Friday, 30 December 2016

TENERIFE CARNIVAL: THE EUROVISION THONG CONTEST

Holidaymakers who flock to Tenerife’s southern beach resorts in February know they can wander around in shorts and T-shirts without fear of catching a chill. February is also carnival time in the island’s northern capital, Santa Cruz, where visitors in shorts and T-shirts feel distinctly over-dressed when they see the skimpy costumes many of the revellers wear. Party animals will savour every second of this sassy, sensational, fortnight-long blowout that kicks off again in a few weeks’ time, so shed your inhibitions – and as many layers as you dare – and dance the night away.

Dancers entertain scores of thousands of spectators lined 10-deep along the promenade
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to twerk we go
It’s the Pope’s round, so he leaves me in charge of the cameras and goes off to get the pints. In front of me, elbows flapping and hips swaying, half-a-dozen Snow Whites with hairy chests begin dancing in the sun to ‘Macarena!’. All around, countless zombies, Elvis Presleys and señoritas of questionable gender in flouncy flamenco frocks – red, yellow, pink with CD-sized purple polka dots – join in. The fun has most definitely begun.

As Los del Rio’s 1993 worldwide hit fades, a nearby church bell begins tolling the midday Angelus, but it’s quickly drowned out as the DJ, concealed by the crowd, segues into Ricky Martin’s ‘Living La Vida Loca’. It’s early, but Santa Cruz de Tenerife is already going carnival-crazy, with 100,000-odd – some very odd – people on the streets. Most of them appear to be queuing for drinks in the bursting-at-the-seams bars of Plaza de San Francisco, which is probably why His Holiness is tak­ing so long coming back with the beers.

Overlooking the proceedings with a fixed frown is the bronze bust of publisher Patricio Estevanez y Murphy (1850-1926), Tenerife-born but with a mammy of Irish descent. I can almost hear the life-long teeto­taller tut-tutting as revellers set down their cervezas on his stone plinth to take photos or top-up their inflatable boobs with big blasts of boozy breath.

To my left, Wonder Woman, sporting a magnificent Mexican bandido moustache, is eating the face off of a bearded Xena: Warrior Princess. It’s rude to stare, so I turn away and immediately spot Marilyn Monroe twerking with cowgirl Jessie from Toy Story (they’re fellas too). Ten minutes later in the gents’ toilet in Restaurante Plaza 18, I’m flanked at the urinals by Princess Elsa from Disney’s ‘Frozen’ and Carmen Miranda, with her – well, his – five-a-day piled high atop a pink turban. It’s mad and getting madder by the minute, and I don’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell me I’ve strayed into gay territory.

My throat’s parched, so I go looking for the pontiff, who should have returned by now. I eventually find him, sharing a plate of chorizo and Manchego cheese and talking papal bull with Count Dracula – who’s drinking my pint. At €2 a pop, I won’t be hammering a stake through his heart, but it means I’ll have to join a long queue to quench my thirst. On the other hand . . . I put down the cameras, sidle up to Patricio’s plinth and snaffle a couple of unguarded beers.

No wonder teetotaller Patricio Estevanez y Murphy looks as if he's crying. Below,
Plaza de San Francisco; and Snow White's apple hides her Adam's apple


You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady
Most carnival-goers hire their costumes from pop-up stores that open in the weeks before the celebrations begin, but many put a great deal of thought into creating their own eye-catching and highly original ensembles. Few, however, sit down at a sewing machine – that’s left to their ever-obliging mammies, grannies, aunties and sisters, for whom it’s a labour of love and a matter of fierce family pride.

Top marks for inventiveness go to the guy dressed as a bathroom shower. He’s wrapped from shoulders to fluffy pink-slippered feet in a transparent plastic curtain with blue ducks on it and has rigged up a gardener’s watering can on a pole above his head. When he tugs a cord, the can tilts and drenches him. He’s probably a plumber.

The young female TV reporter doing a vox pop has left little to the imagination in her choice of costume – a Catwoman mask, leopardskin bra, a pair of severely sawn-off Levis and cowboy boots. If she lives with her parents, she definitely didn’t leave the house this morning dressed like that – her dad would have choked on his churros.

The Catwoman TV reporter gets into
the swing of things. Below, you shaved
your chest but forgot your chin; and
Robin Hood (or is it Peter Pan?) gets
a peck from her pal



Loud, a little lewd, but a load of laughs
The fortnight-long carnival isn’t exclusively for locals – visitors from the neighbouring Canary islands and the Spanish mainland plus tourists from throughout Europe and farther afield flock to Tenerife every year to get in on the act, making it a truly international affair.

With the weather being so warm (22C to 24C during my four days on Tenerife, which is normal for the so-called winter), many have chosen to dress down rather than up. There’s no shortage of men wearing only G-strings or those appalling mankini things, which makes Plaza de San Francisco look like the venue for the Eurovision Thong Contest.

People are singing, dancing, laughing, hugging, high-fiving and eating and drinking. It’s all very loud, a bit lewd, but there’s one helluva hooley going on and I’m enjoying every crazy moment. I’m mindful, however, that the big parade – tonight’s is one of many – is a good few hours away. If I hang around here stealing beer, I’ll be fit for nothing (and could get arrested) by the time the first floats set off along the seafront.

Fortunately, I’ve signed up for an afternoon excursion with tour guide Ancor Robaina, who showed me around on a previous visit to Tenerife. On that occasion, during a trip to Mount Teide – an active volcano that last blew its top in 1909 and which at 3,718 metres is Spain’s highest peak – Ancor told me in 10 seconds all I’ll ever need to know about volcanology. “It’s simple,” he said. “An active volcano is full of gas, like a can of beer. Give it a good shake, pull the ringtop and you have an eruption.” That’s the sort of science for dummies that I can understand.

As I step aboard the minibus, Ancor says we’re in for a whale of a time. Failing that, it will be a bottlenose dolphin of a time. Either way, we’re heading south for a seaborne safari and will be back in Santa Cruz an hour before the evening’s entertainment begins.

Mama, Papa and baby potatoes. Below, these friends are clearly having fun in the sun

A pitcher paints a thousand words
We arrive in Puerto Colon, where we stop briefly at some traffic lights in front of the packed terrace of a British bar. Refugees from the rain and cold of more northern climes are topping up their tans – and their glasses, from four-pint pitchers of lager costing €7, according to the chalkboard – while watching Only Fools and Horses on one big screen or the soccer match on the other.

I can’t make out who’s playing, and the team colours worn by the customers offer no clue – just about every English Premier League club is represented. I do a double-take when I spot a group of well-fed worthies in Celtic and Rangers tops, fans of the fiercest footballing rivals in the world, who are clearly relishing each other’s company. This is an extremely rare photo opp, but as I reach for my camera, decorum prevails and it remains on the seat beside me – what happens in Puerto Colon stays in Puerto Colon.

An hour later, I’m sitting at the pointy end of a yacht, tucking into tapas and sipping a San Miguel as we head out to sea in search of the whales and dolphins that will, Ancor and skipper Gonzalo assure me, put in an appearance when we reach their feeding ground three miles offshore.

A thrill for the kids on a seaborne safari off Puerto Colon as a pilot whale crosses the bow
Here’s a breathtaking spectacle if ever there was one
More than a third of the world’s 80-odd cetacean species are present year-round or pass through the waters off southwest Tenerife during their annual migrations. The resident bottlenose dolphins and around 600 short-finned pilot whales are the most frequently seen, and sperm whales are not uncommon.

Bottlenose dolphins (TV’s Flipper was one) are remarkably intelligent. They’re also remarkably friendly towards, and protective of, humans. In November 2004, four lifeguards were swimming 100 metres off the beach at Whangarei, New Zealand’s northern-most city, when they attracted the attention of a great white shark. As it perused the menu, a pod of bottlenose dolphins arrived. While some harried the shark, the others herded the lifeguards close together and surrounded them while they swam back to the safety of the beach.

Gonzalo’s walkie-talkie crackles into life and, after a brief exchange with the skipper of the yacht about 150 metres behind us, he knocks the motor into neutral. “There they are,” he says, and points. Rising and dipping like funfair carousel horses they approach, first a couple, then a dozen or so, charcoal grey and glistening – pilot whales with their bulbous brows, budgerigar beaks and stubby dorsal fins, playing peek-a-boo as they emerge briefly from the brine then slip back beneath the waves to reappear seconds later in even greater numbers.

Ever closer they come, heading straight for the stern, but experience – often propeller-inflicted painful experience – has taught them to steer clear of the business end of a boat. Left and right they veer, scores of them now passing the yacht on either side like motorcycle outriders with a pressing appointment up ahead. They’re so close that I can hear them exhaling – Pffoooooh! Pffoooooh! – as they break the surface to empty and refill their lungs. If any sight can be described as breathtaking, it’s this one. All that’s missing is the David Attenborough voiceover.

The show has no sooner begun than it ends. We bob around for a while, hoping for an encore, but that’s it – plenty of pilot whales, but no sign of dolphins. I’m a smidgen disappointed, because Flipper was a staple of my Saturday morning telly when I was a tiddler, but I’ve had the promised whale of a time – and another awaits back in Santa Cruz.

Some of the 600 resident pilot whales come up for air three miles off Puerto Colon
That’s the sway to do it
Those who take part in the city’s spectacular parades along the waterfront spend 12 months preparing and rehearsing for the highlight of their year. Community groups and social clubs provide most of the flamboyant floats that cost up to €20,000 to decorate. These mobile marvels are accompanied by march­ing bands and dancers who take nearly three hours to cover the two-kilometre course as they sashay, sway and samba their way past cheering crowds lined 10-deep on both sides of the promenade.

The carnival, which dates from the early 1600s, is ostentatious and can be outrageous, which is why the Catholic Church never missed a chance to denounce it. Diminutive despot Francisco Franco drove it underground for decades, but when he died in 1975 it bounced back with a vengeance, bigger and brasher than ever. Today, it’s second only in size and reputa­tion to the daddy of them all, in Rio de Janeiro, with which Santa Cruz is twinned. Don’t, however, say that within earshot of someone from Gran Canaria, where they believe their carnival parade makes Tenerife’s look like a funeral procession.

I get a chance before the big show begins to chat briefly with Carnival Queen Cecilia Navarro Arteaga, who’s signing autographs and posing for selfies with star struck little girls. Every niña on Tenerife dreams of one day being the Carnival Queen, so in their eyes, 25-year-old Cecilia is the biggest celebrity on the planet. She’s also refreshingly unassuming. “I had to be pushed into entering the competition,” she says shyly. “I’m just an office administrator, so being chosen as the Carnival Queen is very, very special – it allows me to be someone.”

You can be anyone or anything you want to be – even a bathroom shower – at the electrifying and sometimes shocking Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a party that the easily-offended and intolerant would be wise to avoid. This is for lovers of life lived large, a chance to dress up (or all but strip off) and revel in two weeks of unbridled and unabashed joy.

Beautiful Carnival Queen Cecilia Navarro Arteaga leads the fabulous parade of floats
Friends in high places
I spend an hour walking alongside the slow-moving floats, led by the one on which Cecilia in all her feathered finery blows kisses to the adoring crowd. When everyone halts for a breather, I go on ahead and catch up with the Pope at the hotdog stand where we’ve arranged to meet. I’m glad to see he’s changed out of his white Vatican vestments.

“I had to,” he says. “My cassock ended up all spattered with red wine and beer. It looked like I’d been playing paintball. Anyway, meet my new amigos, Andres and Paco.” He introduces two firefighters whose uniforms are too real to be carnival costumes. “Paco says we can stand on top of their fire engine and take photos of the parade.” We follow them up the ladder on the side of the truck and for the next hour enjoy unobstructed views from our elevated vantage point, thanks to the Pope having friends in high places.

The marching bands are greeted with wild enthusiasm as they batter big bass drums, snare drums, calypso drums and tom toms and blow trumpets, trombones, tubas and referees’ whistles, but the loudest cheers are for a troupe of the cutest ever tiny-tot majorettes playing yazoos and twirling batons.

The reverberating rhythm thrums up through the soles of my shoes and sets my toes tapping. It isn’t long before the Pope and I are dancing, like Laurel and Hardy outside the saloon in ‘Way Out West’, only on top of a fire tender. And so the first of what will be several long nights goes on – and on.

Diamonds are clearly a girl's best friend for Cecilia's dame of honour Tamara Siverio 
The afternoon after the night before
The Pope and I meet for breakfast on the terrace of a cafe near our hotel. Actually, for breakfast read brunch (it’s 1.30pm) and for Pope read antichrist, because every time I flick over a page of the daily La Opinion he winces and asks me to keep the noise down. I vaguely recall hitting the hay at 4am; he says he turned in at seven.

Highlights of yesterday’s festivities fill the TV screen above the door. I recognise Plaza de San Francisco, with the kids swinging from the obliging branches of its willow tree; I see Disney characters behaving un-Disney-characteristically; the gorgeous Robin Hood is firing sucker-tipped arrows from her bow; and there’s . . . “Oh! Look! You’re on the telly!”

The Pope looks, and there he is in his stained white robes, skullcap askew, with two heavy artillery Canons hanging from his neck, being interviewed by Catwoman and answering her questions in highly-amusing but embarrassing Spanglish. A pun-tastic caption reads “El Papa . . . razzi”. The other customers point at the TV and laugh but fail, thank goodness, to recognise the scrubbed-up celebrity in their midst. The Pope on the screen has a twinkle in his eye; the one sitting opposite me groans and sinks his head in his hands.

“I need a beer,” he says. “Want one?” Hmm. Our wine-tasting visit to the Casa de Vino y de la Miel in El Sauzal isn’t until 4pm. The sun’s cooking my deforested scalp. There’s no bust of old misery guts Patricio to give us a dirty look. What the hell. “Yeah, go on,” I say. It’s the Pope’s round, so he leaves me in charge of the cameras and goes off to get the pints.

The Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife is as much fun for the little ones as it is for adults
FLY
Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate year-round from Dublin to Tenerife Reina Sofia airport in the south of the island. See www.ryanair.com and www.aerlingus.com

CONNECT
For independent travellers, bus service 111, which leaves from outside the arrivals hall, connects Reina Sofia airport with party capital Santa Cruz (60km). A one-way ticket costs €9.35. A taxi costs around €65.

STAY
I stayed at the five-star Grand Hotel Mencey in Santa Cruz, which is a 15-minute stroll from the seafront and has a renowned spa, one of the best-equipped hotel gyms in Europe, a pool and really nice staff. See www.grandhotelmencey.com

FURTHER INFORMATION
The 2017 Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife runs from February 22 to March 5. For further information on visiting Tenerife during the carnival or at any other time of the year see www.webtenerife.com and www.spain.info. Bear in mind that the Canary Islands will welcome an all-time record number of tourists in 2017, so book your flights and accommodation as soon as possible.