Celebrating life

Celebrating life

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. There are, of course, travellers who swear that every journey should be meticulously researched and every hour planned — so as to get the most out of a trip. But there’s nothing quite like mooching around a place that you don’t know and finding that doors open to you, as happened to me just recently in the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Santa Cruz is the capital city of Tenerife, an island which had never previously appealed to me due to its somewhat tarnished reputation as the boozy destination of choice for sun-seeking British package holidaymakers. But, the European winter has been bitterly cold this year and rays of sunshine brings back distant memories. So, even my prejudices didn’t prevent me from taking an opportunity to visit the island, located just 300 km off the west coast of Africa and known for its year round sunshine and pleasant sub-tropical climate. And there was plenty there to impress me, forcing me to reform my skewed view of Tenerife, an island which abounds with areas of natural beauty and, to my pleasure, has a thriving cultural life.

Cultural ethos
As I learned while I was there, most package holidaymakers congregate in a small pocket on the south of island, an area best known for the Playa de las Americas resort. Relatively few of those tourists head to the north of the island, to visit Tenerife’s former capital, San Cristobal de la Laguna, whose historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Interestingly, La Laguna was the model for the cities built by the Spanish as they colonised Latin America. Situated 9 km further down the Aguere Valley from La Laguna, the coastal settlement of Santa Cruz became Tenerife’s capital in 1723, growing into an important port during the golden age of sailing ships.

Traditionally, Santa Cruz’s dock workers and fishermen lived in the La Noria district, an area now known as the place to head for good food and a taste of traditional Canarian nightlife. The district is dotted with bars and small restaurants known as ‘tascas’. No one could accuse these atmospheric eateries of being pretentious; some don’t even have signs above their doors.

I headed up a creaking wooden staircase to take a table in the La Hierbita restaurant and enjoyed a number of sizable starters — including the island’s signature wrinkled potatoes, papas arrugadas, served with delicious coriander and chilli based sauces, known as ‘mojo’. After gorging on these delicacies, I barely had room left for the succulent grilled fish that was served as the main course. Tenerife is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean but its cuisine is characterised by fresh ingredients and olive oil — very similar to food served around the Mediterranean.

And, as I was about to find out, La Noria is also the meeting point for Tenerife’s carnival groups, focal points of the island’s cultural and social life. Known in some countries as ‘Mardi Gras’ and others as carnival, this annual festival (www.carnavaltenerife.es) is the highpoint of Santa Cruz’s cultural calendar.

There can be advantages in wandering the streets with a big camera and I was fortunate enough to be invited inside the headquarters of Ni Fu Ni Fa — one of the most important of the island’s hundred or so carnival groups. Known as ‘murgas’, these groups spend the year, writing songs and skits satirising news events and politicians. Fierce rivalry exists between the islands’ ‘murgas’, who, during the carnival, compete in front of 12,000 spectators for the honour of being selected as the
best act.

Eye candy: Ana Tavares, the reigning carnival queen.  Photo by authorThere’s also fierce competition among Tenerifians for tickets to watch the contest between the ‘murgas’. It’s said that the show sells out within a couple of hours of the tickets going on sale. Music and dancing also play a major role in the carnival. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘the history of the carnival’ and some of the costumes take months to plan and make, such is their scale and intricacy.

Soak in the fun
The dance groups are known as ‘comparsas’ and, while talking to their members, I learned that they play a colourful and entertaining role in the celebrations. As many as 2 lakh people take to Santa Cruz’s streets to enjoy the traditional carnival parade. “We have parties with music everywhere. It’s not just in one place,” said a local. “Rio de Janeiro may be better known but we have the safety here. There is no violence and no major problems; the worst problem that you can have is you get a little drunk. Everyone in Tenerife likes having fun at the carnival,” added the local.

“I’ve got a present for you,” I was then told, and led to a neighbouring building, where I was introduced to the beautiful Ana Tavares, the reigning carnival queen. But that wasn’t all. Enthusiastic members of a carnival band invited me to take a lesson with them on how to play the drums. Within a few minutes we’d got a grasp of the samba beat and then headed out onto the street, to get a feel of how it is to be part of the parade.
“People change completely during the carnival and do things they wouldn’t normally do...men dress as women, for example,” I’d been told just a few minutes earlier. While I didn’t quite go that far, I hadn’t imagined that my quiet day out in Santa Cruz would end with me, swaying to the beat of the samba as part of a band. Sometimes you’ve just got to follow the rhythm. Must visit at Tenerife

A Schengen visa is required by Indian citizens visiting Tenerife. The Spanish Embassy can be contacted on +91 11 2435 9004 and embspain@vsnl.net.in.

Santa Cruz has 2,00,000 inhabitants and is the capital of not only Tenerife but also the Canary Islands’ western province, which also includes the islands of La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro.

One of the highlights of Santa Cruz is its natural history museum, the museum of nature and mankind (www.museosdetenerife.org) renowned for its mummified remains of the Guanches — people who occupied the island prior to the Spanish conquest.

The Tenerife Auditorio, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, is a stunning piece of architecture and home of the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra.

Another must visit place in the city is its market, the colourful Mercado de Nuestra Senora de Africa known for its flowers, cheeses, local foods and spices. Bargain hunters can enjoy the Sunday flea market, held nearby.

One of the best points of orientation is the city’s central square — Plaza de Espana, which hosts a sizable monument commemorating the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939). Santa Cruz’s landmark church is the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion. The church has a white tower topped by an octagonal platform. It was once used as a lookout point against pirate raids.

Santa Cruz is still a major port and frequently visited by cruise ships, especially from October to April.

Since 1852 Santa Cruz has been a free trade zone, which means that even today, shoppers find goods such as perfumes and alcohol cheaper than in many other European destinations.

Tenerife has two airports and is well connected by via low cost carriers.

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