Easter under Franco

My husband was telling me what Easter was like under Franco’s dictatorship.

Catholicism was pretty much compulsory. From Good Friday to Easter Sunday, the one TV channel showed the test card and played solemn classical music. The one radio channel also played solemn classical music. It wasn’t acceptable to play pop music, either live or on cassette. You couldn’t even sing or whistle. Acting happy was a sin. He was a teenager, and this was desperately boring.

Late on Saturday night the whole family went to the midnight mass. When they came home in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, all the teenagers got the musical instruments out and played pop music.

Strange Caterpillars

Yponomenta gigas caterpillars and web.

I’d never heard of caterpillars that make cobwebs before, but these do. Like many others caterpilars in the family of ermine moths, they form communal webs. I suppose it discourages birds from sticking their beaks in.

My book on Canarian insects doesn’t mention them at all, but then they aren’t easy to find unless you know where to look. They live on the Canarian Willow, Salix canariensis which only grows in the Canary Islands and Madeira in places with plenty of water. But there are lots of them in the Caldera de Taburiente, near the campsite at the Playa de Taburiente.

Easter Processions in Santa Cruz de La Palma and Los Llanos

Holy Weel Procession leaving the church of San Francisco, Santa Cruz de la Palma

Holy Week Procession leaving the church of San Francisco

It’s Holy Week, and in this Catholic country, a lot of people take it very seriously. The bigger churches hold processions, which look very exotic to my English eyes. Do try to see at least one.


It’s not so much that they take the obviously-heavy statues along the street – most churches do that on the respective saint’s days. It’s the costumes. They remind me of the Klu Klux Klan. This is unfair, because the costumes concerned are far older than the KKK. They ensure anonymity, but in this case it’s not to avoid prosecution; apparently it’s to stop onlookers admiring your piety.

Traditional costumes copied by the KKK, Santa Cruz de la Palma

Traditional costumes copied by the KKK



The Tourist Office produce a leaflet which lists the processions and their routes. These photos are of the Good Friday Calgary procession from the church of San Francisco. The men in red and white are from the Brotherhood of the Crucified and the True Cross (Cofradia del Crucificado y la Vera Cruz).

Procession with the statue of Our Lady of Loneliness, Santa Curz de la Palma

Procession with the statue of Our Lady of Loneliness

These statures are The Crucified (1968, Ezequiel de Leon Dominguez), The Holy Mary Magdelene (XIX century, Fernando Estevez del Sacramento) and St John the Evangelist (1863 Aureilo Carmona Lopez).

Procession with statues of Jesus, Mary Magdelene and St John, Santa Cruz de la Palma

Procession with statues of Jesus, Mary Magdelene and St John, Santa Cruz de la Palma

Each cofradia is devoted to a particular statue, and they’re expensive to join – some cofradias in Serville cost over 1,000€, mostly for the costume. To the best of my knowledge, the cofradia exists solely for these processions, and do nothing else. They don’t, for example, feed the hungry, buy medicines for the sick, or save whales.

I can easily understand suffering yourself in order to reduce someone else’s suffering. Personally I don’t see the point of this.
Walking in bare feet with chains, Easter Procession, Santa Cruz de la Palma

Pyroclastic Flows and Dykes

A grey basalt dyke in a red pyroclastic flow. LP4 road, about 8 km for the observatory at the Roque de Los Muchachos

A basalt dyke in a pyroclastic flow. LP4 road, about 8 km for the observatory at the Roque de Los Muchachos

The whole island of La Palma is volcanic, but it’s extremely young. The oldest rocks are only about three million years old, so there’s no dinosaur fossils here. Much of the island is basalt – a dark grey rock which tends to form hexagonal columns, like the Giant’s Causeway or Los Organos on La Gomera. Over thousands of years it weathers to a lighter grey or brownish-grey.

The red rocks here are quite different. They’re a formed by a pyroclastic flow.

Now most Canarian eruptions aren’t very dangerous. The lava usually rolls along at about walking speed, and I believe there’s no historical record of anyone being killed by one. A few people have been killed by poisonous gases. And obviously it’s not safe when large rocks come flying out of a volcano. There are some spectacular examples at San Antonio, although fortunately I’ve never heard of one actually hitting anybody.

But pyroclastic flows are extremely dangerous. They’re currents of red hot gas, dust and rocks which tear down the mountain at anything up to 450 mph (700 km/h). You don’t have time to get out of the way, and at 1,000 ºC, you’re toast.

So it’s a good thing that there hasn’t been one in the Canaries in recorded history.

The red, pyroclastic flow was laid down first, and then basalt oozed up through a crack in the rock and solidified. The basalt is much harder, so the pyroclastic rock eroded away faster, leaving the basalt sticking out like a wall. It’s called a volcanic dyke, and you see them all over the island. The most famous dyke on La Palma is the Pared de Roberto.

The Canaries win Tournament: Earth 2014

The Canary Islands from NASA’s Terra satellite  on June 15, 2013

The Canary Islands from NASA’s Terra satellite

This year’s winning photo in NASA’s Tournament: Earth is the Canary Islands again. This time all seven of them.

This photo was taken by NASA’s Terra satellite on June 15, 2013. The prevailing wind and current here comes from the north east. Downwind and downstream from each island, you can see a few wisps of cloud, and long shiny areas of sea.

“According to sailors’ guides to the area, winds on the leeward side of the Canary Islands often blow in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds. The play of land and wind can also create a funnel effect, speeding up air flow around the coasts. The swirling nature of the leeward wind field is shown in a long, helical trail of clouds stretching southwest from Tenerife (the second island from the right).”

SuperWASP, the Planet-Hunter

Most of the telescopes at the observatory here look spectacular even from the outside. SuperWASP looks like a big garden shed. It’s the white thing at bottom left.

Even when it opens up, it still doesn’t look like a professional telescope. To me, it looks more like a small missile launcher.

The equipment isn’t that spectacular either. As modern telescopes go, it was built for peanuts. It has eight cameras, each with a Canon 200mm f/1.8 lens and a 2048 x 2048 pixel CCD. Most professional telescopes have the digital camera cooled by liquid nitrogen, to keep them down to about -170ºC. The colder they are, the less grainy the picture is. SuperWASP has peltier cooled cameras working at -50ºC, like a really dedicated amateur.

The spectacular bit it the results. WASP stands for “Wide Angle Search for Planets”. It’s found ten new planets in the last six months. These aren’t in our Solar System. They’re orbiting other stars. The three they netted last year made Time magazine’s the “Top Ten Science Discoveries of 2007“.

It’s quite a trick to find an extra-solar planet, because they don’t shine themselves. True, they reflect light, just as Mars and Jupiter do, but that’s only about 1/1,000,000th of the light of the parent star. It’s like trying to spot a candle flame beside a tactical nuke. The first extra-solar planets were found by looking for stars wobbling as a large planet orbited close in.

Image: Wikipedia

But this only works for unusually large planets, unusually close in.

SuperWASP uses the transit method. It tries to spot a star getting 1% dimmer as a plant passes in front of it, blocking some of the light. This is a bit like trying to catch a spotlight getting dimmer as an ant crawls across it. And of course it only works if the planet’s orbit is edge-on to us. But the great advantage of superWASP is that looks at 100,000 stars per camera per photo. Eventually they have to strike oil.

The catch is that you can’t possibly look at 50Gb of data per night by hand. Computers take care of the routine part automatically, and produce a list of stars with fluctuating brightness. Then someone at a larger telescope tries to catch the star wobbling. It it’s wobbling and dimming in synch — bingo!

I still can’t believe this works so well. And the really cool bit is that I used to know the team’s leader, Dr Don Pollaco.

If you want to know more, see

The cloud waterfall.

Because the island sits in the trade winds, damp air hits the northeast of the island and has to rise, where it turns into clouds. Because La Palma has a north-south spine called the Cumbre Nueva, the cloud quite often reaches up to the ridge and then tumbles over as the cloud waterfall. This is extremely pretty, and best viewed from around the western side of the tunnel. You can also look down on it from the Los Andennes mirador on the road to the observatory.

Sometimes, when the winds blow from the west, the waterfall tumbles down the eastern side of the ridge.

Occasionally, it keeps going after sunset, and you can see it lit by the full moon, which makes you wonder if you’ve slipped through to Narnia or Middle Earth.

Just once, I saw a spectacular sunset illuminate it candyfloss-pink.

I didn’t have a camera.

I swore.

Twin Dragon Trees in Breña Alta

Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma
Twin dragon trees (Dracaena draco), Breña Alta

These trees stand in Breña Alta, just off the minor road which winds over the central ridge to El Paso. They grow so close together that it’s hard to tell where on trunk ends and the other begins.

Trunks of twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma

Of course there’s a legend associated with the trees. Two brothers lived nearby, and were very close, but they fell in love with the same gorgeous girl.

Oh dear. You can already tell that this doesn’t have a happy ending, can’t you?

The girl was fond of them both, but she had the sense not to keep them dangling. She chose one, and they were married, but as they walked to their new home in the dark, the spurned brother attacked. He killed the new bridegroom, and tried to rape his sister-in-law. She got to the kitchen knife first, so that was the end of him.

The new widow honoured them both by planting these two dragon trees. As the cuttings grew, she watered them and they grew tall from the fertile soil and her warm memories. They say that the brothers’ blood still flows within their trunks and gives them life.

Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma
Dragon trees are odd plants (see Dragon trees). Like most mature dragon trees, these are so full of nooks and crannies that they’re more a micro-climate than a plant.

To see the trees, take the LP 123 between San Pedro and Monte de la Breña, and then the LP 301 up the hill. The trees are on the left, about 400 m from the junction. There’s a tiny car park.
Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma

Chilean nitrate advertising sign

Nitrato de Chile advert, calle Real, Santa Cruz de La Palma

Nitrato de Chile advert, calle Real, Santa Cruz de La Palma

This famous Art Deco advert for Chilean nitrate has been standing at the beginning of the Calle Real since 1929. It was designed by López-Durán Lozano, who was a student of architecture at the time, although he went on to become a professor at the School of Architecture of Madrid. The tiles were made by the Valencian firm Ramon Castello.
Chilean nitrate was a fertilizer made of sodium nitrate (NaNO3), mined in the Atacama dessert of Chile. These days most fertilizer is made by extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Napeloen Bonepart in the Caldera de Taburiente

A couple of weeks ago, I promised more photos of the Caldera de Taburiente. At the top of the Caldera there’s a rock formation that from one angle looks distinctly like Napoleon Bonepart, or an indian. So it’s called Boniface or El Indio. This photo is taken from below the Roque de las Viñas, beside the vineyard.

The best viewpoint has a lethal drop and no guard rail. It’s totally unsuitable for small children, people with vertigo, and idiots. I’m assuming readers of this blog have some common sense.

The river bed beneath is the Taburiente. There is water down there, but it’s under the stones.