In the not too-distant past, this tiny island off
the coast of Africa was the end of the world, the edge of the map, the
most westerly thing known to man.
As I stepped on its black, volcanic shore, I tried
to imagine that I didnít know the New World was only a jet plane ride
away, or that international newspapers had arrived on the morningís
first ferry boat from nearby Tenerife, an island that like La Gomera
forms part of the Canary Islands archipelago.
I pictured La Gomeraís only commercial port, San Sebastian, as
Christopher Columbus would have seen it when he made his last pit stop
here before setting off for discovery: sparse, dry, a palace glaring at
me from the cliff above the port and traders pushing native treats like
goat cheese and fruits my way.
Reality wasnít terribly different, other than the fact that the
huge steel boat I arrived in was filled with wet bars and television
screens and that my first view of the land was of an enormous parking
Columbus first landed on La Gomera in 1492. It was a logical place to
stock up on fresh food, but the islandís widowed governess, a beauty
so famous that a jealous Queen Isabella banished her from the peninsula,
had more than a little to do with the fact the explorer put off his
journey for nearly a month and made several later trips to the island.
Columbus, also widowed, was enchanted by the governess, Beatriz de
Bobadilla, and by the island itself, which always enjoys spring-like
temperatures and though only 11 miles across contains enough
micro-climates to feel like an entire continent.
Their story is one filled with passion, betrayal and other
Hollywood-worthy elements. I was fascinated and so decided to focus my
exploration of La Gomera on what theirs would have been like.
Tip-toeing behind Columbus and his beloved took me first to the
streets of San Sebastian, the capital and largest town on the island.
Past the noisy central plaza, where juice bars and newspaper stands are
the only things competing with the neighborhood childrenís soccer
games, "Colonís House" sits along a sunny street outside the
Inside the little house, outfitted with the ornate wooden balconies
of traditional Canary architecture, drawings of Columbusí ships and
information about his journey are displayed. Some claim that he slept in
this house during his first visit, before he met Beatriz. The fact that
it was built 100 years after his death make it doubtful, but still the
exhibits allowed my imagination to sneak a little closer to Columbus and
San Sebastian is also home to a reproduction of Beatrizí palace,
now a nationally-run Parador hotel. Perched on the cliff above the port,
the white-walled, red-roofed hotel is currently closed for repairs, but
the view of the grand complex from below was enough to convince me of
the power she would have held as governess of the island.
My next stop was Our Lady of the Asunciůn, the church where Columbus
supposedly prayed before setting sail; I suppose he asked God for safety
and perhaps for a speedy return to Beatrizís arms. Like the house and
palace, the church is a replica. Few original buildings remain standing
because most were destroyed or burned by the waves of invaders and
pirates that tried to gain control of the island through the 15th
and 16th centuries.
Heading toward the center of the island, I tried to pick up the
loversí less-marked but more interesting trail. On the tip that the
two had gone on several occasions to bathe in one of the many streams in
the Garajonay National Park, a protected forest that marks the center of
La Gomeraís map like a circular green stain, I aimed my little white
rental car for the interior.
The roads in La Gomera are surely better than they were in Columbusí
day, but thereís still no getting anywhere as the crow flies.
Climbing, twisting, winding highways make their ways over the volcanic
mountains that are the island. In La Gomera, things are always going up
or going down; even on the valley floors that house most of the islandís
population thereís no flatland.
So many mountains make communications difficult; the ancient Gomeransí
ingenious way of speaking across the mountains was Silbo, a language
thatís whistled, not spoken. The whistle travels much farther than
shouts, and permitted the islanders to send long, complicated messages
despite the lay of the land.
Although Gomerians had told me that they still occasionally use
Silbo, I have to admit I was a bit sceptical; perhaps it was only shown
at tourist fairs. So when I was resting in a small valley town and
suddenly heard what sounded like two birds having a conversation, I
jumped up to look for the source of the song. Sure enough, just down the
road was a man with his fingers tangled up in his lips, whistling.
I should have known that there simply arenít enough of us here for
anything to be done for the sake of the tourists.
The mountains may inhibit communication, but they make the island a
hikerís paradise. The National Park, one of the worldís few
remaining examples of the laurel forests that once covered the
Mediterranean lands, has the best trails of La Gomera.
In sharp contrast to the desert-like dry air of the port area, clouds
hang continually over the forest like damp laundry dripping dry, keeping
the plants green, the moss heavy and hikers fresh. The thick canopy high
above lets in just enough light to make deep green leaves shimmer,
making the forest seem like one from a story book; I half expected a
little gnome to dart across the well-kept trail in front of me.
Soon after beginning the "El Cedro" trail that the locals
promised would be the most beautiful of the park, I came across a
tinkling stream. Could this be the site of Columbusí rendezvous? I
dipped my fingers in the chilly water and swatted away the insects
hovering on the surface. Somehow I doubt it.
I tried another hike, this time to the "Alto of Garajonay,"
the highest point in the park. Above the tree line and the perpetual
clouds, the air on the Alto was clear and warm. The damp forest was
converted into a thick green carpet that covered the land as far as I
could see, and the dripping moss of the lower park gave over to
wildflowers that clawed at my ankles.
I didnít see another stream, but I bet Beatriz would have liked to
come up her with Columbus anyway, if only to show him with a sweep of
her hand all the island under her power. She might have explained to him
the story of the peakís name, a Canarian version of Romeo and Juliet;
Lovers Gara and Jonay were forbidden to be together, so they killed
themselves on this point.
In my pursuit of the coupleís story my imagination raced ahead of
historians and led me to the quiet town of Hermigua, where green bananas
filled the valley floor and the townspeople were getting ready for one
of their biggest festivals of the year: San Juan.
San Juan doesnít have a lot to do with our happy couple, and
neither do the barrage of firecrackers that marked the festivities. But
as part of the celebration, the men and women of Hermigua dressed in
traditional Gomerian clothing. I wondered if these head scarves, long
billowing skirts and tiny straw hats were similar to what Beatriz was
wearing when she first caught Columbusí eye.
At the fiesta I met Enrique, a young Gomerian dressed for the
occasion in an old-style cotton blouse, white cropped pants, woven socks
pulled up to his knees and a colourful cloth tied around his waist. He
assured me that Beatriz likely wore finer clothes but must have also had
peasantsí garb to use on outings within the island.
I took advantage of our conversation to ask Enrique about the
possibility of Columbus juniors at loose on La Gomera. He just smiled
and shrugged, and I decided to take that response as a definite maybe.
Thereís no historical evidence suggesting that Beatriz and Columbus
had children together, but in light of my decidedly un-scientific
investigation I felt it was a fair pretence to research. But no one on
the island would confirm the idea. Like Enrique, they just gave me quiet
Sadly, Columbus and Beatrizí story has a bitter ending. An
enamoured Columbus returned to La Gomera two more times and delayed his
expeditions in order to enjoy Beatrizís embraces. But after receiving
word that she had married another during his absence, he did not return
to the island on his final journey to the New World, and they never saw
each other again.
Before heading back to the port at San Sebastian to catch my boat to
Tenerife I made one last connection with ColumbusóI stocked up on
famous Gomera goods for the trip. Strong goatís cheese, called the
best in the world by some, a few bottles of flavourful if not elegant
wine, and the islandís delicate palm honey, a syrup made by palm
trees, were fit into my suitcase along with too much sand from the
islandís black volcanic beaches.
Understanding Columbusí decisions to put off his journeys and stay
a little longer on this idyllic island, I waved a slow goodbye to La
Gomera and set off on the rocky sea.
Published by The Associated Press, summer 2002