Archive for the ‘History’ Category


blocksfenceAuschwitz (Oswieçim)

2020 is a special year for memories of Auschwitz. 75 years ago Auschwitz was liberated on January 27 and two other special anniversaries occur on the same day. On January 27 it was the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Stockholm Declaration establishing the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Plus it was the 15thanniversary of the adoption  of 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This special international commemoration took place at Auschwitz, the Memorial. About insidefence2200 Auschwitz survivors from around the world attended—an amazing feat indeed.

During the ceremonies, the survivors, the last eye-witnesses to those actual events, pleaded that the world “never forget”.

To honor these special people and to give my perspective on the events that took place, I’m going to re-post an article I wrote about Auschwitz after we visited there from Krakow a couple of years ago.

Here it is.


Warning that the fences are electrified


Our guide Ewelena explaining some of the horrific stats

A visit here gives a glimpse into the horrendous suffering endured by Holocaust victims.

For centuries the town of Oswieçim 75km west of Krakow was a quiet community, largely bypassed by world events. That is, until WWII. Under German occupation its name was changed to Auschwitz and it was the chosen site of the largest death camp in the Third Reich: between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were exterminated here. Around the world, Auschwitz has become the symbol of terror and genocide.

Most visitors to Poland and Krakow have to face the decision as to whether they will visitfirstbuildings Auschwitz or not, many having all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t/couldn’t/don’t need to. All of these reasons are probably true. I doubt there are many people who actually “want” to visit Auschwitz but, for us and other people we’ve spoken to, until you’ve actually visited this place you don’t get a complete picture of what it really was. The atmosphere is overwhelming, suffocating, somber beyond belief. It’s hard to fathom the horrendous injustice inflicted on those innocent lives during the Holocaust, but we are glad we went. It gave a visual frame of reference for all the stories we’ve read. No matter how much you know on the subject, the perspective gained by visiting and seeing with your own eyes is incomparable.


One of the information boards—this one about roll-call

chainfence2The Auschwitz Museum was established in 1947 on the actual site, and was recognized by UNESCO in 1979. The Auschwitz Museum and tour present one of the most horrific acts in human history in a professional and reasonably tactful way. We come away realizing this is a site of human concern, not just Jewish concern, Polish concern, German concern, minorities concern, or gypsy concern. The recent 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on January 27th 2015 was commemorated internationally, highlighting this fact.



Dishes, cups, mugs collected from the prisoners

The best way to visit Auschwitz is with a tour I think, and Krakow has many tour companies to choose from. The Auschwitz Museum can be chaotic and confusing, with huge crowds milling around at the entrance (especially during peak summer season), conflicting information, multiple ticket windows etc. During the season, everyone has to take a guided tour with a licensed Auschwitz guide, offered in many languages. Everyone gets headphones, so you can hear your tour guide. Our guide was Ewelena, and she was excellent, explaining and interpreting so much that we would not have been able to do on our own. As we followed Ewelena, we listened to stories of tragedy, but also of small triumphs, soaking in as much history as we could.

The Krakow tour bus drops you off at Auschwitz I, where you join the guided group, for a roughly 2-hour tour. After a short break you catch another bus that takes you to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where the same guide takes you around for about 1.5 hours. That bus takes you back to Auschwitz I, where you can find your tour bus back to Krakow. At Auschwitz I there are restrooms, a café and restaurant, but only restrooms at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.


Look closely for the Arbeit Macht Frei sign

While you wait for your guided tour, there are many information boards outside. They list names and numbers, total death counts, names of some who managed to escape. The first prisoners here were Poles, then came Soviets and gypsies, and Jewish people from many countries. From 1942, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into practice their plan to destroy the Jewish population in Europe.

The tour of Auschwitz I begins by passing underneath a replica of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) entrance gate, past the kitchens where the camp orchestra played as prisoners marched to work. All around are electrified barbed-wire fences, a constant chilling reminder of what this place is. The tour then goes through many different barrack buildings, called Blocks. Each Block has a different exhibit theme, describing the events during that time. There are many information boards—all in Polish, English, and Hebrew. Some have statistics of the numbers of people, from which countries, which groups etc. Some are of blown-up black and white photos, mostly taken by the Nazis, all of them telling a harrowing story.


Entrance to Block 4


Shoes collected off the prisoners


Prisoners’ cases

Block 4 gives an overview of the creation and reality of this concentration camp. In Block 5, some rooms are packed to the brim with personal belongings of the prisoners, confiscated on arrival by the Nazis. Mounds of shoes, clothes, eye glasses, dishware, luggage chalked with the name of the owner, children’s clothing and toys, among others—thousands of items that evidenced the complete dehumanization of the camp’s inhabitants. Block 6 illustrates the daily life of the prisoners and the walls are lined with countless pictures of prisoners in striped clothing, with name, birth date, profession and death date. The next set of barracks recreates the living conditions—one-word summary: awful.


Diagram of gas chambers


Outside the gas chamber


Inside the gas chamber

Block 11 (the Death Block”) is the hardest one to visit in Auschwitz I. In the cellars, the Nazis conducted their first experiments with poison gas in 1941 on Soviet prisoners. Some of the barracks here detail the suffering of specific nations. The end point is the worst: the gruesome gas chamber and crematoria, whose two furnaces could burn 350 bodies a day.

It’s haunting, heart-wrenching, unimaginable.




Some of the destroyed buildings

Auschwitz II–Birkenau is larger, built almost exclusively for the purpose of extermination. Added in 1942, it contained 300 barracks and buildings and was the biggest and most savage of all Nazi death camps. Here the sheer size, scope and solitude make an enormous impact, even though little remains that’s actually standing. When the Soviets were advancing towards the end of WWII, the Nazis tried to hide all traces of their crimes and dynamited or dismantled gas chambers and many of the living quarters; burned many documents; and evacuated thousands of people. You can see acres and acres of just posts and foundations behind and between the stark barbed-wire fences.



cattlecarYou first notice the purpose-built train tracks leading directly into the camp, with one lone cattle car today. Notoriously, 50-90 people were brought in on a single cattle car. At the far end of the camp, past the end of the train track, you see the mangled remains of the crematoria, plus a monument erected in 1967. So many people were cremated here that there is still a layer of ash in places, so the whole site is a hallowed place, and we have to remember we are walking on a massive open cemetery. Close to the ruins of the crematoria remains are 4 small memorial stones. One reads “To the memory of the men, women and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace”.




Four Memorial stones 


We walk somberly back to the bus

From there you wander back to the bus past sets of brick barracks with vile living conditions.

This is not a “nice” tourist visit, but an essential one if you are trying to understand the history of the time. A true understanding of the scope of WWII is incomplete without including the Nazi genocide. WWII and all it entailed affected an entire generation of our parents and grandparents, and the ripples from this will be felt for many more generations in many countries. It’s our responsibility as caring citizens of the world to commemorate historical tragedies, in an effort not to forget and not to repeat.

We are stimulated now to find out more about some of the survivors and learn their stories, such as Elie Wiesel. Here is a link to a good newspaper article about the 75th commemoration: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/27/auschwitz-survivors-to-return-after-75-years-memorial-ceremony

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Butchboard2It’s remarkable what we can learn if we just stop, look, read and listen.

We often fly through, to, and from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and have sometimes wondered why it’s called O’Hare, but never actually explored the answer, other than knowing it was named after a fighter pilot in WW11.

But, the answer came to us one time. We flew out of Terminal 2 (which we seldom do) and saw a special small exhibit with information boards arranged below an F4F fighter aircraft. Of course, we stopped to look.




One of the information boards

Well it turns out that O’Hare Airport is named after Lieutenant Commander Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare, and the story is inspiring and impressive.

Butch O’Hare was born in St Louis on March 13, 1914, went to military academy in Alton Illinois, then the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. After graduating in 1937 he served aboard the battleship USS New Mexico. He graduated from flight school at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL, in 1940 and was assigned to Squadron Fighting Three on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. One of his trainers in Pensacola was Lt. James Flatley, a combat tactician who taught naval aviators how to optimize the attributes of the F4F Wildcat.



Medal boardO’Hare then served in the Fighting Three under Lt. Commander John Thach, who designed a special combat maneuver called the “ThachWeave”. Thach and O’Hare refined this, and Thach, Flatley and O’Hare became the premier US Naval fighter pilots of 1942. Their tactics allowed the F4F Wildcat to compete successfully against the faster and more maneuverable Japanese “Zero” Fighter.

“Butch” O’Hare became the US Navy’s first “Top Gun” on February 20, 1942, during the Medal of Honor Flight.

After this, he continued with more inspiring and brave deeds, for which he received other awards as we saw in special plaques, also part of the exhibit. The plane he was flying was lost during enemy action in the area of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. He was officially declared dead on November 27, 1944.


F4FboardO’Hare Field on Abemam, Gilbert Islands, was named in honor of the late Lt. Comdr. Butch O’Hare, and a naval destroyer, the USS O’Hare, has also been named in his honor.

Chicago’s Orchard Field was re-named Chicago O’Hare International Airport in June 1949 by the City of Chicago to honor his unprecedented military career.

The F4F-3 Wildcat Fighter here in Terminal 2 was salvaged from Lake Michigan in 1990 and carefully restored to reflect the colors and markings of the aircraft flown by O’Hare.


In O’Hare Bus Terminal

The information boards are big panels with lots of extra information and great old black-and-white photos of the various war events and exploits linked to O’Hare—more than you can take in the first time. So, we’ve returned a few times, and recently we also saw another small 3-sided board on Butch O’Hare in the Bus Terminal at O’Hare Airport. He was indeed amazing and I feel a little sad/ashamed that we knew so little before.


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The first wall of murals we see


We have tea at our hotel, overlooking the Youghiogheny River

Connellsville, Italian Influence, and Murals

As I just wrote about, we stayed in Connellsville in southwestern Pennsylvania and used it as our base to visit the many wonderful sights around there—for example, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, the Laurel Highlands, the Flight 93 Memorial.

Connellsville is not very big but is an interesting city about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the Youghiogheny River (how do you pronounce that?!), a tributary of the Monongahela River. As we walked around we noticed some huge, lovely murals, notably on the Italian Independent Social Club Building, so we wondered what the story of these was.


The river through our hotel window

Connellsville was founded as a township in 1793 and as a borough in 1806 by Zachariah Connell, a militia captain during the American revolution. It was in the mining and steel working area of the state and has had 5 railroads at various times, and still seems to have a busy railroad yard.


During our stay, many many trains passed by on the busy railway line


We walk around the building—the mural goes from the worker to a large group of Italians



And then wraps round to a Connellsville station scene

Between 1880 and 1930 a flood of immigrants from Italy and other European countries arrived in Connellsville and vicinity, mainly to work in the coal, coke, steel and locomotive industries. Many of the Italian immigrants settled in the area that is now Connellsville and their Italian-American descendants continued to do so, which is why the area became known as “Little Italy”. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the neighborhood has a patron saint, Saint Rita of Cascia. Apparently the Italian influence continues to be strong here (as we saw in Ruvos Restaurant, which I’ll highlight in the next post).



Amazingly realistic!

These are stunning murals that wrap around three sides of the building really tell a story, both of the Italians and of their lives, and the passenger train station.


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long walk


Replica of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island



Mandela exhibit

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013), also known as Madiba

We were very recently in Cape Town Airport a couple of times and noticed that there is a rather nice pictorial exhibit, stretching along the upper wall, about Nelson Mandela and his life, work and achievements in the long passage way after you exit the international arrival hall. There’s also a replica of his cell on Robben Island, and one of a shebeen (local African bar) from the time before he went to prison.


The cell, and a space for you to sit and think about this man


Details in shebeen


The collage/mural starts here and flows from right to left , roughly chronologically, as you head for the airport exit

There are many other pictures and information about other parts of the Cape and South Africa too—all very nicely done—but the Mandela one really caught our eyes. Why?

Many people, both in South Africa and around the world, regard Mandela as a great man and a wonderful human being. He wrote a couple of books that are well known, (for example, Long Walk to Freedom, Conversations with Myself, Dare Not Linger) and there are a number of books and movies about him, his life, and his legacy. He was the first truly democratically-elected leader in South Africa in 1994 and approached that role in a way that tried to calm some of the troubled waters there were South African politics at the time, even though he himself had suffered terribly under the previous regime—Apartheid, the Nationalist Party, his incarceration on Robben Island (for 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned), etc.



collage4We moved from South Africa before he was elected, but we visit as often as we can. It seems to us that lots of South Africans today miss Mandela and what he stood for, especially when compared to all the corruption that is rampant in politics these days. He was a decent man, who tried to do the best for his country, and he is honored around the country in many different ways—statues of him, squares and schools named after him, and even the UN Nelson Mandela International Day, on July 18 (his birthday) each year. On this day people honor Mandela through volunteering and community service. It started in 2009 in South Africa, on Mandela’s 91stbirthday, but was declared international by the UN in 2010, so he lived to see some of the ways that his values were appreciated. I, and I’m sure millions of others, am very glad about that.


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Roy C in his kilt


Every year we have a piper (but not in 2018)


Wally M recites a poem by Robert Burns 

I have a lot of photos, so please scroll down and enjoy!

Celebrating the Life and Poetry of Robert Burns (25 January 1759-21 July 1796

No matter how far away you are from Scotland, you have a good chance of finding a Burns Supper. According to a Scottish friend, anywhere you find Scots people, you’ll find a Burns Supper, from all over the UK and as far away as Zambia. There is a strong tradition of Burns suppers in New Zealand, as Thomas Burns, Robbie Burns’ nephew, was a founding father there. Canada has many Burns Suppers too, for example in Bracebridge, ON. Many places in the USA will host a Burns supper.

Burns Supper in Urbana, Illinois

Here in Urbana, a group we belong to has its very own Burns Supper most years, which we’ve been lucky enough to attend a few times, including this year on the actual birthday, January 25. A lot of fun. The photos in this post are an amalgam of a couple of years.


The celebration in Urbana


Rod M recites a Burns poem

heatherWhat is all the fuss about and just what is this? A Burns Supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, a famous Scottish poet and the national bard. His works are cherished, as his words and sentiments are timeless and cover universal feelings and truths. The dinners are usually held on, or close to, the poet’s birthday on January 25th, although the first one was held on January 29, 1802, as his friends mistakenly thought that was his birthday. His birthday is also often known as Robert Burns Day or Rabbie Burns Day.




The piper pipes in the haggis


Ann C prepares to cut the haggis


Ann C cuts the haggis another year

These dinners may be formal or informal, but will all include  haggis. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish that was celebrated by Burns in one of his poems, Address to a Haggis. All dinners also involve Scotch whisky and the reciting of some of Burns’ poems.

The more formal dinners are fun as they follow a set format, which gives us a good window into Scottish traditions. Our dinner was pretty formal, and gave us a better understanding of how revered Robbie Burns is to Scots people.

At the beginning guests mingle informally over snacks as a piper pipes them in. Some of the guests, and the hosts, wear different tartans, depending o the clan they, or their ancestors, came from. The hosts welcome everyone and the guests are seated with the reciting of the Selkirk Grace. This thanksgiving wasn’t written by Burns, but gained its name after Burns delivered it at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Selkirk.


Cock O’Leeky soup


Cutting the haggis


Proposing a toast to the haggis and to Burns

Then comes the Soup Course, usually Scotch Broth and/or Cock-a-Leekie, followed by the Haggis. The piper pipes in the haggis, carried in by the cook and after it’s placed on the table, someone recites the Address to a Haggis. At certain lines towards the end of the poem the speaker picks up a knife, sharpens it, and plunges it into the haggis—a highlight of the evening. All rather dramatic.

Someone proposes a Scotch whisky toast to the haggis and then dinner is served: haggis with tatties(mashed potatoes) and neeps(mashed rutabagas). There may also be smoked salmon and various salads. Dessert might becranachenor Tipsy Laird(whisky trifle), and oatcakes with various cheeses. All washed down with copious amounts of Scotch whisky and/or red wine.


Cheese plate


Steve L proposes a toast to the Lads


Proposing a toast to the Lassies

There will be various speeches and toasts—to the Immortal Memory of Burns; To the Lads; To the Lassies—and perhaps singing of some Burns songs, and even dancing sometimes.

We had all this a few weekends ago, except for the piper, who was unfortunately unable to attend due to bad weather. However, other years that we went the piper was there and added a great vibe to the dinner. Thanks go to our hosts, who seated and entertained about 36 people. The tables were all beautifully decorated, with proper linen and glasses of purple heather, and the walls had pictures of Burns.

For more information about Robert Burns and Burns Night Suppers, check out these


Another toast to the Lads

good web sites.





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A Bucky statue at the Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, where there are real badgers


One of the Buckys on Parade, looking rather fierce

pieces signWe’ve recently returned from a 10-day trip to Madison, and Spring Green, Wisconsin. Partly for a conference for my husband and partly a short family break with some of our family from St Louis.

Wisconsin is known as the Badger State and the university mascot is a badger called Bucky. This year, from May 7-September 12, Madison and Dane Country are hosting a large public art display called Bucky on Parade.  Many life-sized Bucky badger fiber-glass statues, all individually designed and painted, are dotted around the city, and people (including us) are having fun tracking them down (more on the Bucky on Parade soon).


Pieces of Wisconsin Bucky at the Zoo


The State Capitol in Madison—note the gold statue atop the dome

Why badgers, and why Bucky?

The state’s nickname originally referred to lead miners who settled here in the early 1800s. The miners built temporary homes by digging caves into nearby hillsides. These caves came to be called “badger dens” and the miners were called “badgers”. Because the miners lived in these dens, they could work through the winters when others could not.

The nickname spread to include the people of Wisconsin, and then to the state itself. In 1957 the badger was adopted as the official state animal, partly because they admired its ferocity. The badger is also on the state coat-of-arms, and tops the helmet of Wisconsin, the name of the golden female figure on top of the dome of the State Capitol building in Madison.


Wisconsin, the statue (try to see the badger on her helmet)

1st and 10

1st and 10 Bucky on State Street

The Story of Bucky

Bucky’s real name is Buckingham U. Badger. His story starts in the 1890s when the University of Wisconsin-Madison football team began using a live badger as their mascot. But the animal was too fierce to be used on the sidelines, so it was sent to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison.

In 1940, artist Art Evans drew a new mascot, but at that time it was variously called Benny, Buddy, Bernie, Bobby and Bouncey. Then in 1949 the Pep Committee had a contest to name the badger, and “Bucky”, or Buckingham U. Badger, was chosen. The winner was a student, Bill Sachse. That same year the first papier-mache head of a badger was created, another student wore the outfit, and an icon was born.

It’s a fun story, and the Bucky on Parade was a lot of fun for us too.

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Rod M and El Drago trunk


El Drago

signEl Drago Milenario, the Dragon Tree

In Icod de los Vinos, Tenerife

This big old tree is advertised in all the guidebooks to Tenerife, so we decided we had to go and see it. It’s in a special park in Icod de los Vinos (Icod of the vines), a town not far along the coast from Garachico where we were staying. Parking is a huge problem as this is a big tourist attraction, and as I mentioned before there’s not a lot of parking space on the islands as there’s not a lot of flat land. So it’s best to follow the signs for the El Drago parking garage (not free).


Square Andes de Lorenzo-Caceres


El Drago and other smaller dragon trees in the park

We paid 3 euros each to get into the park (senior rate). You can see the tree from a pretty town square next to the park, the Square Andres de Lorenzo-Caceres around the Church of San Marcos, begun in the 16thcentury. But it’s worthwhile going into the actual park and walking in it a bit: you get closer to the tree and see many other trees and plants in the park.

Why is this tree one of the biggest tourist attractions of the island?

The El Drago (Dracaena draco) is supposedly the oldest tree of its kind in the world (it looked like some kind of euphorbia to us) but the actual age is disputed: some claiming that it’s up to 1,000 years old, but most experts say that’s very unlikely. It’s not a hardwood tree so it’s amazing that it’s that old anyway. It’s also the largest D.draco tree alive, partly because of its massive trunk formed by clusters of aerial roots that grew from the bases of the lowest branches and grew down to the soil.




A dragon tree with berries on Gran Canaria



Municipal Park, Arucas, on Gran Canaria

The park has many other dragon trees, much smaller (some were especially planted to hopefully replace this old tree when it does finally die). Other parts of Tenerife, Gran Canaria and three of the other Canary Islands also have some these trees in various places, so they are emblematic of the islands. However, they are not as prolific as before and are actually on an endangered list in some places.

The Dragon Tree is one of the most unusual plants on the Canary Islands. These are actually sub-tropical tree-like plants that are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and a part of western Morocco. They are, interestingly, a member of the asparagus family Asparagaceae! It has branches on the top, in a kind of umbrella shape, that end in tufts of spikey leaves. As Wikipedia says, “When young it has a single stem. At about 10–15 years of age the stem stops growing and produces a first flower spike with white, lily-like perfumed flowers, followed by coral berries. Soon a crown of terminal buds appears and the plant starts branching. Each branch grows for about 10–15 years and re-branches, so a mature plant has an umbrella-like habit. It grows slowly, requiring about ten years to reach 1.2 metres (4ft) in height but can grow much faster.”


In Arucas


At Casa del Vino on Tenerife


In Orotavo, Tenerife

Its red resin-like sap (known as “dragon’s blood”, el sange de drago) and its fruit were used in Roman times to make a medicinal powder, and it was used in pigments, paints and varnishes. The Guanches (original inhabitants of the Canaries) worshipped this tree and used the sap in their mummification process.

We were very happy that we visited this park to see this tree and learn something new about Nature. Around the islands we noticed many plaques, boards with emblems and/or names of places, and local flags that have the dragon tree on them in some form.


Hotel San Roque in Garachico


Crest on the square in Icod—with Guanches and the dragon tree

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Germ of an Idea or What goes Around Comes Around

As I wrote earlier, my husband and I chose to go on a special trip to the Canary Islands, the destination prompted by my memories of a trip taken with my grandmother many years ago.



My grandmother and I

As I wrote “The inspiration for this trip all started many years ago—to when I was an 8-year-old girl to be exact. At that time my grandmother took me from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to Cape Town by train and then by steamer ship to England, a trip that took 2 weeks. On the way there, and back, the steamer stopped in Las Palmas on the Canary Islands. I was fascinated by the new culture and the new language, Spanish. Recently I was writing up my grandmother’s memoirs, which reminded me of that time again. So, when my husband suggested we go somewhere special for a “big” birthday, the Canary Islands were top of my list.”


One of the Union Castle Line ships in Cape Town harbor in the 1950s


I was a gypsy in the costume parade

The steamer ships were part of the Royal Mail service, run by the Union Castle Line, delivering mail between England and southern Africa. As far as I remember, my grandmother and I went to England on the Stirling Castle and returned to Cape Town on the Pretoria Castle. We lived on each ship for 2 weeks and I can vaguely remember some special events, like kids’ activities and a film evening. The biggest event was the “Crossing the Line Ceremony”, when the steamer crossed the equator. It was like a festival, with a costume competition, a party, plenty of shaving cream sprayed around, and lots of champagne for the adults.

Here a few pictures from that trip, very evocative pictures that got us dreaming.


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On the first zig-zag on the road going to the right uphill, the statue is where the white umbrellas are at the roadside cafe

statueOn the edge of Garachico, on a bend in the road going up the hill out of town, we passed a small car park, with a viewpoint, roadside café and an intriguing statue. It’s called “Monument to Canarian Emigrants” and we wondered about its significance. It was erected in August 1990, and the sculptor is Fernando Garciarramos.

Well, it turns out this is a big part of the history of the islands.

One of the important stories about the Canary Islands is the history of migration out of the islands. Because the islands are a crossroads in the Atlantic, they soon developed a very important relation with the newly conquered territories across the Atlantic. Canarians, both of indigenous and European descent, were present on some of plaqueColumbus’ journeys.

The flow of people from the Canaries to the Americas was constant from the late 15th century to the middle of the 20th century. This was due mainly to the small size and poverty of the islands, and the lure of a better life. For example, in the early 1800s more than 18,000 Canary Islanders emigrated to the Americas. Most to Cuba, and fewer to Venezuela and Puerto Rico. There are also Canarian communities in Louisiana, Florida and Texas in the USA.

statue2Many Canarians in the Americans played important roles in the bid for independence from Spain in many of those countries. For example, leaders such as Francisco de Miranda (Venezuelan military leader) and Simón Bolívar were of Canarian ancestry, and the iconic leader of Cuban independence, José Martí, had a Canarian mother.

The last large migration of Canarians towards the Americas took place in the 1950s mainly to Venezuela. Since then, Canarians have started, for the first time, to migrate to Europe. Most settled in Spain, but a few small Canarian communities are in the UK, Germany and Sweden.

A small minority of Canarian emigrants and descendants have also returned to the Islands from the 1960s onwards. As living conditions worsened in Latin America and at the same time improved on the Islands with the boom of tourism, many American-born Canarian descendants applied for Spanish passports so they could return settle back in the land of their ancestors.

A really interesting part of the history of the islands, which is way more complex than we ever realized before coming here.



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The town of Firgas on Gran Canaria has a sloping street with tiled maps and illustrations of all the Canary Islands, plus a relief model


Firgas also has this lovely street lined with tiled benches and plaques, one for each of the island’s main towns.


Many towns have outdoor cafes on or near the main square—note palm trees and balconies

Canary Islands: Part 2: Summary of islands

(I’ve put a lot of photos in this post, so please enjoy and scroll through).

We spent 10 days on the islands—a week on Tenerife and 3 days on Gran Canaria—so we were able to explore a fair bit. On both islands we stayed on, and visited, the north part of the island, rather than the south, as the south is a bit warmer, has more beaches and many big tourist resorts. We’ve always shunned resorts as we feel that’s not a good way to find out about local life and culture.

In some ways the two islands are very similar, but different in other ways so we’re happy we visited at least two of the 7 islands. If we ever revisit we’ll try to visit another one too, as well as return to Tenerife.


Courtyard in garden of main cathedral of Las Palmas


Mountain village view—the sea is never far away


Main plaza in Garachico

(Here are some general observations. Later I’ll try to describe specific places and events.) It was interesting to be on an island with an island culture and the sea a constant presence. We enjoyed hearing Spanish (although we speak very little), and it was wonderful to see the architecture with a strong Spanish influence: towns and villages with a main plaza—the hub of local life—surrounded by a big church, usually with a belfry, and many government/official buildings. The plaza is usually pedestrianized, so kids can run around, throw balls or ride bikes, and adults/families sit around a central kiosk selling drinks and snacks, or at café tables spilling out onto the square or side streets.


Main plaza in Garachico (other side)—our hotel is the burnt orange building on the right


Main plaza in Buena Vista on Tenerife’s north coast


Beautiful balconies

Most buildings are painted in bright colors—such as blue, yellow, orange, ochre, green—and many have beautiful wooden or wrought-iron balconies. Palm trees, pointsettias (in pots and as live shrubs), strelitzias and bougainvilleas bring a bright tropical touch, and outside the coastal towns and villages huge banana plantations are never far away.









Tenerife has many banana plantations


Volcanic landscape on Tenerife


Mt Teide

All the islands are volcanic in origin but Tenerife is the one where this is probably the most obvious. Mt Teide dominates the island, and the north coast is marked by coves, inlets and rocky outcrops of craggy black rocks, against which the waves pound ceaselessly.






Mt Teide National Park


Garachico—note black volcanic rocks



We spent most time in Garachico on Tenerife and used it as our base, and would do so again. It’s on the north coast, almost at the west end of the main coastal road TF42. This pretty town sprawls along the black rocky waterfront and up the mountain close behind. Established in the 16th century by Genoese merchants, Garachico was once the most important port on the island. That ended in 1706 when the Volcan Negro erupted and lava buried the harbor and much of the town. The façade of the former Santa Ana church escaped, as did the Castillo de San Miguel on the waterfront. It now houses the Heritage Information Center.


Dogs are prominent on the Canaries’ crest

Once we got our orientation here we loved it and even returned for a day when we were staying at El Sauzal, another town further east on the coast. Garachico is a lovely town of narrow cobblestone streets, attractive colored buildings, many with striking balconies, a large plaza for pedestrians only, little souvenir shops and many restaurants and bars. It’s bustling in the day, but casual and friendly, and much quieter at night. Our hotel, the Quinta Roja, was in a huge former mansion fronting onto the main square so we were right in the center of local life—a bike rally on a Saturday morning, church services and bells on Sunday, family voltas (slow promenade while chatting) every evening.




Steep street in Oratavo, Tenerife 

As a tourist on the islands it would be almost impossible to visit without renting a car, as public buses, although plentiful, will only take you to certain places. So, we did. In Garachico, and all the other towns, parking is a big problem, so it’s best to find a public parking place and then just walk. In Garachico you can park all along the seafront or in a parking area right next to the sea (all free, but all very busy at weekends when many day-trippers come visiting). Driving on the islands is not too difficult, if you know where you’re going and have a good map (the one from the Tourist Office at Tenerife airport was excellent). However, the roads are some of the steepest we’ve ever driven, with some incredible switchbacks and hairpin bends. But, considering the mountainous terrain the road system is pretty good. It’s actually remarkable that many local buses go up these steep winding roads.



Special Canadian sauces and wrinkly potatoes, served here with fish


Las Palmas main cathedral

On both islands you have to pay extra for bread at a meal, but it’s very good bread. Seafood everywhere is wonderful—fresh and plentiful. It’s not recommended that people drink tap water, so everyone buys bottled water. In shops and supermarkets you can buy very large bottles (up to 8 liters, which is a bit over 2 gallons) very cheaply.

We flew from Tenerife to Gran Canaria and stayed in the main city of Las Palmas, which is way bigger and more built-up than we were expecting. The port is also huge—it’s always been an ocean crossroads and still is. For example we saw oil tankers from Venezuela. It’s a very cosmopolitan city—we saw many Muslims in special robes and African people. Sadly, we also saw quite a few homeless people.


Casa Colon (Columbus’s House) in Old Las Palmas


In the market

The best part of the city is Old Las Palmas, called Vegueta, which we went to by bus (1.40 euro each). It has a bustling covered produce market (the Mercado), old churches, mansions and squares, all in bright colors. We had fun visiting the main cathedral of the island and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art housed in part of the cathedral buildings. Vegueta also has the Casa Colon and the Museum, mentioned in Part 1. Here we learned a lot about the history of the islands, archeological, pre-colonial and colonial. What’s really brought home is how they have been an important sea crossroads all along.


Pedestrianized street in Teror

We were able to get out of the city one day, and drove up to three gorgeous mountain villages (Arucas, Teror, and Firgas), all with their own special church and squares.

If you are ever able to, I’d definitely recommend the Canary Islands for a wonderful trip.


Square in Old Las Palmas

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