Devil's advocate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am


'Don't stand still,' warns Manolo, our guide, 'your shoes might melt.'

Nervous smiles, shifting feet, I can feel the heat on my big toe.

'Here,' says Manolo, as he scrapes lava grit from the surface. 'If you can hold it for a minute, you can keep it.'

I hold out both hands but give up on the count of 10.

Timanfaya is awesome; temperatures can reach 140 degrees Celsius just 10cm below ground and, above, there are hectares of 'bad lands' created by eruptions. The last one was in 1824, though I would not trust a dormant volcano, let alone a full range of them on a Canary island. Timanfaya National Park is no place to wander around on your own. Dig a hole, pour in a few drops of water and up comes a mini-geyser, sprinkle a little brushwood on it and it catches alight instantly.

Manolo shows us his tricks but if we want to see more, we must board a luxury coach and crawl along a single-lane road, which meanders between dark lava walls before ascending to the top of the world, looking down on a sea of craters. Amid the crumbling slopes and teetering rocks, I hold my breath and am lulled by the sound of new-age music. I daydream about Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We hear about the local priest who braved six years of eruptions to keep a daily record and Nasa, which studied the terrain when it was designing the lunar buggy.

Watching volcanoes from inside a coach is one thing, living in volcanic bubbles underground is another. In the 1960s, local artist and architect Cesar Manrique spotted a fig tree sprouting in a field of solidified lava, its roots deep in a volcanic bubble. 'I will build my house down there,' he declared. The land was so barren the owner gave it to him for free.

Taro is the 'pile of rocks' where he lived and the seat of an art foundation bearing his name. Heading down into the cave, I expect darkness and gloom but find cool rooms with luminous white walls, striking artwork and an underground garden where plants and trees shoot up towards the skylight. A fountain cascades in a corner and if I ever need a vision of heaven, this would do nicely. Even the rose-tinted volcano looming outside fits into the surrealist picture. No wonder Manrique loved it.

Volcanoes have shaped Lanzarote for millions of years and such a beautiful place, he thought, should be preserved and shown to the world. No high rises, no gaudy colours, just white walls, green palms and lava.

Twenty years on, Manrique's wishes are still largely respected and his contributions continue to amaze. We attend a concert in a volcanic cave turned auditorium, which enticed violinist-conductor Yehudi Menuhin to rave about its acoustics, and paddle through an underground lagoon where tiny albino crabs mystify scientists to this day. The Atlantic seeps in but I have no wish to know how far this volcanic tube stretches into the ocean. I just want to marvel at the man who created life in the midst of natural destruction.

Manrique, the all-round artist, certainly had a sense of humour. We can only smile at his fertility monument at the very centre of the island, made up of discarded water tanks: part recycling, part defiance on such an arid land. We continue to his Cactus Garden, tucked into a disused quarry; the Mirador viewpoint, an architectural wonder hidden in a cliff face at the northern end of Lanzarote; and the Geria, where vines grow in crater-like hollows, covered with lava grit to retain the night moisture.

The next day, back in Timanfaya, the camels are waiting, all lined up for a safari. Brought over from Morocco, about 125 kilometres away, they once carried 500kg loads across the island. Today life is better; they work only four hours a day and carry just two tourists at a time. A few haughty creatures kneel at the side of the trail, others are coerced into action after much spitting and grunting. Time to balance loads, pair up strangers and add a sandbag or two before we pitch and roll ungracefully across the lower slopes.

A gust of wind sweeps through the Fire Mountains, whipping up the dust and my hat, gone like a feather. The wildlife consists of an Egyptian vulture, a lizard and a few succulents clinging to the rocks.

The grit turns from ash grey to red and somewhere ahead of us I sense Hilario, the island's highest volcano, at 510 metres, and named after a hermit who lived there for 50 years. Hopefully we will be as brave as he was because, on the top of Hilario, we are dining with the devil.

He has followed us ever since day one, right across the island, brandishing a five-pronged pitchfork above his head, pointing his tail like lightning towards the earth. He is barely half a metre tall, designed by Manrique as the emblem of the national park and, up here on Hilario, the pair of them made a pact. Where else would you find half a pig roasting above a well filled with geothermal heat?

El Diablo restaurant bears Manrique's mark throughout. It's perfectly integrated into the landscape with panoramic glass walls you hardly notice from a distance, unless the sun glints on them. We dine on grilled chops, devil style, and Canarian potatoes dipped in piquant mojo sauce, with a glass of Malvasia wine from those lava-rich vineyards. All around us are craters and volcanic cones, rust-coloured slopes and lichen-filled hollows.

Manrique once ran naked through lava fields to commune with the raw forces of nature. I understand how he felt but I have no time to emulate him. Dessert has just arrived.

Getting there: Air France ( flies from Hong Kong to Barcelona, via Paris. Air Europa ( operates flights from Barcelona to Lanzarote.