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Tenerife: Experiencing Carnival in Santa Cruz
This article recounts an experience of the Santa Cruz Carnival on the Island of Tenerife - a carnival which takes place every year around the months of February or March (the dates vary as they are linked to the date of Easter).
The author spent a day at the Santa Cruz Carnival in March 2014, and witnessed the Main Parade, 'el Coso'. This account has been written as a guide to getting the very best out of the carnival experience, and it illustrates through photographs, the exuberance and joyousness, the friendliness and the fun, the colour and the spectacle, which makes this day of carnival, one of the very greatest social experiences which a person can enjoy on Earth.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
All photos were taken by the author in Santa Cruz, Tenerife on 4th March 2014
The Tenerife Carnival : Origin
Carnival is a phenomenon well known throughout the world but most notably in the Latin nations of Spain, Italy and Portugal, and their former territories. It was first introduced to the island of Tenerife by Spanish and Portuguese sailors en route to the Americas.
The origin is religious - the word itself means 'farewell to meat' and alludes to the social feasting to use up meats and other rich foods before the start of the Christian festival of Lent and a period of abstinence. But feasting and celebrations go hand in hand, and references to some form of joyous celebrating before Lent date back at least to the 17th century. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, accounts exist of behaviour which was carefree and out of the norm, including people who dressed in the clothing of the opposite sex, and upper class revellers wearing masks to hide their identities (this was done to enable them to join in the fun of the common people with whom they would never normally mix!) In 1778, we have the first written account of dancing groups and bands of musicians taking part in the celebrations on Tenerife.
Since then Carnival or 'Carnaval' as it is in Spanish, has developed into a regular and extravagantly outrageous letting down of the hair in the period before Lent. Of course because of the solemn religious connotation, this 'wild' behaviour was sometimes frowned upon as blasphemous by the Church, so in the 20th century there were two attempts to ban it including one by General Franco, believing that such exuberance - possibly coupled with irreverence for authority - might encourage crime.
But to no avail. The people love with a passion their weeks of fun and festivities in February and March, and with the end of dictatorship it grew rapidly from strength to strength. Today, there's scarcely anything remotely religious about the event, and the Santa Cruz Carnival has become one of the world's great pageants - perhaps the largest and most spectacular in all of Europe, and the one most similar to the great Brazilian carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Carnival has become an occasion for everyone - for young and old, for rich and poor. The participants spend many months preparing, and with the aid of sponsorship deals, huge sums are now spent on the extravagent carnival costumes. Parades and contests for the groups are televised nationally, and all normal life stops for the festivities. It all adds up to a special experience for the participants, and a very special experience for anyone who witnesses it.
The Carnival Schedule
Although the dates of Carnival vary, the schedule is fairly standard. On the first Wednesday of the festival, the Carnival Queen is elected with great fanfare, and televised coverage. And the first pageant in which all the parade groups announce themselves and display their costumes then takes place on the Friday, to be followed by dancing into the small hours. The next three days are taken up with activities all around the city, with performances by music bands, folk singers and dance groups. Then on Shrove Tuesday, 'el Coso' - the Main Parade - takes place. The following day, the bizarre 'Burial of the Sardine' occurs on Ash Wednesday. This is a ceremony very strange to observers unfamiliar with the tradition, whereby a giant papier-mache sardine which symbolises the annual celebrations, is carried through the streets before being set on fire amidst much pretend grief and weeping by the 'mourners' - typically men dressed up in black as widows. That ceremony marks the official end of Carnival, but it isn't the total end of partying, as dances and shows will continue until the 'Weekend of the Piñata' with further parades and events all culminating in a fireworks display.
The rest of this article concentrates on my impressions of the 2014 Carnival and the occasion of the greatest parade - el Coso - on Shrove Tuesday.
The Day of Carnival
The main parade of the Santa Cruz Carnival begins at 4.00 pm, but no one should arrive at that time; if you are coming to the capital of Tenerife by car, then finding a parking place may be a problem, and the best vantage points to view the carnival will have been taken up by that time. But most of all, such a late arrival will mean that much of the fun will have been missed; Carnival is not only about watching the parade - it's also about experiencing the atmosphere which pervades almost everything that takes place in Santa Cruz on this day.
The air of anticipation throughout the afternoon is quite tangible. It can be experienced in all the surrounding streets, it can be heard in the music drifting out from the restaurants and bars, and it can be seen in the ordinary people, because people who have just come to watch the parade get into the spirit of the occasion too - and not just children, as the photo here demonstrates. I saw one elderly gentleman in a suit and bowler hat (derby hat) strolling down the street. He wasn’t smiling and he wasn’t doing anything clever. He might have been on his way to an important business meeting in the city - except that he also wore a fake Charlie Chaplin moustache and he twirled a cane! Nobody bats an eyelid at the strange get-ups one sees - it’s normal to look abnormal on Carnival Day. And it's normal for the whole city to take on the air of Carnival.
Colour in the Streets and the Anticipation Begins to GrowClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Build-up to Carnival
As the time of the start of the parade draws nearer, so one must leave the surrounding streets and head towards the main parade venue, as the seats begin to fill up all along the parade route, and participants begin to gather near the start line. The floats which will lead off the parade will already have arrived, and the first of the paraders will be standing around in twos or threes or in larger groups, or just sitting on the kerbside whiling the time away, chatting and laughing and keeping up their fluid intake, as their moment in the spotlight draws closer. Those with more simple costumes will already be wearing their outfits, but those with elaborate weighty costumes, and outfits which are stiflingly hot on a sunny afternoon, may have them piled up in a heap to be donned at the last moment before the off. Periodically new groups and floats with later start times will arrive, and they usually announce their presence with loud fanfares of music, before taking up their position at the rear of the ever expanding line.
In the final hour or so, more and more paraders begin to arrive and one can feel the atmosphere thickening with anticipation and excitement as the time of the parade draws ever closer. The expansive pavement area behind the start line now becomes packed with thousands in gaily coloured costumes. The sound of laughing and exuberant chatter grows. And then some of the bands - mostly armed with drums and cymbals - begin to strike up, though it's hard to be sure whether it's for last minute practice or just because the mood of Carnival is taking over and inspiring them. In the final minutes before the first of the groups receives the 'command' to march or dance off down the street, the atmosphere has changed from relaxed enjoyment to a happily nervous expectancy.
The Joy Of The Carnival ChildClick thumbnail to view full-size
4.00 pm may seem a little early as the start time for a glamorous and exotic parade - the bright colours and glitter of carnival costumes are best seen against the blackness of a dark night, not against the daylight intrusion of mundane street paraphernalia like road signs and advertising billboards. But one soon realises the reason for the early start - two hours after 4.00 pm and there are still many dozens of floats and bands awaiting their turn to set off from the start line. Such is the scale of the Santa Cruz Carnival.
As the time for each performing group arrives, they will assemble at the start, and the front line (often composed of the youngest and cutest kids) will pose for those who need to take close up photographs (including me). If there's a float and a girl wearing an extravagant costume as the centre piece of the float, then a considerable amount of hasty work might be done with last minute adjustments to their finery, and particularly to the elaborate headdress to ensure that it stays in place and that it's comfortable - some of this head gear is extremely heavy! Then the marshals will give the go-ahead, and the float, with accompanying dancers, marchers and drummers, will at last set off through the streets, the moment of the year when their rehearsals and hard work will transform them, however briefly, into glamorous star turns.
The marshals have an important role. Such is the nature of Carnival that some organisation is necessary to avoid obstruction either by spectators getting in the way, or by the groups in front moving too slowly. Amidst the revelry the marshals are always there, trying to maintain some semblance of order, trying to ensure each group has space to perform, and trying to keep more or less to time, whilst all the while trying to stay inconspicuous to avoid killing the mood of relaxed fun.
The parade follows a route along the Avenida de Anaga and the Avenida Francisco La Roche - two major roads which run parallel to the sea front. Needless to say, these roads will be closed to cars for the duration. Simple chairs for the spectators line either side of the parade route, and clearly these are likely to be taken by the first to arrive. But there are other options too; if you're prepared to sit on the kerb then there is usually space here, and if you are prepared to stand, the rows of spectators will only be about 3 deep; so unless you have small children, there should be no difficulty getting a good view. And of course standing allows the flexibility of moving with the parade - vital if you want to get the very best photographs of the event.
Carnival Floats And GlamourClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mention must be made of the parade participants who really enter into the spirit of the occasion. That may sound self-evident - of course they’re going to do so, but remember these are not professional performers; they are men and women with ordinary day jobs the rest of the year, and children who go to school and do all the things children normally do, and would probably never associate with adults other than their parents or teachers, anything like as much as they do on Carnival Day.
And yet, the participants do not just march along the street; they‘ll wave to the crowd and they'll dance, they‘ll high five any children among the spectators who reach out to them, and most will happily stop and smile for the camera. They act like true street entertainers, because for this one day of the year, that is exactly what they are. In no other circumstances will you see such a relaxed, informal and happy bunch of 'ordinary' people performing together.
Each year there is a different theme for el Coso, and in 2014, the chosen theme was 'cartoons', although to be honest, 'clowns' seemed rather more appropriate for many of the costumes and face paintings on show. The Main Parade of Santa Cruz is open to all, so here one will see the more mature residents strutting their stuff in clothes which could scarcely be described as conservative, and young girls and sometimes not so young, in feather boas and not a great deal else, as well as cross-dressing males (only for the day!) and the children in outlandish garments who proudly march with their parents. Carnival is a place where taboos and conventions normal in a city environment may be abandoned, as all just come together in a spirit of fun and free will.
Clowning Around And Cartoons : Theme Of The 2014 CarnivalClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Parade is Over
After all the exuberance of the past few hours, the close of the parade may seem to be anticlimactic. As paraders reach the end of the route, they tend to just drift away to the sides of the road, remove the heaviest of their costume garments, relax and chat about the events of the day or wait for their lifts home, exhausted but hopefully happy. In the background, a fireworks display signals the end of the parade.
But there are as we have seen, more activities on the Wednesday, and throughout the rest of the week, so the carnival as a whole is by no means over, and nor indeed is the day's entertainment for those spectators who do not want to hasten away to beat the car jams and head off for their own homes. Parallel to the main parade route, fast food kiosks and amusement stalls continue to do good business for many hours yet, and a funfair located beyond the end of the parade route will make the younger generation forget all thoughts of calling it a day.
My Personal Experiences
I arrived in Santa Cruz late morning, later than intended after experiencing a tyre blow out on the motorway en route from the resort of Costa Adeje. I had worried about finding a parking space within walking distance of the carnival parade route because no authoritative information seemed to be available on the Internet. In the event, as soon as I arrived at the southern end of Santa Cruz on the Avenida de Marítima, I found a car park clearly signposted and - at that time of day - with plenty of available space.
I spent my afternoon just wandering the streets near to the parade route, taking in some of the historic city sights, enjoying a nice lunch in one of the local cafes, and doing a spot of people watching. But I made sure I headed to the parade in good time, and for my purposes as a recorder of the event, the best place to be was behind the start line where the participants were beginning to congregate.
The spirit was one of general good humour, but it seemed a little bit of an exclusive club. I have no credentials and no 'official journalist' pass, and I'm not bold in pushing myself forward. I felt that to venture in amongst them might seem like an intrusion, so I just wandered around the periphery and tried to catch the eye of a participant and if he/she smiled, I’d raise my camera and hope for a nod or a broader smile - my cue to move in closer. Still, I felt that this area was more the preserve of the paraders and organisers and accredited journalists than the general public, so for me opportunities were limited. Indeed at one point one steward gently ushered me beyond the barriers which lined the edge of the street, so I felt I'd gone where I wasn’t supposed to go.
But this is carnival! No strict rules apply either to the paraders or the audience, and it wasn’t long before the spirit of carnival began to take over, and once that happens, anything goes! By the time the parade began I felt free to mix and mingle, to wander backwards and forwards following the floats and dancers. And I did just that, taking whatever opportunities I could to get some close-up photographs without getting in the way of other spectators, and without impeding the procession in any way.
And by the end of the day, I'd taken all the photographs of the Santa Cruz Carnival you see here, and I could leave the city with a feeling of satisfaction for my own day's work, and a feeling of joy at the experience of a great festival.
A Day for Everyone
There is something for everyone on Carnival day, both for the participants and for the spectators of all ages and all backgrounds. Carnival unites the city of Santa Cruz and indeed unites any other city which holds these celebrations in a way which no other event could ever hope to achieve, and that is what I hope I have conveyed in this article.
I would urge anyone and everyone to take in the atmosphere of a carnival if they have the opportunity to do so, whether it be in your own country, or in another. And should you happen to be planning a vacation on the island of Tenerife, well, is there a better time to visit, than this week before Lent when Carnival comes to town?
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