Spain is famous for its crazy festivals, and the Canary Islands have their fair share, that’s for sure. However, Las Tablas de San Andes in the historic town of Icod de los Vinos, has to take the prize for craziest. How crazy is it? Well, would you slide helter-skelter down an almost vertical, cobble-stoned street on a tea-tray?
And as proof of just how significant the event is, the town even displays a sculpture of a rider outside the Casa de Cáceres, now a museum, but formerly a grand, colonial-style residence, on the corner of la Plaza Pila.
In fact, as with many traditions and festivals, it evolved from historical roots. The town’s name is a combination of the Guanche (the original inhabitants of the island) name Icod and “de los Vinos” in tribute to the area’s most popular product. The feast of San Andres, or St Andrew (yes, Tenerife shares a patron saint with Scotland), falls on November 29th, just when the new season’s wine is ready to be tried and approved, so the day is very much about the presentation of the new wine. In days of yore, when barrels were needed for the wine, citizens would take themselves to the forests above the town to cut down suitable trees, and then, sitting astride them, would propel themselves downhill using sticks as steering and breaks, to get them to the vineyards. When and how the jump was made from tree trunk to tea-tray I don’t know, but the tradition is most definitely alive and well in the town in the 21st century.
I’m lucky that my friend, Cristina, is a native of Icod. She’s been asking me for a few years now to go experience the festival, but this year was the first time I made it. In fact, last year the entire fiesta was cancelled following torrential rains – white water rafting might have been more appropriate than sledging!
We were about ten minutes or so out of Icod when the extent of the fiesta began to dawn on me. As we passed through tiny villages and the suburbs of the town we were down to a crawling pace – just in case any sledges, with or without children attached, came hurtling out of one of the hilly side roads. Glancing to the right, I could see that narrow streets were barricaded with mounds of tyres, and access would be impossible other than on foot. Goodness me, was the whole area disrupted this way? The answer was pretty obviously yes, the nearer to the town center we got, the bigger the piles of tyres!
Officially, this day is not a bank holiday, though some children clearly were not in school, other schools were open for business as usual. It both delights and irritates me that fiestas are taken so “seriously” here. At Carnaval week, for instance, banks close at midday,which I usually curse, but another side of me thinks that it is absolutely fan-bl**dy-tastic that fun and pleasure are considered so important.
Cristina regaled me with stories of her childhood adventures from this, particular, holiday as we approached the town. Apparently on the eve of San Andes it was the custom for the local kids to knock on neighbors’ doors, and to be given candies, just as American kids do on Halloween.
It seemed suspiciously quiet as we parked up. It was just before lunchtime, and there was that calm-before-the-storm feeling. As we walked through Icod’s meandering, main roads, stalls and bars were setting up in the streets, and the braziers were being stoked in readiness for the day’s other traditional treat – roasted chestnuts…..on a personal level my idea of heaven was about to explode in my taste buds – chestnuts AND wine! Chestnut is my second-favorite flavor, after cinnamon (in case you wondered). Ahead we spied a small crowd at the next junction, and sure enough there was a huge pile of tyres, and up at the top of the street a crowd of kids, clearly psyching each other to “come on down.”
Suddenly, a pretty-in-pink little girl, who looked to be about eight or nine years old, detached herself from the crowd, pushed herself off, with heavily gloved hands, just the way you would in snow, and began to bump her way down the street. She was followed by a couple of young bucks, whether not to be outdone by a girl, or in hot pursuit I don’t know, but she was on her feet and heading back, tea-tray tucked under arm, as they crashed, heroically, into the tyres.
At a closer glance, the tablas were something even less than tea-tray; basically a slat of wood (and using anything other than wood is, apparently, cheating) with metal rails fixed either side. A friend of Cristina’s told me that her niece had been decorating hers for weeks. We watched the fun for a while, me not knowing whether to applaud their courage or shake my head, but when we moved on to the even steeper street which approaches Plaza Pila, I could see that what we’d been watching was, indeed, just kids’ stuff. This is where the big boys were playing.The street twists so much that we couldn’t even see the beginning of the run, and the lads in their early teens who were careering down, swayed from side to side and were going, well, a bit faster than the little kids had been doing, and when they crashed into the ginormous pile of tyres they did it with huge aplomb and much drama, so much so that I drew a sharp breath a couple of times, on one occasion much to the amusement of the owner of the bar in which I was sitting. I couldn’t resist commenting that the young men of Icod were loco, and she laughed that if they were crazy then so was she, because she’d loved to take part when she was young. It seemed that the entire population had taken part in this madness at some stage in their lives, and I couldn’t believe how normal it was considered to be!
Rosa and I with our first glasses of the night.
We returned to Plaza Pila that night for the presentation of the new wine. This proved to be a surprisingly staid affair, given the exciting things happening around town, with lots of speeches, and we drifted over to the other side of the square to listen to a group of local musicians playing outside a bar. They seemed to be much more in the spirit of things! Eventually, what Churchill called the “jaw jaw” over, servers appeared out of nowhere to open the bottles of wine lined up on the tables around the square, and others appeared magically with trays of canapés, nuts and, of course, chestnuts to soak up the wine, and the serious business of the night began. Even the musicians packed up to attend to the more important business. It wasn’t a serious wine tasting so much as a celebration that the year’s harvest was finally bottled and ready. Canarian wines should be drunk young, and the white wine from Icod de los Vinos is one of the islands best and most famous.
Once the wine ran out in the Plaza the trek was on to find more, basically what Brits would call a “pub crawl”. Returning to the town’s main thoroughfares, those bars and stalls and braziers which had been setting up before were now all doing a roaring trade, and it seemed as if the entire population was out on the streets having fun one way or another.
It’s a very sociable festival, and perhaps there are hints of welcoming the change in season too, which pre-date what we know for sure about local history. It certainly felt like the beginning of the “holiday season,” just as Thanksgiving does in the US. As we wandered, our group increased and decreased in numbers as folk joined, and others went to greet friends. People would disappear only to reappear a couple of stops further on.
When we came across the streets where the tablas were racing, the kids’ stuff had given way to the real macho guys (and a sprinkling of girls). Closer inspection showed that their tablas were posher affairs than the kiddies’ ones too, most of them with foam or some sort of cushioning to sit on…..and it soon was obvious that they needed it! The undersides were being waxed with all the dedication an experienced skier pays to his skis. Older teens and young adults were nothing less than hurling themselves down seemingly vertical slopes, vying as to who could take off highest on the bumps, and lurching into those tyre mountains (the bigger the boys the bigger the mountains!) at terrifying speeds. Imagine the luge, only on the street and not on ice! Every now and then whistles would sound, flares would be held up as instruction to stop further activity until some wounded participant was extricated and helped away by the Red Cross. When this happened the watching crowd would seep onto the street, and never seemed to quite get back to its original limits, with the result that it seemed more dangerous to be an onlooker than a rider! Watching was a bit like watching stock car racing – you’re waiting for the crashes. At one point we visited some friends of Cristina who live overlooking one of the main venues, and had a bird’s-eye view.
At another point we retired for sustenance to a bar which had erected a special kiosk outside from whence came the most delicious aromas of frying meats. Inside, we managed to corner a table as a group left, and crowded around to satisfy our hunger, conversation mostly being drowned by some fairly un-tuneful and very merry singing from a group at another table.
Finally, tired and full and happy, we wound our way to the house of Cristina’s friends, Rosa and Luis, who kindly let us crash there for the night. No-one who offered me a ride will ever know how tempted I was. This whole, crazy scene reminded me so much of stuff we used to do as kids back in the 50s, daring each other to go higher or faster or whatever. I did resist though – perhaps another time, because it’s a very addictive kind of crazy!