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Fuerteventura: New Year in the Sun

January 14, 2018 Leave a comment

El Moro Beach - Surfers Included

The progress of my Christmas and New Year celebrations has remained much the same ever since I moved down to Dublin. Spend Christmas itself with family, then return to Dublin to see in the New Year with friends. Depending on who’s available, this can either be a party or quiet drinks in someone’s house, or braving the madness of the city on New Year’s Eve. This year though, I did something a bit different.

One of my friends has, for the last few years, spent the holiday period away from the grey dampness of Ireland, instead seeking out the sun of the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa but legally part of Spain. At her suggestion, I decided to join her this time out, booking an eight-day trip to the island of Fuerteventura, not only to enjoy the sun and the unseasonable warmth but to enroll in a surfing school for six of those days. Now, while I run a fair amount and can swim if push comes to shove, my sense of balance could be generously described as non-existent, and the chance of me making a decent showing of surfing seemed very unlikely. Still, I’ve been making an effort to try new things for the last few years, and this was as much of a stretch as I’d pushed myself to, so it seemed very appealing.

Anyway, this is not going to be a day-by-day report on the whole experience. Given that the days were relatively samey, involving surfing in the morning or afternoon and drinks and dinner in the evening, such a report wouldn’t be the most entertaining. Instead, a few snapshots on what the whole experience was like.

Weather

Out on the Sand Dunes

A word on the weather first. At around the time that Ireland was bouncing along a few degrees above freezing, Fuerteventura enjoyed more or less consistent temperatures of around 20ªC. Add to that the lack of humidity and habitual blue skies and it felt a lot warmer. Not so warm as to be uncomfortable, but whenever I ventured to put on a pair of shorts I never felt out of place. The sea was pretty warm too, on the occasions that I ventured into it. Which is to say that despite the fact that it was the Atlantic Ocean I was swimming in, it was pretty easy to get used to the chill. When surfing, this was made even easier by wearing a wetsuit. Which brings me to the next section.

Surfing

I’d booked six days of surfing lessons – no one planned on doing anything, let alone surfing, on New Year’s Day (more on that below) – and I made it to five of them. One morning surfing lesson was missed due to an overly late night the evening before. At the start of the week, I was struggling to stay on the board even when laying flat on it (and giving my neglected core muscles an unwelcome workout). By the end of the week, I could catch waves more often than not and raise myself up to one knee, though I never did manage to stand up, which had been my goal before the week began. A minor disappointment, but not a complaint. The teachers of the Quiksilver/Sunwave Surf School did their best with me, and they and the other students were a lot of fun to hang out with. No one was too serious or competitive about it, and even at their most crowded, the beaches were a good place to surf until your arms and lungs couldn’t take any more. Whether I’ll ever try it again I have no idea, but I enjoyed the attempt.

The Island

Fuerteventura is a long, mostly flat island that’s essentially one long scrap of volcanic rock running north-south not too far west of the African coast. It’s one of the oldest islands in the Canary archipelago, formed (like the Hawaiian Islands) by a hot spot deep within the earth’s mantle that still keeps the more westerly and younger islands actively volcanic. Fuerteventura though is long extinct and eroded, its calderas now manageable peaks and its beaches shallow sweeps along the coast. It’s popularity as a tourist destination is obvious, though it’s overshadowed somewhat by the neighbouring islands, such as Lanzarote and Gran Canaria. A lot of the landscape is a barren moonscape of volcanic rock, where goats and chipmunks can get along quite well but more picky creatures like humans have to work at it. There’s a bit of variation here and there, such as the dunes of the northeast and far south and the rocky hills of the Midwest, but as a whole the scenery doesn’t vary a lot.

Things to Do

I was staying in Corralejo, a surfer resort at the northern tip of the island, close to some of the better beaches. When not surfing, this was the main place to stroll and hang out, and there were good and cheap places to eat and drink. Having a friend who knew the area well was a major advantage on this side, as there were also plenty of tourist traps to fall into. We both managed to discover a new bar on the last evening though – the hard-to-find but very fun Babel, with all sorts of literary and occult paraphernalia lining the bars and walls. As for other activities, a highlight of the trip was a catamaran cruise that took us out to a small island just off the north coast and offered snorkelling, kayaking, and as many drinks as you wanted from the onboard fridge. Not that I didn’t try to be at least a little healthy. I went for a few morning runs whenever my surf-battered body felt up to it, including a somewhat questionable New Year’s Day morning run that took me up and over a few of those calderas, then back to Corralejo via an under-construction road. It probably did me good in the long run, but I’m not sure that doing it in the first place was wise.

Exploring

Beyond surfing and enjoying the pleasures of Corralejo, I did try to get out and see the rest of the island at least once. Sadly my friend wasn’t up to joining me on this part of the trip, but there was enough to experience to suggest that initial perceptions of Fuerteventura as being monotonous were perhaps a little unfair. El Cotillo on the west coast offered up rawer Atlantic conditions and some historic forts, while near the town of Betancuria I found a hilltop villa-cum-museum that offered amazing views while delving into the natural and geological history of the islands themselves. There were slight problems in getting up to the museum, which involved large tourist coaches and twisting, single-lane roads with large drops on one side, but I’m still here, so that all worked out well enough. I even ventured down to Morro Jable on the southern tip of the island, where Jandia Beach is surrounded by wetland inhabited mostly by chipmunks and offers the sight of a massive lighthouse and a sailing ship packed with revellers tacking very close to the coast indeed.

Getting There and Getting Around

On my way back from Morro Jable, I approached the island’s airport from the south and enjoyed an impressive view straight down both runways, watching flights coming and going. Flying from Dublin to Fuerteventura isn’t a major problem. Ryanair and Aer Lingus both offer flights, though not every day of the week. The airport itself is neither the best nor the worst I’ve experienced, being a cavernous modern space that has enough food and shops to keep you occupied until your flight is boarding. Getting through security may be much less fun if you’re unlucky, but I got away with it for the most part. As for getting around the island, I didn’t move around much, though the island’s bus service is cheap and regular, and the main roads are good enough for a decent driver to negotiate with ease.

On the whole, it was a nice end to one year and beginning to another, though activity holidays do have the disadvantage of tiring one out rather than enabling rest and relaxation. I may not surf the New Year in again (though I wouldn’t rule it out), but I’d encourage anyone else to at least consider it.

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Liechtenstein and Zurich – The Alpine Experience

November 6, 2016 2 comments
And every steeple that I could climb, I did.

A panorama of Zurich – the Zurichsee is on the left, the Uetliberg on the horizon.

There’s going to be a lot packed into this one, so pay attention. As soon as you leave Milan, headed for Tirano, you’re in the Alps, racing along the shores of Lake Como towards the mountains. To an extent, this doesn’t even feel like Italy anymore, or at least not the Italy I started in, back in Palermo. This is Alpine territory, of high, green meadows and bells ringing in valleys overlooked by mountains that rear up, shouldering their rocky peaks above a mantle of forest.

If you like trains at all, I’d recommend the Bernina Express as the way to see the Alps. From comfortable seats before panoramic windows, you’ll have a view of clear mountain streams, those green valleys, viaducts, mountains, glaciers, high lakes, and everything else that the Swiss have spent centuries learning how to build on or through. I saw it in the late summer, when green was the predominant colour, but in the winter it all turns to white and the experience is said to be every bit as impressive.

The Swiss and tunnels: an impressive combination.

One of the viaducts on the Bernina express, emerging from the mountain.

As for what was waiting on the other side, Liechtenstein is an odd little country, with an emphasis on the little. I’d been planning on staying two days, but two things cut that short: First, I saw most of Vaduz in the process of one morning stroll (to give you an idea of scale, the map of the city includes house numbers), and second, it’s stupidly expensive. Which makes sense given that it’s a tax haven of sorts, and it did give me a bit of warning with regard to what Zurich was going to be like, but it was still a shock.

So I spent one night and a few hours there instead, enjoying the clear mountain air and the views, which were only a little spoiled by clouds that cut off the tops of the mountains. Liechtenstein’s tiny territory is bordered by the Rhine and the mountains, and it takes little more than half an hour to cross from one to the other. Perhaps the most fun thing to visit was the football stadium—they’re very proud of the national team here, for all that they’re the ultimate in European minnows. Or at least they were until Gibraltar somehow got a team of their own.

The kind of bridge billy goats might trip-trap across.

An old-school bridge separating Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Stroll over the bridge across the Rhine and you’re in Switzerland. You don’t even have to do that much if you’re a mobile phone—mine kept swapping between Swiss and Liechtenstein carriers every time I approached the river. When I eventually took the bus out of town, in search of the Sargans Bahnhof where’d I’d get the train to Zurich, this was one reminder of my travelling ways I was glad to leave behind.

In truth, there’s not much culturally to separate the two nations. Maybe the Swiss are a little more uptight, at least on first encountering them. Unlike most places I’ve been, where they’ll switch to English as soon as they figure out where you’re from, the Swiss will assume that you know what you’re doing if you try to speak a language not your own. So be wary if you want to try out your foreign tongues here.

I'd be annoyed too if someone had planted me where dogs could piss on me.

A friendly (?) face encountered on my way up the Uetliberg.

As mentioned, Zurich is expensive. Evidence of this can be seen in the houses that line the waterfront of the Zurichsee and the slopes to the east, and proof can be found every time that feel like going for a drink or eating out. Try to keep that to a minimum if you want your funds to survive a few days here. I’m generally not too proscriptive when it comes to spending money on holidays, but even so I couldn’t justify visiting a restaurant with €40 main courses.

Saving money is possible though: there are 24-hour and 72-hour travel passes, which will speed your way on the many public transport options and a lot of museums. Mine took me on a round trip of the northern half of the Zurichsee, down from the heights of the Uetliberg mountain to the west of the city (some might say it would have been more sensible to take the tram up, then walk down, instead of the other way around), through the excellent Landesmuseum and its exhibits, and then up the eastern slopes of the city too, to where the city zoo sits right next door to the FIFA world headquarters.

(There’s a joke to be made here about amoral creatures with insatiable appetites, trapped in a structure that should never have been built, but I’m sure someone else can construct it better than I could.)

Actually linesmen in training, though that's no less a weird sight.

FIFA officials doing their bribery-denial drills.

In short, if you make a bit of an effort, you can enjoy Zurich on something resembling a sensible budget. If you make the most of the Co-Op supermarkets that are everywhere, you’ll probably even manage much better than I did. It’s worth the effort too. While I loved Liechtenstein for its quiet isolation, I enjoyed Zurich for its reserved honesty. There’s plenty to do and see, and lots of narrow alleys, steep streets, hidden parks and other places to discover. The Landesmuseum exhibit on Swiss history is open, if regretfully so, about how Switzerland’s history of democracy, neutrality and isolationism has had its downsides. If we could be so honest about ourselves in Ireland, it would be a big step forward.