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

1 Comment

La Librea de Tegueste: Tenerife Tradition gets Disneyfied

Once upon a time, in the years following the conquest of the Canary Islands in the name of the crown of Castille, in a lush and verdant valley, where mists caressed the surrounding mountain tops, providing moisture for anything growing there, a settlement began to grow. Over the next hundred years or so the settlement thrived, became a village.

They named the village Tegueste, and its citizens flourished, how could they not in this most favored spot of the archipelago known as The Fortunate Islands? They grew rich and contented, working on the fertile land. They grew potatoes, maize, all manner of fruit and vegetables and from their vineyards came some of the fine Canary wines so loved in mainland Europe. They built a church and a schoolhouse, and wanted for nothing. When the official army was withdrawn, they formed a citizens’ militia to protect the area.

Though the archipelago was under the protection of the Crown of Spain, there were many who tried to claim the islands. Rich as the land was in timber and abundant as the crops were which sprang from its volcanic soil, it was viewed with jealousy by other nations, and targeted by pirates, both those sanctioned by envious countries, and opportunists.

The island became a great trading center, poised between three continents, the old Europe, the new worlds across the Atlantic, and the mysterious and unknown continent of Africa. Ships arrived on its shores from all the great trading nations, from Britain and Holland and Portugal, and ships returning from the shores of the new lands in the Caribbean and the newly explored Americas stopped on their way home.

In the hundred years or so spanning roughly the mid 16th to the mid 17th century, Europe was in the grip of a terrible plague, the Black Death. Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost, and it was inevitable that, despite being almost 1,000 miles from mainland Europe, the disease would find its way to the islands via the frequent ships which visited.

All around Tegueste the folk of other townships and communities began to fall victim to the plague. The close-knit community began to dread that it would sooner or later find its way into their corner of paradise, and so they appealed to Our Lady of Remedies (Nuestra Señora de los Remedios or Nuestra Señora del Soccorro) to envelope their community in her protection, so that they would be immune to the spread of the Black Death. And – thus it was, though in surrounding areas people died, the pueblo of Tegueste was spared.

It was the miracle for which they’d prayed, and so every year thereafter, which is now more than 400, the feast day of Our Lady of Remedies is celebrated in the village with passion and gratitude.

That’s the real story, in as much as the myths of religion constitute real stories. I’d been told that boats and pirates featured heavily in this celebration, and I was very curious as to why, given that Tegueste is, apparently, the only “landlocked” municipality in the Canary Islands – that’s as landlocked as anywhere could be on a small island. It has no coastal boundary at all. It’s surrounded by other municipalities, though it was a part of La Laguna back in history. I’d seen the “boats” at the romeria in La Laguna, and I’d heard that they attack the village – hmmm, that was what I couldn’t figure out – how could pirates assail a landlocked town?!

The feast day of Our Lady of Remedies was Friday of last week, and on an island overflowing with celebrations and fiestas, this, I can now report, was the pinnacle – the best I’ve ever seen. It will give you an idea of the quality and scope of the event if I tell you that it occurs only once every three years, or at least the festival known as La Librea only happens every three years.

Cristina was the only friend able to make what we knew would be a late night, followed by the drive back south. It was slated to begin at 9.30, and scheduled to last around two and half hours. We arrived more than two hours ahead of that to make sure we had parking and a decent view. That was good planning. The parking bit was easy, and I’m sure it must have been nigh impossible afterwards. As we ambled down to the square we passed the famous boats, the same ones I’d seen in La Laguna, only now they had sails, which were exquisitely embroidered with prayers, saintly figures, and island scenes, each boat representing a neighbourhood group or community.

We crossed to the pretty church square to get an idea of what was happening. Fold-up chairs occupied most of it, rising to platform seating at the back, the sort they have for Carnival or street events, and the entire façade of the town hall, opposite had been converted into a castle, a feat worthy of Hollywood. We could have bagged seats when we arrived and had splendid views, as it was we were peckish, and went in search of tapas, and by the time we arrived back in the church square the best seats were taken, but the ones we had were fine. Although there were times when it would have been much nicer to be able to see just what was happening on the main stage, there were two big screens on the inside of the square, and two more on side streets for those who couldn’t find seating inside. It was forbidden to stand, and we soon saw why, what with the constant movement of the pageant and the fireworks!

Remarkably, everything began on time. The pretty strings of lights around the church tower and the square were dimmed. Short scenes from the early days of the hamlet were acted out; almost all of the actors performing very professionally, though nerves were evident once or twice! Scenes happened on the sides of the square as well as on center stage, which meant that everyone really got to see at least something really well. As the tableaux played out, the surrounding streets and the area in front of the “castle” began to fill with people in traditional Canarian dress, and in 17th century costumes, the men who were to form the militia in powered wigs and all, so that from where we sat in the center of the plaza, we began to feel as if we had been taken back in a time machine, and were almost a part of what was happening. I let that wonderful suspension of disbelief envelope me, and gave myself up to the performance.

400 local citizens took part in this marvelous spectacle, everyone in superb costume, and looking as if they were enjoying every second. They strolled the streets, they danced, they sang, they wrestled and when the boats, pulled by those stoic oxen, sashayed down from the side street and onto the scene, they were manned by children in those old-fashioned sailor costumes, looking as if they’d just stepped out of “Bednobs and Broomsticks,” and we all oo’ed and ah’d over how cute they were. Intentional, I presume, that they represented a kind of age of innocence, before the attacks which were to come.

The part I regretted not being able to see in full was the Dance of the Flowers, which is an important part of the festival. In certain areas of the islands maypole dancing is as traditional as it was back in my 50s childhood, though the maypoles I’ve seen have been carried, not static, as the one in our school playground was. The maypole in this dance, however, had rigid struts, wrapped in flowers, in place of ribbons.  All we could see was the top and vague movement of those colorful struts.

When every citizen and group had been granted permission to enter, and all were gathered together, the religious procession began. Those of you who know me, know very well I’m not an aficionada of things pertaining to conventional religious groups, but on an theatrical level, the emergence of the statue of Mary from the church door was quite impressive, beautifully robed and perfectly lit as she was. As she made her way around the surrounding streets, pausing to admire the whirling catherine wheels which were placed in her path,  we were treated to some exceptional musical experiences, most notably a choir which I thought was a professional recording until Cristina dug me in the ribs and nodded her head in their direction. The musical groups are listed in the program, but I have no way of knowing which one it was.

Mary returned to her perch in the church, the fun was about to begin. Lights dimmed even more than before, and the figure of the Captain of the Militia appeared on the battlements. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a boat appeared, now shorn of its pretty sails, and crewed, apparently, by any number of Johnny Depp wanabes. The battle was about to begin, as more boats followed. Me, I was already utterly captivated by everything I’d seen, but this was a scenario straight out of Disney World, and executed just as professionally. Canon blazed, guns roared, orders and epithets were screamed, people hung precariously from masts and it was every bit as exciting as Pirates of the Caribbean. My video, shot with my Blackberry, and from too far away can only give you a wee glimpse.

Finally, the pirates were vanquished, and the boats wearily circled the scene, they were now pulled by men and not by oxen,  and departed. At the beginning sparklers had been distributed, and now was time to light them, as a firm tenor voice launched into the magnificent Ave Maria. Now you don’t have to be religious to enjoy that particular piece of music. It was, in short, a moving few moments.

People began to drift away just then, it was, after all, midnight, but no fiesta here is finished until it is marked by a magnificent firework display, and such an auspicious occasion was clearly going to deserve something special, and so it was. A bravura exhibition of Tenerife’s finest, and let me tell you, and I speak here as a total Disney devotee, displays here rival Disney World, and when they are accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus, the William Tell Overture and (permit me a smile here because some of those pirates were English) Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 they simply ROCK! As one, parting gesture, a shower of sparkling rain turned the church tower into a fountain, and it was almost over.

All I can say about those boats is that you look on it all as poetic licence. Tenerife certainly was subject to pirate attacks (whether they were privateers or simply criminals), so you can look on the representation as speaking of the island in general, or you can look on the boats as metaphors for the disease which threatened the community. Either way, it triumphed and flourished thereafter.

I’m lucky that Cristina likes to drive, which means that I didn’t need to, but I don’t think it was too bad, returning, not tired, but stimulated by the night’s performance. It was well worth the trip, I’d have driven as far again. I know next time won’t be quite the same, because this time, though heard about it, I had no idea just how fabulous it would be, how extremely professional the timing, the acting, the costumes, the lighting would be, nor that we would be sitting for 3 hours. I’d imagined standing. Very few things in life measure up to a first great experience, but maybe in three years’ time I’ll think otherwise!