Volcanoes, Vines, Freedom: Exploring Gay-Friendly Lanzarote

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Volcanoes, Vines, Freedom: Exploring Gay-Friendly Lanzarote


“Lanzarote is a place of secrets and mysteries,” the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar once said of the place he used as a backdrop for his 2009 film “Broken Embraces.” “After I set foot on the island, the tensions I bring from Madrid disappear, as if this land had healing qualities.”

Mr. Almodóvar’s words, in a 2008 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Diario, kindled my own fascination with Lanzarote, the easternmost of the seven main Canary Islands.

His description also made it sound like the ideal wind-down destination for anyone attending Pride events on nearby Gran Canaria, an island that’s one of the most popular gay destinations in Europe. So this May, as revelers flocked to Gran Canaria, I went to Lanzarote.

After the 45-minute flight from lush, green Gran Canaria, the sere, black and brown landscape came as a shock. To take it all in, I drove up the Montaña de Guanapay, a steep hill about 1,440 feet above the village of Teguise, crowned by the Castle of Santa Bárbara.

It was here at the beginning of the 14th century that Lancelotto Malocello, a Genoese merchant and navigator, had a watchtower built. Malocello left the island 20 years later because of an uprising by the Guanche, the island’s Indigenous Berber people, who were later assimilated into Spanish settlements. But the navigator lives on as the likely source of the name Lanzarote, and the views are still spectacular.

Compared with its much busier and palm-studded sister island, Lanzarote is barren, with occasional low-slung villages of whitewashed houses appearing like cobwebs on the slopes of the mostly dormant volcanoes that created the island. It was a strange place. I loved it immediately.

I also understood why the driest and windiest of the major Canary Islands has quietly become a new hideaway for Spanish and other European creatives, as well as a growing number of Americans, now that there are direct flights from Newark to Tenerife. Lanzarote is a primal spot that scours out your head with vast horizons that resonate with eternity.

About 80 miles off the coast of Morocco, Lanzarote (Lahn-zah-ROH-tay) shares the renegade aura of longtime L.G.B.T.Q. destinations like Key West, Fla., and Provincetown, Mass., in the United States. Not surprisingly, the island has seduced many artists, writers and celebrities, among them the actor Omar Sharif, the Portuguese novelist José Saramago. César Manrique, a visionary painter and architect and Lanzarote’s most famous son, returned to the island and shaped its unique identity by leading the fight to protect it from high-rise hotels and billboards.

I quickly found that I agreed with Mr. Almodóvar: I felt safe and nurtured by this island, too. Maybe it was because the Conejeros, or people from Lanzarote, are generally kind. When I was obliviously driving the wrong way up a one-way street in Teguise, a woman darted out of a bakery, wagged her finger and handed me a sugar-dusted cookie stuffed with fig jam. Then she told me it would be easier for her just to drive me to my hotel. She hopped in and took me to the Palacio Ico, an atmospheric nine-room hotel created by the Swiss artist Heidi Bucher when she restored a Canarian mansion built in 1690.

While I was relaxing with a glass of cold, dry Lanzarote white wine on the covered gallery outside my spacious room, two French guys whom I recognized from the plane came up the stairs from the courtyard below. I ventured a “bonsoir.”

We chatted. This was my first time on Lanzarote, but like almost every other foreigner I met during the three days I spent there, they’d been to the island many times before.

“We both travel a lot for work, and Lanzarote is one of our favorite places to go for couple time,” said one of the men. They’d just been to the last three days of Pride celebrations on Gran Canaria. “Lanzarote is the perfect place to chill out post-Pride,” said the other.

They invited me to join them for dinner, but I already had plans to meet a lesbian friend from Edinburgh who was staying at the glamorous new César Lanzarote hotel. We decided to have lunch the next day instead.

She was sitting in the bar with two Swedish surfers when I arrived. The men, a couple who frequently travel to Lanzarote, store their boards in a locker to use at Famara Beach during their trips.

The food at the César restaurant was delicious, including wrinkly Canarian potatoes with mojo, the spicy dipping sauce that’s a staple on local tables; grilled red prawns; and a tortilla with ropa vieja (pulled beef) and vegetables.

I got home late and sat outside staring at the infinity of bright stars. I felt an undercurrent of adrenaline, like what I’d felt the first time I went to the gay enclave Fire Island Pines in New York. Then, and on Lanzarote, this came from the un-self-conscious pleasure of meeting interesting people who just happened to be gay.

Given the wind and scorching temperatures, Lanzarote might seem an unlikely place to produce wine, but vines have become an essential part of the island’s ecosystem. During the last 10 years, the number of D.O. (or designated origin) wineries on the island has more than doubled, to 21.

The Spanish first brought vines to the Canaries in the mid-15th century, and the excellence of the islands’ wines explains frequent references to them in the plays of Shakespeare and the name of Canary Wharf in London, where imports were unloaded.

Since wine tasting is an inherently social activity, I booked a three-and-a-half-hour morning tour with Wine Tours Lanzarote, which offers a variety of different tours in groups no larger than eight.

Our Spanish guide, who’d originally moved to Lanzarote from Madrid, led us on several fascinating vineyard walks in the jet black fields. Here we saw how the local vines are individually planted behind low half-moon-shaped walls called zocos to protect them from the wind.

Afterward, I met the French couple for lunch at Bar Strava, near the Charco de Sant Ginés, a saltwater lagoon in the heart of Arrecife, Lanzarote’s largest town.

Since it was one of their favorite Lanzarote restaurants, I let them order our tapas feast. We ate grilled morcilla (blood-pudding sausage) with caramelized-onion-and-green-pepper jam, patatas bravas with kimchi mayonnaise, and grilled octopus with mojo sauce. The food was excellent, but we didn’t linger.

After lunch, we set off to discover César Manrique’s legacy. “He’s one of the most fascinating postwar artists in Europe but is little known today beyond Lanzarote. I think his bisexuality stunted his career,” one my lunch companions said. Manrique, who was once married, never spoke of his sexuality, but the César Manrique Foundation on Lanzarote confirms that he was probably bisexual.

Manrique was born on Lanzarote in 1919, studied architecture on Tenerife, and then art in Madrid. In 1964, he moved to New York, where he exhibited his paintings at the Guggenheim Museum and Catherine Viviano Gallery, befriending artists like Andy Warhol.

In 1966, he returned to Lanzarote and began work on his first project there, the Jameos del Agua, an art and cultural center built inside a volcanic tunnel. A jameo is a large cavelike opening in a lava tube, created when part of the ceiling collapses.

“Manrique believed that anything man built should only make the landscape more beautiful,” I overheard a guide saying as we entered a natural amphitheater overlooking a pool inhabited by albino crabs. We then moved on to an artificial turquoise lake with a white-painted shoreline, a cactus garden Manrique created inside an old volcanic-sand quarry and the stunning Mirador del Río crow’s nest, which offered spectacular views of Lanzarote’s northern coast.

At the César Manrique Foundation, formerly his home, we explored a wild warren of subterranean rooms created from huge bubbles in hardened lava with décors that recalled both James Bond and the 1960s sci-fi film “Barbarella.” Beyond the glamour, it was also a poignant place that expressed the sensitive personality of the artist, who died in a car accident in 1992.

On my own for dinner, I sampled the modern Canarian cooking of the chef Victor Valverde at the Palacio Ico’s restaurant. The 90 euro ($96) tasting menu included salmorejo soup made with organic local Tinajo tomatoes and garnished with smoked goat cheese ice cream; red prawns in ginger-lime sauce; black pig cheek with a thyme demi-glace and gofio mousse with salted caramel sauce (gofio is a traditional Canarian flour).

At the end of this excellent meal, I chatted with the chef and learned he was from Madrid, had trained with the Michelin three-star chef Martín Berasategui in the Basque Country and worked in London before falling in love with Lanzarote five years ago. “I try to use as much traditional island-grown produce as possible, and the limitations of this larder have been hugely stimulating for me as a chef,” Mr. Valverde said, adding, “Me siento tan libre aquí” — “I feel so free here.”

I did, too.


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