Rubbing shoulders with the locals
The mid-morning coffee-break is an integral part of Spanish working life, and Santa Cruz de La Palma is a great place for rubbing shoulders with the locals during their elevenses…
On weekdays, between ten and eleven in the morning, people pop out of their work places for a snack, and this otherwise quiet town is at its liveliest. Business in bars, cafeterias, and patisseries booms. Coffee machines hiss, waiters nimbly cross pavements to serve tables outside, while indoors behind counters, trays of tapas are frantically replenished between customers’ orders.
Not everyone is supposed to leave their workplace at exactly the same time, of course, but you could easily get the opposite impression in the bustle of O’ Daly Street, where a whole cross-section of island society congregates. Chance encounters with friends and acquaintances are commonplace, and people readily stop for a chat. To add to the lively atmosphere, there might even be buskers and other street entertainers around.
So to see the town at its best, head for Santa Cruz in the morning, on any normal work day, get yourself a coffee in a strategic location, and sit back and enjoy the show: the pedestrianized historic centre makes an ideal set.
The historic centre of Santa Cruz de La Palma
Local islanders are justly proud of their historic capital, Santa Cruz, and I could soon see why during my visit. From a distance, the town didn’t look particularly old. But once I reached the cobbled street at the conspicuous Nitrato de Chile sign, and began to admire some of the listed buildings, many with spacious inner courtyards, it was like stepping into a time machine and being transported to a bygone age.
Within a few hundred metres of the Nitrato landmark, I encountered Casa Salazar, a classic example of traditional Canary Island architecture. I wandered inside and was immediately impressed by the fine masonry, the generous use of rich local wood for balconies and those elaborate coffered ceilings, and the secluded, cloister-like patio.
Continuing along the street, a few minutes later I reached Plaza España, site of the Town Hall building, its portico pure Renaissance elegance. This is the capital’s second Town Hall, built to replace the first, which was razed to the ground by pirates in 1553. Close inspection of the stonework revealed many interesting details, including a portrait of Philip II, the Spanish king responsible for the “Great Armada”, later ironically dubbed “Invincible”.
Perhaps surprisingly, the first democratically-elected local council in the whole of Spain was formed here in 1773. A plaque on the wall, inside the entrance hall, commemorates this significant event. Attractive murals illustrating scenes from island life of yesteryear decorate the staircase and ceilings.
The chunky church tower, standing just opposite, was built sturdily enough to withstand cannon fire, with the belfry doubling as a handy look-out seawards: pirates and privateers, among them Sir Francis Drake, harassed the town throughout the 16th century.
Variations on the coffee theme
But enough of history for the moment, and back to refreshment. We all consider ourselves experts when it comes to making the perfect cup of coffee, and you’ll hear customers in cafeterias giving precise instructions like. “Not too strong, with just a dash of fresh milk please, but make it lukewarm, not hot, in a large cup this full”, at which point the client separates the thumb and index finger of his or her raised hand to show the desired level. The busy guy operating the coffee machine turns his head and solemnly nods in assent: such personalized requests are routine.
Locals may order black, white, long, short, or original variations on the theme. Some customers can even be a bit quirky, but no-one seems to lose their patience during this sometimes lengthy process.
As a curiosity, perhaps the most typical coffee-based drink on La Palma is the barraquito. Usually served in a tall glass, it contains, from the bottom upwards, the following layers: condensed milk, black coffee, ordinary milk, cinnamon, optional whipped cream, and a slice of lemon. Finally comes a generous lacing of Licor 43, a sweet liqueur reputedly containing, yes-you-guessed, 43 different ingredients. Not feeling adventurous? Then play safe, and go for a cappuccino. Personally, I prefer straight espresso, café solo.
I found an enormous range of bars and cafeterias in the town centre: everything from the most basic corner kiosk, to the cool patio of a luxurious townhouse. Spoilt for choice, I opted for the distinguished atmosphere inside Don Manuel’s, just past the Town Hall. Perhaps due to its inconspicuous entrance, the clientele tends to be mostly discerning locals, no doubt aware that the establishment recently won a nationwide award for its espresso.
The premises were formerly the headquarters of a shipping agency, hence the tasteful colonial ambience. The upstairs rooms are even fitted with large “Casablanca” type ceiling fans. It made a great place to sit and relax over a nice hot drink: for such stylish surroundings, prices were completely normal by local standards.
I spent an enjoyable half hour sipping my coffee and planning the rest of the morning, and then it was time to move on.
The northern half of town
After crossing Avenida El Puente, the northern half of town came into view. The next point of interest was the picturesque Placeta square, with a restaurant of the same name. The Placeta has a lively terrace, and makes another ideal spot just to sit and watch the world go by. That said, depending on the time of day, you might also be tempted to look at their delicious menu.
One of the most photographed corners of Santa Cruz is found on the seafront a short distance away. I nipped through the sign-posted alleyway to admire the famous row of houses with their brightly-painted, traditional balconies. They face seawards across what used to be a pebble shore, before the present-day road was routed along it. In other words, the celebrated balconies are actually at the back of the houses, which have their front doors on the town side. I took my souvenir snapshot, albeit in less than ideal light conditions.
I returned through the alleyway and resumed my route; a few minutes later I encountered the life-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, standing high and dry in the middle of the street.
This accurate reproduction of the ship in which the famous mariner explored the Atlantic usually marks the northern limit for present-day explorers of Santa Cruz de La Palma… as it did for me, on this occasion. So, I duly veered south, and set course for my home port.
During my brief visit, Santa Cruz de La Palma had impressed me with its history and, above all, with its authenticity. Much of the town’s rich past is still palpably present in its architecture and museums. Yet it is a place where people actually live, and go about their daily business in a natural, unhurried way… a town with its roots stretching back to the 15th century, which still conserves its true Canary Island flavour in the 21st.