Article published in The Sunday
Times in 2003.
La Palma: All white on the night
Nobody fights dirty at La Palma’s talcum-powder battle. Joe
Cawley, of The Sunday Times, saw the most fragrant Spanish fiesta.
Guiri!” the man shouted, before turning his cannon and engulfing me in a cloud of pungent white powder. I had been betrayed not by a pallid English complexion — all faces were equally blanched today — but by my khaki shorts and T-shirt. And guiris — foreigners — were being singled out for a particularly heavy artillery onslaught.
In Spain, celebrations are often outlandish and extra- vagant affairs. But not content with the usual glut of alcohol, music and dance, certain messy fiestas now demand nothing less than a baptism in whatever substance is the flavour of the feast. In Valencia, that means a hail of tomatoes; in Haro, La Rioja, the weapon is wine; and in Vilanova, near Barcelona, meringues are the menace.
But none is more bizarre than the pre-Lent battle on the island of La Palma, normally the most reserved and always the most beautiful of the seven Canary Islands. For the rest of the year, its people get on with quietly working the hilly green terraces of bananas and tobacco. But every year, on Carnival Monday (which, this year, falls on March 3), they head down from their hill-side hamlets to the pocket-sized capital, Santa Cruz, and turn the stately colonial town into a war zone.
It’s a day when the tiny green island descends into an orgy of hand-to-hand combat, employing nothing more sinister than squeezy bottles full of baby powder. More than 5,000kg of ammunition is discharged during the Batalla de Polvos de Talco, or talcum-powder battle — and a kilo or two had just been dumped on my head. A fine way to treat your visitors.
Through blinking minstrel eyes, I watched as a middle-aged English couple jigged awkwardly to the approaching samba band.
“Derek, come over here, out of the way,” called the woman from the sanctuary of the farmacia’s doorway. But the man in pressed trousers and beige shirt had the approaching revellers in his viewfinder, and the shot was too good to miss. The samba beat exploded around him, and he barely had time to take in the rush of white faces before being engulfed, spluttering, in a fog of perfumed dust.
“Derek!” admonished the woman. “I wanted you to wear those slacks again tomorrow.”
THE DAY had started serenely enough, with a commemorative gathering on Santa Cruz’s small, triangular Plaza de España. This sets out to parody the pomp and circumstance that, in times past, surrounded the arrival of Los Indianos, nouveau-riche emigrants returning from the Americas to their subtropical home.
Glasses of cheek-sucking juice made from pressed sugar cane 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 and the grand facades of the colonial mansions along the cobbled main street, Calle O’Daly.
As the sun shortened its shadows, faces began to appear in the arched windows of the 16th-century town hall, and a small crowd congregated on the stone steps of the Church of El Salvador. Smiling residents handed out glasses of sangria, providing enough stimulation for subdued dancing. It was, perhaps, a hint of things to come when one old fellow had his bald pate and cigar unceremoniously caked in white. He blinked hard, but the scowl stretched into a broad grin as he realised that war was coming.
This being a civilised country, though, siesta comes before fiesta. The shops closed up (but not before protecting their stock with plastic sheeting) and the town snoozed. Then, in mid-afternoon, the bars along the seafront Avenida Maritima quickly began to fill with more Palmeros dressed in traditional whites. An arsenal of local Trompy talcum-powder containers were stacked side by side with bottles of rum and whisky, ready for the battle proper, and as the sun slid for cover behind the rising pine-forest backdrop of Taburiente National Park, the chaos began.
Next to me, a group of sun-wizened musicians under south-sliding panamas looked as if they’d peaked too soon. Although the maracas player was doing his best to maintain a semblance of rhythm, the other members had long since abandoned their instruments and descended into inharmonious la-la-ing. 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, a thunder of drums signalled that the parade of Los Indianos was beginning. Two separate bands of 40 or so drummers struck up opposing Brazilian beats, and the thick fog increased in proportion to the cacophony, bouncing off drum skins with every forceful accent.
I soon realised that any eye contact was a declaration of war. With an enemy numbering 10,000, all of them grey-haired, pasty-faced and in identical battle dress, massacre was inevitable. It wasn’t that long before everything I could see, smell and even taste reminded me of choking in a blizzard of Woolworths’ finest during a liberal dousing in my grandmother’s bathroom, aged three.
After an hour or so of indiscriminate attacks, people, palm trees and road were as white as Finland in December. So, in fact, were the smallholdings stretching up the slopes from town towards La Palma’s volcanic peaks.
Now the drumming bands began to lead the melee further along Avenida Maritima, on its traditional 2km procession to the Castle of Santa Catalina, on the northern side of town. Flaky painted doors and low-hanging dark-wood balconies bore the snowball scars of battle, and loose powder formed in windowpane drifts.
I DECIDED to bow out gracefully and watched from a safe distance as the anarchic parade climbed Avenida del Puente and disappeared into the alleyways of the old town. Illuminated under the pale fluorescence of ornate black street lamps, several thousand people were still flinging powder for all they were worth, leaving behind them a trail of ashen debris. Phantoms of pale dust, stirred into afterlife 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 an inflated level of competition, fuelled by excessive alcohol intake, the town’s clinic reported nothing more serious than a handful of sweet-smelling asthmatics — unlike the laundrettes, which were besieged by bag-bearing masses.
If you’re in Santa Cruz de La Palma on Carnival Monday, you’re going to get extremely messed up, albeit in a fragrant kind of way. But the next time I go, I’ll be wearing white — and I’ll pack a bottle of Marks & Spencer magnolia talc to add a whiff of British refinement.
Getting there: there are no direct scheduled flights from the UK or Ireland to La Palma, but the island is easily reached from Tenerife. British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.ba.com) flies to Tenerife from Gatwick (from £189); Monarch Scheduled (0870 040 6300, www.flymonarch.com) flies to Tenerife from Luton (from £96). Binter Canarias runs interisland flights; from £64, one-way (book through www.opodo.co.uk).
Where to stay: Hotel Parador in Brena Baja (00 34-922 435828; doubles £76). Or try the four-star Taburiente Playa (922 181277; doubles £71).
Tour operators: JMC Holidays (0870 758 0203, www.jmc.com) has a week on La Palma from £449pp, B&B, including nonstop flights from Gatwick and transfers. Manchester departures cost an additional £9pp.
Further information: contact the La Palma tourist office (00 34 922 412106,
Copyright © Joe