A small island’s big celebration – El Hierro

Once, on a dark, rainy night – January 5th 1546 to be exact – a group of shepherds sheltered on the small Canary Island of El Hierro. Torrential rain and howling winds grwe stronger throughout the night. Gales screamed in from the Atlantic. Remember, El Hierro was once the edge of the known world. In 2 B.C., Ptolomy placed the Zero Meridian through it and it stayed on the map until replaced by the Greenwich Meridian in 1883.

Our shepherds, huddled in a cave and blasted by very inclement wheather indeed, either imagined or witnessed many strange and terrifying things that night.

The next morning’s events have had a lasting effect on the lives of the Herreños. Earlier this month, the four-yearly Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes took place in honour of what happened then, 459 years ago (The procession of the Madonna from her sanctuary in La Dehesa to the capital Valverde, some sixteen hours walk away).

Moreover, twenty five thousand people were there, nearly half a millennium later!

This extraordinary event involves a small statue, dancers, priests, musicians, horses, religious fervour and copious quantities of local wine, sweat and volcanic dust. ElHierro’s population is eight thousand. What makes more than three times that number get together for a fairly gruelling outting every four years?

Back to 1546 and the shepherds. Next morning, January 6th, the storm died. The shepherds were surprised to see that a ship had been blown in to nearby Orchilla. Although it looked nothing like the north African boats that occaisionally raided, they were worried. Why rush to greet strangers who may kill you before carrying off your livestock and women? They stayed hidden and saw an elderly man ‘of honourable aspect’ being rowed in by two sailors. Reassured, they went down and the old captain told them his Genoese vessel had lost crew and provisions in the storm. En route for recently discovered Cuba, they needed provisions. Island water, meat, cheese and wool were exchanged for a statue of the Madonna and Child destined for Cuba, with ‘miraculous properties’. After eight days of flat calm the ship sailed, leaving the jubilant shepherds with the statue. They carried her to the cave, renaming it ‘La cueva de la Virgin’ – the Madonna’s cave.

She became ‘La Virgen de los Reyes’ – the Madonna of the Kings (having arrived on January 6th, the feast of the Three Kings), venerated as the patron of El Hierro’s shepherds, their families and livestock.

Her fame for miraculous cures and answered prayers grew. A chapel was built for her; the first mass sung on April 25th, 1577. She is still there today.

Her chapel was one of two pilgrimage sites. The other was the magical water-giving tree, Garoe. At the turn of that century there was terrible drought. Livestock, then people, began to die. On 7th April, 1612 a hurricane uprooted Garoe. All wells had dried up by 1614, but the authorities refused permission to process the Madonna, to see if she might bring rain. Eight shepherds took action and one night carried her to caves near Valverde and woke the priest. The Madonna was welcomed, bells rang, clouds formed and torrential rain fell! The drought was over but opinion was devided. Islanders were convinced it was a miracle. The authorities – having refused permission – deemed it coincidence. This was March 1614.

The Madonna rested in her chapel until 1740, when another drought afflicted the island. An official decision was made to repeat the procession to Valverde, given the miraculous outcome of the previous outing. It rained again. A miracle compounded!

On 29th January 1741, a vote was taken in favour of four-yearly processions in her honour. Thus, in 1745 the Bajada was born. It has taken place ever since and is the most important event on El Hierro.

I finally managed the Bajada this year, on horseback. I’ve wanted for twenty years and this July 2nd at 5.00 a.m. we waited for the off near the Madonna’s chapel, warming ourselves with wine from kidskin bottles. Then the enormous crowd errupted, rockets fired, horses panicked and musicians played pipe and percussion music that would continue till we reached Valverde. The 260th Bajada was under way!
As day broke, the incredible spectacle of a solid, moving river of people snaking into the distance revealed itself. There were dancers, dressed in white with colourful headgear, leaping the Herreño dance round the Madonna, pipers piping, shepherds, village flagbearers, the elderly, the very young and all ages in between. The swirling mist and fine volcanic dust added a surreal touch. It was cold, damp and extraordinary. At each ‘raya’ – village boundery mark – the Madonna changed hands. Villagers from each hamlet danced and piped their own saints out to receive her and proudly carry her on to the next stage of the 28 km. Pocession.

The sun came up, there was a break in the mist and I watched from the saddle as colour flooded into the procession and lit the dramatic landscape of cliffs and sea far below us. Fuelled by the wineskins we continued, and by midday 25,000 of us were arriving at La Cruz de los Reyes. This is the beautiful spot high in the mountains where the procession stops to dance, eat, drink and rest. Under some trees on a hill, we untacked, tethered the horses and watched thousands more people winding down the mountain-side behind us. Below us, all the dancrs and musicians performed together – an incredible sight. A moving, dust-shrouded mass of white and colour was the last thing I saw as I fell asleep, flat out and dusty, under a tree. The procession eventually reached Valverde at 11 p.m. that night. The tiny capital erupted in a cacophony of deafening rockets, bells and pipes, its streets full of happy, very dusty islanders. What an experience!

Next Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes is July, 2009 – plenty of time to get in shape. It’s taxing. Hats off to Herreños of all ages who dance, pipe and drink along 28 km of difficult terrain, arriving in Valverde laughing and friendly. Don’t need a Bajada to visit El Hierro. It’s beautiful, friendly and peaceful.

Transarmas. Leaves Los Cristianos, Tenerife at 19.00, arrives El Hierro midnightish. Nice. (Leaves El Hierro for Tenerife 18.00).
OLSEN. Leaves Los Cristianos, Tenerife at 15.30. Arrives El Hierro 17.30 (Leaves El Hierro for Tenerife 18.00).

Binter. Los Rodeos. Tenerife-Valverde at: 08.00, 10.00, 14.40, 16.40. (Return flights 40 min. later).

Accommodation / General: Tourist office on 922 55 03 02. Calle Doctor Quintero 4, Valverde. 8.30-2.30 Mon-Fri.

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