Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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Almond Blossom Time Is Over: A Slightly Cynical Look at Tenerife Island Festivals

This post began, a couple of weeks back, in a totally different form. Technology killed it. I clicked something I shouldn’t have, and three-quarters of what I’d written was lost in the ether of cyberspace. I had no heart to try to recall lost words. Its time was past.

All of which set me thinking about how we tell time by the revolving customs as well as the seasons.

 

almond blossom el hierro

As soon as the Kings have hiked on back to Fairyland, I begin to think about almond blossom.  The first ones were spotted this year very early in January, and I missed my usual jaunt over to Santiago del Teide to see them , so I was surprised and happy to spot on orchard in El Hierro, still groaning with blossoms.

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La Gomera’s Five Year Fiesta

La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Gomera, Canary islands

Legend has it that in the early years of the colonization of the Canary Islands, in the 16th century, a boat en route for the New World was passing by the coast of La Gomera, when the crew spotted dazzling lights emanating from a hillside close to the port of San Sebastian. Going ashore to investigate, they found the source of the lights came from a cave, and inside the cave they discovered an image of the Virgin Mary.

In awe, they took the statue aboard their boat, but found that they were unable to make any headway, that some strange, unseen force had them held captive. When they were overwhelmed by a huge flock of seagulls, one of which tried to seize the little statue, they decided that this was a sign that the Virgin wished to remain in her cave, and they returned her, and were able to continue the remaining miles to San Sebastian. The folk of that town, on hearing their story, made haste to the place, now known as La Puntallana, and in the Virgin’s honor decided to construct a sanctuary for her there – which is where you will find her today, that is, except for a period of about three months, every five years.

Statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe hermigua la gomera

The statue was declared Patroness of the island of La Gomera, and named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and every five years she leaves her chapel to visit the other churches of this small island. It is a fiesta of some note. In fact, I had delayed my arrival back in October because I thought that port and capital, San Sebastian would be crowded as she began her journey from her sanctuary.

The Canary Islands are steeped in traditions brought or created by the first conquerors who claimed the archipelago, island by island, in the names of Spain and Christianity. The colorful fiestas and romerias of the islands all center around blessings from or homage to saints or the Virgin Mary. Even the spectacular and Disney-esque Librea de Tegueste features a stroll around the square by the Virgin.

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Las Tablas de San Andres: Fiesta Fun or Madness in Icod de los Vinos?

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!


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The Friendliness of Chirche Lightyears from the Coastal Grumps

Chirche is a tiny village, about five or ten minutes directly vertical from Guia de Isora in the South of Tenerife.  I’ve only ever been here for this, particular festival, El Día de las Tradiciónes (The Day of Traditions), so I don’t know what it’s like on an average, working day.  I must rectify that soon, but I imagine it’s quiet.  It clings for dear life to the hillside, and these twisting, narrow streets were never made for motor cars.  The last time I came, my car overheated (OK, it’s not the most modern car in the world, but it is sturdy and reliable usually).

Happily, for Sunday’s fiesta the local town hall had provided transport so neither the overheating nor parking were problems.  A mini bus did the circuit from, what we would probably call the county seat, Guia de Isora, below up to the village, and we were there in time for the first trip before it got too hot.   A vast improvement on my last visit, what with the overheated car and no space to park it!

This year’s festival had to battle for attention not only with the World Cup Final, but also 46º heat ….. and it came out a winner, although it seemed to be a bit less well-attended than the last time I went.  This was the tenth year that the village had turned out to produce what is something like a living museum or even a theatrical production which one can walk through.  The entire village goes about its business as it would have done somewhere between 100 and 50 years ago.

Here candles are being made the old way, from beeswax.  The finished product on the right, and those in progress on the left of the picture.  The hot wax is spooned over the thread time and time again, each layer is cooled and then doused again, until the required thickness is reached.  Can you imagine the time it takes?  Can you imagine spending days and days doing this, just so that you can have light after sundown?

Although Guanche artifacts have been  found in Chirche, this festival portrays life as it was around a hundred to fifty years ago.  It really isn’t that long.  It was my grandparents, my parents time, and even my own infancy.  The scales in the recreation of the local “corner shop”, the flyspray cannister lying atop a wardrobe, some of the products on display in the shop reminded me of my own childhood, so even then, things were somewhat “globally available”.  Since I was brought up in a fairly countryfied area, and my crumbling home had once been a farmhouse, it was easy to identify with much of what I saw around me.  It felt as much like going back in time as witnessing the past of this island.

Life wasn’t that easy for my family when I was little, and yet we did buy our flour from the corner shop, we didn’t have to produce it ourselves.  The lady in the picture above is toasting seeds to make gofio, which was a huge part of the staple diet of Tenerife, and remains popular.  Cereals would have grown on the hillsides surrounding the village, and be brought home for toasting, but apparently sometimes the rhizomes of ferns were also used in the distant past.  The tradition probably was brought to the islands by the Guanches who, it is now widely thought,  came from North African Berber tribes, who also made a similar kind of meal.

This lady is carrying out the next step, grinding the toasted seeds by hand.  A heavy grindstone is pulled around and around, as you can see, until the  seeds become flourlike.  This is how it was done in this, small village.  In other areas huge grindstones were pulled by donkeys, horses and even camels.  Gofio can still be bought in the island’s supermarkets, and to be honest it’s an acquired taste.  Austin has learned to mix it with honey and almonds to make a delicious dessert, and it is used to thicken soups and stews, and to make a really healthy porridge-style breakfast – very high in fibre, people!

Walking around the village, despite the intense heat, was a treat.  Two things struck me hard.  The first was how the whole village seems to join in wholeheartedly.  Every age group takes part, from grannies (and how they manage daily life on a sheer hillside I will never understand!  Seems to me, given a diet of gofio and that kind of exercise each day, they must be incredibly healthy!) to babes in arms.

Above is the old schoolroom, complete with blackboard and children who don’t seem to mind being dressed in costume!  I didn’t see one sulky face all morning – not even from the class’s naughty boy, whom you can spot kneeling in the corner.  I’m sorry about the quality of this photo.  The schoolroom was dark, I’m thinking probably even in the fifties there was no electricity, plus the old houses were designed to keep as cool as possible in summer, which usually meant having only small windows, and thick, thick walls, which kept out the summer swelter and kept in the warmth in winter.  Also, there were so many people vying for space to observe or snap, and I was too polite to hog the vantage point I had …….. another lesson learned – must be bolder!  There were children helping the maypole dancers, playing games in the street or helping with chores, just as they would have been doing a hundred years ago, and every one of them with a smile on their face.

It goes without saying that a hundred or even fifty years ago, there were no video games, no television, no fast food, so children had to make their own amusements.  Below is a selection of the types of homemade instruments which they used to make.

Maybe there is some special karma attached to living in this village, because I rarely remember a time when I’ve met so many friendly people.  People who would stop in the hot sun and wait whilst you fiddle with your camera so you can snap them.

People who are quite at ease being photographed showing off their pride in their traditions….not all instruments were homemade!

People who are willing to attire themselves in heavy, traditional clothing in a 46º heat (might even have got hotter after we left!), so that they can keep this link with their past, and show it off to others.


This lady was crocheting what looked as if it was going to be a small doily, and surrounding her are displayed other examples of lace and crotchet work – most looking newly made, and proving that old crafts are not nearly dead here!  The really nice thing is that it looks as if future generations are happy to go on keeping these traditions alive.  It’s something I’ve noticed often in the folk music and dance groups which I see regularly on tv – no way are these groups composed just of the old folk.  The folklore of Tenerife seems to be in good and safe hands for quite a while yet.

Now this is a tradition many people will be happy no longer is widely used.  This gentleman is preparing a goatskin for use in making gofio or cheese.  The ingredients for either were placed inside to be molded and strained.  Goat is still widely eaten here, and is a treat.  I’ve never had it badly cooked.  The use of the skins?  Well, there was nothing else, back when, and as with other meat products, there wasn’t much waste.  They were different times.

There were demonstrations of bread making in big, old ovens, agriculture as it was (and still, sometimes is) here, the making of roof tiles, which had been the village’s only industry outside of agriculture, and a host of other stuff, and highlight of the day, a mock wedding, but we ran out time and couldn’t stay to watch.  We had a glimpse of the wedding dress, laid out on the bridal bed in a restored house, but no time to see the bride, sadly.  As I mentioned before, we did pop into the pretty church for a few moments, and then we had to be on our way.


We just missed the mini bus, and took refuge from the sun in a nearby bar, which was built directly into the rock face, providing welcome coolness.  I have to mention it was the only kind of disappointment of the morning.  We paid around €15 each for a very average gazpacho, stone cold garlic bread, croquetas (one ration of chicken and one of tuna, which were indistinguishable), a couple of very cold, very welcome beers and best – a plate of papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes), the island’s speciality, all of which came with indifference or a shy smile, depending on who served us.  It was a bad choice of venue, but nicely decorated, as you can see above, and reminiscent of the coastal resorts, where that kind of service is the norm.  It’s a great shame that tourists don’t get out more to meet the “real” people of Tenerife, these people who are so kind and happy and gracious.  I’ve never been to a fiesta of any kind where I wasn’t made to feel enormously welcome, and Chirche would be top of a list like that.  In some ways I don’t blame the kids who work as waiters or shop assistants down in resortland.  Firstly, they aren’t given the proper training in most cases, so they don’t know how to respond to people, and secondly, I couldn’t put up with the sort of attitudes and backchat they get from a lot of their customers.  Frequently, once you have made a contact, their demeanour does change.  Yes, I do realize that the onus is on the supplier of whatever service you are buying to provide that service with a smile, but scratch just a bit and you might find that the nice young waiter comes from Chirche, or somewhere similar.

When I move on from Tenerife, and return for a visit, one thing I intend to do is to stay in the casa rural (rural hotel) here, in the middle of Chirche, and embrace the relaxed and happy lifestyle of its people.


One thing this day taught me.  I’ve always enjoyed snapping, and never really been too interested in video, but watching the maypole dancing for quite a while I would have loved to have videoed it.  Stupidly, because of my lack of interest I’ve never bothered to figure out how to work the video selection on my camera – job for this weekend!  Next year I won’t clash to the World Cup at least!