Lanzarote has long been a magnet for creative people: artists, musicians and writers. The island has a mystical element that inspires everyone who set foot on its volcanic soil.
A one-day visit in 1992 was enough to convince Portuguese Nobel prize-winning writer, José Saramago, that it would be his new home. Together with his second wife, Spanish journalist and TV presenter, Pilar del Río, and her brother and his wife, they built the intriguing “house made of books”, in Tías. He spent the last eighteen years of his life here, until his death in 2010.
“Lanzarote es mi tierra, pero no es tierra mía” (“Lanzarote is my land, but it’s no land of mine”).
… was a phrase made famous by Saramago, now engraved on a metal sculpture placed on the roundabout outside his house. The writer was so well-loved that he went on to receive the prestigious Hijo adoptivo de Lanzarote (Lanzarote’s adopted son) award, in 1997.
Anyone who loves art and literature will fall in love with this house. Not only is it filled with invaluable works of art and literature, but is exudes character and you can still feel his presence today. There is a sense of calm, of creativity, and even his thoughts surround you.
Books, paintings, ornaments and collectors’ items line its walls and cover its furniture. Saramago collected everything that was dear to him, everything that inspired his writings and the artefacts he was given by others inspired by him.
Jose Saramago came from the Ribatejo region of Portugal, born into a family of peasants. Poverty forced them to move to Lisbon in 1922, when he was only two years old. His literary path was made difficult as his parents couldn’t afford to keep him in grammar school, so he initially trained as a mechanic.
He wrote a series of books during his twenties, but without the success that came later after he met Pilar. The Spanish journalist, twenty-seven years his junior, became fascinated by some of the writer’s novels, namely, Raised from the Ground, Baltazar and Bilmunda and the Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. She tracked him down for an interview for her television programme, and their romance began shortly after.
Saramago held communist morals and beliefs, wrote about failed governments, class struggles and was also an atheist. He moved to Lanzarote in protest against the Portuguese government. Under pressure from the Vatican, the government vetoed his controversial book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), from being nominated for an EU literary prize.
The natural colours of Lanzarote
Jose and Pilar fell in love with Lanzarote, and built their house on a hill in Tías, overlooking the spectacular view of the ocean, towards Fuerteventura and the island of Lobos.
As you go through the exterior door to the house, you are greeted by an interior patio which offers several doors to the different living quarters of Jose and Pilar on one hand, and then Pilar’s brother and wife on the other.
Among the distinguishing features of Jose and Pilar’s quarters are the natural colours of Lanzarote. The entrance hall is a reflection of ‘stone and light.’ Saramago meticulously cared for the lava rock floor. He strongly admired César Manrique’s passion for the environment and sense of beauty, and placed his first acquisition on the island, a Manrique engraving, in this very space.
A clock stands among many other artefacts, which José had set at four o’clock, the exact time he met his wife.
The kitchen table was the heart of family and social life in the humble village where José was born, and where he frequently returned to visit his grandparents. His kitchen was to be no different, and was where he started his day.
This homely kitchen that opens out onto the terrace has hosted some of the most important names in contemporary culture. They would spend hours talking, debating, laughing and in solidarity over a cup of Portuguese coffee.
Copies of his Cadernos de Lanzarote (Lanzarote Notebooks) lie open on the kitchen table. He began writing these diaries from his study shortly after moving to the island, and they reflect his day-today life, thoughts, opinions, questions and answers.
Saramago brought his favourite coffee from Portugal, and he was renowned for offering a cup to everyone who visited. And the tradition is still alive: you too, can enjoy a cup of Saramago’s favourite coffee.
The artist at work
This new home marked the beginning of a fresh era of creativity for the writer, and the study was where he wrote the first lines of Blindness. The room is imbued with his character and visitors sense an intimate connection with him. An entire wall of books stands behind his deck, where his last computer still sits, the mouse poised ready for action.
The Mexican sideboard opposite if full of photos of his loved ones, and a copy of his Nobel Prize takes pride of place on the walls alongside portraits of other writers he admired: Kafta, Proust, Tolstoy, Joyce, Lorca and Pessoa.
The living room was the place Saramago would unwind at the end of the day. It looks out over the garden and the ocean, a view he described as ‘the finest work of art’. This is a grand statement, as the beautiful and comfortable room is adorned with some amazing pieces, all of which are connected with is books; work by other artists who were inspire by his writings, and the majority of which were gifts. Juanjo, my guide, enthusiastically explained every portrait in the finest detail.
The bedroom: where Saramago ended his days
We are allowed only a peek into the bedroom where José slipped away quietly on June 18, 2010. It’s a very private space, with an armchair he would retire to when the house became too noisy. There are a few books and photographs, but it has a certain restful air and was where he went to disconnect. And it was here that he chose to leave us for good.
The library was built separately from the house, and once finished, it became his new place of work. An olive tree occupies the centre of the patio, once a small plant that he brought between his legs on the plane from Portugal. His love for these trees stemmed from his childhood. He always said that we should let ourselves be led by the child we once were. He saw them as a symbol of peace and knowledge, green branches that write words on the black volcanic soil.
An elephant sculpture stands to one side, the symbol of one of his later novels, The Elephant’s Journey.
An incredible collection of books fills the library, wall-to-wall, and from the floor to the ceiling. They were all arranged by Saramago himself, but not in alphabetical order as you might expect: they are arranged by the authors’ country of origin. He had always maintained that the library was not created in order to store books, but to give shelter to people.
Female authors had their own section, one that was arranged in alphabetical order. This was not Jose´s decision, but the work of his wife Pilar. She did not want female writers to have to share the shelves with men, who had scorned them merely for being women, neither respecting or valuing them. José, of course, respected her decision.
Guided tour, gift and book shop
Visitors of all nationalities are welcome to join a guided tour of Casa José Saramago, which can be enjoyed via an audio recording in a range of different languages. The house is open from 10:00-14:00, from Monday to Saturday.
The gift shop awaits at the end of this heart-warming visit, giving you the chance to take away a souvenir, or one of Saramago’s books. If you haven’t read his works before, you certainly will want to after this insightful experience into the private life of one of the world’s most well-known writers.