Life in the Canaries has changed dramatically over the last few decades, particularly since the boom in package holidays and Spain's admission to the European Community in the 1980s. The main seaside resorts are cosmopolitan with a capital 'C', but old habits die hard in more rural parts of the islands, where it's probably a good idea to confine revealing swimming costumes to the beach or poolside.
The Canary Islanders are known for their friendliness, sense of humour and generosity. Enjoying life is paramount and any excuse is welcome for a party, often involving the entire village or town population!
The time-honoured custom of the siesta is still observed in many places, with shops and banks often closing from 2-5pm. In the main tourist areas, however, most of the shops and restaurants stay open as they are dependent on tourist trade.
A new law was passed in Spain in 2006 severely restricting smoking in public places. Some bars and restaurants do not allow smoking and some have separate smoking areas. Look for a sign in the window telling you if smoking is allowed (“Está permitido fumar”) or is not allowed (“No Está permitido fumar”) or if there is a smoking area (“Zona para fumadores”.)
Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion in the Canaries, although its role in public and private life has declined. Dotted around the countryside are many small temples and shrines dedicated to local saints and open to the public.
The Canary Islands were first referred to as Canaria (from the latin canis) by the Romans because of the large number of fierce dogs on the islands - the canary bird receives its name from the islands, not the other way round! The Romans and Greeks also called them the 'Happy Islands' and the 'Garden of Hesperides, Atlantida' and some historians believe that the island's original population, the tall, blonde and blue- eyed Guanches, were from the legendary continent of Atlantis. Probably originating from Berber tribesmen, each of the tribes on the seven islands had their own distinct cultures and customs. The Guanches were mainly farmers and shepherds and still lived a Stone Age way of life until the middle ages (some of their cave dwellings and villages are now open to the public.)
The 1402 conquest by Norman nobles Juan de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle brought the Canary Islands to the attention of the rest of the world and brought them under the control of Spain. The towns of Santa Cruz and Las Palmas became stopovers for the Spanish traders and missionaries on their way to the New World, and the islands became quite wealthy. Unfortunately, this new found wealth also attracted the attention of Barbary pirates.
However, in the 19th century Spain's American colonies became independent and this had a knock-on effect on the Canaries, causing sever recession. By the early 20th century migration was rife. At the beginning of the 20th century, the English introduced a new money spinner to the islands, the banana.
The rivalry between the cities of Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas led to the division of the islands into two provinces in 1927. In 1936, Francisco Franco launched his military coup from the Canaries, quickly taking control of the archipelago. Opposition to Franco's regime did not emerge until the late 1950s.
After Franco's death and the installation of a democratic constitutional monarchy, a bill of autonomy was proposed for the Canaries. In 1983 the first autonomous elections were won by the Spanish socialist party, PSOE. The current ruling party is the Canarian Coalition.
Over 1.9 million people live on the islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro; although more than 80% of them live on the two main islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
A distinctive dialect of Castilian is spoken in the islands but English is widely understood and spoken in the big cities and coastal resorts. Up until the 16th century an Afro-Asiatic language called Guanche was the dominant language of the region but is now extinct although some of the words have been assimilated into the Canary Islanders' dialects of Spanish. On La Gomera, traces of the Guanches '”whistle” Silbo language, a form of whistling that sounds a bit like a mix between Spanish and yodelling, is still used to communicate over the mountains and valleys. Apparently the locals can whistle a message the whole way around La Gomera in just 40 minutes!
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