A small rock in the Atlantic

All about the island of La Palma, in the Canaries.

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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Starlit Skies

Galaxy M51 taken with the Isaac Newton Telescope and Wide Field Camera by Simon Driver.

There's a really simple reason why the Royal Greenwich Observatory moved their telescopes here. It's one of the three best places in the world for astronomy.

The observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II of England - hence the "royal" for £520 (£20 over budget!). It was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain.

At the time, Greenwich was a great place to build it - away from the air pollution of London, but near enough for His Majesty to pop over when he felt like it.

And then London grew and grew and swallowed Greenwich whole, and the smog got worse and worse. And streetlights became common, so the whole sky glowed. The observatory moved to Herstmonceux Castle on the south coast of Britain. This solved the problem with London, but they still had the British weather to contend with. Meanwhile, air travel was getting cheaper. When they were ready to build the next generation of telescopes, it made sense to look for a really good site.

A modern telescope could see the equivalent of a candle on the moon, so obviously they want to be well away from city lights. Even more obviously, they want to be somewhere that doesn't get many cloudy nights.

Much less obviously, they want to be somewhere the stars don't twinkle. This happens when the air's turbulent. It's pretty, but it really messes up your view.

There are three places in the world which are great on all three counts, and La Palma is one of them. (The other two are the peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the Atacama Desert in Chile.)

The problem is to keep it that way.

When the observatory moved here, they asked for, and got, an agreement to limit things like street lights. Los Llanos has a street with lamps which remind me of 1950's hairdryers - the sort that go all around your head.

Recently the island government committed to spending over a million euros to update the streetlights to reduce the light pollution even further.

The result of all this is that La Palma is a great place for amateur astronomers, too. Even in a resort, people notice how many more stars you see here, compared to almost any English town or city. Here's another picture of M51 taken by my friends in Franceses with an 80mm amateur telescope on their first night's astronomy since they moved here. Of course there's a lot of skill involved too. But they used to live in Streatham, and no amount of skill would produce that kind of result there.

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Thursday, 29 May 2008

Canary Day is Coming

Friday is Canary Day. It's a big thing here, and the celebrations have started already.

On Wednesday evening they had bouncy castles in the port car park. This was shortly followed by a foam machine. The kids loved it. My son was so delighted that he dived in with all his clothes on. I'd have been seriously tempted to join in except that I had my expensive camera with me. So I had to stay upwind of the fun.

Tomorrow most schools will have a party for the second half of the morning. They'll serve traditional food and play traditional folk music. Some will have Canarian sports. And the real celebration is still to come.

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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Los Andennes Viewpoint

There are lots of good viewpoints on La Palma, but one of my favourites is Los Andennes, where you get an amazing view into the Caldera.

The viewpoint is between km 32 and 33 on the road from Santa Cruz to the Roque de los Muchachos, and there's parking for several cars. Most days of the year, you're well above the clouds, often looking down on them. Soemtimes the Caldera is full of cloud, which is impressive in its way, but not nearly as good as the times when the crater is full of fluffy little clouds and you can see between them all the way to the bottom, some 4,000 ft below.

To your right, you can see Robert's Wall which has a legend attached to it.

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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Corpus Christi in San Jose

Like a lot of places, San José in Breña Baja celebrates Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) on the Sunday ten weeks after Easter Sunday. Traditionally, they make carpets out of coloured salt, like this one from 2006. (You can see more at http://sheilacrosby.com/fiestas.php .)

The most famous of these carpets are in La Oratava in Tenerife. This year they'll be making them on Thursday, May 29th.

This year's carpets in San Jose are almost all made of leaves, seeds, and petals, like they do in Mazo. (See Friday's post.)

The whole thing is on a smaller scale than Mazo, but then San José is a smaller village than Mazo.

And at least one person is delighted with the change from salt to seeds. Breakfast is served!

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