Steep streets, flights of stone steps, and quaint cobbled squares characterize the high part of Santa Cruz de La Palma. As you climb, you get unexpected views over the rooftops to the Atlantic below, and glimpses of local people going about their daily routine, oblivious to the occasional strangers passing through with their cameras...
La Palma’s capital city huddles around a large bay backed by rugged volcanic ridges and ravines. It occupies a strip of flat land along the coast, just wide enough to accommodate the main road, a couple of parallel rows of houses, and, in between, the emblematic O’Daly Street. Most of the town’s monuments and official buildings are found in this area..
A short distance inland however, the flat coastal belt abruptly ends at the foot of a cliff. From here onwards, the town clambers up the slopes, its complex layout dictated by the irregular terrain. Urban expansion over the centuries has gone the only way it could, upwards, producing the overall effect of a city stacked on a mountainside. It has been compared to an amphitheatre, with the Atlantic Ocean as its stage. From a distance, you would never guess it holds so much history.
To access the high part of town, the easiest way is to follow what was once the main footpath across the island. Nowadays, this traditional route has been incorporated into the island’s excellent hiking path network as the PR LP 1, also known as the “Port to Port”, since it links the harbour of Santa Cruz on the east coast, with the west coast harbour of Tazacorte.
The path starts from the Plaza de España, where I climbed the flight of steps at the back, leaving the main church of El Salvador to my right.
The higher part of Santa Cruz is officially the San Sebastián quarter, but it is often referred to as “La Canela”, the Spanish word for cinnamon. The nickname derives from the fact that the neighbourhood was once renowned for its pastry makers, who used generous amounts of cinnamon in their recipes. The resulting aroma was apparently noticeable from a considerable distance away.
In addition to the pastry makers, other artisans and tradesmen settled in this part of town, as well as members of the political, military and ecclesiastical classes. So there was once a stark contrast between the professional and working-class residents of San Sebastián, and the landed gentry occupying the grand houses in the lower part of town. In its heyday, San Sebastián had been one of the main business centres of Santa Cruz.
You can download a street plan of the area here.
I headed straight up Calle San Sebastián and after a short flight of steps, reached the square next to the local church. Just ahead of me stood a fine example of a traditional Palmeran house, its dark wooden balcony dominating the street below. Balconies not only afforded views, but were also oriented so as to provide ventilation in the warm summer months. They often featured latticework screens to enable their occupants to discretely survey the street below without being seen themselves. Some balconies also accommodated the typical earthenware or porous stone jar (bernegal), used for filtering and cooling drinking water.
I continued uphill, bearing right to pass round the house and enter Calle Huertas, where I was confronted by a narrow, ramp-like section of street surfaced with small stones and pebbles, no doubt the original paving. I was struck by the sudden change in scale, compared to the first part of San Sebastián. In front of me stood a row of brightly-painted cottages facing a crumbling stone wall. These simple, terraced dwellings were more rustic in style than the town houses seen earlier, yet their small size made them no less attractive.
Similar sections of pebbled streets and passageways lay ahead, containing both well-kept properties, and others looking somewhat neglected, or uninhabited. The urban planning was inexplicable at times, with several intriguing corners defying interpretation when seen in their present state. As a result, the higher part of Santa Cruz comes across not as an impeccably well-presented open-air museum, but as a fascinating mixture of both historic and modern urban development...where people actually continue to live.
Some of the old buildings were unfortunately lost during Spain’s years of rapid development, in the so-called period of desarrollismo associated with the 1960s and early 1970s. But more than enough of the town’s historic legacy remains to warrant applying for the Unesco Human Heritage distinction, a proposal that regularly resurfaces in island politics.
As I continued my leisurely climb, I stopped to admire other details of the houses. Among the most conspicuous elements are the solid wooden doors, the white-washed walls with their contrasting corner stones, and the brick-red, barrel-tile roofs. The sash-window is another characteristic of local architecture, believed to be evidence of either Portuguese or Flemish influence.
No-nonsense drainpipes, typically made from a sturdy hunk of pine wood, poke out from some of the roofs. Wood was obviously an abundant and easy to obtain building material on the island, and the heartwood of the Canary Pine (tea), is acclaimed for being virtually imperishable.
Just before reaching the main road which cuts across the top of the San Sebastián quarter, I turned to look back. From this angle, the amphitheatre analogy seemed less fanciful.
I now began my return towards the centre of town, opting to take a different way down, via a series of streets located slightly further south. The first significant landmark was the picturesque Dornajo Square, surely one of the most photogenic corners of Santa Cruz.
The word dornajo is Canary Island Spanish for a drinking trough, and it was at this particular trough that packs of mules used to be watered on their way across the island. Meanwhile, the muleteers, who accompanied their animals on foot, would take a well-earned rest in the shade.
Nowadays, there is a Purple Orchid Tree (Bauhinia purpurea) planted in the square, which happened to be in full flower when I was there.
A short downhill walk brought me to the monumental architecture of the Plaza de Santo Domingo square, in what is technically outside the San Sebastián quarter. Despite being a mere stone’s throw from the quaint terraced cottages discovered earlier, the massive stone walls of the former convent of Santo Domingo conjured up an entirely different facet of the island’s history.
It is worth making a short detour south along Calle de La Luz to the San Telmo hermitage, located in what used to be the mariners’ quarter. You get exceptional views of the harbour and its approaches, and the mountainous terrain surrounding Santa Cruz can be fully appreciated.
From the tiny chapel of San Telmo I back-tracked towards the Plaza de España square, paying a final short visit to the San Sebastián quarter on the way. Judging by the abundance of parked cars, and the scarcity of business premises, the area is largely residential nowadays.
Before leaving, I paused to sniff: not the slightest trace of cinnamon in the air.
The spicy fragrance that once characterized this part of town has probably gone forever, but the cobbled streets and traditional houses of “La Canela” still retain their distinctive character, and continue to evoke the neighbourhood’s rich past.