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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tenerife's Village of the Damned

Sanatorio de Abona Church Wusel007 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The corridor stretches interminably before me punctuated by open doorways, some of which are portals to small empty rooms while others lead to corridors which matrix into hundreds more rooms and yet more corridors. The walls are graffiti’d stone with naked wires protruding at intervals along their length and beneath my feet cement dust and rubble cover small beige tiles. In places the plaster has fallen from the ceiling revealing hollow space beneath the roof. Through the glassless windows the sun’s blinding glare bounces around the dry scrubland rippling the air on the horizon above the ocean.

The echo of my footsteps is joined by the incessant cry of the wind which is following my every move, darting through open windows and rushing down corridors. At each new doorway I stop and peer inside at rusting bed frames and discarded Coke tins. Most of the cells are small squares with a tiled bathroom in one corner where fittings have been roughly torn from the wall leaving patches of exposed plaster in the tiling.

Feeling like a character in a Sergio Leone movie or on a level of Silent Hill, each new doorway holds the threat that I might stumble across a squatter, an itinerant or the ghost of one of the inmates this village was built to house. I’m peering into the gloom of a particularly dark room when there’s an explosion of noise directly behind me which sends my heart crashing into my ribcage and my head and neck sinking into my shoulders. My hair follicles register movement as the panic stricken wings of a pigeon flap the air centimetres from my head. I must have spooked it as it dozed in one of the gaps in the wall. The pigeon takes an erratic flight path beneath the low ceiling before veering through a window frame to the right and into the glare.

A couple of weeks ago Jack stumbled across an article about a ghost town on Tenerife’s Arico coast beside the TF1 motorway; an entire abandoned village which was constructed to house lepers. Despite frequent trips to the south of the island and an afternoon searching that exact area looking for the ‘Happy Donkeys’ (that’s another story) we’d never spotted anything that could remotely fit the bill of what the article was describing. So on Thursday, on our way back from a meeting in the south of the island, we decided to seek the ghost village out.

Leaving the TF1 and driving down to the beaches of Abades the outline of the empty church with its huge stone cross and 30 or so deserted buildings shone out from the headland like a beacon. How on earth we had managed not to see the village before now is baffling. I can only think that as Abades looks newly built we must have taken the empty buildings for just a half completed project, which in essence it is; only this one’s over 60 years old.

The village was originally conceived at the end of the Spanish Civil War when leprosy was rife, Tenerife alone having 197 known cases. The policy at that time was to house sufferers in isolation in a climate that was considered beneficial to health; hence the choice of the arid, sunny and breezy east coast of Tenerife, miles away from any large population centres. Under Franco’s command plans to build a vast leper sanatorium and place it under control of the military were put into place.

Designs were drawn up by José Enrique Marrero Regalado, a local architect from Granadilla de Abona whose works include the African Market in Santa Cruz and the Basilica in Candelaria.

Work was suspended in the 1940s when the use of Dapsone in the treatment of leprosy provided a breakthrough in halting progress of the disease and it was determined that sufferers responded better to treatment in the comfort of their own homes.

Building work stopped and the site was abandoned.

In 2002 an Italian developer bid for the site from Arico ayuntamiento and work began to create a huge tourist complex with a golf course and 3,000 beds. But in 2003 the Ley de Moratoria Turística (building moratorium) was passed which severely restricted the size and type of tourism developments permitted within open countryside in order to protect the environment.

So once again plans were thwarted and the village remained as it is today; a ghost village just metres from the island’s main motorway and yet strangely invisible – just as its original inhabitants were intended to be.

There are many fascinating parts of Tenerife waiting to be discovered by those who chose to leave the standard tourist trail and explore the Real Tenerife.

The Abandoned Leper Village of Tenerife

Lying on a beach all day every day might make for a relaxing holiday, but memories of it fade as quickly as your sun tan. Island Drives is aimed at travellers who want to experience the real essence of Tenerife, not just its pools and beaches. If you want an unforgettable holiday as opposed to a good one, Real Tenerife Island Drives will make the difference.

PS: Observant readers will recognise this as the location - that stood in for Mexico - in the final 2-part episode 'Awakening' of Silent Witness Series 20 2017.

Emilia Fox and David Caves introduce 'Awakening' - Silent Witness

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