Sunday, December 13, 2009

(No.68) Feeling melancholy in Madeira & Malaga

Over generations the Spanish in the city of Malaga on the Costa del Sol and in the Canary Islands as well as the Portuguese on the island of Madeira have done a poor job of preserving the physical evidence of centuries of activity. Today the appearance is too often akin to a North Las Vegas suburb (where a structure built in 1950 -- if it still stood -- would be like somethng from the Middle Ages) than to cities whose origins are hundreds of years ago.

Having recently visited Malaga on the Spanish mainland, Funchal on Madeira and Santa Cruz on Tenerife, each being port cities backing against mountains, it strikes one like a swat across the face that -- driven by mindless commercialism -- high rise apartments and condos aimed at foreign tourists (especially punters from the United Kingdom) have spoiled not only the look but the scale of these cities. It has happened as surely as Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe bombers set the stage (by devastating much of London) for the post-war construction of more ugly modern buildings than can be found even in the Greater Toronto Area.

In Malaga the magnificent cathedral built in two phases in the 16th and 17th centuries is hemmed in on all sides by high rise residential buildings of uncommon ugliness, structures that even the most ardent opponents of Prince Charles' traditional architectural preferences would be hard pressed to describe as anything more than pedestrian.

Any reference to Malaga and the Costa del Sol reminds me of the 1930s American "public enemy"gangster Alvin Karpis (actually a Canadian born in Montreal) who ended up settling in Malaga in 1973. He lived modestly there on the money he made from his autobiography Public Enemy Number One (1971) written following his deportation to Canada in 1969. Karpis had been refused parole from his U.S. imprisonment so long as FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover reigned supreme. Hoover, who cemented his public reputation as a crime buster by saying he had personally captured Karpis (he didn't), steadfastly opposed Karpis' release from prison. Karpis remained incarcerated for 33 years (1936-1969) until three years before the cross-dressing Hoover died, having donned his pink chiffon dress for the last time. Karpis was finally able to get parole.

Unfortunately for the preservation of historic Malaga, Alvin Karpis' preference for the Costa del Sol (he died there in 1979 under suspicious circumstances) came to be shared by thousands of Europeans whose desire to visit or dwell on this part of Spain's Mediterranean coast have made Malaga into a cheek by jowl sort of place.

The Portuguese settled the Atlantic island of Madeira in the 15th century. In Funchal, Madeira's main city, the houses and commercial buildings are scattered higglety pigglety, many with sideyards of dwarf banana plants. Of Madeira's history and heritage too little remains as modern hotels are jammed along Funchal's seafront like hockey players elbowing each other in the corners. Indeed not that long ago the historic building where Hapsburg Empress 'SiSi' of Austria stayed regularly was pulled down to make way for a singularly unimpressive hotel. Indeed in the travels Pat and I have undertaken over the years I cannot recall seeing a less appealing stretch of jammed together hotels this side of a U.S interstate highway interchange.

The fact that Reid's Palace Hotel (opened in 1891) has managed to survive is the exception which proves the rule. Like 'arme blanche' horsed cavalry in late 19th century European armies, it holds out the lingering possibility of class in what would otherwise be an unseemly brawl. But the survival of Reid's Palace is too little to redeem the whole any more than Madeiran references today to Winston Churchill's occasional visits to paint a fishing village can endow the island with cultural awareness.

The British connection to this Portuguese island, beginning with the 17th century wine trade, is a long one but when post-WWII tourism on the island was started by the British in 1949 it began an era that has transformed Madeira. These days the seasons can be marked by when the French come to the island, when the Germans and then Scandinavians visit; the British apparently don't comparmentalize -- they come to Madeira year round.

In Santa Cruz on Tenerife, the major island of the Canary Islands, the millions of annual visitors can look (up) to the national park, to Mount Teide with its height of 12,000 feet and volcanic crater and terrain surrounding its base -- truly breath-taking views.

But look down and around and see what? An imitation of the Sydney Opera House or Santa Cruz's 'twin towers' that, according to one local, nobody since 9/11 wants to live in. But it would be unfair to ignore the preservation of the small El Tigre fortification: it houses the cannon that supposedly separated Horatio Nelson from his arm in 1797 as he led an attack on it eight years before his death at Trafalgar. I suppose one must give it some credit for representing what little remains of the city which fell to the Spanish hundreds of years ago.

I am prepared to be regarded as churlish for offering my conclusion that the city's lap dancers, spit-and-sawdust bars and discos are not, strange as it may seem, sufficient to offset what has been lost from this historic place.

And yet, so impressive is the vista from the top of another mountainous national park in another of the Canary Islands, La Palma, it is almost enough by itself to make up in a traveller's experience of the Canaries for what has been depreciated elsewhere.

Alastair Rickard