...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Part 1 of my account of Christmas in Gran Canaria.

(-n [definite form], -or [plural]. Noun). (1) A trip arranged for many people to a common destination, e.g. from a travel agency that organizes tours; (2) A group vacation or charter trip; (3) A conducted tour. Etymology: sällskap (company), resa (travel).

The classic Swedish comedy film Sällskapsresan (1980), sometimes described as reaching a cult status in Sweden, has this for a first line: "Swedes don't travel to something. They travel away from something".

There's a lot of truth in that line, which explains why even the average Swede would have been well traveled. A full-time worker in Sweden is entitled one to at least four weeks of paid vacation a year. Kids not only have Easter-, summer- and Christmas breaks, but also have an autumn break just when the skies begin to turn dark before winter and a so-called "sports break" starting sometime in February, just before the skies begin to lighten up again before spring. A lot of this vacation time is spent in a warm place (400,000 of the 9 million Swedes travel to Thailand every year, making it a charter favorite besides the Canaries, Egypt, Morocco, Greece and Turkey). If you moved here, you'd quickly realize the ubiquity of "charter trip". And you'd discover that, in these parts, solresa – literally "sun trip" – is a real word. What Swedes escape from with all this free time are rain, snow, and the darkness.

The theme song from the comedy movie Sälskapsresan, sung by a fictional travel agency called Sun Trip (they're in Gran Canaria too, by the way, which was one of the first charter destinations from Sweden).

"Welcome to our island, stop thinking about rain and snow.
Sunbathe, swim and have it cool, with Sun Trip over Yule!"

Our own trip to the Canaries was "classic" and like the movie in many ways: fully-loaded charter plane, Swedish co-passengers taking advantage of the relatively cheap alcohol prices already in the flight down, Swedish-speaking guides meeting the gang at the airport (and non-English speaking bus drivers taking us to the hotel), sunbeds with pale Swedes gradually rotating during the day to always face the direction of the sun. It was everything we expected but also – pleasantly so – more than we expected.

So, here follows a two-part account from one very happy charter trip traveler. We traveled last-minute too (unsold plane seats and 2-star or up hotel), which made this trip relatively cheap! We're more than satisfied with the whole vacation, despite having the weather (and temporarily, a weird sewage smell) against us. More about that later in the second post. To keep you in suspense ;-)

Continent in miniature

For being a small island, Gran Canaria is often called a mini-continent. It has mountains, ravines, a desert, a temperate climate in the north, and a dry and hot climate in the south. The landscape varied wherever one went (even though we actually just explored a small portion of the island's south coast). So did, to some extent, the fauna. Just exploring the different towns of the island was (with some imagination), almost like traveling to different countries. One time, the mountains looked like how I'd imagine South America to look like. A few hundred meters away, there was desert resembling the Sahara. The villages looked either like they were from Brazil or Italy, and some hotel strips looked like they could be in Las Vegas. The food, place names, people, and the language, though, are Spanish. But the tourists – they come from precisely everywhere.

Maspalomas was hands down the most exotic place we visited in our short stay. In this small volcanic island, just seeing fine white sand is exotic enough, but even more exotic is the fact that these dunes – kilometers of dunes – had been carried by the force of the winds from the Sahara. In fact, when I think of it, "forces of nature" seem to be all-present in the island. It makes itself known in the way the cliffs have been carved by the sea, in the way dry rocks chip off the bare mountains, and in the way that, slowly but surely, the dunes shift in the wind. The desert is a changing landscape.

Then, there were the mountains. Though we must have climbed about 300 meters above sea level, those mountains were just hills in comparison to the ones further inland. Even so, the climate already changed; plants turn from spiky robust cacti-like plants to lush round bushes, and, to our surprise, rocks started to grow moss, which was unexpected coming from the desert-dry sea level.

One thing that we liked the best was to walk aimlessly, exploring the town. There, you'll most likely find everything you need cheaper than you would in the established tourist areas. Our hotel lay thankfully away from Gran Canaria's party region (the infamous Playa del Inglés) and was located in a quiet area called Arguinegin. The town center was small, but it had an authentic feel. It was refreshing to see, in contrast to all the posh hotel development around the coast, houses where the locals seemed to live themselves. We loved walking in these in the towns that we went to. I loved the way the narrow alleys seem to sprout into unexpected directions, how the houses looked so unique, how their terraces looked alive with hung laundry and water drums, and how, from afar, the villages followed the contours of the mountain.

There's just so much to explore.

My next account will have to wait though. To give your eyes a rest ;-) Until then, happy New Year everyone!


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