Like many of the Canary Islands, El Hierro celebrates its own unique festival every four years: “La Bajada de La Virgin de Los Reyes”.
This tradition was started after a terrible drought in the 18th Century. It was decided that they would walk the icon to Valverde hoping for rain. Legend says that before they reached their destination it rained.
La Bajada is held on the 1st Saturday in July every four years and traditionally starts at the Ermita de Los Reyes at La Dehesa very early in the morning around sunrise.
Each village also has a traditional starting point and in 2013 I joined friends to start at Raya De La Mareta were I awaited the dancers and musicians from Isora. The atmosphere is electric and the excitement built as you could hear the approaching sound of the drummers and pipers playing the distinctive lilting rhythm synonymous with the island. A number of groups passed before the group from Isora carrying their village icon San Pedro arrived. After a few refreshments for the dancers we were off heading to join the throng at Cruz de Los Reyes.
As we walked the crowds were getting bigger and more dancers joined in. At Cruz de Los Reyes it was estimated that there was 35,000 people. Not bad when the normal population of the island is below 8,000.
The atmosphere was incredible and you have to be there to experience this unique spectacle.
All the groups joined in to dance in front of the Virgin de Los Reyes which had been placed in front of the cross. You can feel the emotion as the dust fills the air. Many are actually crying during the dancing.
It’s a spectacular sight with the swirl of the skirts of the costumes, and the sun catching the multi-colours of the hats. Each group’s is quite different.
Once they are all danced out it’s a mad scramble to find some shade. Then the feast begins. Family groups congregate together to eat and drink. I was offered plates overflowing with food and local wines. Then there more plates of deserts. They let me decline the alcoholic drinks but are offended if you don’t accept their offering of food. Once they have all eaten their fill it was then time for a siesta for many.
I along with others decided it would be better to keep walking as there was still a long dusty walk ahead.
The first part was a partial retracing of our steps back to the road. As I walked groups were gathering at the traditional Raya’s waiting to see the Icon. These Raya’s are where different dance groups take on the duty of escorting the icon.
I gradually dropped down into the village of San Andres. And as I walked the route was lined with people waiting to see the spectacle. They shout a cheery Hola and you have to stop to say hello to friends. They love to see a “guiri” (Foreigner) walking and they will regale you with tales from previous years. And try to ply you with food and wine.
The next part is through pine trees and the shade was most welcome, before a stroll across open countryside. You cross the main road again to take the steep cobbled track down into the small village of Tiñor.
The village is bedecked with bunting and once again the village square is prepared for the arrival of the Virgin. Half way down I met the dance group from Valverde making their way up to meet the crowds and escort the Virgin on her final leg of the journey. The next part criss-crosses the road before you climb the last hill which overlooks the upper lake for the hydroelectric system on the island. Then it’s back down again to cross the road for the last time. As I walked through yet another sheltered wooded area there was quite a refreshing breeze. Then the last decline is quite steep which was not welcome on the knees! We all must have looked quite insane as we either zig zagged our way down the steep slope or walked backwards.
With renewed vigour you walk into the centre of Valverde to be met with cheers from the waiting crowd, you are handed a plate of paella and offered drinks.
I made a quick dash home for a much appreciated hot shower and change of clothing and foot wear.
Then it was back to the Plaza to await the arrival of the Virgin. The excitement and emotion reaches a crescendo as you hear the approaching pipes and drums and then there she was, protected in her dirty, dusty case accompanied by the local dignitaries dressed in their best clothes. Followed by some very tired and dirty looking pilgrims in her wake. The dancers run to line the route as she is taken down into the Church which would be her home for the next week. And then… It was beer o’clock for everyone.
After a month of celebrations all over the island I was up at 0515 on the 1st Saturday of August to join a much smaller crowd at the church in Valverde.Just after 6am we set of on the long walk back to Cruz De Los Reyes.
The pipes and drums play as the dancers twist and twirl as they wind their way up the twisting paths. As dawn broke we are approaching San Andres and the TV crews. After a quick interview I’m allowed to carry on.
At Cruz De Los Reyes we stop for refreshments and their appeared to be even more food available. The locals are so friendly. If they think you are on your own you get invited to join family groups of complete strangers who are offended if you refuse their hospitality.
Its then time to set off again, this time keeping to the flat dirt road rather than climbing up to the highest part of the Island at Malpaso which is over 1501 metres above sea level. Then begins the long last descent back to Ermita de Los Reyes. The crowd was bigger here and to say it was August the wind was howling. The Virgin was taken into her home and we all left, tired with aching limbs but elated that we had completed our task.
I hope to see some of you at the next one on Saturday 1st July 2017. “Viva la Virgen”