Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Virgen of Candelaria on Tenerife – Can You Tell the Difference Between a Woman and a Piece of Wood?

We’d been toying with the idea of joining one of the pilgrimages to Candelaria to honour the Canary Island’s patron saint, the black virgin, at the weekend. In the end we bottled it and decided to drive instead.

When you go to a lot of fiestas on Tenerife, you learn to spot signs that ultimately will save you time in the long run. The first on Friday of last week was the queue of traffic at the Punta Larga end of Candelaria. This is the opposite end of town from where the celebrations were taking place, but if the Canarios were leaving the motorway at this point, it meant the other junction was going to be a nightmare. We were incredibly lucky with parking and found what seemed to be the last legitimate spot in the whole of the town. I say legitimate because once the parking spaces are all gone, the Canarios employ a bit of ingenuity. Zebra crossings are next option to park, then it’s the pavements, the tiniest square of waste ground… wherever there’s the slightest hint of a space.

Two things took us by surprise in Candelaria on Friday night. The first was that the town looked quite attractive by dark. We’d only ever visited Candelaria in the day time before and whilst the area around the Basilica is quite quaint and the Mencey statues are impressive, much of the town is semi high-rise and bland. At night the less appealing parts are disguised by the darkness, so the rather smart promenade lined with tempting looking restaurants becomes the focus and it looks like a pleasant place to spend a bit of time.

The second surprise was that the party wasn’t just taking place around the Basilica. The promenade between the Basilica and the marina was filled with food stalls, an ethnic market, fairground attractions and an agricultural market. Bunting added colour to the pretty plaza and the Basilica, lit up splendidly, looked much older and grander than its relatively young 50 years (and I mean this as a compliment).

The main event of the evening was the re-enactment of the discovery of the Virgen de Candelaria by a pair of Guanche shepherds who would have to climb a couple of steps on the intellectual ladder to reach ‘Dumb and Dumber’ status.
Not only are they spectacularly stupid (they couldn’t tell the difference between a real woman and baby and a wooden one), they’re also a bit cowardly as is the rest of their tribe, if the re-enactment is to be believed anyway. Fancy a whole gang of strapping men with spears being scared off by a woman holding a baby? I’ve probably just committed Canarian blasphemy there – still as long as I carry a wooden image of a woman holding a baby I should apparently be able to fend off any number of people who want to take issue (think crucifixes and vampires here).

I wonder what the noble Menceys who stand erect and proud on the seaward side of the plaza would think of the buffoonery which is played out before them. Still, it’s all good fun, especially if you park the rational section of your brain at the same time as you park the car.

As the night progressed the town became busier and busier and the Basilica looked spectacular periodically lit up by the ubiquitous firework displays. However, the image which will remain etched in my brain was the sight of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims of all ages carrying wooden staffs streaming into Candelaria from all corners of the island. Many looked shattered and on their last legs, but all were laughing and beaming from ear to ear at finally reaching their destination.

I might gently mock the re-enactment, but the devotion displayed by the pilgrims is something completely different, something which shows how important being Canario is to them. To witness it was quite an experience.

See More Virgen de Candelaria Photographs Here

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

What do People Eat on Tenerife?

Part of the fun of travelling is about trying out the local cuisine, right? Maybe for most people but not for all.
Over the last week I’ve read and seen a few things which made me think about people’s approach to trying something different in food terms.
The first cases fit the classic profile of what the general impression is of some of the British holidaymakers who choose Tenerife as a holiday destination.
One comment I read more or less said, ‘because I’m in Tenerife doesn’t mean I have to eat Canarian food’. The other was the almost clich├ęd ‘I don’t want all that foreign muck’.

There’s a couple of points about these statements that are interesting (to me anyway). The first is that the people who said them clearly haven’t a clue what Canarian food consists of.

Much of it is very simply grilled meats (pork, lamb, steaks, chicken), or fish (a much more interesting selection if you’re a foodie) usually served with papas arrugadas (literally wrinkled potatoes) which are really just salty, boiled potatoes. You get the impression that any veg on the plate is there because the chef feels obliged to include some; it’s usually more like a garnish.

The point is that whilst it’s very nice it’s not exactly adventurous cuisine and I’m willing to bet that it isn’t a million miles from what these people who wouldn’t touch ‘foreign muck’ probably regularly eat for dinner (well maybe not the fish).

The second point that occurred to me was that these people weren’t typical of British people at all. Our lack of adventure in culinary terms is a bit of a myth. Otherwise why would our cities and even decent sized towns all have plenty of Indian, Chinese, Greek, Spanish, Lebanese, Italian, Turkish restaurants etc?

We’ve eaten with Spanish people twice over the last week. One meal was cooked for us, the other we cooked. One was simply grilled meats – no veg to speak of, the other was a Thai green curry with fish. Guess who cooked what?

In our experience, the Canarians eat predominantly Canarian food. Nothing wrong with that, but like the Brits quoted above it does betray a certain lack of adventure, or inquisitive nature about what other people around the world eat. And it isn’t just food. I had held an imaginary conversation in my head about the wine we brought to our friend’s meal because I just knew what would happen when we handed it over. The conversation panned out almost exactly as I had imagined it.
Andy had handed over the bottle and it was examined, almost suspiciously.

“Hmmm, this isn’t Spanish wine.”
“No, it’s South African. It’s very nice.”
“You don’t like Spanish wine?”
“Yes, but sometimes it’s nice to have a change…try something different.”
“Hmmm, Spanish wine is very good, try mine.”

He poured us a glass and opened the South African Pinotage and poured himself a measure.

“Hmmm, it’s not bad… but the Spanish wine is better.”

No surprise at that conclusion.

The next night we dished up the Thai curry to other Spanish friends. One of our guests eyed it suspiciously and after a few questions about what the ingredients were, she pushed it around her bowl for the next 20 minutes picking at it every so often. She hadn’t really eaten non-Spanish food before - something that doesn’t seem to be uncommon. I once heard a young Spanish couple in a Mexican restaurant in Puerto de la Cruz asking what Chilli con Carne was. Chilli has become a bog standard meal time favourite in the UK, as has many ‘foreign’ dishes. This isn’t the case here.

There are plenty of great restaurants on Tenerife and, apart from those in some of the southern resort areas, nearly every one of them has a traditional Canarian, or Spanish menu.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Mysterious East – Tenerife’s overlooked coastline.

Tenerife’s east coast isn’t the prettiest aspect of the island and the TF1 motorway which links north with south means that most people don’t give much of the east coast barely more than a glance when they whiz between Santa Cruz and the southern resorts.

There are no historic towns to bus the tourists to, there are no real towns of any sort for most of the length of the east coast and yet that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its curious corners, but they do tend to be tucked away, some along roads that seem to lead nowhere. Some are quite well known, like the wind farms visible from the motorway, or the deserted lepers’ colony overlooking the coves at Abades, others I’ve never seen photos of nor heard their names mentioned in almost six years of researching the island.

The first time we realised there were oddities to be found was when we were looking for a donkey sanctuary ‘Los Burros Alegres’. We didn’t find the donkeys, they were long gone, but we ended up in a decent sized town which was unremarkable except that it didn’t have any tarmac on its streets and some roads led straight into the hillside beside the town. For a while we got completely lost in the strange town and had to send a text to friends that read:

‘Can’t meet up, we’re stuck looking for the happy donkeys in a town with no roads.’

The map we were using, one of the better Tenerife maps, didn’t even have the town marked on it.
Since then whenever we get the chance we leave the TF1 and head off into the unknown to see what lies at the ends of narrow roads with no names. Usually there are little fishing communities, many with the same interchangeable harbour which has us questioning whether we’ve actually visited the place before, but sometimes we find somewhere really quite bizarre. Last week we stumbled on two of these places.

The first consisted of a ramshackle promenade where the houses were built almost on top of each other. There wasn’t a street to speak of just an undulating path weaving alongside weather beaten fishermen’s cottages and through narrow arches. On the seaward side a thick bleached white rope and driftwood fence acted as a barrier to the Atlantic which pounded the shoreline yards from the unprotected houses. It was an untidy hotchpotch of a place, but that isn’t to say that it didn’t possess a certain anarchic charm.

The second place was even more of a surprise, consisting partly of a troglodyte community. Many of the houses on its main street were built into the cliffs, with a few actually constructed inside a large cave. The place even had a decent swimming pool where most of the town’s inhabitants seemed to be sunning themselves. Once again it wasn’t mentioned on any maps I’ve got of Tenerife.

This island is always surprising us; these places are all within half an hour’s drive of the main southern tourist resorts, yet strolling through their odd little streets it’s easy to believe that you’re somewhere that has been completely by-passed by tourism. In a way, I suppose they have.