If you're on the Canary Island of La Palma in February, you can expect to end up covered in fragrant white powder, as one of Spain's most bizarre festivals takes over the streets of the capital
Celebrations are often outlandish affairs for Spaniards. But not content with the usual glut of alcohol, music and dance, certain fiestas in Iberian territory now demand nothing less than a complete and utter baptism in whatever substance is the cause celeb.
Perhaps none is more bizarre than the pre-lent battle on the island of La Palma, reserved sibling of the seven Canary Islands. For most of the year, the islanders quietly work the hilly green terraces for bananas and tobacco. But in February they head down from their hillside hamlets to the pocket-sized capital Santa Cruz where on Carnival Monday, the colonial town wanes pale amidst an orgy of hand-to-hand combat employing nothing more sinister than squeezy bottles of baby softener. Over 5,000 kilograms of ammunition is discharged in powder-puff clashes during the batalla de polvos de talco (talcum powder battle). A kilogram or two had just been kindly dumped on my head. A fine way to treat your visitors.
Through blinking minstrel eyes I watched as a middle-aged English couple awkwardly jigged to the approaching samba band. “Derek, come over here out the way,” called the woman from the sanctum of the farmacia doorway. But the man in pressed slacks and beige shirt had the approaching revellers in his viewfinder. The samba beat exploded around him and he must have just caught sight of a rush of white faces before he looked up, spluttering in a fog of perfumed dust. “Derek,” admonished the woman, “I wanted you to wear those pants tomorrow.”
The day had started serenely enough in the small triangular Plaza de Espana with a commemoration parodying the pomp and circumstance that used to surround the arrival of los Indianos, nouveaux riche emigrants returning from the Americas to their sub-tropical home. Glasses of cheek-sucking juice made from pressed sugar canes and lemon were handed out by men in white linen suits. Resplendent Palmeros mingled with visitors taking in the tranquillity of the trickling stone fountain.
As the sun shortened its shadows, faces began to appear through the arched windows of the 16th-century town hall, and a small crowd congregated on the stone steps of the Church of San Salvador. Smiling residents handed out glasses of sangria providing enough stimulation for subdued dancing. As the Cuban band struck up a Latin metre, the plaza slowly began to oscillate with pockets of lace-trimmed locals. Soon, the oscillation turned to shaking as flecks of white began to appear on the heads and shoulders of unsuspecting onlookers. The beat pounded louder. One old fellow, his attention swayed as he sucked furiously on dying tobacco, seemed unimpressed as his bald pate and cigar were ceremoniously caked in white. He blinked hard, but the scowl stretched into a broad grin as he realised that war was coming.
This however was merely a warm-up. An hour later the plaza was empty save for a snowy frosting as everybody prepared for hostilities to begin. Shops closed early but not before protecting their stock with plastic sheeting. Then, after the afternoon siesta, the bars along the seafront Avenida Marítimo started to quickly fill with more Palmeros dressed in traditional whites. An arsenal of local brand Trompy talcum powder was stacked side by side with bottles of rum and whisky ready for the battle proper and as the sun slid for cover behind the pine-forest backdrop of Taburiente National Park, the chaos began.
At the bar next to me, a group of sun-wizened musicians under south-sliding panamas looked like they’d peaked too soon. Although the maracas player was doing his best to maintain a semblance of rhythm, other members had long since decided that a course of inharmonious ‘la-la’-ing was a far easier method of retaining their musical status. The louder they got, the more talcum powder was hurled their way until even the lame vocalising spluttered and coughed to a halt.
Meanwhile, at the southern end of the coastal road near the small port, the thunder of drums signalled that the parade of los Indianos was starting. Two separate bands comprising some 40 drummers struck up opposing Brazilian beats. The thick fog increased proportionately with the cacophony, bouncing off drum skins with every forceful strike. I soon realised that any eye contact was a declaration of war. With an enemy numbering 10,000, all grey-haired, pasty faced and in identical battle dress, massacre was inevitable. It wasn’t long before everything I could see, smell and taste reminded me of choking in a blizzard of Woolworth’s finest during a liberal dousing in the cold sanctity of my nan’s bathroom, aged three.
After an hour or so of indiscriminate attacks, people, palm trees and road were as white as the smallholdings stretching up the slopes to the volcanic peaks. The bands began to lead the melee further along the Avenida Marítimo on the two-kilometre procession to the Castle of Santa Catalina on the northern side of town. Like a Christmas scene from Dickens, flaky painted doors and low-hanging dark wood balconies bore snowball scars of battle, and loose powder formed in windowpane drifts.
I decided to bow out gracefully and watched the turmoil climb the Avenida de El Puente towards the lanes and alleyways of the old town. Illuminated under the pale fluorescence of ornate black street lamps, several thousand people were still engaged in this bottled-snowball fight leaving behind a trail of ashen debris. Phantoms of pale dust stirred into after-life by the warm ocean breeze danced around empty Trompy bottles, plastic cups, broken maracas and stamped-on panamas.
The fight continued well into the small hours, yet despite a competitive nature fuelled by high alcoholic intake, the health clinic reported nothing more serious than a handful of sweet-smelling asthmatics, unlike the launderettes, which were besieged by bag-bearing masses.
If you’re in Santa Cruz de La Palma on Carnival Monday in February it’s unavoidable: you’re going to get extremely messed up - albeit in a fragrant kind of way.