It’s already early June and the Canary Islands haven’t had enough rains. The earth is finding
it difficult to be generous, even in these times of economic hardship. Life is bleak for those people forced by the financial crisis into rediscovering the art of getting an abandoned
and parched plot of land provide a sack of potatoes.
         And yet on the island of Tenerife they will still dress up in their finest costumes on 9th June, tune up their
musical instruments, decorate their old carts and come to the romería in La Orotava to share what
little produce they have, with friends and strangers alike.


Thank God for
tradition, glorious, old-fashioned, joyous tradition!
          Like so many traditions of this kind, a romería has its origins in a form of religious pilgrimage. The word
romero is thought to mean “those
travelling to Rome” in ancient times. Historians refer to it as a Catholic
celebration consisting of a peregrination from the fields and country villages
to a sanctuary or hermitage. The original idea behind these pilgrimages was to keep
a promise to thank and venerate a particular saint in return for a
favour asked for in prayer. Tenerife’s romerías,
the most famous being those held in the towns of La Orotava, Garachico, Tegueste and Guimar,
sometimes last for a whole day. But the best known in Spain is in Huelva, where
the faithful often take a number of days to make their way to the sanctuary of La Virgen del Rocío.
          The  romería in La Orotava is
known as La Romería de San Isidro
Historians believe it was first introduced by the
Mayor, Ascanio-Bazán y Molina, who was born in La Orotava in 1799. He happened to
be in Madrid in the middle of May one year and witnessed the capital’s own San Isidro pilgrimage celebrations. When he returned to the island he organised
his own pilgrimage and funded it out of his own pocket before handing the idea and
duty over for the town council to organise in the future. 
          Although La Orotava’s San Isidro romería,
in its present form, began to take shape in 1936, just before the outbreak of
the Spanish Civil War, the first recorded pilgrim’s procession through the old town
has been traced to 1846.
          Originally, on the Saturday morning, they simply
carried an effigy of the saint, San Isidro, from the sanctuary of El Calvario
as far as the San Agustín church. The priest would bless the cattle before they
returned back to El Calvario in happy procession. Indeed, religious respect was
never an impediment for having fun and socialising. There was always much singing, dancing, colour and quite a lot of wine-drinking.
It was even an opportunity, like this pair of romeros painted on a simple piece of pottery by Violet Brook-Watson in the 1960’s, to do some old-fashioned courting.


          In the 1950s a recently arrived family from Devonshire were thrilled by the
romería in La Orotava. It was their
first experience of a real Canary Island fiesta and they were charmed by the
uninhibited generosity shown by the inhabitants of this northern Tenerife town. From the moment they arrived they were invited to share wine, chick peas, a whole variety of cheeses and
balls of gofio. Then a proud old lady
let them share the raised position of her front door steps from which to view
the procession. 
         As described in
a story from “The Skipping Verger and Other Tales”,
the procession swayed and
flowed down the cobbled streets like an undulating sea of colour and sound. Men
in black, fedora hats, white shirts, woollen breeches and scarlet cummerbunds
sang and played guitars and percussion instruments, and girls blooming in rich,
scarlet waistcoats over gypsy blouses and with striped woven dresses and
exquisite petticoats danced merrily around.
          They followed beautifully adorned
carts pulled by massive bullocks and led by strong men who lent against the
beasts’ necks to slow them down as they rocked down the steep slopes. However, an unwise decision to take their black English labrador along with them to the
fiesta and an encounter with two beautifully behaved drunks led to things
getting hilariously out of hand.
          The romería today is just as
attractive and even more popular, perhaps too much so and therefore less
“traditional” as modern day needs have turned it into more of a spectacle of colour and
merriment than something sacred and religious. But it is, especially in these
hard times of economic turmoil, an occasion for everyone to share common bonds, to have tremendous
fun and to lose themselves, ever so slightly, in the charms of a good old
festive tradition. Some, like this odd couple pictured below, might even lose their way
entirely after a glass or two of local malmsey and end up in Icod de los Vinos,
another delightful Canary Island town and famous for its magnificent “Dragon Tree”.