Today’s mission was Taro de Tahiche, the astonishing house built by artist Cesar Manrique in 1968 on the larva fields just outside Costa Teguise. From the rather basic map we had it seemed it was only about six or seven miles. We asked the very helpful concierge if it was walkable and, although he looked a little surprised that anyone would think a six or seven mile was was walkable anyway, he said it was possible, not too hilly, not too hidden away. He even showed us on the map where it was and what route to take. It all seemed fairly straightforward, what could possibly go wrong?
Stupid question, with me getting lost is always a possibility and, of course, that was precisely what happened. Commando and I set out with our, frankly rubbish, map, plenty of water and some sun cream. At first things were looking good. The problem was the map only showed the main roads and there were lots of little roads in between, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t really to scale either. Anyhow we were doing fine until we came to the part where we had to turn off, there were several possible choices of road and we took the one that ‘felt’ about the right distance compared to the map, what we should have done was walk way further before turning but we didn’t know that at the time obviously.
The larva fields were created by volcanic eruptions in the early 1730’s and, once you are away from the little white houses of the towns, they stretch ahead like a barren alien landscape with a backdrop of brooding volcanoes. The occasional tenacious cactus is about as near as anything gets to green, the only sign that this is really planet earth the ribbons of road and the odd signpost. There is a harsh, minimalistic beauty to the place.
Everywhere you look is black, brown, reddish or grey rock. The earth isn’t earth at all, it’s tiny, sharply angled, black or red volcanic stones the size of a pea, similar to the stones used to make roads and pavements in England. These are the tiny lapilli, formed when the volcano erupts, the liquid larva partially cools in the air and turns to hailstones made of light, bubble filled rock. Lanzarote is covered with them, everywhere you walk, all the gardens, are a sea of these small, sharp lapilli.
After around three miles or so we knew we were going the wrong way. The road swung right when it should have been left, the sign we found was pointing to a place that wasn’t Tahiche and wasn’t anywhere near it. We sat by the side of the road and tried to work it out from the map. The siren song of the wind creating an eerie musical wail all around us like the sound you get from blowing over the top of a bottle. There was nothing for it but to turn back and start over.
Back at the hotel we decided that a taxi would be the most sensible thing to do, once we got there, if it seemed simple enough, we could walk back. Being sensible, we checked out the probable price with the concierge, who by now obviously thinks we are stark staring mad, and he ordered one for us. The journey showed us exactly where we’d gone wrong and I, for one, made mental notes of all the landmarks along the way. If only we’d kept on going across the little bridge we’d have been fine. If only the map had been better…
The house was worth every second of the first journey and every euro of the second. Above ground it has the white, cubic appearance of a typical Lanzarote house, the dark green doors and window frames. There are palms and cacti, the whitewashed walls, when you look closely, are peppered with tiny holes. This is volcanic rock just like everything else, solid and heavy looking but, more air than rock, it weighs next to nothing.
There is a garden, of sorts, behind the outer wall, black lapilli studded with rows of horseshoe shaped constructions made of black igneous rock pieced together like a puzzle. These are called zocos, normally built for growing grapes, here used to protect the plants in Manrique’s garden. For wine cultivation a single vine is planted in a hollow in each semi circle to protect it from the ever present Lanzarote wind. Farmers discovered that the lapilli, also called picon, absorb moisture from the air and release it into the ground below, they use it as a mulch to overcome the lack of rain in Lanzarote. This method of dry cultivation is called enarenado and is unique to Lanzarote.
We paid our eight euros each and set off through the curved gate. Cesar Manrique was a man of many talents, painter, architect, town planner and also a sculptor, we’d seen his quirky mobile of wire spheres, moving every which way with the Lanzarote wind on the roundabout just before we reached his house. Sculptures are a feature everywhere you look. A rusted metal tower riddled with curious shaped holes stood on a larva pedestal. It made me think of a strange butterfly or the contorted, hole riddled rocks we’d seen all around. The brightly, coloured, almost garish mobile of dish shaped balls and circles, yellow, red, orange, blue and green, twirling with the wind, was never the same from one minute to the next.
As we walked towards the arched gate, I noticed how the shape mirrored the volcano behind. If you stand in just the right spot, the volcano disappears in an architectural magic trick. Inside, water trickles into a square larva bowl in a courtyard walled by the ubiquitous black rock puzzles. Mounted on one wall, behind a pod like white bowl, the bleached bones of animals make a macabre statement. Looking inside the bowl there’s a view into another world, deep beneath the ground there are rooms made from larva bubbles filled with cacti and plants pushing ever up towards the light.
We came to an airy white walled room where a structure of curved glass lozenges with an opalescent sheen turned our reflections into upside down slices. Walking on, we looked down into a turquoise pool, cool water and lush vegetation in stark contrast to black and whitewashed larva. Huge windows look out over the larva flows and volcanoes beyond. The shapes in the rock were fascinating, ridges and contours show where solid rock was once flowing liquid fire.
There are five volcanic bubbles, formed naturally in the solidifying larva, each about sixteen feet across. Manrique has connected these with tunnels hewn from the larva. We descended a staircase through the jagged grey rocks into our first larva bubble room where water gurgled through a smooth brown stone and greenery took advantage of the moisture and the light coming from above.
The tunnels we walked through now were painted white to waist level, making this journey to the underworld bright. The next room was furnished with a semi circle Of white seating and soft lighting, a palm grew in the centre, up towards the daylight from the hole at the top of the bubble. Maybe I’d seen it from above, I couldn’t be sure.
Another room had a tree as its centrepiece, hung with little baskets shaped like fat birds and circled by a wheel of dark wood. Red cushions and another of Manrique’s strange sculptures added colour. This was the room we’d seen when we peered down into the white pod bowl from above.
When we came out beside the turquoise pool, the cool water and the green plants created an air of calm. Across a larva bridge we found a garden, cacti and palms growing from the black lapilli gravel and grey volcanic pebbles. A little white hut hid a barbecue and, a little further on, an oval table, orange ceramic lamps hanging above, provided a dining room.
Through another tunnel corridor we came out, briefly, into daylight and a view of the sky and the white building above. Monstera crowded in on the path, contained by low larva walls and one tall, thin tree thrust its way towards the light above. On, through the tunnel corridors to the final bubble room. Here a fig tree takes centre stage, hung with strange gourds and woven baskets it bursts up into the room above. Half hidden behind the trunk is a sculpture, black metal with two eyelash fringed eyes.
We climbed one more white staircase and found ourselves back where we began in a white walled room filled with huge, statement, paintings. The influence of the landscape was as unmistakable in these dark, three dimensional canvases as it is in his sculptures. We strolled around looking at paintings, drawings, plans and then we were outside again with the white clouds and blue sky above, the white painted walls and larva below an echo of the pool bubble room.
The garden is an extension of the house. White paths, black stone walls and cacti, some the size of trees, succulents and figs grow in beds of black lapilli. Behind a pool, studded with larva rocks, one white wall is a massive mural, black lines and segments filled with coloured tiles in a crazy mosaic that reminded me of Gaudi. Beside the cafe exotic blooms caught my eye, pale pink hibiscus trumpets with dark red centres that could have been painted there and a complicated spike of stamens and anthers that might have been the inspiration for one of Manrique’s sculptures.
In the cafe we bought cafe con leche and two huge chocolate muffins to fuel us for the walk back to the hotel and sat in a shady little nook to enjoy them. The view was breathtaking, looking out over the courtyard and the volcano shaped arch we’d walked through right at the beginning. We lingered over our food, enjoying the peaceful surroundings. Before we left there was the obligatory toilet stop. There are no ladies and gents signs in Tahiche, instead little works of art, a green metal picassoesque man and woman hang on Swiss cheese grey black walls. He may have modelled the female on my hips.
My overriding impression was what an amazing place to live, and Cesar Manrique did live here for thirty years before he donated it to the Fundacion Cesar Manrique. The foundation, created by Cesar and a circle of his friends aimed to promote architecture in harmony with the environment around it. I’d say Tahiche is the embodiment of this, a fitting tribute. Manrique died in 1992, the result of a car accident, but Lanzarote is his legacy an island filled with his ideas and designs.
This was not the end of the adventure by a long way. We’d had our tour of Taro de Tahiche and a little sit in the cafe with our cafe con leche and a chocolate muffin. It was time to leave. When we had walked past the ever changing coloured mobile and were back out on the road again, Commando said, “are you sure you don’t want to get a taxi back?” I didn’t hesitate for a second, I wanted to walk, not just to work off the wholemeal croissants and the chocolate muffin either. Walking I knew I could get a better view of the volcanic landscape and maybe a photo or two of the mobile on the roundabout. This turned out to be a brilliant plan.
Out in the car park, Tahiche had one final gift before we left. A huge white stone mobile, all triangles turning in the wind. Then it was off down the road, walking on a narrow strip of Tarmac towards the roundabout. The sculpture stands in a circle of black gravel on a two tired round podium made of the black rock. It is a thing of beauty, a column of wire spheres within spheres, the little dishes, like satellites or moons orbiting this way and that. On the triangular island leading from the roundabout a domed house, reminiscent of an igloo in negative had me wondering about its purpose. Behind it another tower of wire spheres moved with the ever present Lanzarote wind.
The distant line of volcanoes were a reminder of how this island came into being and of the turmoil going on beneath our feet. Below us, under a thin crust, the magma flows and boils. As we walked the volcano in front of us grew ever larger, looming above the little village of white buildings. “I’m not sure I would want to live right under that,” Commando said and I agreed. I suppose the people who do don’t think about it much and, if they do, they must be fatalistic.
As we came closer we noticed that the pointed top of the mountain was flattened, evidence of the explosive power of the last eruption. The huge boulders we passed must have exploded out from there and rained down on the ground below. The little ridge at the base came into focus as layers of brown and black like the rings of a tree, each showing events that happened centuries ago. It seemed strange to see a bus stop right there beside this still active volcano.
When we got closer still there were steps leading up towards this ridge and we decided to explore. Why come all this way and not? The steps led to a fissure where a little island of rock had separated from the mountain leaving a wide canyon. When we looked we could see how the puzzle pieces fit together, the way the striations matched up, and it showed the amazing force of nature that had rent the two apart. Although my shoes were filled with the tiny, sharp red stones I carried on up the slope, fascinated by the stripes in the rock, particularly one black vein topped with a pale wavy line that showed how the earth had buckled and contorted when the volcano had erupted. On the horizon, the other peaks formed an unruly line stretching away into the distance and below the white buildings of the little town were like a cubist sculpture.
It wasn’t until we were on our way back down that we noticed the ring of boulders, too regular to have arrived there by accident. Commando clambered into the ring to have a closer look and, gingerly, I followed. The red gravel sloped down into a hole with a chunk of rock the size of a small car sitting in the centre. Commando climbed inside and, after putting my water bottle and my phone safely into my rucksack, I followed. I am not known for my mountain goat like agility, there have been incidents in the past, a memorable twisted ankle on a climb down the Atlas Mountains outside Marrakech. Commando, frowning, helped me down into the chasm.
This was a larva bubble, just like the ones Manrique had used to build his house. In one direction a dark cave had obviously been used by local youths as a hang out spot. Unfortunately, they hadn’t taken their litter home with them. Opposite, Commando had descended into a deep tunnel that seemed to go on and on. Maybe, if we’d been braver, we’d have gone deeper and found out if there were more bubbles or if it came out somewhere else but it seemed foolish to wander too far here in the middle of nowhere when no one knew where we were. This chance discovery put Manrique’s house into context and I’m so glad we decided to see where those steps led.
On our way back to the road a glint of white against the rock caught my eye. When I went to investigate there were bones. They looked like a very large bird, maybe a turkey or a very large gull, probably a meal for one of the people who’d been inside the bubble leaving litter. They took my mind back to the bones on the wall in Manrique’s house. We’d seen the house and now we’d seen the the raw material, the seed that had germinated into his idea.
We walked back to Teguise Playa contemplating all this. The wind kept us cool and, whenever we opened our water bottles to drink, it sang. What an amazing place this is, stark and barren on the surface but the closer you look the more signs of the tenacity of Mother Nature you see. Tiny succulents grow in sheltered crevices, cacti spring from the bare gravel. When you kick a pebble it skitters across the paving with a hollow, porous rattle like a dried pea and the wind sings.