La Orotava smells different. This isn’t the wild fennel and rosemary of Arona, it’s heather and roses, coffee and cakes. It’s 9am and though my stomach is rumbling and I am coffee-less, I want to head straight for the town hall. On this one day the building becomes a roosting place for amateur photographers. It’s open to the public so that we can snap the breathtaking carpet of volcanic sand, which covers the square in front of its elegant façade. In any event, a quick detour confirms that the café where we’re going to breakfast isn’t open until 10, so no eating yet anyway. The aromas are tantalizing, however, clearly there is much activity going on inside.
The streets are no less active, local groups and families, who come together once a year for this celebration of religious art, and lesson in life (see my previous post), are hard at it already. Boxes of petals, sand, wood chippings and flowers are piled all around. Some of the floral carpets already have form, but most are still plain canvases, covered with wood and metal moulds, which are used to lay out the intricate designs. Religious, but pleasant, music wafts up from the church. The breeze flaps at tapestries and banners draped from windows and rooftops, and rainbow ribbons stream over the streets.
As we mount the town hall steps we can see that there are already quite a few people on the balconies above, cameras extended or at the eye. I love this building. In fact, though I don’t know it that well, I have a crush on this town. It somehow takes me back to how I felt as a child watching westerns on T.V. Why is obvious. Its elegant center was built around the same time. It has a bandstand, and cobbled streets and it’s easy to slip into a daydream of pioneer times.
That feeling is enhanced by the Scarlett O’Hara staircase which floats me to the second floor. There are already groups of people around the smallish windows, and signs request politely we don’t hog our space for more than five minutes once we’ve staked a claim. Of course five minutes isn’t enough to absorb the magnificence of this, particular work of art, nor does it allow for waiting for a cloud to clear, or the person who’s jogging your elbow to move on, but we have to make do. It’s an impressive sight, quite unlike any other on the island, even without the famous sand carpet, with the vivid reds and yellows of the cupola and bell towers of the church on the horizon, and the ochre-colored roof tiles in the middle contrasting with the blues of sea and sky beyond. I used to see photographs of this and think they’d been touched up, but, no, even on a not totally clear early morning, those colors are real.
In the foreground, of course, this massive masterpiece, created from sand and rock culled from the volcanic crater above.** The palette, as it therefore must be, is earth tones, from deepest brown to palest beige, to olive, and even grey. I’d like to stay and contemplate, but it wouldn’t be fair. We linger a tad longer than our allotted five, but this is why I wanted to come early, later it becomes almost impossible to do more than snap and glance. Appropriate to my sentiments, church bells peal, as they will do on every quarter, a happy, musical peeling, not a sombre clanging.
Emerging through the back door of the town hall we see the local TV station already broadcasting from a rear patio, and trucks from other stations at the end of the passageway. This is a big event island-wise.
Breakfast calls, however, and we meander, against the tide of arrivals heading for the town hall as the day warms up, towards Casa Egón, a place which merits its own post one day, and which reinforces this feeling inside of me of having stepped back in time. Typical of old houses, it’s deceptive. The entrance is straight from the narrow street, and on this festive day a clutch of folk are ordering cakes to take away, filling the small space. We wait, order, are given our chosen cakes and proceed to the interior. The place unfolds like a time-lapse of a flower blooming, from functional but pulsing-with-history dining room to interior patios, and glimpses of the kitchen as you pass through a storage passage. The cakes are bites of heaven, and the coffee excellent. I sit and fantasize. I see a young girl in an empire-line dress, graceful hand on the bannister as she descends the dark-wood staircase. I shake myself.
We squeeze through the tiny shop and onto the sunlit street, almost shocked at how the crowds have grown since we arrived. We stroll, now with the tide of humanity, the streets around the church and town hall. Some of the carpets are completed, some only just beginning, and most still under construction. The scent of heather is strong now as a man sifts it through his hands.
It is heartening to see people of all ages lending a hand. I almost wince in empathy as a guy who looks to be my dad’s age stretches to fill a gap with petals. Not sure that even my knees would be up to that. Kids are always happy to do this stuff, of course, the looks of concentration on their faces would light up the face of any schoolteacher! It’s really good to see teenagers and twenty-somethings tackling the task with such enthusiasm though. Nice to know that Tradition’s future is in safe hands.
There is time to chat quickly with a guy who tells me that the one he’s working on is a family effort. The wife is the designer, and she submits her artwork to her husband who then makes the appropriate moulds to transfer her ideas onto the ground. These moulds all have a wooden frame, and the curving lines are laid out with aluminium, not an easy task I think.
That heather scent is stronger now, and it mixes with floral tones, mostly roses. The music from the church is getting lost amid the chatter of the crowds. Looking up a steep street I see a crush of folk, either side the carpets, hands on the crush barriers. It reminds me, for all the world, of looking up as you travel the escalator of a the London Tube station. It’s the same slow progress, but in this case no-one wants to hurry, and almost everyone waits patiently to get the best view they can. The workers toil on seemingly oblivious.
One guy tends the patch of finished design with a long stick with a couple of nails on the end, stabbing and pushing at any stray foliage. Another calmly tries, time after time, to spear a single wandering petal with the hose from the watering apparatus he carries on his back. When he succeeds onlookers break into spontaneous applause, and he blushes. Further along, on a corner which allows the breeze to flow a boy faces an uphill task, watering the completed patches of his group’s work with one of those hand sprays used for houseplants…..not sufficient as the unwatered petals flutter tauntingly across the street…..pretty but not the effect desired.
The bunting and decor get more elaborate as we near La Casa de los Balcones, which, sadly, is where we have to peel away – I have work down south this afternoon, and the time has flown. Having absorbed a little of the ethos of this festival the other day in Arona, I’m reluctant to leave.
Perhaps you don’t need religion to feel our connectedness, and perhaps we do. Perhaps we need a nudge, a reminder, an inspiration. Afterall, motivational speakers are in big demand, aren’t they? Perhaps this is what works for some people. Religious leaders are always telling us that we can’t cherry pick with religion. It’s all or nothing. But why can’t we? Can’t it be possible that there is a universal truth hidden behind all the dogma and ritual?
** (The Teide National Park is a World Heritage Site, and no-one else is permitted take anything away from the area.)