Pilgrims Assemble

September 15th will see the culmination of Lanzarote’s long summer of fiestas, as thousands of islanders wearing traditional Canarian dress converge on Mancha Blanca in Tinajo to celebrate the island’s only official miracle.

At the Ayuntamiento of Tinajo the arrangements for the island’s biggest fiesta are one of the biggest tasks for the quiet northern town. On our visit to the Culture Department, staff are busy finalising the programme of events for the fiesta, but there’s still time to attend to a girl who’s come to pick up an athletics prize.

Carmelo Bernal has worked at the Casa de la Cultura for several years of the fiesta and tells us “The islanders have always had their pilgrimages, to Mancha Blanca and elsewhere, but the big fiesta of Los Dolores has only been celebrated in its current form for 15-20 years.”

He’s talking about a long weekend where, apart from the resorts, Lanzarote comes to a virtual standstill. Roads are closed to allow pilgrims safe passage; authorities lay on refreshment stands and, of course, there are concerts, sporting events, fairs and many other events to organise.

“The pilgrims come from all over,” says Carmelo, “Up the hill from Arrecife, across from Teguise and further north, and from the south of the island.

In Teguise, for example, groups set off with carts and donkeys at 7am in the morning, taking almost 12 hours to reach Mancha Blanca. They stop along the way to eat, drink and rest. It’s a big event.”

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At Tinajo itself, the pilgrimage is shorter, with pilgrims gathering at the football pitch at 6pm for an hour’s stroll to the church. At 7pm the image of the Virgin is taken from the church and paraded as all pilgrims enter the Plaza de los Dolores to pay homage. “This is my favourite moment,” says Carmelo, and it’s easy to see why. This is the moment where Lanzarote comes together as one.

After the procession of the Virgin, the Baile del Romero (Pilgrims’ Ball) begins, with several parrandas (folk music groups) performing from 10pm until 4am the following morning. “There are plenty of pilgrims who don’t get much sleep at all over the weekend,” smiles Carmelo.

The Fiesta de los Dolores officially commences with the inauguration event, which will occur on the 11th September. A local personality is chosen to preside over the opening ceremony (this year it will be local restaurant owner Juan Martín) and a concert by the band Grupo Bohemia will follow.

On the 14th, the 30th edition of the Nanino Díaz Cutillas Folklore Festival will take place, with folk groups from all over the Canaries performing on the eve of the big fiesta day. On Sunday 16th, at 7pm, festivities end with a Grand Mass and procession of the Virgin.

Meanwhile, the Handicrafts Fair will take place from the 12th to the 16th, with dozens of traditional craftsmen and women from all over the Canaries, as well as from a special guest country (Germany this year).

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it”, says Carmelo, before putting down sheaves of official papers to attend to the girl who wants her prize.

Tips For Pilgrims

Lanzarote has issued special recommendations for pilgrims and motorists during the Romería.

Pilgrims are advised to drink regularly to avoid dehydration, eat to keep energy levels up and rest in the shade frequently.

They are also advised to wear comfortable, breathable clothing with sun protection. Fortunately, Canarian traditional peasant dress fulfils these requirements perfectly, and while pilgrims are not obliged to wear local costume, it is seen as a sign of respect to do so, and those who don’t are very much in the minority.

Pilgrims are advised to walk in single file on the left-hand side of the road, to see and be seen by oncoming vehicles. They are also advised to wear a standard hi-vis clothing (e.g the day-glo jacket from a car) in conditions where visibility is poor or pavements are narrow.

The Goatherd and The Virgin
The volcanic eruptions of 1730-1736 covered a third of Lanzarote with ash, lava and picón, wiping out entire villages, farms and estates. Towards the end of the eruptions, residents of Tinajo marched toward an advancing tongue of molten lava, begging for assistance from heaven. The priest thrust a cross into the earth, and the lava flow stopped. The villagers promised to build a church in gratitude for this rescue.

But that promise was forgotten until, in 1774 a young goatherd called Rafaela Juana Acosta reported seeing a women dressed in black who told her to remind her villagers about the church “or the lava will flow again”. No one believed Rafaela until the strange woman appeared to her again a few days later, touched her shoulder and left the mark of a woman’s hand.

Rafaela’s parents rushed to the priest and she was taken to various churches, where she finally identified the woman as the weeping, black-clad Virgin de los Dolores (Our Lady of the Sorrows). The church was completed two years later and the image of the Virgin, now known locally as Our Lady of the Volcanoes, is the centrepiece of its altar.