For years, like many non-natives, I drove straight through Guia de Isora. It’s main street is a part of the main highway from the west of Tenerife to the north, at least until, sometime in the mist of a long-promised future, the autopista circling the island is completed. Guia was just another mile marker along the way; nondescript, modern blocks of shops and apartments; the old folk sitting on the plastic chairs of roadside bars; glimpses of mountains above and ocean below. The town curves busily along the hillside, bland and unremarkable, en route to prettier destinations, Arguayo or Santiago del Teide and points north.
Over time, years, in fact, I got to know the town behind the concrete façade. It was slow, the grasping that this little community is not what it appears to be at a hurried glance. A visit to the high school revealed a vibrant, enquiring environment, far from the sleepy village school I’d imagined. A friend worked temporarily with the town hall on a special project, a documentary, which turned out to be a very professional testament to a facet of island history, capturing its essence whilst there were still folk alive to remember it. And then, of course, there is the MiradasDoc documentary film festival, an event which has been going on every Fall since 2006. Who would have thought – a full-blown international, intellectual festival, full of lively debates and workshops as well as the movies themselves in this quiet backwater? The place is a hotbed of creativity and communal artistic endeavor!
There is a splendid auditorium where the films are shown, and a shiny, modern town hall and civic buildings. Then there is the old heart of the village, which spirals out around the church square, an utter contrast. Doors, walls and windows cheerfully bright, and narrow roads so you can always walk on the shady side of the street.
Come Easter these historic thoroughfares blossom with a distinctive kind of art, dramatic pieces (because what is more dramatic than the Easter story, after all?) made from plants, flowers and natural materials, like wood and moss. According to the town hall it’s the only one of its kind in Spain, though there are other flower festivals, none revolve around the Easter story. It’s ambition and success seems typical of this surprising community.
And so, seeking, and finding, escape from the crowds on the beaches, at the passion play of Adeje or the sombre processions in La Laguna, I meandered my way up to Guia on Friday. Previously I’d been on Maundy Thursday, and I expected to meet more tourists this time, but it was as quiet as before, no problems in lingering around a favorite piece or taking snaps without folk photobombing, perhaps because they have extended the length of the exhibit from two days to four this year.
Although the pieces are designed by prestigious names in this world of floral artistry, unknown to those of us outside the sphere, groups of volunteers and civic staff help in the creation, making it a real community effort. Like the mandala of Buddhism or the flower carpets of the Catholic Corpus Christi, this art is a lesson in life as well as a celebration of beauty and a sharing of ideas. Come Monday it is gone, leaving behind the lesson that nothing lasts long in this world.
This is what I discovered as I ambled around, dodging the hot sun, but cursing the shadows on Friday.
I begin with my two favorites:
The inscription reads: ” It has not changed anything, currently people still (sell) themselves out for a few coins.”
I like this for the design, for the beauty and simplicity, and because, try as you might, you can always see yourself in those mirrors. This is a powerful message, which haunted me the rest of the day.
Jordi Abelló is a teacher at the Catalan School of Floral Art.
The inscription reads:
“Pain is sometimes necessary to find inner peace in each one.
But if we see life with light and color, it is easier to find.“
Inscription on this work by Carlos Curbelo of the Catalan School of Floral Art ” Coins of betrayal that ended up scattered on the ground after Judas’ betrayal.”
I love the originality of this exhibit. This was one of the first pieces I saw and it struck me as apt, in a time when Spain is reeling from corruption scandal after corruption scandal. From the king (that is the father of the current king) down, the country is examining its collective conscience.
“While others slept Judas left the group with intent on betray(ing) him for a few gold coins.”
Third piece with more or less the same message – surely this can’t be a coincidence.
This minimalist piece is by Carlos Curbelo, who is municipal designer and expert from the Catalan School of Floral Art, and was responsible for the larger part of the exhibition. The plaque describes it as inspired by the Mount of Olives, where Jesus went to pray before his arrest.
Another piece by Carlos Curbelo representing, “Flagellation: His first torture was received tied to a column where the scourge tore his skin.”
The Resurrection “Why do you look among the dead (for) the living?” Carlo Curbelo
This sombre and effective work is by Ángela Batitsta of Tacaronte in the north of Tenerife. The inscription reads: “The time of Christ death on the cross the sky turned dark there were thunder and lightning announcing that he left us and is no longer among the living, leaving a large gap and shame to those that loved him and bewildered to those that guarded him.”
I had intended to correct the English (old habits die hard!), but typing out these inscriptions now, I find the mistakes kind of charming, so I’m leaving them alone.
“During the via crucis Veronica tended to Christ a veil to wipe away the sweat and blood. On the clothing redemptive factions were miraculously printed.” This work by Cristina de Leon from Santa Cruz de Tenerife
“In heaven the angels announced Jesus´victory over death.”
This was the only one with which I had a problem. Were those really chicken wings?
By Carlos Curbelo: ” A crown of thorny branches surrounded his head, reflecting a mockery which became a glory.”
Lovely translation there.
This was the prettiest, though I know it’s not about the pretty. Tribute to the brotherhoods of penitents who parade during Holy Week by Carlos Curbelo
Hole by Carlos Curbeo “A broken heart at the end of the cross harbours the hope of resurrection.”
Carlos Curbelo has a brilliant translator who conveys the meaning as well as the words.
Ecce Homo by local artist Hugo Pitti. “His clothes were distributed by lot (dicing), scourged and crowned with thorns, by giving a fishing rod as a joke because they said that he itself was said ‘King of the Jews.’
“The repentant tears dried Christ’s feet with her long, messy locks. With so much love Jesus forgive her sins and left her free from the 7 devils that tormented her to the astonishment of all present.” Cristina de Leon from Santa Cruz de Tenerife
The temple by Zona Verde, who, I believe are the gardening contractors to the municipality. ” A temple of prayer became a market. Jesus ejected the merchants from the temple.”
Sitting now, writing this and editing the photos, it occurs to me that, although not Christian, I “get” the messages of Easter, and these works of art made me dwell on them far more than, well, other Easter manifestations I’ve attended in the past.
A friend, driving from south to north of the island last Sunday, Palm Sunday, the first day of Semana Santa (Holy Week) was held up no less than four times on her journey by processions. In a tourist paradise famous for nightlife and debauchery you might think that religion had died, but truth is that the nightlife and debauchery scene is by far the smaller part of island life, and traditional religious celebrations are by far the larger, even though some these days eschew the machinations of the Catholic Church.
Many fiestas have become crowd-pullers in recent years, especially those in villages close to the tourist hotspots of the south-west, it’s reported that over 20,000 watch the annual bathing and blessing of animals in La Caleta on the January fiesta of San Sebastian, and over 30,000 were expected to visit Adeje for this year’s PassionPlay. Islanders are, rightly, proud of their traditions, but it’s hard to guess whether the traditions would survive without the Church (most of them being based on some religious observance), or whether it’s the Church which benefits from the maintaining of the traditions.
In the case of Semana Santa it’s more clear-cut. This is a religious festival, and a surprising number of folk wholeheartedly believe in it. There remains, of course, the question of whether the lesson (which Jesus preached and to emphasise which he died) is learned or whether it has become the very idolatry against which he railed.
Adeje’s Passion Play I find moving, and something resembling a genuine expression of remorse and sorrow, and a hope for renewal. But I’ve long-wondered, having lived many years in Spain now, how I would feel about the more traditional ways of marking the season, so this year I took myself to La Laguna on Palm Sunday.
I found it charming, and was surprised to find that it reminded me of the Salvation Army walks of witness to which my grandmother had taken me when I was a very young. I arrived early, and had a quiet shuffle around the always immaculate streets of this World Heritage Site. No fluffy bunnies and chocolate eggs in shop windows here, but figures showing members of the different brotherhoods, or cofradía, who would take pride of place in the week’s events.
I took coffee in a pavement café opposite an entrance to the Church of the Conception. Folk in La Laguna, mostly, dress more formally than in the warmer south of the island, and groups and couples in Sunday best strolled around the area, many carrying elaborately woven decorations made from dried palm leaves (there had been a workshop in a town square the previous day on how to make them), and others carrying simply a branch or strip of palm. Dignatories arrived, and I understand that palms were blessed inside the church, people came and went, tourists stopped and snapped (the tower of this church set against a mountain backdrop is super-photogenic).
I left the café and leaned against the church wall for a while, making myself invisible. I watched as folk both ordinary and elegant entered and exited the church. By the door sat an old lady, her hand out, begging. The only one to acknowledge her was a boy who looked to be about 12 years old. He asked his father for money, and went back to give it to her. Now, I’m reasonably confident that the woman was a professional beggar, probably not Spanish, and I too ignore them when I see them in Los Cristianos, where they are often found on the tourist streets. It’s the usual story, organized gangs, who shouldn’t be encouraged. Yet, I wondered, were all of these dozens and dozens of people aware of that? I thought it spoke volumes for the young man who gave, regardless of who or what the woman was. I hope he had a happy Easter because that was the one moment of the entire week when I witnessed anything approaching the meaning of Jesus’s teachings.
The procession, when it left the church to wind its way around La Laguna’s lovely, old streets was ornate, and like an amalgamation of all the smaller processions I see around the island on a regular basis celebrating individual saint’s days. A few folk crossed themselves as the tableau depicting the arrival of Jesus on a donkey approached, but there was none of the weeping I’d sometimes seen, nor cries of “Viva.” It was fairly muted, and compared to La Laguna’s romeria far less well-attended. La Laguna is a city, but a country-fied city, sitting in the middle of super-fertile land, and I had expected something grander. Not that I was disappointed, ostentation and finery sit uneasily with me, and the gold-trimmed robes were quite sufficient to the occasion.
On Thursday I cajoled some girlfriends into coming up to the village of Guia de Isora on the other side of the island to see its renowned displays of floral art. They were pretty, arty, or symbolic in turn; and most shouted “Spring” at me, rather than “Easter”. I guess that’s because they were flowers, and flowers have been on my mind a lot lately. We didn’t go to a service or procession but had a gentle amble around delightfully quiet, narrow streets (traffic had been banned for the duration.
Inspired by the Virgin Mary when she met Jesus after he rose from the dead.
The area around the graceful church square had become an open-air art gallery…..this is, you see, the thing I love about this climate – that a place can with such certainty put on an outdoor display like this, knowing the chances of it being spoiled by bad weather are slight, even though Easter is early this year. I’m not saying it never happens, tragically, on an Easter some years ago, heavy rains and floods in Santa Cruz resulted in death and a lot of property damage, though, here, in the south, it remained quite balmy.
Crown of Thorns
We retired to a cosy bar at the end of our stroll and nibbled traditional tapas, pimientos padrón, churros de pescado, whitebait and fresh goat’s cheese. A tranquil afternoon which resembled a tour around an art gallery more than anything Easter-ified, although perhaps that was because of the hour we chose to visit, and that was fine in my book.
This floral art represents the Roman soldiers who were sent to arrest Jesus. Ironically it stands on the Street of the Jews.
Good Friday was an event of a different hue entirely. As a child of the 60s, when I see those conical hats, masking the faces of the brotherhoods who dominate the day’s celebrations I feel a chill. Burning crosses and lynchings immediately spring to mind, and that is sad, because I have repeatedly been told over the years (and even today searched the internet again) that there is no connection between these groups and the infamous Ku Klux Klan. The best guess seems to be that possibly the original Klan thought these garments were kind of cool and copied them. Of course, they wished to hide their identity for entirely different reasons.
The Catholic cofradías (brotherhoods) hid their faces so they can repent of sins without, in theory, public shame, each group has its own markings and color scheme. The origin goes back to the Inquisition. The Klan did it to escape prosecution. I doubt they felt shame. Even without that connection, though, I am not sure how I am going to feel. I have a strong dislike of secret societies of all kinds.
I arrived, with friends, just as the long procession, the Procesión Magna was beginning something after 5pm. The streets which had been unadorned on Sunday now had religious hangings from almost every upper storey window and lamppost, and the area around La Iglesia de la Concepción was milling with people, both hooded and normal gawpers like ourselves. We found a place to watch quite comfortably on the first street along which it passes, which surprised me. With the sun getting low in the sky the narrow street was dappled, half in sunshine, half in shade. The mood, if not festive, wasn’t as sombre as I’d expected either, though voices were low, people were chatting and children fooling around. As the first group of cofradía approached the noise level dropped a tad, and one or two people crossed themselves as the first tableau began to pass our spot.
As the minutes ticked by I became accustomed to the steady drum beat of the different bands as they passed, the swish of the robes, and the evocative smell of incense, which was waved, usually by children, very enthusiastically at the beginning (I noted the enthusiasm waned as the evening wore on), and I found nothing threatening or frightening in the appearance of the almost ghostly figures as they passed.
The first statues were impressive but I’d “seen it all before,” and, yes, I find the opulence hard to take, so I switch into neutral, fly-on-the-wall mode. After a short time the statues changed from mere figures to tableau depicting different scenes from the Easter story, and whatever ones feelings about religion or the Catholic Church in particular one had to admit that some were beautiful works of art, and, of course, spare a thought for the poor costaleros who shoulder these massive masterpieces for the hours it takes this long procession to weave its way around the streets of Tenerife’s ancient capital. They have to be both fit and dedicated, and you have to figure that there is something in this dedication.
Many of the penitents walk barefoot, and some with ankles chained. As some groups passed the silence was almost tangible.
This procession, although the longest of the day, hadn’t been the first, thinking about how my feet some times feel after a hike it occurred to me that perhaps barefoot was a better option! Looking along the street to the starting point by the church it looked as if this procession was endless. Pointed hats, candles and statues filled the horizon as dusk fell. At some point we ducked over to the next street to catch the parade on its return to the church, to find we had arrived at exactly the same point as the first time so long was it.
La Procesión del Silencio
The most overwhelmingly atmospheric procession, however, begins around 9.30 La Procesión del Silencio. We just have time to grab a sandwich and a glass of wine in a very busy bar close to the church, but I imagine that some of the participants went directly from one to the other.
As the name suggests, the procession takes place in utter silence. The lights of the streets and side streets are extinguished so that it takes a while for your eyes to adjust as you pick your way back to find a place to watch in reasonable comfort. Maybe it’s the dark, but there seem to be more people. There is a low rumble of whispered conversation, and I think that perhaps it won’t live up to its name, but as the eerie column of figures approaches total silence falls over the street.
There is no music. There are no tableau. The only light comes from the candles held by the walkers. The only sound is the sound of their feet as they pass; sometimes the grating of chains on the stone street; sometimes the heavy, rhythmic tramp a they mark time with each step. It makes them sway in stately unison. Now, yes, it does seem a little sinister. Not a child cries. It feels as if the world is holding its breath, waiting. Only one cellphone rings, and it is rapidly stopped. A woman coughs from time to time. In the far distance a motorbike, but no other traffic sounds at all. I have the childish urge to laugh, and yet, at the same time I respect how the crowd is feeling. It is made up of all ages and types. This is by no means the province of the elderly.
Taking photos would be almost impossible, given the numbers of people and the darkness, so I don’t even try. I lean back against a wall, and try to absorb the atmosphere. In the dark it is impossible to tell how long it will take to pass, but fairly quickly there is the faintest hum from the direction of the church. It has passed there, and people are beginning to move quietly away. The only statue, the body of the fallen Jesus passes, and then 3 priests, one of whom I think is the Bishop of Tenerife, and the shadows disappear into the darkness, just the points of light of the candles they carry visible.
This group will now crowd into the small church at the end of the route, apparently packed like the proverbial sardines, and homage will be paid, and vigils will be kept until the Rising of Jesus from the dead is celebrated in three days time.
Treading carefully down an unlit side street, occasionally bumping into people, we make our way back to the church square, where the lights seem over-bright. Folk are chatting in the curbside bars, and a fine trade in cotton candy and nuts is going on. It isn’t exactly the jolly atmosphere of most fiestas, but it is cosy and friendly. The sense of community is palpable, and, in the end, I think, that is the function of a church, the keeping together of a community, the provision of a sense of belonging. It’s what most people need.
This is it for me, though. I’ve had enough of the pomp and the ritual without true meaning. I am told that each Easter a collection of food is made for those in need, and this year there are so many more in need. People are invited to leave suitable foods at a point near the church. This year the gifts were less than ever. Yet there was money for new robes for penitents, and hundreds of flowers to decorate those tableau tonight; money for brocade to drape around statues, money for candles and fresh, white gloves for band members. As my friend, Cristina, said, if every one of those participating in this theater had given just one euro, or one kilo of rice, how much that would have helped those in need. How much more would that have reflected the Easter message?
Did I ever mention that I loathe Easter weekend? It’s something I learned early in life, by the time I was old enough to go into Blackpool on my own. “Don’t go on Easter weekend – it’s like sardines out there!” was the advice we’d give each other, and once we learned to drive it was even worse – Sunday drivers and no parking! The trouble with Easter is that, compared to summer vacations, everyone is on holiday at the same time, which means crowds everywhere. Narrow Lake District roads are another place to avoid at this time of year. Gridlock – and usually gridlock accompanied by the slapping of windscreen wipers.
Basically, it’s the same here, but without the windscreen wipers. Chaos for the most part, especially if you are unlucky enough to be working in the accommodation sector, though I suppose these days one’s just lucky to be working, anywhere. Next year I am thinking it would be nice to be somewhere which doesn’t holiday over this particular weekend.
Take a look at the photo below. This was El Médano beach on Wednesday afternoon, before the weekend even, although most tourists arrived the previous weekend, given the lateness of the date this year. By Thursday the numbers had swollen, with the influx of affluent northerners, who have second homes around here. Parking became a nightmare, and, inevitably, the weather took a turn for the worse ……… happens here too, you see……not quite windscreen wipers though!
However, apparently, not everyone was on the beaches, even though it seemed like it. According to yesterday’s local newspapers 23,000 of them turned up in Adeje on Friday morning for the annual passion play, that included me and Maria and Isabel. I’d heard so much about this event, but often worked Good Fridays in recent years, so this was my first opportunity to see it for myself, and I was looking forward to it.
We arrived early, as advised, and after coffee and tortilla we staked our claim at the roadside barrier about an hour before the performance was due to begin. This, however, didn’t stop a very rude, old, Italian man from pushing in and spoiling the view with his flowerpot of a hat……..not at all Giorgio Armani!
The play takes place all along the main street of the town, so getting to see or photograph it all is impossible, unless you have a press pass, of course, and although the tv cameras broadcast it all, there seemed to be an absence of press en masse. If you would like to see professional photos check out these from local guide Tinerguia.
We were able to wander Calle Grande, arriving as early as we did, and take a close look at the sets which had been constructed, the scene of the Last Supper with a table laden with real food, the Garden of Gethsemane with olive branches stuck into the stumps of trees, the palaces were Jesus was judged and flogged, and, finally Calvary in the small square at the beginning of the street. All the participants in the cast of 300 are townspeople, and along the street “shops” and food stalls had been constructed, and real food was being stacked onto them, pedestrian crossings had been covered over with leaves and straw, and telephone boxes and other modern inventions had been disguised as far as possible. Everything was first-class, so much so that in one photo I snapped I wasn’t sure where the set ended and the real street began. I saw these guys in their smocks and sneakers, and for one, horrible moment thought that this was going to be the standard, but soon realized that they were camera crew, blending in as much as practical, which was great.
Remarkably for Tenerife, it began on the dot. As the town hall clock struck 12 the “extras” entered and took up their places along the route, children played along the road, looking for all the world as if this was real life, women sold produce from those stalls, and the general public ambled along. Truly it didn’t take much effort to imagine oneself back in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
The cast dotted about, cue the entry of the badies, Roman soldiers, rabbis and, of course, Pontius Pilate.
You can see how excellent the costumes were. I’m not saying those breastplates were metal, but the details were amazing. Movie buff that I am (and I love noting continuity goofs etc) I tried to spot a wristwatch or two, but didn’t see one, although there were a few wedding rings. Maybe they wore wedding rings back then, I don’t know, just that the costumes and sets were wonderful, a much, much higher standard than I expected.
We were close to the Last Supper, and yet another nice surprise was the quality of the sound system, as the performance began, which broadcast to the entire street quite clearly. Obviously, the people waiting at Calvary were couldn’t see what was happening around the table, at the opposite end of the street, but they must have heard the dialogue just fine.
Feet washed, and Judas having stormed out of dinner, the cast prepared to move onto the next set along the street, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the police took down the ropes from the sides of the street and formed a line across, so that watchers could follow on and get a good view of the next scene. At that point Isabel and I went in search of a loo, which we found in the Cultural Center, where the event was being shown on a huge tv. We opted to return to the streets, though. We found it almost impossible to see very much from then on, however, people from higher up the street were crushing around, as were we, and we caught glimpses, but nothing more until the tableau arrived at “Calvary” where a pop-concert-style screen was showing the recording. Everything could be heard quite clearly though. The standard of acting and singing was outstanding, worthy of the London stage, even if the script was, at times, at little corny, but, then, perhaps that’s what it’s all about. That said, it’s exactly that blind attachment to the fairy story aspect of all this I find difficult to swallow. It’s clearly not the case for most of the people in the photo below. Just look at their faces, nothing if not in the moment.
That was one of those making-lemonade moments. The crowd was dense, and I simply held up the camera and clicked blindly. Of course, I would have liked a better picture of Jesus, but I thought the faces were interesting. After he passed, and that crowd following the police cordon massed behind, it seemed like time to retreat. We had no hope of seeing anything more in detail, and the sound system and the big screen on Calvary were going to carry the rest of the performance to us.
Feeling peckish we were happy to find that the produce from those “stalls” was being given away. This lady was tearing off chunks of bread and ladling gooey jam into it as she joked with “customers”.
As we stood in the middle of the street, munching, we thought it had come to an end as Jesus was lowered from the cross, and Mary wept over his body. Certainly, applause rippled through the audience. However, we grabbed our cameras again when we realized that at least some of the cast were still in character and returning in our direction.
I thought this picture might give you an idea of just how many people there were, but I don’t think it really does.
Jesus’s body returning to the church to await Sunday. At this stage it is not the actor, but one of the plaster figures from the church.
It was certainly a memorable event, and I am delighted to have seen it. As a spectacle it was marvellous, perfectly executed, prepared and dressed. If there were any hitches, I didn’t notice them. Will I go next year? Not sure, mainly because of the crush. Would I go to see another one elsewhere? Definitely. Not as a religious experience, though I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose message should be heeded, I don’t think that churches have really lived up to that message in a very, very long time. However, as theater it was quite remarkable, and I will fill in now with some faces from the day.