Since I retired here a few years ago, my normal daily routine to start the day is to wander out onto the roof terrace of my little apartment overlooking Los Gigantes in Tenerife and have a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise bringing the lonely island of La Gomera briefly to life each day. At this quiet time the soft dawning light and peaceful slow breathing of the sea makes the world look a calmer place.
That morning I had to drop my wife off to the airport very early, to visit her elderly mother in the UK for a week. Instead of going straight home I parked beside a cosy café overlooking the little harbour, to sample a great Spanish breakfast of a croissant with dipping chocolate, forbidden by my wife I might add. I wandered out onto the rear terrace with my cup and saucer and looked west over a very placid Atlantic.
As I waited for the sunrise, I reflected that Tenerife had developed into a frenetic holiday resort started in the 60’s and had grown into an uncontrolled characterless concrete high rise architectural boxes, which blight the Spanish Costas. The remaining Canarian Islands have managed to escape the worst excesses of tourism thanks largely to César Manrique, who was able to impose some discipline on development on the small Canarian Island of Lanzarote, and in Fuerteventura development was so much slower that there is now sufficient planning control to curb some of the recent headlong charges into architectural chaos.
Poor old Tenerife, which started all the development, is now trying to make good the damage done within the last 40 years. But it has a secret, the island of La Gomera and its tiny neighbour, the island of El Hierro. They are Tenerife’s last well kept secrets. They are the “Elephant” in the room nobody sees or really knows about. I already regard them as my little special secret and take constant delight in watching La Gomera slip in and out of view, like a beautiful shy maiden teasing her male admirer’s. A reverse ‘dance of the seven veils’ if you wish.
As I sat quietly the sun slowly rose behind me over Teide; casting a long finger of brooding shadow across the ocean, eventually revealing La Gomera with everything initially highlighted in black and white. As the sun got higher and stronger in the fresh cobalt blue morning sky, the dark brooding shadows slowly retreated down the mountains bringing life and warm golden colour behind them to this beautiful outpost in the vast ocean.
Every fresh increase in the strength of the bright sunlight seemed to highlight each little mountain village bringing it to vivid life as the warm honey coloured beauty of the island unfolded itself to the view of all and sundry before quietly and mysteriously being once again shrouded in its veil of wraith like mist and haze, until no one realises that it is even there. Tourists’ who have been going to Tenerife for years are stunned to discover that this mysterious jewel in the ocean even exists, never having noticed it in their frantic rush for sun, sea, sand and sangria.
As I sat quietly on the wall dangling my legs and squeezing the sweet chocolate out of the croissant and watching the island appear like a Spanish “Brigadoon”, I noticed an old man sitting over to my left. He was contentedly sucking at an old pipe and squinting across the empty ocean. He had a time worn face with a seafarer’s skin with a face full of laughter lines and a twinkle in his dark eyes; he seemed to be like me, just waiting for something.
I smiled and quietly wished him “Buenos Dias Señor. Esta es una mañana bonita para ver una señorita despertandose” for that was my private name for the island. “The awakening Maiden”.
My terrible accent gave me away and in beautiful English he asked;
“How did you know my Island’s private name Senor?”
I was surprised that he seemed to think of the island as his, as I always regarded it somehow as my own personal possession. I felt that that he was intruding into my private world. He smiled again and let out a small knowing laugh.
“How long have you felt the Island was your personal secret place? Has it possessed you as well?” he asked.
“I watch the Island rise every morning and then mysteriously disappear as the sun rises into the sky. I consider it a private mysterious place full of Myth and Legend.”
He smiled at that and lighting his pipe he started to tell me this story.
At the beginning the age of enlightenment when the Moors had been expelled from Spain, a great curiosity arouse over what lay across the great Western Ocean. Some people thought that if you sailed west long enough you could sail around the world and arrive in the east with all its riches. However anyone who had set off towards the sleeping sun never returned and legend had it that the Sirens of La Gomera, guarded the approaches to new lands with riches beyond mans understanding. When the great ships sailed from Spain they called into Tenerife as their last port of call for water and supplies before setting forth west to follow the sun and were never seen again. Occasional jetsam of old ships might get washed up or pieces of white shrivelled bodies drained of all life and colour would drift in and out of the surf shortly afterwards. It was thought that these bodies were cursed and not allowed to be buried in a Christian grave in case they awoke the dead. They were left to drift out to sea as even the very fishes shunned them.
Local fishermen sailed and worked the wild dangerous home waters around Tenerife, fishing and raiding the West coast of Africa for spices, exotic fruits and timbers as well as slaves. No local fisherman going about his normal business at sea ever saw the island. To them it was invisible. It was only when man’s greed arose in his breast that the “The Maiden” unleashed the evil of the “Sirens” on helpless seamen and explorers with their powerful ships heading west.
It was then that they saw the Island of La Gomera and had to face the Sirens with all their temptations and possibilities of a slow agonising death seduced by their own greed. It was her life’s desire to protect the vast rich lands to the west from the greedy ravages of European man, with all his technology, which was slowly and surely contaminating the old world. This was the source of the myth and legend since time began.
Recently, more and more ships had been attempting to sail past “The Maiden” and “The Iron one”, the Island of El Hierro, but between them their magic and evil was too strong to be overcome by any man.
Years went by and slowly the pressure to explore other lands and find other trade routes to satisfy the hunger of an expanding Spanish empire brought new bolder men onto the scene. One such was Christophorus Colombo. He was a young man from Genoa who was the youngest son a rich merchant. He was well educated but his education had made him restless and he wanted to seek his own fortune, knowing that his elder brothers would inherit his father’s wealthy business. He persuaded his father to send him to sea with a small inheritance, when he was young which was quite normal for a merchant’s son, and it was during this time that Christophorus learned the secrets of the sea.
His voyages took him to the edge of the known world as he traded from Spain to West Africa across to Tenerife and then back to Spain and Portugal. He already thought that the world was round and that if he could go west far enough he would get to the far side of the world far faster and easier than the easterly land and sea route. He did not know that he had made a massive mathematical underestimation in the circumference of the world and that a huge continent rich in gold, silver and precious gems stood in his way.
Spain was now starting to create its own mighty empire and encouraged daring men who would expand its influence and boundaries to explore new lands and send home great riches. The Queen, Isabella l of Castile, had married Ferdinand of Aragon after many difficulties and was facing extreme financial difficulties if she was to hold onto her throne. Her spies had told her that Christophorus had enough money to equip 1 ship but he really needed 3 to ensure that his expedition was successful.
The Queen, after many petitions, allowed him to approach her with his proposal. After much discussion and meetings with her advisers, Queen Isabella agreed to fund the other 2 ships on condition that she received 75% of any profits of the expedition. Little did Christophorus realise that to fulfil her part of the bargain she would supply him with old ships with soft rotting timbers and poor or little equipment. He thought at the time that it did not really matter very much as he would not be at sea more than a few weeks perhaps a couple of months so the condition of his remaining 2 ships was not that important. Little did he know.
He set off west and his final port of call was to be Tenerife for final supplies. He arrived with his little fleet and being aware of the dangers of the Sirens of La Gomera and the effect El Hierro had on compasses, he devised a plan with his sail master Don Amparo. They knew of the dangers presented by the Sirens but with the help of their friend Adam Claudio, who had been deafened in Africa by cannon during a slave raid, they hoped, like all young men, that their plan would get them past all the dangers of the Islands.
After replenishing their stores they bound the three ships in line astern with stout heavy iron chains from stem to bow, so that where one ship led the others would have no choice but to follow. They then took all their crew men out to celebrate their departure and got them all, except themselves, very drunk. As the crew started to pass out and sleep they locked and chained them in the holds of the ships so that they were unable to escape.
When all was ready the little cumbersome convoy set off just before dusk with instructions to Adam Claudio to bind the two friends securely to the mast of the lead ship, the Santa Maria, so securely that they could not escape. Adam Claudio then steered only towards the setting sun as they covered his compass so that no one could see it. They knew that El Hierro could drive a compass mad and lead them in circles for ever.
As he was deaf he would not hear the Siren’s songs and could ignore their temptations. He only had to steer for the sun as it settled into the ocean in the west. The little convoy was now free to follow its own destiny. Nothing would distract it from its course.
As they approached the islands Christophorus and Don Amparo started to hear the Sirens call form the rocks of the island. They felt cool breezes and smelt the scent of sweet wild flowers waft across the sea to them. They saw the wondrous beauty of the young Sirens as they beckoned, pleading with the sailors to lie a while with them on the warm golden sands beside their soft pliable bodies. The closer they got to the islands the compass started to whirl and gyrate, but Adam Claudio ignored it and watched only the setting sun until it seared his eyes. But still he remained steadfast in his duty and drove the convoy onward Westward ever onward.
The Sirens songs of love and lust now started to get louder and sweeter awaking some of the crew locked in the hold. It tortured Christophorus and Don Amparo to distraction but they could not answer the sweet calls by landing the ships as they were brutally lashed to the mast. The Sirens made the men feel the heat of the bright sun on their bodies as they lay on the golden sands naked and soft, the cool breezes gently cooling their hot flesh. They felt the white soft hands of the Sirens gently massaging amorphous oils into their tired pain wracked bodies easing old aches and pains.
They could almost taste the aroma of their beautiful bodies in their nostril’s, and above all they wanted to feel their sharp sensuous finger nails tracing their vital signs, sending delicious shocks pumping through their nerves as they traced down their chests, backs and legs tempting their manhood. Little did they know that the Sirens having got them relaxed and drugged by their songs of love and satiated lust, were not tracing their nerves and tired muscles with their sensuous hands, but the shudders they felt were the shudders of death, as they opened up the unwary men’s veins and arteries with their razor sharp nails, letting their life blood drain into the dry sands of timeless death, leaving them as pale drained white discarded husks aimlessly floating in the surf.
The lingering kisses the men longed for, were really suffocating kisses from Hell, as their screams of terror struggling from their open mouths were silenced by the irresistible power of the Sirens’ all smothering love.
The crew men, locked in the holds who were too drunk to awake were lucky. Some of those who were woken were driven to screaming madness and terror by the Sirens songs and images of death. Christophorus and Don Amparo hung down from their chains with their legs and chest covered in caked dry blood caused by their struggles to escape their cruel sharp bonds and go to the beautiful protecting Sirens of the Western lands. It took days for them to recover their wits enough to release the rest of their crew, bury their dead and boldly go forward to claim their reward for their daring and bravery.
After the expedition successfully passed over the horizon towards the setting sun leaving the Sirens weeping in their wake, they knew that they were doomed and would no longer be able to protect the mysterious wealthy lands to the west. They gathered from the beaches and with great sadness, knowing they had failed in their duty to protect the old world, they retreated up high into the barren and inhospitable mountains of La Gomera to spend eternity wandering alone in those wild and barren harsh places.
Today if you climb into those mountains rest awhile, sit and listen quietly. If you are lucky you might still just hear the high pitched songs of the Sirens of La Gomera as they call to one another across the steep valleys of the Island that appears and vanishes at the whim of their call.
But first, you must believe.