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Fishermen’s Friends

by Jack Montgomery

The old woman nudged me and nodded toward the woman carrying a small child and then at a solemn fellow in velvet black robes a short distance in front.

“That’s her boyfriend,” she whispered conspiratorially, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, before she and her friends started giggling like a group of naughty schoolgirls.

I laughed and looked around nervously to make sure that no-one was about to accuse us of blasphemous behaviour, given that the couple the women was referring to were the revered figures of La Virgen del Carmen and San Telmo during the ‘embarcación de la Virgen del Carmen’. I needn’t have worried; the woman’s attitude reflected that of many Tinerfeños’ to fiestas with roots in religious ceremony; mostly reverence, but with a side serving of affectionate irreverence thrown in, just to lighten the mood.

The Fishermen’s Fiesta

All over Tenerife, fishermen hold celebrations in honour of their patron saint, La Virgen del Carmen on or around the 16th July. These involve an emotional procession to the local harbour, where the Virgen is placed aboard a boat and taken on a trip around the bay. The most spectacular of these, dating from the 18th century, takes place in Puerto de la Cruz. There, La Virgen is accompanied on her annual outing by San Telmo, also know as St Elmo, patron saint of Spanish and Portuguese mariners. No doubt having two patron saints instead of one doubles the chances of good fortune.

It’s the highlight of the town’s main celebrations, the July fiestas, whose origins date from an age when the townspeople made their living from the sea and the land; a time when bad weather or pestilence could result in economic disaster. July represented the beginning of summer and was a signal for people to throw on their ‘glad rags and handbags’ (only the women on this occasion) and cut loose a little.

The fiesta is also known as the Fiesta del Gran Poder y La Virgen del Carmen, but the ‘Gran Poder de Dios’ doesn’t make an appearance during the big day, which takes place this year on 14th July. Instead he’s paraded through the streets prior to the embarcación. There’s good reason for this. In the middle of the 17th century, the figure of the Gran Poder was being shipped from Seville to La Palma, stopping at Puerto en route. For safe keeping, whilst the ship was in dock, he was transferred to one of Puerto’s churches; however, when it was time for him to leave, a storm brewed up and attempts at transferring him back on ship failed. After this happened on a number of occasions the townspeople decided that it was a clear sign that he didn’t want to leave and he’s been there ever since. Presumably, if he was included in the procession during the embarcación, he might get the wrong idea which would pretty much put the kybosh on the weather for the fiesta.

Water, water everywhere…

Fiesta virgins be warned, the ‘embarcación de la Virgen del Carmen’ can be overwhelming. It attracts thousands of people, it’s bold, boisterous, wet, noisy and chaotic as well as being good natured, great fun, an unforgettable experience and a spectacle for the senses. It’s such in-your-face WOW that it could easily have been choreographed by Baz Luhrmann.

Sensible dress is shorts and t-shirts, preferably over swimming togs. To really fit in, buy a t-shirt from one of the stalls around Plaza del Charco, most people wear one. There’s normally a choice between traditional images of the Virgen or, for the more fashion conscious, ones with contemporary artistic designs.

This is a fiesta with strong connections to the sea, so water figures highly throughout the day. As the afternoon heats up, the streets around the harbour become battlefields; chicos armed with water pistols that would have UN weapons inspectors making frantic phone calls to George Bush, chase chicas through the streets. Innocent bystanders get caught in crossfire, eliciting cries of outrage and scowls from the older townspeople. Outside buildings, revellers goad people enjoying the celebrations from the safety of their balconies until they get the reaction they’re after; buckets of water thrown over them; in the mid July heat, this is a welcome treat. In the harbour organised nonsense keeps the crowd amused; the most popular, a ‘jeux san frontières’- inspired event, involves a greasy pole jutting out over the harbour water and volunteers whose co-ordination skills probably haven’t benefited from the beer they’ve downed. You get the picture.

No pasa nada, la Virgen está embarcada

By late afternoon the area around the harbour becomes a thronging mass and the little beach disappears under a sea of people. Around 6.30pm an excited murmur spreads through the crowd announcing the arrival of San Telmo, followed by La Virgen del Carmen, both carried proudly on the shoulders of local fishermen. As they move with a rhythmic swaying motion which simulates being at sea, the mood of the crowd changes from one of frivolity to religious fervour and devotees clamour to touch the figures for luck. At the lovingly decorated shrine at the top of the harbour, La Virgen pauses to be serenaded by a rendition of ‘Ave Maria’ which sends a tingle down the spine. Only the hardest heart won’t be moved by the sheer intensity of emotion at that moment; all around tear stained cheeks glisten in the sunlight.

The strains of ‘Ave Maria’ subside, replaced with cries of “¡Viva La VirgenỊ” and “¡Viva San TelmoỊ” which accompany the couple as they’re carried through the crowd to the water’s edge and the brightly decorated boats which have been chosen to take them on their brief sea cruise. It’s a painfully slow journey; Moses probably had an easier time parting the red sea, but eventually San Telmo and then La Virgen reach their waiting craft and, after ‘a few squeaky bum moments’ as Sir Alex Ferguson would put it, are safely transferred aboard. As the crowd chants “no pasa nada, la Virgen está embarcada” (which pretty much means, “all’s well with the world, the Virgin’s safely on board”), La Virgen’s little boat manoeuvres away from the cauldron of people. A few souls attempt a final lunge and try to clamber over the boat’s bulwark with such desperation that you’d think a Great White had suddenly put in an appearance. Some make it, but most are unceremoniously dumped back in the briny, leaving the little fishing boats free to make their way to the harbour mouth accompanied by a motley flotilla of motor launches, dinghy’s, jet skis and kayaks.  A barrage of fireworks and blaring klaxons applaud their departure and the fact that a good fish supply should be guaranteed for another year and everyone can wander away to dry out before the sun disappears below the horizon.

Fiestas del Gran Poder and La Virgen del Carmen fact file 2012

Celebrations take place throughout July and include the obligatory crowning of the fiesta queen, traditional Canarian dances, Jazz and rock concerts, antique car rallies, sporting events and air displays.

The procession of the Gran Poder usually takes place on the two days prior to the ‘embarcación’ which takes place on Tuesday 10th July 2012.

Another highlight of the fiestas is the ‘Sardinada’ held on the seafront beside the Ermita de San Telmo the evening prior to the ‘embarcación’. The night air is pervaded with the aroma of grilled fish and a couple of euros will get you a plate of sardines and a beaker of country wine; simple and delicious fare to munch and quaff whilst listening to a live salsa band and watching ‘loco’ muchachos risk life and limb by leaping into tsunami sized Atlantic rollers, just to impress the chicas.

One way or another, if you're under 20 years of age, you're gonna get wet!
The crowd help San Telmo to get on board for his trip around the bay
The harbour fills with a colourfully decorated flotilla of vessels
¡No pasa nada, La Virgen está embarcada!

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