The first time we visited La Orotava to see the colourful Corpus Christi floral carpets we got it wrong. We rolled into town on the day of Corpus Christi to find no floral carpets on the streets and everybody going about their daily business as usual… everybody that is except the master alfombristas – the carpet-layers responsible for the famous sand tapestry which draws admirers from across the globe.
A Corpus Christi appetiser
The reason we turned up on the wrong date was the Orotava flower carpets take place the week after the official Corpus Christi date. In those days Tenerife’s municipality websites were poor (many still are) and social media was a thing of the future. Accurate information was vague and not easy to find.
However, our mistake had a silver lining. As the actual date was only a week away, the sand tapestry covering the plaza outside the own hall was close to completion. With a handful of other people we sat on the steps and watched in wonder as alfombristas magically adjusted the skin tones of giant faces by the strategic sprinkling of different shades of sand. It was an artistic work in progress of a type and on a scale we’d never witnessed previously. To say we were mesmerised is no exaggeration.
As their work was almost done, the alfombristas were relaxed and chatty. Discovering the sand tapestry took weeks to complete, I asked one whether they weren’t worried about inclement weather destroying their hard work before Corpus Christi. He had no concerns about rain – the carpet is covered and at this time of year rain isn’t usually a problem. 2010 was the only time we saw rain affect play. Wind was more of a worry. Thankfully that’s not usually a problem either at this time of year.
From that day, whenever we could we’d pop up to see the alfombristas in action a few days before the main event.
The main course
We returned a week later to enjoy our first, and most surreal Corpus Christi. The flower carpets lining the old streets wowed us, the sand completed tapestry was a masterpiece, and I was accused of being a murderer. It turned out it wasn’t actually me, but the image on my tee-shirt of Che Guevara which a group of irate Cuban exiles from Miami took exception to. Nevertheless, all onlookers could see were a group of pensioners pointing at me and shouting “asesino”.
Corpus Christi in La Orotava is one of our favourite fiestas on Tenerife. Like most island fiestas, there are two ways to enjoy it. Stroll around admiring the carpets or do that, but also take occasional detours to experience what’s taking place on the fringes. Each year would throw up different memorable experiences that complimented the carpets – getting ushered into a room in the town hall to photograph fiesta queens just because I’d been wandering the corridor with a proper camera in my hand; gaining access to the bell tower of the Iglesia de la Concepción for bird’s eye views until we were thrown out; taking refuge in a tasca during the busiest part of the day to drink wine and pick at jamón ibérico before emerging mid afternoon when most people have departed and the carpets are finished. And so on. Whatever way you do it, it’s a colourful, friendly, lively, and visually stunning experience.
Although Día de las Alfombras gets most of the attention as far as visitors are concerned, there are lots of other events taking place in La Orotava during weeks and days either side. In fact the whole shebang is brought to an end on the Sunday following Día de las Alfombras with another flamboyant fiesta. The sheer scale of the Romería de San Isidro Labrador came as a surprise the first time we witnessed it.
Locals in traditional costume outnumber those in ‘civvies’; camels carry fiesta queens whilst a convoy of ox-drawn carts trundle along the cobbles of the historic streets; and food and wine cascade freely into the watching crowds. It is an orgy of traditional fun of the sort which keeps Canarian culture rock solid. The fiestas in the bigger northern towns are David Lean epic – and can be overwhelming if you don’t know the ways of the island. It took us a while to adjust to our first. Well, until someone in traditional costume poured lashings of wine from a goatskin flask down my throat.
The way to get the best out of Tenerife fiestas is to dive in, go with the flow and see where it leads.
¡Salud!, famosa Orotava,
Valle de eternos verdores
que echaste un tapiz de flores
sobre un desierto de lava.
Part of the La Orotva Corpus Christi song