Candelaria on the evening of the 14 August is mental. I knew it was going to be busy, these big fiestas always are, I just didn’t expect it to be as busy. There are cars parked along the TF1 autopista. It takes us by surprise and we’re driving into town before we know it, breaking the cardinal rule – park as soon as you see the line of cars.
It is total bedlam. But the Virgen de la Candelaria clearly wants us to see her theatrical, if a touch wooden performance, and miraculously we find the last parking spot in town almost at the eastern end of Las Caletillas. When I say ‘parking spot’ I mean a patch of ground that doesn’t have a car plonked on it. Forget the fact that there are yellow lines. This is fiesta, different rules apply.
It’s a decent trek to the Basilica at the other end of Candelaria, where the main action takes place. But at this point, it amounts to hitting the parking jackpot.
Anyway, it can be our version of a pilgrimage. Admittedly we won’t be on our hands on knees when we arrive at the Plaza de la Patrona de Canarias, like some true pilgrims – unless we partake of a caña at every heaving bar we pass en route – but a longish walk is in the spirit of the fiesta in honour of Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, the Patron Saint of the Canary Islands.
Honouring your patron saint is a serious business but this is Tenerife where the serious bits – the mass, religious processions etc. – are balanced by a fun element. Subsequently, there’s a party atmosphere between Caletillas and the Basilica at the heart of Candelaria. There are kiosks galore, bars are jam packed and burgers, perros calientes, arepas, chips and churros are being gorged as though there’s a fast food shortage.
The attraction of these events is the buzzing atmosphere. Being in the middle of thousands of Canarios enjoying themselves having fun is infectious (unless you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like big crowds). When it comes to good natured fiestas, in the words of Carly Simon, nobody does it better.
The Black Madonna being paraded around the Plaza de la Patrona de Canarias marks the start of the main show.
The piece of theatre that follows, depicting the the Guanches and the Black Madonna meeting each other for the first time, is quite silly (in the nicest meaning of the word). The animal skins the modern day Guanches are wearing are more like the mock sheepskin rugs that decorated many a living room floor in the late 70s. I’m guessing Ikea did a roaring trade in the run up to the this fiesta.
The story of how the Black Madonna came to be worshipped before Tenerife was ever conquered by the Spanish goes like this. Somewhere between 1392 and 1400, near Candelaria (the exact location is another story), two Guanche goatherds came across the Virgen and child blocking their path. When she didn’t shift one attempted to stone her but found his arm locked in place as he raised it to the sky. The other had a go at her with his knife but only succeeded in stabbing himself. They raced back to their king, Mencey Acaymo who, after addressing the strange woman, decided she was a supernatural being worthy of worship. He set her up in a nice bijou cave where her fame grew and she became the number one saint in the Canary Islands.
This event is acted out in a fashion worthy of a South America soap opera whilst a few bemused goats look on, clearly wondering why they’re not tucked up in their straw beds.
Also looking on silently are Tenerife’s Menceys. These proud Guanches don’t look much like the guys wearing rugs in front of them.
Once the Virgen and the Guanches become best buddies, the party starts in earnest with a ubiquitous firework display before the attention turns to the usual fiesta ingredients of music, funfairs and more munching of junk food.
It is in many ways a typical Tenerife fiesta – big, busy, brash, noisy, bustling and quite bizarre.
If you want a taste of a real Tenerife fiesta, you can find the full programme of events here.