Religious Tourism? Robes And Tennis Shoes On Tenerife Island

Arrival of the Roman chariot for the Passion Play, Tenerife Island, The Canary Islands.

Easter in Spain isn’t all hoods, chocolate, and Virgin Marys parading.  On Tenerife Island, in the Canary Islands, The Passion Play is marching forth with Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate, and onlookers who are living street theater; robes, tennis shoes, and all.    Linda Wainwright, our guest expert from Tenerife Island, has been a resident for more than 20 years and has The Scoop.

By Linda Wainwright

Good Friday is the busiest day of the year at Canary Islands airports. The reasons are twofold. One is because it is a Friday, inevitably “changeover” day for those on package holidays. The second is because it’s that time of year when Spring has not lived up to its promise in countries further north, and winter seems to be going on forever. Hence, when schools break up families flee to the sunshine in greater numbers than on any, other single day of the year.

Tenerife Island certainly isn’t where you would expect to find religious tourism, but there is an event I’d been hoping to go to for years, which I finally caught up with just last year. When I was working, I used to volunteer to work bank holidays, because it seemed fairer that folk with family commitments should have those days free, and so I’d never seen the Passion Play in Adeje.

Though my ties to organized religion are very loose these days it had been on my bucket list since I saw “The Sound of Music” all those years ago. Happily the play in Adeje is an annual event, and not every ten years like Oberamergau (the cover for the Van Trapp family’s escape). So the first year that I was rid of the 9 to 5, I marked Good Friday on my calendar to see this passion play.

I wasn’t totally sure what to expect, and I went with two friends who hail from Barcelona, whose experience of street theatre (which is, essentially, what this is) is vast. I think we all expected something perhaps moving, but amateur, but those expectations couldn’t have been more wrong.

A bread vendor for The Passion Play

We arrived early hoping to secure a good spot to watch the spectacle. What we found was the entire main street of the village, Calle Grande, closed, and not one, vast stage, but several small ones along its length. There were few people about, and we had ample time to stroll the scene, as the sets were being completed.

There was one stage for each of the main events of Easter, the last supper, the judgment of Pontius Pilot, the Garden of Gethsemane, and, at the end of the street, where it widened at a junction, Calvary. Chatting with the scene setters, we learned that the cast entered at one end, and the story unfolded along the thoroughfare, so every one of the expected 23,000 visitors would get a decent view.

Tempting though it was to stay at ‘Calvary’ we opted to go to the other end, where we thought it would be easier to get photos. We began to trot back, as they began to rope off the sidewalks. Calle Grande is one of those streets where normally it’s pleasing to sit under the trees in one of the street cafés, and enjoy people watching. This day, however, palm leaves and straw were being strewn across zebra crossings, cloths were tossed over telephone boxes, and every attempt was being made to turn it into the Holy Land. On the table of the last supper real food was being set out, and all along the street merchants were setting up, ‘selling’ bread or other basics in keeping with the historical context.

The Passion Play, The Last Supper, Tenerife Island

No less than 300 of the townsfolk take part in this performance, and already some of them were beginning to arrive, dressed in simple, flowing robes. Even the camera crew from the local television station were ‘camouflaged’ in robes resembling surgeons’ smocks, and we couldn’t help but giggle at the sneakers sticking out from underneath!

It’s a curious thing in Tenerife, but at any major event, no matter how busy it is expected to be, folk don’t arrive until the last minute, leaving you wondering if you’ve arrived on the wrong day. This was no exception. There was a sudden whoosh of arrivals a few minutes before the appointed starting time, and much elbowing. We had to stand firm to keep the frontline spots we’d bagged. What was exceptional was that it began on time, cued by the church clock chiming midday.

Body taken for burial.

From around the corner, at the top of the street, music was heard, and the cast began to arrive, tradesmen and mothers with children straggling behind, dispersed along the route to take up their positions. Goods changed hands and the kids played in a buzz of streetlife. Then, a steady tramp of feet as Roman soldiers marched into view with appropriate pomp and swagger, followed by a group of sombre rabbis. From our vantage point we had a great view of the set for the last supper, and the sound system was a big surprise, broadcasting the event very efficiently all along the street, so those waiting at the other end could follow perfectly.

As events unfolded the actors moved along the street to the different stages, and the police took down the ropes from the sides of the street and used them to form a barrier across the street, so that we could follow on. At the end, of course, this had the effect of making one feel like a participant not so much in a work of theatre as in the real thing. As the proceedings moved on, the roadside stalls began to give away their wares, fresh bread with a dollop of jam, and fruit. In a very compelling way we felt like witnesses, in doing these every day things. Though all three of us are sceptics, we were totally swept up in the moment, so good was the performance.

At the end there were just too many folk for us to be able to see the crucifixion, although it was relayed to giant tv screens close by. As Mary grieved for her son we thought it was all over, but, no, the procession, this time bearing a statue of Christ, instead of the actor, made its emotional way back up the street. The throng parted without much prompting from the police, as it would have in real life, and something resembling silence fell.

Standing there, I was surprised at how moving I had found the performance, much more so, than sitting in a theatre seat. Anyone with stronger beliefs in Christian teaching than I would find it utterly absorbing I think. It was, of course, a world away from the sun beds and tacky souvenirs on the coast below, and I would highly recommend it to anyone, as theatre, even if you are not very ‘religious’. The entire spectacle from scenery to acting to music to sound effects was first class, and attention to detail, like the appearance of the bread being used, was very professional.

Preparations are well under way for 2013 in Adeje, judging from reports in the local press, but the town of Candelaria on the east coast, which is the true spiritual home of Tinerfeños (as the folk of Tenerife are known), cancelled their own version last year due to the ongoing recession. I can’t find any information about it happening this year either, and last year it was proposed that it take place every two or three years instead of annually. In the island’s ancient capital city, La Laguna, however, there will be the traditional Good Friday parades of hooded penitents so familiar from pictures from the mainland.

Linda Wainwright likes to say that she is “re-inventing herself for her third age” these days. She transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Now with kids grown up, leaving behind the 9 to 5, she studies writing and photography and is beginning to scratch a living from them, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She blogs at http://islandmomma.wordpress.com/

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