Approaching the port of Santa Cruz de La Palma, you’re struck by the rich, green ridges of Caldereta that form a breathtaking backdrop to the collection of buildings spreading back from the wide, palm-lined promenade to the foothills of the cliffs. What you don’t see, are the cobbled streets, the magnificent Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the splendid churches and flower laden squares or the chic, upmarket restaurants, bars and shops; Santa Cruz de La Palma saves her best profile for those who take time to wander her tableau of narrow streets.
With a population of 19,000, the town is the capital of the most westerly of the Canary Islands archipelago; La Palma. Its feel is distinctly South American, or more specifically Cuban and Venezuelan, from its busy arepa bars with their salsa rhythms and its multitude of Colonial style balconies, to the ever-present cigar in the mouth of every male over the age of forty years.
Arrive on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll think the town is shut; it is. Shops and offices close their doors at 2pm on Saturdays and don’t re-open them until 10.00am on Monday; all except the small souvenir shops, the supermarkets and the artisan centres which open to cater for the predominantly British passengers whose cruise liners dock each Sunday.
The town of Santa Cruz de La Palma has a rich seafaring history.
It was founded by Alonso Fernández de Lugo on 3rd May 1493 and from that time onwards, became home to Spanish, Flemish, English and Portuguese merchants and a target for pirates including those led by Françoise Le Clerc (known as Peg Leg) who, in 1553, pillaged and destroyed the town.
In the sixteenth century, sugar trade brought immense wealth to Santa Cruz de La Palma, and its port became the third most important in the Spanish Empire. The money made by merchants was invested in Flemish art, a legacy which remains today in the churches and museums of the town. By the end of the seventeenth century the sugar trade had collapsed and many of the town’s inhabitants fled to Cuba and Venezuela to seek their fortunes.
In the nineteenth century, with fortunes once again being made through trade, Santa Cruz de La Palma became a major shipbuilding centre for the Spanish fleet, producing 120 ships for trade with America.
What to See
Santa Cruz de La Palma is an outdoor museum of architecture. The main street of Calle Real, which begins life as Calle O’Daly and ends as Calle Pérez de Brito, runs from the port to the naval museum. Some of the highlights you’ll find on it are: Salazar’s House – dating from the first half of the seventeenth century and now home to the tourist office; the Town Hall opposite Plaza España – one of the most important Renaissance buildings in the Canary Islands with a façade made from Gomeran stone and magnificent frescoes by Mariano Cassío which fill the stairwell; the Iglesia de El Salvador on Plaza España – Renaissance design containing a Gothic ribbed vault dome and some of the best examples of wooden mudejar roofs to be found in the Canary Islands. The military looking stone tower which houses the church bells was built following the attack by French pirates in 1553.
Cutting through Placeta Borrero to Avenida Marítima, you arrive at Casa de los Balcones – a row of sea-facing balconies which represent the urban icon of La Palma; they’ve been used in illustration of the city since the nineteenth century and are deservedly still the most photographed buildings on the island. Strongly Portuguese influenced, these houses contain features such as double balconies and overhanging ovens.
Carrying along Avenida Marítima past Saint Catherine’s Castle and turning left up Calle Pedro de las Casas, you arrive in Plaza de San Francisco at the Iglesia de San Francisco. The Franciscan monks, who accompanied De Lugo in his conquest of the islands, having spent fifteen years living in straw huts, began building this monastery in 1508. The church, which was constructed during the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, houses one of the first examples of Renaissance art on the islands; El Señor de la Piedra Fría (Lord of the Cold Stone) –a sixteenth century sculpture from the Indies.
What to do
The cloisters of a 16th century convent with its courtyard of orange trees, planted by European monarchs and heads of state, is a tranquil setting for this museum; arts, crafts, natural history and pre-Hispanic exhibits paint a picture of island life, past and present.
(+34) 922 420 558; Plaza de San Francisco, 3; entry €1.80; open 09.00-14.00, closed Saturday and Sunday;
It’s a shock to find a ship parked in the centre of town. The Barco de la Virgen, a replica of Columbus’ ship Santa Maria doubles as a naval museum, housing information on the island’s seafaring history and maritime artifacts, as well as being mistaken for a pirate ship during the Bajada de la Virgen celebrations. The museum is undergoing restoration, but should reopen in time for the fiesta.
(+34) 922 416 560; Plaza de la Alameda; entry €1.30; open 09.30-14.30 Monday to Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday
There are a number of venues in which to enjoy paintings, photographs and sculptures; the harbour building at the port and the Colegio de Abogados on Calle Perez de Brito hold regular exhibitions; however, the main gallery in town is Sala O’Daly, where local and international artists display their creations.
Casa Monteverde, Calle O’Daly, 1; open 10.00-13.00 and 16.00-20.00 Monday to Friday, 10.00-14.00 Saturday, closed Sunday
The Virgin of the Snows
Three kilometres out of town, the Real Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Las Nieves is home to a 14th century Gothic icon of the patron saint of the island sitting atop a radiant Mexican silver altar. The charming hamlet has a small square with fountain, a 17th century pilgrim’s refuge and, if you have made the journey on foot, a bar for some welcome refreshment.
Check out Calle Real for some of the best shops to be found outside of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and don’t leave the island without some of their world famous, hand rolled cigars; head to El Roque on Pérez Volcan opposite Teatro Chico to watch Señor Roque at his craft and invest in a packet for those special occasions.
For lovers of the great outdoors; you’ll find everything you could possibly want for hiking, camping and travelling in comfort and style.
(+34) 922 414 400; Calle Pérez de Brito, 15; Open Monday to Saturday 10.00-13.30, Monday to Friday 17.00-20.30; www.coroneltapiocca.com
Crammed full of delightful curios and ornaments; particularly eye catching are the metal fish on poles which twirl in the breeze, wonderful lampshades that hang at impossible angles and metal lizards that double as kitchen hooks.
(+34) 922 415 401; Placeta de Borrero, 2; Open Monday to Saturday 10.00-14.00 and Monday to Friday 17.00-20.30, closed Sunday
Where to Stay
Apartamentos La Fuente
This extended traditional old house with its shady courtyard and palm filled gallery is a real gem of a find. Right in the heart of the town, it has beautiful apartments with kitchens, bathrooms and stylish living space; ask for a room in the old part of the house for wooden floors and ceiling.
(+34) 922 415 636; Calle Pérez de Brito, 49; Apartments from €33 per night; www.la-fuente.com
Located on the promenade, this 3 star hotel offers balconies with most of its 96 rooms and internet access in its bar/cafeteria. Ask for a sea view if you want to catch a glimpse of Mount Teide on a clear day.
(+34) 922 420 222; Avenida Marítima, 77; double rooms from €62 per night; www.hotelmaritimo.com
Next door to the Hotel Maritimo and offering 36 studio apartments, 3 apartments and 3 double rooms, all with sea views.
(+34) 922 420 840; Avenida Marítima, 75; double rooms from €45, studios from €50 and apartments from €57 per night
Where to Eat
It may look like a grand medieval hall, but this unusual, beautiful restaurant, specialising in Argentinian and Palmero dishes, was originally responsible for supplying La Palma with electricity; the first in the whole archipelago.
(+34) 922 691 244; Avenida los Indianos, 2; open 12.00-16.00 and 18.00-23.00, closed all day Monday and Sunday evening; average cost of a main course €12
A colonial building with stained glass windows bathing the tiled courtyard in soft light whilst classical music plays in the background; elegant charm in which to enjoy traditional Canarian cuisine.
(+34) 922 415 266; Avenida Marítimo, 55; open 13.00-24.00 Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday; average cost of a main course €12
Bright flowers cascade from traditional wooden balconies overlooking a pretty little square. A picture postcard restaurant offering deliciously creative dishes such as red snapper in dill cream sauce.
(+34) 922 415 273; Placeta de Borrero, 1; open 13.00-16.00 and 19.00-23.00, closed Sunday; average cost of a main course €12
Pasta and pizzas in another fabulous example of Palmero architecture; a popular restaurant where the spicy pimiento dressing adds a Cuban zest to traditional Italian dishes.
(+34) 922 417 097; Avenida Maritimo, 53; open 12.00-16.00 and 19.00-24.00, closed Monday; average cost of a main course €10
As nightlife doesn’t really get going till after eleven, a perfect way to start the evening is to take in a concert or play at Teatro Chico. The theatre is host to a spring and autumn classical season as well as featuring jazz, contemporary music, dance and plays throughout the rest of the year.
(+34) 922 420 007; Calle Díaz Pimiento, 1; check forthcoming performances at www.scpalma.es
Tasca La Herradura Leal
Located at the heart of after dark merrymaking; a bright, modern tasca with a mezzanine area; perfect for watching patrons in the bar below turn the cobbled street outside into an open air extension of the tasca.
(+34) 922 410 587; Calle Alvares de Abrieu, 73; open 20.00- late
La Cuatro 4
Live music every Thursday night and standing room only by midnight at the weekend; lively music and friendly atmosphere embodies that typical Cuban-Palmero mix that gives the town much of its character.
Calle Blas Simón, 4; open 20.00-03.00, closed Tuesday; www.lacuatro.com
Dancing in the street
Nightlife moves up a notch during summer, when hordes of young Palmeros return home from university. A nightly open air disco near the harbour provides a cool venue to dance away the sultry summer evenings.
How to get there
BinterCanarias fly regularly throughout the day from Tenerife North airport.
(+34) 902 391 392; www.binternet.com; €100 return
The most convenient way to travel by sea is the Fred Olson ferry departing daily from Los Cristianos at 10.30.
(+34) 902 100 107; www.fredolson.es/lineas; return per person €80, with car €202
The L8 service departs from the airport every 30 minutes (€1)
Taxis meet ferries at the port; there are ranks at Avenida El Puente and at Plaza de la Alameda; call 922 416 070 (07.00-23.00); 606 547 954 (24.00-07.00).
There’s an office in the centre of town on Calle O’Daly.
(+34) 922 422 106; Casa Salazar, Calle O’Daly, 22; open 09.00-19.30 Monday to Friday, 09.00-15.00 Saturday, 10.00-14.00 Sunday
A large free car park runs the length of the promenade, there’s another at the port.
La Bajada de La Virgen is a four week extravaganza celebrating the arrival of the Virgin of the Snows from her sanctuary in Las Nieves; parades, giants, magical lanterns and the highlight, the Dance of the Dwarfs create an extraordinary fiesta. The bad news is that it only happens every five years; the good news is that July 2005 is one of them.
A particularly sweet smelling affair takes place during the annual Carnaval. Everyone is covered in white as Los Indianos, mock emigrants returning with riches from America, engage in talcum powder battles throughout the capital; it’s definitely not the day for wearing that little black number.