of considerable civic unrest; the adjacent Malmö mosque, for example, was burnt down in 2003. Rosengård provided cheap housing and cheap accommodation was offered to immigrants. Surprisingly, local Swedes moved out in droves. So, Rosengård is a modern facility, near the centre of the city with new low-cost accommodation and no native Swedes want to live there. As a microcosm of Swedish society it remains an enclave that actually serves to segregate rather than integrate – and, in true Swedish fashion, it’s tolerated as long as you don’t have to go there.
It seems to me that if Sweden is going to cure the ‘mental illness’ that manifested itself in the manner we’ve been witnessing then the government has to start treating integration in a more holistic way, as a concern relating to society as a whole, not just one of immigration.