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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by Jack Montgomery

Unwitting travellers who dreamily wander along Puerto de la Cruz’ picturesque harbour at first light on Midsummer’s morn may be forgiven for pinching themselves to check that they have actually risen from their slumbers. In the harbours’ calm waters, amongst the resident fleet of quaint, gently bobbing fishing boats are scores of, not so gently bobbing, goats. The place is so serene and beautiful it can calm even the minds of today's mortgages and debts-beleaguered souls.

“El baño de las cabras”, the bathing of the goats, is a highlight of one of the Canary Islands’ oldest celebrations, the ‘fiestas de San Juan’ or, to give it its more ancient title, the Fiestas of the Sun. Its origins lie with the Island’s aboriginal people, the Guanche who, like many primitive civilisations, believed that the sun cast powerful magic when it was at its midsummer peak.

Inflamed passion

Festivities begin on the 23rd June, the eve of San Juan; a night of fire festivals and love magic when the twin elements of fire and water have potent qualities and, legend has it, whatever is dreamed will come to pass. In towns on Tenerife’s northern slopes, figures, festooned with flowers, and bonfires are set alight; the Guanche thought that the fires’ flames added strength to the sun. In some towns young men practice the decidedly dodgy custom of leaping over the flames; an act originally designed to impress young women and attract a suitable love match. Presumably anyone with the athletic prowess to clear the fire without being barbequed has the right stuff.

The island’s main celebrations, however, are concentrated in Puerto de la Cruz where the sea is the focal point of festivities and, as night advances towards dawn, a lively beach party develops into a primeval ritual which culminates with the bathing of the goats.

Taking the plunge

With the wane of the sun, the town’s main beach at Playa Jardín fills with families armed to the gunwales with supplies of food and flagons of country wine. Whilst elaborate feasts are prepared, children excavate holes in the sand, some with depressions of volcanic crater proportions, which are then decorated with displays of shocking pink bougainvillea and luminescent yellow hibiscus from the beach’s gardens. This prettifying of their creations is no frivolous touch; the flowers are important symbols representing love and partnership.

As dusk falls, the ornate floral cavities are illuminated by tens of thousands of candles and the beach is transformed into a fairy tail landscape by the sea. Traditional Canarian bands provide music to complement the wining and dining and when local favourites are played the whole beach joins in, belting out lyrics with passion, in an emotional and heart-warming chorus.

At midnight a spectacular firework display announces the advent of Midsummer’s Day and amateur fire jugglers create dazzling swirls against the black sky to the primitive beat of bongo drums as the true purpose of the whole shebang is revealed. All across the beach people disrobe; from grannies and grandpas to teenagers, everyone strips down to swimwear and an exodus to the shoreline begins.

The Guanche believed the sea at midsummer possessed many powerful qualities; bathing in it at the dawn of Midsummer’s Day ensured good fortune for the coming year as well as rejuvenating skin, banishing harmful spirits, guarding against illness and, here’s where the flowers come in, those who bathed using flower petals to wash would be certain to find their soul mate shortly after. With such benefits to be enjoyed, not joining in seems foolhardy and even downright dangerous. A word of caution, the sea is also supposed to be a strong source of fertility and it’s said that many babies are born nine months after the fiesta; nothing to do with a candlelit beach setting, balmy evening and free-flowing wine  then.

Legend also dictates that those with the stamina to stay awake until daybreak will be rewarded by the hypnotic song of Sirens heralding the appearance of the mythical island of San Borondón, which reveals itself briefly on the horizon before submerging beneath the waves.

Animal magic

At first light the action moves to the town’s harbour as it becomes the goat’s turn to enjoy the benefits of the enchanted waters. The clocks of time are turned back as goatherds from the Orotava Valley drive herds from their hillside pastures through Puerto’s streets, filling the harbour’s pebble beach with bemused and slightly anxious looking goats. Goats and water are not compatible bedfellows so the air is soon filled with tortuous cries as each indignantly protesting creature is dragged into the water and dunked, before being released to make its solitary journey back to its nervous looking mates.

Watching herdsmen, and women, methodically work through their livestock, it’s apparent that they truly believe that this ritual will benefit their animals; whether anyone actually considers the water enchanted, who knows, but veteran goatherds claim that the bathing of the goats results in increased fertility amongst female goats, improving their chances of falling pregnant and ensuring the continued growth of the herd. The bigger the herd, the more prosperous the owner; there’s method in this midsummer madness.

With the last of the goats dunked, the sound of hooves reverberating on nearby cobbled streets broadcasts the arrival of the caballeros, the horsemen. The whole fascinating spectacle is rounded off with the romantic imagery of caballeros riding their proud steeds into the sea in a display of equine formation bathing.

“El baño de las cabras”, although steeped in ancient beliefs, also serves a pragmatic purpose. In ancient times it presented an opportunity for the people from the hills to meet and conduct business with their coastal neighbours, a tradition which continues today. With animals and owners safely ‘blessed’ by the magical waters, goatherds and horseman head to the nearest hostelry to have a few drinks and to engage in some business negotiations. As they knuckle down to the serious matter of buying and selling livestock and anything else that catches the eye; their sorry looking charges, still recovering from the trauma of their annual seaside trip, are left on the beach to dry out in the June sunshine, whilst the last of the ‘fiestas of the Sun’ revellers wander wearily away, hoping that all their midsummer night’s dreams will come true.

Fiestas de San Juan fact file

The fiesta de San Juan is celebrated on 23rd June in San Juan de la Rambla, Garachico and in the El Amparo district of Icod de los Vinos.

In Puerto de la Cruz, official entertainment begins on Playa Jardín from around 21.00; however, to claim a decent spot on the beach it’s wiser to arrive a couple of hours earlier. The bathing of the goats takes place on the 24th June from early morning until around midday.

Midsummer sunset on Playa Jardin, Puerto de la Cruz
The ancient tradition of goat bathing
Chill out time at the fiesta of San Juan
Not your average crowd at the harbour

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Fiesta of San Juan on Playa Jardin, Puerto de la Cruz
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