The small Canary Island of Lanzarote attracts millions of tourists every year.
Thanks to a winning combination of over ninety beautiful beaches, great year round weather and high standards of accommodation.
Yet despite the island’s undoubted popularity Lanzarote still manages to retain much of its original character and identity intact. There are no advertising hoardings scarring the landscape. High rise buildings are notable by their absence. Whilst the three main tourist resorts of Playa Blanca, Costa Teguise and Puerto del Carmen are all well contained. Leaving the island largely as nature intended.
Much of the credit for this fortuitous state of affairs can be attributed to César Manrique - an island born artist who spent over twenty years fighting against the worst excesses of over development.
During the 1970´s, whilst large swathes of southern Spain and the larger Canary Islands were being buried beneath a sea of high rise hotels and apartment complexes, Manrique campaigned to preserve Lanzarote´s unique volcanic terrain intact.
Born in the island capital of Arrecife in 1919 Manrique first fell in love with his birthplace on long holidays spent at Famara in the north of the island, where his family kept a summer house. A beautiful horseshoe shaped bay and beach extending for around 8km.
Here the young Manrique would spend hours gazing at the reflection of the huge Famara massif cliff range in the rock pools and ebbing tide. Fascinated by the colours and textures. An experience which sparked both a deep and lasting love for the island as well as his artistic aesthetic.
Manrique went on to become a leading light in the Spanish surrealist movement of the 1950´s. Before being invited to work and study in New York under the patronage of the super wealthy Rockefeller clan. Where he rubbed shoulders with contemporaries such as Andy Warhol.
But as General Franco began to open Spain up to package tourism in the late 1960´s he resolved to return to Lanzarote. Ready to battle for the integrity and preservation of the island.
Fortunately the Manrique family had friends in high places. Enlisting the support of the island governor Pepin Ramirez, Manrique was able to influence local politicians and force through new laws which outlawed high rise construction.
Manrique was realistic enough to accept that a degree of tourism was both inevitable and necessary to bolster the islands economy. So he also sought to create ecologically friendly visitor attractions that worked with Lanzarote´s raw volcanic terrain – rather than against it. Creating viable alternatives to the golf courses and theme parks being built in other Spanish sunspots.
This fusion of art with nature found its first major expression at the Jameos del Agua. A huge collapsed lava tube in the north of the island which Manrique transformed into a subterranean grotto and concert venue. Replete with tropical gardens and restaurants.
Initially his fellow Lanzaroteños thought he was mad. Who was going to come and visit this arid little island in the middle of the Atlantic anyway? But as word of Manrique´s new creation spread VIP visitors such as Omar Sharif, Peter Sellers and Rita Heyworth began to visit. Intrigued by this unusual new holiday destination.
Manrique went on to create a further six tourist centres around the island and was instrumental in securing UNESCO protected status for Lanzarote in 1994. Some two years after his death. Whilst laying down a blueprint for controlled development on Lanzarote that still survives to this day.
Photos by James Mitchell