A small rock in the Atlantic

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

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Saturday, 21 June 2008

Visiting the Observatory

GranTeCan, the huge new Spanish telescope

La Palma is home to one of the three most important astronomical observatories in the world. (The other two are Hawaii and the Atacama desert in Chile.) The observatory sits at the top of the island, at the Roque de los Muchachos.

It's a fascinating place to visit, but it's not normally open to tourists - they're too busy doing science.

You can visit the mountain top and see the buildings from the outside any day of the year. But please note:

  • Days only, not nights. The William Herschel Telescope could see a candle on the moon, and the MAGIC telescope is even more sensitive. They really don't like car headlights. Some years ago there was an incident some years ago where a bus shone its lights right at the Herschel's dome. Now there's a barrier across the road which is shut a little before sunset, and raised a little after dawn.

  • The road to the observatory is usually blocked for a few days each winter, by snow or landslides. Use your common sense. If the sign at the bottom of the mountain road says it's blocked, don't go up. I once rescued a couple of German tourists who'd spent the night in the car in the drainage ditch, after going past the sign, thinking that the weather couldn't be all that bad in the Canaries. It can. That night it was thick fog, 60 mph winds, and -5ºC. Thank God they didn't try to walk, because they'd have frozen to death for sure.

Sine the MAGIC gamma ray telescope doesn't have a building, you get quite a good view from the outside. You can get fairly close by parking on one of the helipads (the bottom left as you go up the hill). From there, a footpath goes closer, and there's a display panel that explains how the telescope works.

The observatory is open to visitors for a few days a year. This year's dates haven't been decided yet. You reserve your place on the form at http://www.iac.es/orm/visitas/novedad/visitas.htm Each visit lasts about two hours, and you get a guided tour in English or Spanish (say which when you book!) round several telescopes. Be warned that the schedule sometimes slips, and you might have to wait around.

They also hold private visits, usually for schools or visiting astronomers. You can email your request to adminorm@iac.es. Ana, who reads the email, speaks English. To be honest, they're unlikely to organise a visit for the average tourist, but if there's a visit organised anyway, you might be able to tag along. Cross your fingers!

The MAGIC gamma-ray telescope

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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Canary Style Green Beans

When I annouce that we're having green beans for dinner, our 11-year-old usually says, "Thank you, Mummy!"

I don't think I'd get that reaction with plain boiled beans. Of course, it helps of the beans are really fresh. These came from Puntagorda farmers' market.

Serves four polite people or three hungry ones as a main course.

About 700 g of green beans
150g bacon (in narrow strips)
2-3 cloves garlic
1 red pepper
1 small-medium leek or onion.
1 stock cube (vegetable, ham or chicken)
Olive oil to fry.
A large frying pan or wok.


Chop the garlic finely. Chop the leek or onion and red pepper fairly coarsely. Fry garlic, leek, pepper and the bacon over a low heat while you top and tail the beans. Add the beans, stir and put on the lid.

Ignore for about 20 minutes (apart from occasional stirring) while you have a glass of wine and chat to your other half.

Serve with bread and butter.

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Monday, 16 June 2008

Flags Galore

You see a lot of flags on La Palma. Most English visitors will recognise the flags of Spain and the European Union.

But the Canary Islands are an autonomous region within Spain, and they have their own flag too. You see it a lot, especially around May 30th, which is Canary Day.

And then each island has its own flag. Here's the flag of La Palma:

And as if that weren't enough, La Palma has 14 municipalities, of which twelve have their own flag.

Santa CruzBreña BajaLos Llanos
El Paso Barlovento Breña Alta
GarafíaMazo Tijarafe

Puntagorda Puntallana Tazacorte

(The other two municipalities are San Andres y Sauces and Fuencaliente)

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