Do we just wake up one morning wearing Fit-Flops and sensible knickers?

Hilary Fannin: Gomera is not party-shoe terrain – just as well, given my increasingly practical wardrobe

I’ve just spent five days dragging myself up and down hillsides and lying my bluey-white body on black sand underneath a yellow sun. It was just before Christmas when my old friend emailed to invite me to visit her in her village home on La Gomera, an island off the coast of Tenerife.

“Bring your walking shoes,” she instructed, and I did. Gomera is not party-shoe terrain. Just as well, given my increasingly practical wardrobe. (I wonder does that happen with age. I wonder at what point one graduates to permanent fleece-wearer. Do we all just wake up one morning with Fit-Flops soldered on to our calloused feet and sensible knickers orbiting our girths?)

I’ve been lucky enough to visit her on the island a handful of times over the years. We’ve climbed endless hills together and ascended hundreds of the rough, uneven steps that run from the coastline all the way up through the vertiginous terraced village where she lives. On occasion, we’ve climbed higher up the mountainside to the verdant rainforest at the centre of the island, where woolly, lichen-covered trees float like mildewed ghosts in a continuous foggy dew.

There is something uplifting in the grace and ease of the older couples

On our more domesticated walks, we hike past sun-baked old men tending neat patches of red soil with rakes and hoes. The landscape on the island is so evenly parcelled – divided into small ascending and descending terraces, each symmetrically planted with lettuce and cilantro, onions and forest-green parsley, and sometimes courgettes ribboned with bright yellow flowers – that it is as if a handmade quilt has been thrown over the hills, as if the unpredictable volcanic earth has been tucked in and lulled to sleep by generations of careful husbandry.



A couple of years ago a tremendous fire ripped through the valley, destroying houses and crops, ravaging the landscape. Walking the burnished earth now, the evidence of that destruction is still visible in the tall palm trees, whose pineapple tops reach skyward, ignoring the pity of their blackened, soot-stained trunks.

We stopped the other day to admire the recovery. The valley is covered once again in banana trees; fat purple pods drop from thick stems like exposed wombs. As the pods ripen, the leaves curl back, their undersides red and veiny, placenta-like, to reveal racks of tiny bananas, which grow upwards, their cold green fingers clutching the sunlight.

And then, of course, there’s the people. Not being blessed with much mathematical acumen, it occurred to me the other day that there might be as many German hippies on Gomera as there are banana trees. Entirely reasonable bedfellows to share a beach with under the winter sun, they nest quietly in their droopy sarongs and are kind to their sun-kissed naked babies, sweet little things who hang off their mothers’ skinny backs in improvised slings or gnaw on their fathers’ leather wristbands, possibly in a an early revolt against prescription veganism.

Advancing years

The tourist population, largely culled from northern Europe (you will rarely hear a British or Irish voice on the beach or in the waterfront cafes), seems to multiply at the end of the day, when the beach fills with people waiting to witness the sunset.

As the light fades, the gentle, cave-dwelling hippies, tattooed with indecipherable symbols of half-moons and vaguely mystical hieroglyphics, dance and drum on the black sand, their babies tottering in their wake.

Meanwhile, lissom couples, many of advancing years, stroll along the shoreline, carrying their sensible sandals in their hands, their long brown feet lapped at by the frothing ocean. There is something uplifting in the grace and ease of these older couples, in the sensuous pleasure they take in each other’s company.

“Do you notice them all, kissing and gazing and patting each other’s wrinkled bottoms?” I ask my friend (a Cork woman despite her Canarian perch).

“Yep,” she replies. “That’s the Scandinavians for you. Brilliant, isn’t it?”

And it is brilliant, a portent for the future maybe, a glimpse of some new contentment as the light is lost.

I left the following day, soon found myself hurrying through wet, grey streets, head down, wrapped in layers of waterproof insulation.

I carry my memories of the island with me into the January mornings. The sunlight, the heat, the clear blue sky that reveals itself whenever the clouds wander off to sit on top of the pink mountains like frothy toupees. The wild Atlantic bashing and rolling on to the porous black rocks. The startling sunsets. The promise of a future, scantily revealed.