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Anything but Lent: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria

It is easy to catch a bus in Las Palmas Gran Canaria but not so easy to get off at the right stop. For one thing away from the main central area the traffic accelerates into a frenzy and for another the street signs are so tiny and the streets come at such a pace that it is pot luck if you manage to find the right exit in time. It is no coincidence that the local buses are known as guaguas. You could almost hear the baby crying in me!

Mercifully we were only 20 minutes walk over the imaginary line we had in our mind and soon we had back-tracked to luxuriant gardens next to the city’s Anglican Church wondering about which vestry door to go into. We only had to follow the sound as we had a rendezvous with the local choral group made up of Spanish and British people singing together beautifully in the church.

I could not sing very well myself having imbibed too much the night before but still attempted to produce some incoherent sounds from the back of the church which contrived to sabotage the mellifluous singing of the choir. I could at least make the honourable excuse of having a bad cough.

Such impromptu performances are part of the fun that comes with taking such an exciting city at face value. Our friend was a member of the choir and had been in Las Palmas for several years. She loved what the place stood for: its culture and ambience, the warm climate and the cheap cost of living. Most attractions are on the doorstep, ranging from festivals at the nearby theatre complex, jazz clubs down intriguing back streets and a multitude of beguiling restaurants and bars.

The atmosphere at Las Canteras beach is second only to Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro and this is where everyone basically chills out.

Sand sculptures pander to your artistic senses, and along the curve of the paseo, the main thoroughfare alongside the spectacular beach, music and street theatre thrive.

Locals chat loudly, conjurers and mime artists perform and everything happens and anything goes- well almost!

Visitors may be seduced by the lure of sun, sand and sangria found in abundance on the southern coastal strip of the island. On the other hand, the south coast can be too designed for tourism at the expense of traditional Spanish culture. You might be excused for forgetting that Gran Canaria is part of Spain if you spend your holiday there. You could be anywhere. If you want the real thing, you should focus on Las Palmas and the picturesque interior of the island with its evocative and quaint villages nestling in impressive mountain scenery. Only here can you witness properly life in the way in which it has been lived for centuries.

The special event of the year and leading entertainment is the annual carnival when everyone in the city and from the outside villages (and not too many tourists) congregate to celebrate the coming of Lent. Many visitors adopt fancy dress. One year I was dressed as a mighty matador with a huge sombrero and a golden cape around my shoulders. Our friend was masquerading as Charlie Chaplin with a red nose.

The whole city comes alive then and the main Santa Catalina square is transformed into an enormous pedestrian area with an impressive stage in the centre. The colour and spectacle of the event is truly mind boggling and artistic imagination runs wild. The streets are closed for the procession of floats accompanied by dance and music groups. Each float is decorated and everyone is dressed in costumes which reflect the theme for the year. In 2020 the carnival theme was fairy tales and legends and it all just happened before the pandemic was declared.

The cavalcade and all the crowds then converge on the main square and stage where the dance and costume competitions take place culminating in the crowning of the Carnival Queen and the Drag Queen.

Pulsating music predominantly from Samba bands as well as more traditional local music and salsa beats pervade the surroundings and street parties continue into the wee hours.

If you want the complete culture-fix and to enjoy fully the night-life which the city has to offer, wander over to La Vegueta, the old town where you can climb one of the towers of the gothic Santa Anna cathedral for a panoramic view of the city and enjoy tapas afterwards in one of the many bars beneath.

Potatoes in a spicey mojo sauce are a local favourite. But try and resist the cooling benefits of the fountains nearby- that is if you do not want to be clamped in manacles.

On La Isleta enthusiasts dance to the beat at La Fabrica jazz club where top musicians perform music infused with Latin influences. The trumpet playing is truly evocative. Come to be impressed and get emotional!

For a night-cap we would end up at La Posada, a bar which specialises in liqueurs and cocktails and serves as a perfect refuge from the excitement of the carnival. Don’t spread the word in Dublin but the Irish coffee is quite unbeatable.

If your idea of a good time on holiday is a sun-lounger by the pool, that is fine, but you are going to miss out big time, (and on the big time!), if you do not sample the culture which Las Palmas has to offer in spades. And with the beach in the heart of the city, you have the best of two worlds. I have only been to Las Palmas for a week at a time so I have only had a smidgeon of the city atmosphere. Normally city centres are to be avoided for their crowds and risk of criminal activity but Las Palmas is an undisputed exception. And I have only had a taste of it. I am already smacking my lips at the prospect of another exciting trip although next time I will need to make sure that I carry a street-map with me whenever I am travelling on the guaguas!

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