A tour of the fortifications of Tenerife /Part VI)
Today we’ve reached the final part of our tour and we’ll look at an official tour before we visit the oldest fort on the island, a fort that was almost completely obliterated despite its venerable age and honourable history.
La Ruta de los Castillos
A tour that I’m sure is completely unknown to the British is called ‘La Ruta de los Castillos’. This is organised by the tourist office in La Laguna and held on the first Saturday of each month. The price is E9, which includes transport.
On this excellent tour, we viewed the interiors of the Castillo San Juan Bautista, the Casa de Polvora, and the Castillos of San Cristobal, Paso Alto and San Andres. My only regret is that, although I can read, write and speak a little bit of Spanish, I understand hardly a word of speech. Our lovely guide would have translated if I’d asked her but that would have been a bore for the other participants. As it was, from the little I did understand, I seemed to spend half my time apologising for whenever these d…….d English attacked the island yet again!
The most notable event in the history of Santa Cruz was the attack led by Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson in July 1797. Santa Cruz at that time was defended by no less than seventeen fortifications of all shapes and sizes that all saw action during those few tense days, and they combined to see off the might of the British navy.
However, all is forgiven and I was certainly not disappointed with the tour, in fact just the opposite. I felt privileged to be one of the few English people to have seen inside these buildings, and I was impressed by the fact that here is a tourist attraction not for the outsiders, but for the home audience. Having said that, I’m sure it would be very popular with foreigners.
Castillo de San Cristobal
Finally, and this is almost like coming to the end of a pilgrimage, we arrive at El Castillo de San Cristobal.
The entrance to this attraction is discreet in the extreme. Standing in the Plaza de Espana, looking out over the pool that sometimes has water in, you’ll see a black zig-zag line across the pool bottom. The line doesn’t make a pattern and seems meaningless until you learn that it follows the walls of the fort beneath. The entrance to San Cristobal doesn’t shout about its presence either. On the harbour side of the pool is a small, grey-walled enclosure about five feet high. Look around this and you’ll find a flight of steps going down, and there under the plaza, with all its bustle and activity, are the silent remains of the oldest fort in Tenerife.
San Cristobal was the first and principal fort of Santa Cruz, overlooking and protecting the city’s fortified pier, or ‘mole’ as it is often referred to. A tower was first built in Santa Cruz in 1506, not long after the conquest, it was sufficient to withstand land attacks by the native Guanches, but unable to withstand attacks from the sea when war with France was declared in 1513. A fortress was built 1554, rebuilt in 1557, then built again with a gun platform between 1575 and 1578. During the late 16th century there were fears of invasion, particularly from the English and the Moors.
The fort was modified in 1588 to a design by Leonardo Torriani, an Italian military engineer, when it was the headquarters and primary fortification of the town. A gun platform by the name of the Battery de Santo Domingo was built as an annex to San Cristobal that, in 1737, held three cannon while San Cristobal had eleven. In 1868 the platform of San Domingo was pulled down along with the guards’ quarters. By 1891 San Cristobal had been superseded by Almeyda (now the Military Museum) and it was listed simply a fort.
By the 20th century El Castillo de San Cristobal was decidedly out of date and inadequate for military service, so on 20th September 1926 the demolition of old fort was ordered and in 1928 the work was carried out. ‘History’ and ‘heritage’ were not so important in those days.
Fortunately, during excavation works in 2006 some of the fort walls were discovered and their historic value was recognised, so now some of the oldest walls on Tenerife form a major attraction in Santa Cruz. The display is full of interest not only for islanders but visitors from all over the world. As a bonus (albeit a doubtful bonus for the British), in the exhibition area that focuses on Nelson’s attack there is the famous ‘El Tigre’, the cannon that reputedly fired the shot which smashed Nelson’s right arm.
I have visited El Castillo de San Cristobal several times and each time I find something that I hadn’t appreciated before, and simply to look at the scant remains of what is arguably the most important building on the island is cause for reflection. (And how they got that massive cannon down those narrow twisting stairs I just don’t know.)
Some final thoughts
Most of the sites I’ve written about are open to the public and together with the remaining ones, La Casa Fuerte, San Joaquin, San Francisco and perhaps Bufadero, they make a very interesting Tenerife ‘trail’. Their common purpose makes them valuable as a collection as well as individually.
The fortifications are in a variety of ownerships and because of this they are in a variety of physical conditions. In England, English Heritage and The National Trust manage historic sites and buildings. Perhaps it would be an idea for the owners and authorities responsible for the forts to join together to form a ‘trust’ (Tenerife Heritage?) to cooperate in maintaining these historic sites, and to develop their interpretation and public access. A beginning has been made with ‘La Ruta de los Castillos’.
There are many thousands of British visitors to Tenerife each year, many of whom are members of those two organisations, so an awareness campaign of the fact that there is a historic side to the island, as well as the sand, sea and sun, could well encourage further tourism to the benefit of the island and its guests.
With regard to research for information about the fortifications, I make no claims to originality in these articles. Almost all the information has come from two books; firstly is the monumental ‘Apuntes para la historia de las antiguas fortificaciones de Canarias’ by Colonel Jose Maria Pinto y de la Rosa, published in 1954 and again in 1996, and secondly is a handy, pocket-sized book by Colonel A.G. Arguelles, ‘Historia de la Artilleria en Tenerife’ published in 2010.
I would like to thank the guides and curators at Almeyda Military Museum, at the castillos of San Miguel in Garachico, San Felipe in Puerto de la Cruz, San Cristobal in Santa de La Cruz, and our guide on ‘La Ruta’ tour for their friendly assistance.
But finally – don’t just take my word for what I’ve written over the past weeks – go and see these places for yourselves!