These days, old town Vegueta in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria city is rather sedate. Visitors wander between art galleries and museums, stop for a coffee at outdoor cafes, and just absorb the colonial atmosphere. Vegueta’s pigeons still drink at the same Gothic fountain as their ancestors did 500 years ago.
However, today’s pigeons are the lucky ones because Vegueta hasn’t always been a peaceful historical district living off its easy charm.
In fact, its lively history began almost as soon as it was founded.
Siege and conquest
Vegueta started life in 1478 as a fortified garrison called the Real de Las Palmas and was named after three tall palm trees within the original stockade.
Within a few days Las Palmas was besieged by the aboriginal Canarii inhabitants. Unimpressed by Spanish attempts to colonise their island, they fought hard to chase them back to their ships but their sticks and stones were no match for Spanish steel and horses.
You can still visit the spot where the original palms grew. It’s on Montesdeoca Street just behind the Casa de Colon. Three small palms mark the spot.
Right by the three palms you’ll find a small doorway leading to the Casa Montesdeoca restaurant set in the leafy patio of a 16th Century house.
The house was built by a converted Jew who fled mainland Spain for the more tolerant atmosphere of the Canary Islands and is now one of the city’s best-preserved colonial mansions.
It’s worth sticking your head through the door to see the courtyard, and is also a great place for a languid lunch.
The ocean blue
By 1492 when Columbus came to visit the settlement had become a small town complete with manor houses and churches. Columbus spent a lot longer than he wanted in Las Palmas: Not because he chose to, but because his crew sabotaged a ship.
Not everyone shared his fervent belief that the Indies lay to the west.
To find out more about Columbus’ time in Las Palmas, and about the long relationship between the Canary Islands and the New World, visit the Casa de Colón museum in Vegueta. Set in a stunning colonial mansion, it has everything from a replica of the explorer’s cabin, complete with unmade bed, to original charts, paintings and pottery from the Americas.
The Antonio Abad chapel where Columbus gave his final sermon to a reluctant crew is just behind the Casa de Coón museum. Look out for the huge bougainvillaea creeper and you can’t miss it.
A juicy target
Las Palmas city grew during the 15th Century and by the turn of the century, it was a juicy target for pirates and privateers. Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins tried and failed to take Las Palmas in 1595.
Their failed attack left no visible signs on modern day Vegueta although the The San Pedro Mártir fort just of San Cristobal village just south of Las Palmas played a large part in the defence of the city. You can walk right out to this island fort at low tide.
In 1595, a vast Dutch fleet led by Admiral Pieter van der Does, sacked the city. Many of its buildings were destroyed and burned and its riches looted.
Van der Does first took the Castillo de la Luz at the north end of modern-day Las Palmas and, after two days of fierce fighting, eventually broke through Vegueta’s walls and took the city.
The local population and militia fled into the hills behind the city and drew the Dutch soldiers into forested country. Here the armoured and exhausted Dutch soldiers were soundly defeated by mobile Canarian militia fighters.
The Dutch withdrew to Vegueta, looted the city of all its riches, set fire to all its major buildings, and sailed away.
Many of Vegueta’s original monasteries, convents and palaces burned down, but the stone cathedral survived. It took the city 100 years to recover.
The key to the cathedral
To appreciate the 500-year history of Vegueta old town, spend time getting to know the cathedral.
Built in fits and starts when the city was prosperous, it contains elements of all the major architectural styles from the 15th to the 20th Century.
Get on its roof and up its belfry from just inside the door on Santa Ana Square. You get a great view of the whole city.
Or get inside the cathedral via the silver museum on the south wall. The museum has a great collection of art, but the towering interior is the real highlight. On sunny days the make patches of psychedelic light, and the soaring columns look like palm trees.
Explore the side chapels with care as one of them has a surprise; the bishop who first consecrated the cathedral is still inside, preserved in all his robes inside a glass box.
Another detail worth looking for is the bell taken by Van der Does and later returned to Las Palmas.
Old town Vegueta livens up on Thursday nights when all the bars and restaurants around the market offer tapas (two euros for a tapa and a beer of glass of wine).
At any other time, you’re never far away from cafe with outdoor tables. Just watch out because most of them wobble on the cobbles.