I believe the best way to really get under the skin of a place is to walk, walk and then walk some more. But there's another obvious method, explore in the company of someone who lives there and knows it well. On the Canary Island of La Gomera I've done both.
As well as getting to wallow in the spectacular La Gomera scenery, enjoy the best of the local gastronomy and meet all sorts of interesting and friendly locals, every so often there have been surprises, odd little curiosities that have stopped me in my tracks and had me beaming like the Cheshire Cat in Alice and Wonderland.
These are five which I found enchanting, sometimes literally, and fascinating.
Water Which Baptised America
The first involves a world-changing moment in history. La Gomera is also known as Columbus Island because the Genovese explorer chose it as his final port of call before stepping off the edge of the world. In the island's capital, San Sebastián, there are a number of buildings linked with his visit. The most eye-catching is the lone sentinel which is the Torre del Conde, where it's said Columbus paid visits to Beatriz de Bobadilla, the widow of murdered governor Hernan Peraza.
The tower with its colourful history is interesting enough, but the spot which elicited a 'wow' moment involved a hole in the ground, a well in the centre of a cobbled courtyard inside an old house at the rear of Plaza de la Constitucíon in San Sebastían. A simple sign beside the well reads 'con este agua bautizo América' – America was baptised with this water.
It's humbling and quite incredible to stand at the spot where Columbus and his men drew the water that would help them survive their journey across the Atlantic.
A Fountain in a Tree
Located in a tranquil clearing next to the Ermita de Lourdes in the heart of the Garajonay National Park is a sight which has me scratching my head every time I see it, a fountain in a tree. It's an oddity that's easy to miss as there's no sign to point it out and it's surrounded by a forest of similar looking trees. I found it thanks to a friend who lives on the edge of Garajonay National Park who told me to look out for it when I was passing through on my way to El Cedro. There's also a zona recreativa beside the ermita, a picnic zone with tables and wooden benches. They're perfect for sitting, dipping crusty baguettes into a tub of almogrote (a La Gomera speciality) whilst wondering how on earth a hollow branch protruding from a tree trunk can be funnelling a never-ending supply of water into a circular stone trough.
The Secret Lake
My friend was also responsible for showing me a scene which looked more Savannah swamp than La Gomera, a lake in the middle of the forest with a calm, glassy surface broken only by the twisted trunks of ghostly, silver trees – Meriga Damp.
On a hot Sunday morning we set off on a trail through the forest, walking along a ridge above the tiny hamlet of Los Aceviños accompanied by knock-out views of not only the lush Gomeran countryside but of Mount Teide on Tenerife as well. Our route took us past curious sheep, agricultural terraces and tiny cottages before it headed into dense forest to emerge at the hidden lake. An outcrop of flat boulders provided comfortable seating for us to enjoy lunch al fresco beside the strangely beautiful lagoon.
The place isn't actually called Meriga Damp, it's Meriga Dam; the sign was misspelled. It's now been corrected but to me it will always be Meriga Damp.
In the hills above Vallehermoso is a spring which is enchanting. The Chorros de Epina are said to possess magic qualities. At the Chorros, spring water flows into a stone basin from channels cut into seven branches. If women drink from the even numbered spouts (starting from the left) they'll soon meet the love of their life. For men, it's the odd numbered spouts. However, if a woman drinks from the men's spouts she'll become a witch. Various drinking combinations reward with good health, wealth and even the gift of poetry. There's usually a stream of local people at the Chorros de Epina, filling containers with the sparkling water. But so far I haven't tested its magic powers myself, I'm too worried in case I get the combination wrong and end up turning into a frog or something.
Romantic Dining in a Cave
In 1964 three businessmen moored their schooner off Playa Santiago looking for a place in the south of La Gomera where there was enough fresh water for the cultivation of bananas. Nobody lived there at the time except an old woman in a cave who welcomed them with typical Gomeran hospitality by killing a chicken to cook a meal for her three visitors. The woman has long gone but the cave is still there and continues to be a place where modern day visitors can fill their stomachs. Now called the 'cueva para dos' (cave for two) it's looked after by the Hotel Tecina. Couples staying at the hotel can reserve the table in the cave for an intimate and quite unusual dinner with dreamily romantic views over the sea. Dining in the cave is so private there's not even waiter service, food arrives courtesy of a pulley system and a box which brings delecatable dishes direct to the table from the restaurant beside the beach below.
The old woman in the cave might not have enjoyed the same fame as Christopher Columbus but in her own way she had a positive impact on how La Gomera developed. It's a nice touch that the kindness of a simple country person is recognised and her memory kept alive.