Too old for Ibiza, too young for Madeira, I look into Tenerife. I passed a promotional poster for the Canary Island in a Barcelona travel agency window back in the late ’90’s and the image has been stuck in my head ever since.
The Canary Islands have long been a bolt-hole for Europe’s sun-starved horde.
Well that sounds awful. I read on:
But beyond the beaches, Ron Hall finds spectacular vistas, striking architecture, and a new attention to syle.
Much better. From the portrait Ron Hall paints, the archipelago suffers from a split-personality, the condition being most manifest in its “most beautiful and varied” isle, Tenerife.
Bad Tenerife — Southern Tenerife — is rife with drunken, sunburnt, topless, fowl-mouthed Eurotrash flocking to foam parties, discos and casinos. So I read. Reports may be exaggerated.
Good Tenerife — Northern Tenerife — is blessed with charming Spanish colonial towns (La Orotava, Puerto de la Cruz, Garachico), genteel watering holes, seventeenth-century aristocratic mansions converted into sophisticated family-run properties, and Teide National Park, Spain’s largest national park.
I choose Good Tenerife, Northern Tenerife. Specifically, the winsome village of La Orotava.
I peer down at the Atlantic Ocean. My stomach tumbles.
I’m flying alone to a remote island somewhere off the coast of Africa (the coast of Africa!), based on some recommendation from some guy I don’t know and when I land I’ve gotta find my way to some obscure village — La Orotava? La Avatoro? — and schlep my luggage to the Hotel Alhambra — a former gentleman’s residence (according to the website) and I don’t even know what a ‘gentleman’s residence’ is I think it’s a brothel and I’m going to be trapped in it by an owner who will make me look at bad paintings (according to one Tripadvisor poster, anyway) and my family doesn’t even know where I am let alone how to reach me once they finally figure out I’m missing how will they find me do they even know how to dial outside the U.S., no they don’t know to dial 011 or to drop the zero before the city code and they’ll balk at the long distance rates and I will never be seen, or heard from, again someone better look after my cats when I’m dead and gone I’m so fucked.
Sometimes I get a little nervous at landing.
My bus ride to the village of La Orotava is brief, pleasant, and seamless. Not at all what I feared. The Hotel Alhambra is located two blocks from the station. Along the way I pause at crosswalks to allow cars to pass, but they actually stop and wait for me. I’m not used to this civility: in Chicago drivers accelerate when they have a pedestrian within their sights.
I arrive. So this is what a gentleman’s residence looks like. It looks pretty nice. I ring the bell and seconds later Antonio greets me warmly through the ornate wrought-iron gate.
HOTEL ALHAMBRA FOYER
Antonio is an sleepy, pony-tailed teen. I like him. I follow him into the foyer where Lennon’s Imagine plays in the background. The moment is surreal, my standing here sharing an entire mansion with a single stranger, listening to one of the greatest songs of all time, on a sunny afternoon somewhere off the coast of Africa.
Hotel Alhambra is bright and open. Cheerful, even. Not at all brothelesque.
Antonio takes me on a brief tour of the magnificent 18th century residence, dutifully describing the over-the-top (but awesome) murals in the dining room, which were painted by Venezuela’s renown Antonio Otazzo, who vacations in La Orotava. They’re a little intense. A woman may or may not be masturbating as a horse and bull look-on.
These must be the “bad” paintings to which the Tripadvisor reviewer was referring. Actually, I think they’re fabulous, not that I’d want them adorning the walls (and ceiling!) of my own white on white on white minimalist loft, though.
Antonio leads me to the second floor where busts (representing the four seasons) guard over what just could be a courtyard from Rick’s Cafe Americain.
I’m eventually led to my chambers. I love my chambers!
Floor-to-ceiling windows open up to fresh air and a view of the ocean, a departure from my home in Chicago, where my bedroom overlooks el tracks, electrical wires, dumpsters and the occasional rat.
HOTEL ALHAMBRA KITCHEN
I’ve napped — which is probably a big mistake jetlag-wise — and now I must prowl La Orotava for a decent meal. Antonio and his father intercept me on my way out the door to inform me that the residence will be vacant tomorrow morning because they’ll be taking Antonio to the university. We keep talking, as best we can anyway, considering the language barrier.
“Have you seen our paintings?” The Owner asks in Spanglish. How could I miss them?
He leads me to the dining room and educates me on both the painting, Sleeping Europe, and the painter, Maestro Otazzo, Antonio translating as quickly as he can. I comprehend maybe 25% of what I hear but I The Owner’s passion is obvious.
“(Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica… (Spanish) (Spanish)… Picasso… (Spanish) (Spanish) (Spanish)… Guernica…”
I perk up. Guernica is my favorite painting. I viewed it at the Reina Sofia several years ago and I couldn’t tear myself away: I’ve never been more moved by a work of art.
“Would you like to see Guernica in 360 degrees?” asks The Owner.
“Sure.” Who wouldn’t?
THE REFLECTION ROOM
The Owner and Antonio are escorting me into the restricted recesses of the mansion, guiding me down an endless corridor straight out of The Shining. We stop before a locked white doors marred by angry black scrawl.
THE REFLECTION ROOM
The Owner withdraws a medieval skeleton key from his pocket.
Holy crap. I am alone in a mansion with two men, on an island somewhere off the coast of Africa, and I’m about to enter some sort of secret, forbidden chamber. This is insane.
The doors open. Row after row of skulls stare me in the face. I’m frozen, transfixed. I tentatively enter the ballroom, which is bare of furniture save for an oversized, orange, elaborate fainting couch. A mural encompasses its four walls and ceiling.
??? … !!! … ??? … Otazzo may not be for everyone but his work is undeniably powerful, visceral. I’m speechless. Confused. Wowed. Insulted. Impressed. My impotent descriptions fail to capture the emotions his visceral paintings evoke. They cover it all: war, politics, humanity, religion, suffering, hell, heaven, life, death.
Now I get it. Guernica in 360 degrees.
The Owner explains the mural to Antonio, who attempts to describe its nuances to me. We spend a great deal of time discussing the scene in which the Statue of Liberty, clothed in an American flag, grasps a missile in one arm and an assault-rifle labeled EU in the other. The weapon pierces a dove in flight and Lady Liberty weeps. The Owner goes to length to explain to me that the image is not anti-American: it’s anti-Bush. I’m anti-W too.
I ask about the fainting couch and learn that it’s where Otazzo slept for the month it took him to create his masterpiece.
The Owner allows me to photograph the room, but requests that I keep the pictures only for myself.
I am grateful. What an honor to be privy to this secret work of art, and to have its owner take the time to explain it to me. I will continue to cross oceans and continents for these rare travel moments.