A tour of the fortifications of Tenerife (part v)
We’ve travelled around the west and north of Tenerife on our tour and today we’re arriving back in Santa Cruz. Before Santa Cruz became the capital, it was the port for La Laguna, the old capital, and at the end of the eighteenth century there were seventeen (that’s 17 = seventeen!) fortifications in the space of less than 3km of coastline. In the city itself four have survived to the present time. Today we look at three of them.
El Castillo de Paso Alto
Paso Alto, or El Castillo de San Cristo de Paso Alto to give its full name, was one of the earliest defences built as a gun battery in 1582. Then in 1670 it was reconstructed to become one of the three castillos of Santa Cruz. In 1701 Paso Alto had an angular, bastion-shaped plan, equipped in 1737 with twelve cannon. Later in the century Paso Alto and its annexe were armed with 15 cannon serviced by 55 artillerymen.
In those days the sea was right next to the castillo and on the night of 18th to 19th December 1774 a violent storm undermined the poorly built structure. Reconstruction was delayed until 1779, when the form was altered and extended to the half-moon plan that it has today. Interestingly, the rooms beneath the gun platform included the chapel and the munitions depot right next door to it. This must have added extra impetus to the daily prayers! In July 1797 Paso Alto played a key part in the defence of Santa Cruz against an attack by the British navy, led by the British hero Admiral Nelson.
In 1950 a large part of the fort, which incorporated soldiers’ quarters, offices, etc., was demolished to make way for the construction of the road to San Andres, but the gun platform still exists as a well-kept public viewpoint and sitting area.
El Castillo de San Juan de Bautista
In 1619 the Cabildo of Tenerife acknowledged the need for defence at the south end of Santa Cruz.
The need was declared urgent in 1625 but due to economic difficulties construction was delayed. However at the threat of war with Portugal the Castillo de San Juan de Bautista, also known as the Black Castle because of its dark stone walls, was built between 1640 and 1643. The fort was built to a circular plan and the first castellano was appointed in 1643. In 1765 the Castillo had to be rebuilt because, just like Paso Alto, the foundations had been undermined by the sea.
San Juan was declared inadequate for military use in 1924 and scheduled for demolition to make way for an extension to the petrol refinery, but an explosion at the refinery in 1939 led to the works being built further away from the city in 1942. In 1948 it was suggested that San Juan could become a military museum and by 1950 the funds had been raised. However the project did not go ahead, which is just as well because San Juan would immediately have been too small.
It’s hard to believe that this little fort, now dwarfed by the Auditorio, was one of the three main defences of the city, and yet it was. The fort is as picturesque on the inside as it is on the outside. The building, although empty and unused, is in very good condition and the battlements give good views of the plaza and the spectacular Auditorio.
La Casa de Polvora
Near the Castillo San Juan is a former munitions store, La Casa de Polvora, constructed in 1756/57 to take the place of one near San Pedro that was too close for comfort to the expanding town of Santa Cruz.
In 1782 the Cabildo realised that the polvora was vulnerable to attack by enemy fire from the sea and a suggestion was made to move it inland. However, for economic reasons this did not happen. Instead a high, thick protective wall, long since demolished, was added to defend it.
Today the polvora stands out as a rather mysterious edifice with its semi-cylindrical concrete covered roof and hefty buttresses; it’s definitely out of place among its modern pleasure-park surroundings. The roof can be seen just above the battlements to the right of the photograph of San Juan. Standing in the gloomy interior it is hard to imagine the vast, empty building in its heyday 250 years ago, full of ammunition and armaments.
El Bateria de San Francisco
I have to confess that I was at first unaware of the existence of El Bateria de San Francisco, so as I walked to Castillo San Juan and passed some old walls, I didn’t give them a second thought. It was only later that I realised those old walls were in fact a gun battery.
This large fortification was a substantial structure that, along with the forts of Paso Alto, San Cristobal and San Juan, and the other gun batteries of San Miguel and Almeyda, formed part of the late nineteenth century defensive system of Santa Cruz. Although the present remains are relatively modern, the origins of the Bateria go back to the 17th century when it was built some time between 1656 and 1680 and given the name of ‘Nuestra Senora de La Regla’. In 1737 it was still called ‘La Regla’ when it was armed with a modest two cannon, then in 1740 it was renamed El Bateria de San Francisco. In 1780 San Francisco consisted of a crenellated gun platform with a tower. Then some time in the 19th century a complete rebuilding was undertaken, but not long afterwards, after 1850, San Francisco was judged to be of no military value. However it was re-armed in 1893, then in 1924 it was declared unnecessary for military purposes.
Not a lot remains on site to tell the story of the Bateria. There are a few prominent walls and some unidentifiable traces of former structures, otherwise most of it has been filled in. Thankfully it is officially protected from further destruction, but its neglected condition is a disappointment. Perhaps economic constraints prohibit maintenance and development, but this historically important site is in a prominent location overlooked by the prestigious Auditorio and something could at least be done about the accumulations of rubbish; it would not cost much to remove – and recycle, since a lot of it is plastic, glass and aluminium.
However, hope is at hand. A scheme has been proposed by ‘La Tertulia de Amigos de 25 Julio 1797’ (‘The Group of Friends of 25th July 1797’ [the day the islanders defeated the great Admiral Nelson]), to turn El Bateria de San Francisco into a park.
In the next issue of ‘Tenerife News’ we’ll end this series by looking at the remains of the most venerable of the fortifications of Tenerife and take part, in imagination at least, in the official guided tour, ‘La Ruta de los Castillos’ (‘The Route of the Forts’).