“This happy isle of Fuerteventura, with its excellent climate. How soothing! I have never absorbed so well my intimate concerns! I am digesting the gofio of history,” wrote Miguel de Unamuno in the Madrid newspaper, Nuevo Mundo. The philosopher spent four months in exile here in 1924. During this time, and afterwards, his writings showed to others a side of the island that nobody had seen before. He so enjoyed the air here that he used to take pauses from writing to sunbathe nude on his terrace. They say that he was the island’s first nudist, although his neighbours were less pleased than he was with this display of flesh.
It it relaxing; it makes you feel good; it reinvigorates all those exposed to it. These things are commonly said with reference to the breezes of Fuerteventura. The ingredients that make up the island’s winds are the same as everywhere else, but there is an extra added something here. Sea breezes contain salts and are rich in negative ions, which have a positive effect on us, and it is said that Fuerteventura stands out for the high concentration of these particles in the air.
With 150 kilometres of beach, Fuerteventura has the longest coast of any island in the archipelago. It is also the oldest and the closest to Africa. Its beaches are so immaculate that UNESCO made it a Biosphere Reserve in 2009.
Water, wind, sand and sun come together to give coastal areas a relaxing air. It is difficult to say exactly why these factors have the effect they do, especially because we are primed, even persuaded, to enjoy them. Although it might seem to us obvious that one way to de-stress is to lie in a hammock or float in the ocean, the idea of the beach as a holiday destination is a very recent one.
Two centuries ago, the sea was a place that concealed monsters, and from which came all kinds of evils and epidemics, as well as the shipwrecks and natural catastrophes that have always affected coast dwellers. It was only little by little, with a fusion of art, transport and medicine, that by the 19th century a vision of the coast that resembles our own had begun to appear.
When the British aristocracy began to feel the need to tend to its health, there started to be talk of the curative qualities of the seaside. Some coastal towns began to become resorts as early as the mid-18th century. Doctors recommended time spent by the sea, and painters began to paint the coast as scenic, rather than terrible. Poets added their part: one of the first poems to praise the seashore, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, says that “sweet is the night-air”. In Arnold’s poem, the sea does not devastate the land, but caresses it.
And so the metaphors by which the sea was known became softer and more comforting, turning its hostility into placidity. Gradually, the railways reached their iron fingers into every part of the country; travel became cheap and fast, and so the coast became a place where almost anyone could go, at least occasionally. A change of scenery, as well as the sea breezes, were highly recommended by Victorian doctors.
The feeling of relaxation and wellbeing that we associate with the coast has been linked to negative ions in the air. An ion is an atom or molecule that has gained or lost electrons. If the quantity of electrons is greater than the number of protons, the ion is negative and, paradoxically, beneficial. Positive ions, with fewer electrons, are harmful.
A number of the factors that contribute to a greater concentration of negative ions occur near the sea: waves and sea breezes, for example. This effect is particularly pronounced in sunny regions and mountainous areas, as well as along the shoreline.
When the pathologist and bacteriologist Albert Krueger, at the University of California, carried out studies into this matter, he came to the conclusion that negative ions have a similar effect to chemical tranquilizers. The key lies in the hormone serotonin, which positive ions send shooting up, causing us agitation, stress and anxiety. According to Krueger, negative ions cause a reduction in the body’s production of the hormone, creating a relaxing feeling.
In the case of Fuerteventura, the arrival of tourism had much to do with a writer. Miguel de Unamuno was the first to see beauty in a place that was, until then, considered to be an inconsequential desert. He had been sent into exile on an island that was scorned and ignored, but he saw magic, and returned all its favours by writing about it. Unamuno walked the island, spending four months in happiness. They say he even passed his days skipping rope with girls on the beach. That fortunate exile has been taken to the big screen in a film by Miguel Manchón with the title La isla del viento (“The Island of Winds”).
Unamuno fished and strolled along Playa Blanca. He also sat on a rock and spoke to the sea. It was an encounter with the ocean such that he had never experienced. In Fuerteventura, he said, he had achieved “a mystical communion with the sea, in which I have drunk in her soul and her doctrine.” It is said that when he left that rock, he did so weeping.