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Cunard Queen Victoria 2017
Canaries Christmas Voyage
Map Introduction and Embarkation at Southampton Madeira - Portugal La Palma - Canary Islands Tenerife - Canary Islands Lanzarote - Canary Islands Christmas Day and other Activities at Sea General Days at Sea - includes the Britannia Club and Verandah Restaurant La Coruna - Spain and Return to Southampton


Santa Cruz de La Palma - Friday 22nd December 2017

Santa Cruz de la Palma is a small and delightful capital city with good tourist shops for duty free and local crafts. Rather than take our usual leisurely stroll along the main street, visiting the Nativity scenes in the shops, churches and public buildings we had the target of going to Las Nieves, about 5 kms from town, to see the Church of the Virgin of the Snows. It is possible to walk there and we spent some time looking at the potential route on GPS Essentials but it seemed to involve a number of river crossings which might not be a good idea in Winter and we could not get a definitive answer in the excellent Information office which is just as one leaves the port. They however gave us bus details and a timetable and we could see all the stops on the GPS display. It looked as if we had probably missed the once an hour bus but we hurried along the water front and just got to the stop in time. We could again see all the stops as we proceeded but the bus driver advised waiting an extra stop which he doubled back to reach and was almost outside the church in a large bus parking complete with toilets. They obviously expected bus parties as Las Nieves is only a small but very pretty hamlet. Las Nieves has the most gorgeous church on the island. It's also one of the oldest, dating from at least 1423 (they had missionaries here before the conquest in 1493). The current building is mostly from the 16th century. There is a fountain at the side of the church.

The real purpose of the visit was to go inside the church and see Our Lady of the Snows (the Virgin Mary) who is the patron saint of the island. Her statue is made of painted terracotta and dates from the 15th century. The throne she stands on is marble covered with silver. Every five years the island has a massive fiesta where the statue of the Virgin comes down to Santa Cruz for five weeks. First they bring down the throne, which separates into 12 pieces, even then they are difficult to move. It isn't so much a religious procession as a party, five miles long. Then, a week later, they bring down the statue of the Virgin, which is a much more solemn occasion.

The Virgin of the Snow statue is 82 cm tall and was built in late Romanesque transitional Gothic style. It has been dated to the end of the 14th century. The statue arrived in La Palma before the Spanish Conquest and was initially worshipped in a cave by the benaoharitas, as the native inhabitants of La Palma were called. The statue is believed to be the oldest Madonna figure of the Canary Islands and for centuries the island's inhabitants have been asking for succour from the Virgen de Las Nieves. The statue is also brought out during volcanic eruptions, firestorms and droughts and is believed to have carried out many miracles over the years. The believers' gratitude for the patron saint of La Palma has been manifested by gifts of fine dresses, precious jewellery, gold and silverware. Supposedly she is the richest woman on the island and the inside of the church also magnificently adorned thanks to many generous donations. We spent a long time in the church admiring the statue and the church before paying to go into the small adjacent museum. The highlight of the museum is the 'Dressing Room' where she is adorned ready for the festivals and there is a large collection of the ornate dresses and jewellery she has been gifted. Unfortunately photography was prohibited and, to our surprise, there were no guide books and little in the way of photographs on the internet.

After spending some time in the museum we had a quick look at the remainder of Las Nieves and marked the Bar and Restaurant as worthy of a stop for lunch. We decided that the next time we will come a little later as lunch did not start till 1230. We had an Espresso coffee each which were excellent and good value at 0.50 Euro each to occupy the time until the next bus was due. By the time we got to the bus parking coaches were pouring in and it was chaos so maybe coming early was a good idea. Why does one never see people smiling on coach tours? We had a look into the valley to see where the footpaths started and how easy it would be to walk down, so maybe next time we will stay for lunch and then walk.

I had great difficulty in finding any information in English on the Virgin of the Snows and the five yearly Bajada, even on Wikipedia, other than about the tourist oriented parts of the festivities which include the extremely popular Danza de Enanos (dance of the dwarfs). What I have gleaned from various sources follows but do not take it as gospel:

The Bajada de La Virgen de Las Nieves - the Quinquennial Festival.

The Canary bishop Bartolomé García Ximénez initiate the Quinquennial Bajada de La Virgen de Las Nieves in 1680. Bajada loosely translates as descent. The Bajada opens with the raising the flag of the Virgin at the church Iglesia de Encarnacion followed by carrying down the disassembled silver throne, no mean feat as it weighs several tons. Firstly, on a Monday, the young and old are enchanted by the pandora (lantern procession), in which the main actors are the children. On Tuesday the acrobats come on stage, on Wednesday the minuet is performed. Thursday is when the iconic and extremely popular Danza de Enanos (dance of the dwarfs) takes place. Each time the music is different and we have a CD covering many of the years in the last century. On Friday the performance of the Carro Alegórico y Triunfal (allegorical stage play) puts the audience in mood for the main Bajada.

On the Saturday many believers walk all the way up to the church de Las Nieves, many having first taken vows of gratitude to the Virgin. The pilgrims, now numbering tens of thousands, convoy the Virgen de Las Nieves the 5 km down to the capital. She spends the night of Sunday in the church La Encarnación. Next morning the Bajada continues. During the journey there is an important stop at Barranco de Las Nieves where the 'diálogo entre el castillo y la nave' (dialog between the fortress and the ship) takes place. Shouts echo between the upper castillo, across the canyon to the replica of Columbus' ship the Santa María on the Plaza de Alameda. The defenders of the city receive the ship with angry voices, until it is revealed that rather than pirates it is the Virgin Mary on board of the ship. This scene is followed by volleys from the cannons and the procession ceremonially enters the town.

The Virgen de Las Nieves remains in the church San Salvador on the Plaza de España until August 5th, when she returns back to her sanctuary, ascending Las Nieves together with a convoy of pilgrims. This ends the 40 days of devotion, excitement, sport, music and traditional events while the Palmeras and Palmeros already long for the next quinquennial which will be in 2020. The 5th August is however declared an annual holiday in La Palma during which the Virgin is worshipped and celebrated.

We found on previous years that there are pictures of the festivities through the years in the maritime museum which is in the to the replica of Columbus' ship - it is worth a visit. There is a bus stop behind the maritime museum. We often walk up the short distance from the museum to the Fortress of the Virgin, across the Barranco de las Nieves. It was built in 1820 as a wooden stage castle for the festivities in honour of Our Lady of the Snows. There are 21 small iron canons for the mock battle. The views towards the harbour and ship make the climb worthwhile. We were now back on very familiar ground and after a short stop for an icecream we slowly worked our way back towards the ship. The areas we visited are all completely covered in the "General Introduction to Santa Cruz de La Palma" that we wrote last year which follows. The only difference was that we could not get into Museum, Treasury, Chapel or the Royal Cosmological Society. We even went to the same cheese stall as last year in the market and drank sugar cane with lemon and passion fruit. Even the City Hall was open again and we went up to the Council Chamber despite being so close to Christmas. There seems little point in duplicating text so all we have done is to change a couple of pictures where this years are better and a minor update to the last but one paragraph to reflect the continuing closure of the chapel. So please enjoy the following General Introduction.

A general introduction to Santa Cruz de La Palma

The Canary Island of La Palma is just 80nm to the west of Tenerife. We first visited it in 1988 on the Orient Express cruise and had enjoyed our visit. We had then taken a tour into the centre of the island and admired the volcanic craters, and on other visits we wanted to explore the city of Santa Cruz instead. Santa Cruz is said to be the second largest city of the island, and is the capital. The city was founded in 1493 and by the 17th century it was a flourishing commercial port and the third most important in the Spanish empire. Famous fortifications include the Castillo de Santa Catalina and Castillo de la Virgen on the northern end of town. Our most recent visits were on the Queen Victoria Christmas Cruise in 2014, the Queen Elizabeth Christmas Cruise in 2015 and Queen Victoria Christmas Cruise in 2016 and this general introduction draws heavily on those three visits.

The Tourist Information Office provides a useful walking map of Santa Cruz and gave a lot of useful advice on what to see and what to visit during our walk, a real enthusiast who gave us a lot of advice and information whilst a long queue built up. Although Santa Cruz is recommended for shopping, we are always more interested in visiting the historic sites and churches and admiring the old buildings. We start by strolling slowly along the main street, O'Daly Street, named after an Irish merchant. Recommended sights were the Casa Salazar, the City Hall and Cathedral in the Plaza Espana The Plaza de Espana is said to have the best collection of Renaissance buildings in the Canaries. It has the Monteverde house, built after 1618 and renovated between 1922 and 1935, the Lorenzo house built in the 18th century and re-modeled in 1900, the public fountain built in 1588, the church and bell tower of El Salvador built in the early 16th century, the Massieu house from the 18th century, the Pereyra house built in 1864. Our advice from the tourist office had been to also look at all the other buildings and if any door was open to go and look inside, we followed this advice and never got ejected from anywhere including the City Hall.

The City Hall was completed in 1567. The main facade on two floors is held to be the best example of civil Renaissance architecture of the Canary Islands. The interior was renovated in the mid-twentieth century has a mural in the stairwell due to Valladolid Mariano de Cossio. We admired the magnificent paintings up the stairs and we even got into the 'Council Chamber' which seemed to have two functions run from different ends and had some magnificent carvings on the old woodwork and doorway. Moorish patterns decorate the ceilings and staircase of the the lobby and outside round the courtyard.

We have also worked our way into the Casa Salazar where we found a reception desk hidden inside and they were happy for us to look round the courtyard and some exhibitions. The Casa Salazar was built by Don Ventura Salazar Frias, field master, Knight of the Order of Calatrava and ruler of Palma Council between 1631 and 1642. It exhibits some of the most characteristic elements of Baroque including helical shafts in two pairs of columns and friezes both decorated with rosettes, a central balcony with wrought iron railing and and many magnificent wood ceilings. Today, the Casa Salazar is owned by the Cabildo Insular de La Palma, who restored the building to provide the cultural centre of the island. Conferences, meetings and exhibitions are held throughout the year.

One year we spent time looking at a temporary exhibit featuring Delft Blue tiles. The main trade in La Palma 500 years ago was sugar and molasses and the, otherwise empty, ships brought back luxury goods, sculptures, paintings and Delft Tiles to decorate the mansions and haciendas of the exporters and the churches. They were also used to decorate the bell tower of the Dominican Convent to give a splendid finish with flashes of light reflecting of the shiny white porcelain. Some of these are still in place and feature in the exhibition. We later went to see the tower and without the background information would not have noticed the few and very damaged remaining tiles.

One continues past more historic houses and shops to the junction at the Placeta del Borrero. It was already quieter as most people don't walk too far from the ship, and the cobbles made it difficult. Looking down from either end of O'Daly Street it looked as if all the tourists had settled at the lowest point where a number of bars and cafés had opened to exploited the phenomenon. Continuing towards the end of the road, and noting a supermarket for shopping on the return route, we made the detour to the Castillo de Santa Catalina. There is usually not very much to see but the views towards the ocean are good. On one occasion there was an enactments by the local historical group of soldiers who were practicing their drills in the Castle. The road continues towards the Castillo de la Virgen, where there had been a good view from the top. Below is the concrete and scumbled (wood grained) copy of the Santa Maria which contains the Maritime Museum. There is a festival every 5 years, most recently in July/August 2015, to the patron saint Our Lady of the Snows. Her statue is 14th century and is kept in the village of Las Nieves, just 5 kms from Santa Cruz. She is carried down into Santa Cruz in procession. The replica of the Santa Maria wooden boat is a traditional part of the festival with thousands of people participating in the area of the Barranco and the castle opposite.

The dwarf (enano in spanish) with a tricorne Napoleonic hat is unique to La Palma and there is a statue in front of the Santa Maria. In mid-July in festival years there is dancing by a troupe of 24 dwarves, in the park by the McDonalds, and short videos can be found by searching on YouTube. The first reference to dancing dwarves was in 1905. In 2013 we purchased a CD of festival music which celebrated 100 years of these festivals in 2005. There was still the ice cream parlour in the Plaza de la Alameda and a large statue of a Dwarf looking down on where we sat.

After a short stop to buy some of the local goat cheeses and taste the refreshing sugarcane juice in the market we looked for other museums.

The Plaza de San Francisco was designed as a courtyard for the Royal Convent of the Immaculate Conception, founded by the Franciscans in 1508. It is surrounded by various buildings - the convent and its church, as well as the Chapel of the Third Franciscan Order and the Insular Museum. There is a charge for Museum entry, but it was free for old folks and there was a lot to see inside. Unfortunately the chapel has been closed the last couple of visits; we remembered an excellent 'tour' of the chapel by the gentleman who was keeping an eye on the valuable artifacts - he had spent 20 years in Nottingham and had been keen to keep his English up as he also taught English. The statue of St Francis, dating from 1593 and behind the altar in the church is carried through the streets on a large silver canopied bier which was stored in the chapel. Remembering the Belén in the chapel we wondered why the doors were closed. We tried to enquire what had happened in the Museo Insular which is inside the convent but we spoke little Spanish and the ticket office spoke no English. Later we asked the Tourist Information Office about the tableau, and the schoolteacher whom we had met in previous years and who was responsible for constructing the tableau. They did not know.

The narrow road continued uphill towards the Hermit church and the viewpoint over the port. It was then the walk down the 165 steps to the main road and back towards the ship, resisting the temptation for a beer like on route. On the way down we once more found an open door and went into the Royal Cosmological Society and saw some of the original maps and an exhibition on Esperanto and its translation into Spanish. The building was originally a granary dating to 1646 and the Cosmological was founded in 1881 and is the most enduring and important scientific institution in La Palma.

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Content revised: 4th January, 2018