In pre-Hispanic times Breña Baja, Breña Alta and Santa Cruz de La Palma constituted a single territory, the so-called Tedote domain. Breña, as a place-name, means bramble patch; cracked, fraught-with-weeds ground. Oddly enough, this feature did not deter the Spanish conquerors from turning a stony, untilled land into a farming region.
As far back as 1634 Breña Alta and Breña Baja split what till then had been a communal pastureland where cattle, sheep and goats grazed. Today, both boroughs still share common traditions as well as a handsome landscape.
Breña Baja is now a fifteen-kilometer-long slope which stretches from the Birigoyo peak (1,808 metres above sea level) down to the coast, where the sea dashes against inlets such as La Ballena, Charco Lino and Piedra Menuda. A number of quaternary volcanic eruptions shaped its orography; the Zumacal volcanoes, Montaña La Breña or Montaña Pavona testify to it. Hereabouts such as San José, San Antonio, El Socorro, La Polvacera, El Fuerte, La Montaña, Las Ledas and Los Cancajos are scattered throughout its 15 square kilometers.
For generations, peasants lived on the product of their labour -vineyards and tobacco plantations spread together with orchards and gardens where fruit trees, bananas, potatoes, yams and different sorts of vegetables were to be found.
Breña Baja’s mild climate and its vicinity to the Capital rendered it a land much covetted by wealthy families wishing to acquire big properties. Today, it is still a sought-after residential area in which a great many flourishing economic sectors, specially that of tourism, are settled.
CUSTOMS linked to the land
The bare branches of chestnut trees tenderly sprout in spring adding a bright green shade to the winter dun rifts and hillocks of the Borough, which are then covered by the dense and deep green foliage of summer treetops that turn gold by midfall, when the fruit ripens and heavily falls on the ground. Linked to chestnuts and wine is the all-popular festivity of San Martín, so very typical of Breña Baja. On November 11th the doors to winecellars are opened and the year’s vintage is tasted. Wine, pork and baked chestnuts call relatives and friends together in a traditionally homely evening. The old jingle « San Martín tirintintín, poke the chestnuts and drink from the wine spring » will be voiced over and over again on these autumnal days.
Nevertheless, dry farming such as flax and potatoes also used to dot Breña Baja’s fields. The soil was ploughed with the help of oxes, and thus it was aired before being manured. Young and old work side by side at sowing time. Seed potatoes are split in portions and set in the open furrows; they are then covered with soil and after a few weeks the plants begin to show. Dry farming makes peasants raise their eyes hopefully to the sky, their faith pinned to a promising rain. These tasks are just as linked to a survival economy as they used to be in the past, the only difference being that a bad crop does not mean famine anymore.
FAITH in people who cured the sick
As recently as a few decades ago it was common practice to talk about herbalists, bonesetters and all kinds of healers, those who did cure the ill by means of his or her faith, and those who healed by blessing. Whether quackers or true healers, they believed to have the gift of curing nearly any disease.
Infusions, poultices, frictions and prayers helped cure the body’s sufferings. But there was an illness which affected all living creatures: animals, plants and persons felt the damaging effects of the so-called « evil-eye ». People with a special strength of sight are thought to cause it through the evil power of their envy and greed. Plants wither; animals show a weird behaviour and fight among themselves, kick and change their food habits; children cry without apparent reason -fever and lack of appetite are the symptons of the illness.
Those who cure by blessing will heal people suffering from « evil eye » by praying to San Luis Beltrán. The healer’s body will then be invaded by fatigue and he or she will eventually faint, thus finding out whether the evil-eyed is a man or a woman. Afterwards, a long recitative will be repeated three times a day, but the sick need not be present, for the effects of such a healing procedure also work at distance.
To protect themselves against all wrong, men and women draw crosses on their backs, use amulets, put on inside-out garments…in the belief that they will manage to ward off evil intentions.
The people of Breña Alta pride themselves on having been the first Spanish borough to celebrate Mother’s Day. Since 1936, a series of religious and cultural activities take place to honour the Borough’s youngest and oldest mothers on the third Sunday in May. This tradition spread from Breña Baja to the rest of Spain, wherefore it was, back in 1947, awarded the title « Muy Noble y Honorable Villa » -that is, Noble and Honourable Borough-, and roses became the symbol of the mother who gives birth.
CROSSES and saints’ days festivities
The festivities calendar is marked by historical deeds and religious celebrations: the birth of Jesuschrist, His crucifixion, some saints’ martyrdom, men and women who devoted their lives to doing good, summer solstice, sowing and harvest time…are but a few of the countless motives there exist to meet gaily with other people.
After the rejoicing of Christmas time, spring comes shortly preceeded by San José’s feast day -March 19th. Some weeks later, on May 3rd, both Breñas are bedecked to celebrate the Cross’ Day -día de la Cruz. A ten of crosses, beautifully adorned, are scattered throughout the different villages: imagination, hard work and devotion are the ingredients that make these small works of art; brezo -heather- and faya give off their scent thus revealing their presence to the many visiting pilgrims. On the third Sunday in May, as mentioned above, Mother’s Day. On June 13th, San Antonio is feasted in the village named after Him. Also in June, on Corpus Christi’s Day, Breña Baja’s villages are decorated with street-long mats and archs skillfully elaborated with different sorts of delicate natural materials collected in the countryside. Summer is landmarked by numerous feasts. The patron saint’s festivities, Santiago -St James- and Santa Ana, are celebrated on the 25th and 26th of July respectively. Pilgrims take the image of the Apostle from San Antonio up to San José and the event ends in a joyous fair. The celebration of Nuestra Señora de El Socorro -Our Lady of Aid- puts and end to the feasts that take place in the Borough on the days preceeding September.
A great many paths and highroads communicate Breña Baja’s hereabouts; the trekker will be able to relish for the beauty and diversity of its countryside, for its mild climate, for a farming lifestyle which has mantained tradition without relinquishing the advantages of progress, and find that La Palma is a privileged place.
We suggest a walk along the path that sets off from El Zumacal, runs through el Tonolero and ends up at the hermitage of El Socorro. Or that of La Ventrecha, which stretches between La Cuesta de San José (San Antonio) and the handicraft centre known under the name of La Carnicera. And why not get to know Callejón de Cuba, which runs from San José down to San Antonio?
Those who have enough stamina and are willing to take a vigourous stroll are invited to climb from the very coastline up to Cumbre Vieja. The itinerary sets off from La Cuesta de La Pata -a spot known by the name of Horno de La Cal-, then runs past the hermitage of El Socorro, through El Tonolero and, finally, El Zumacal, from where the stroller will tread his or he way along Callejón de Cuba up towards Montaña de La Breña. Once there, he/she will go on moving upward by following the path known as La Ratona till he or she gets to an intersection of mountain tracks.
But the visitor might as well decide to spend the day by the sea, dive in Los Cancajos’ salty waters and practice sea sports; or just lie down on the black volcanic sand and relax under the sun.
PLACES OF INTEREST
San José, the Borough’s biggest settlement, is located some 300 metres above sea level. Barranco Amargavinos -or, better put it, Amargavinos Ravine- divides it in two halves. The old part of town is now surrounded by small new buildings within which life flows quietly.
The old San José’s church shows its unique belfry as the evidence of a long-lost architectural style. There is little left of the original hermitage, which was built in 1637, for it was enlarged and restored a number of times throughout the centuries -it is now a State Cultural Property. Its silent bells are currently waiting for the walls and roof of the building to be restored and so ring again.
Meanwhile, the new temple, built in 1973, houses, nor far from the old one, a range of fine images very much worshipped by the town’s parishioners. San José’s XVIIth-century carving stands by that of Virgen del Rosario, for both are Breña Baja’s patron saints and deserve equal veneration.
The sculpture dedicated to motherhood stands very near the modern Town Hall: Mother and child share a common bed of stone.
The visitor will find a number of old manors built in the outskirts of San José a long time ago. The wealthy families who lived in the Capital settled their summer houses in the Borough, where they could enjoy the quietness of the countryside and the benefitial effects of its good climate. The manor known by the name of Fierro Torres y Santa Cruz, which dates from the XVIIIth century (State Cultural Property), is one among them. Its old weather-worn walls testify to the architectural style of those times; a winepress, a well and numerous orchards can be found in this typical property.
It is sited by the seaside and it is La Palma’s Eastern tourist resort. Black extrusive rocks penetrate the Ocean thus creating an astounding coastline. An autochthonous rich vegetation covers the ground and endures the constant saltpetre-loaded breeze; many a tousist establishment is sited here, which means there is a wide range of accommodation facilities on offer. The waves softly lap the black sand of its two beaches, Varadero and Playa Nueva: the beauty of their shallow waters will charm both the swimmer and the diver.
On the way to Los Cancajos from Santa Cruz, the walker will be able to enjoy beautiful views of the sea. Torre Vandama -Flemish surname of its old proprietors-, a stepped stone heaping, can be found not far from the cliff. It was created when clearing cropping patches of stones, and it was used, long ago, as a fruit (figs and prickly-pears) drying place.
Montaña La Breña
Montaña La Breña is an old volcanic cone formed by pyroclasts (small extrusion fragments). Its rounded silhouette can be seen from afar; a fine viewpoint lies on its 565-metre-high summit, from where the visitor will be able to appreciate a handsome scene which stretches from the mountain ridge down to the sea.
The exhuberant vegetation that coats this geological landmark is mainly constituted by fayas, brezos (heather), ferns; at its foot there is a recreational and camping site which, due to its vicinity to nearby villages and towns, render it a very frequented spot. When looking at the mountain, the observer’s eyes will meet old rural houses and stone fences which once upon a time parceled dry farming fields.
Parador Nacional de Turismo
Breña Baja has been the chosen borough to site a high-quality and prestigious lodging such as the Parador Nacional de Turismo (one lodging belonging to a State-run chain whose establishments are usually restored historical buildings). In its handsome surroundings the traveller will come across flora species only found between the strip of land that stretches along the coast and that over a height of 300 metres above sea level; tall and proud palm trees and dragos crowd this area so blessed by its good climate.
Twenty-five thousand square metres have been assigned to recreate a world where there is neither haste nor noise. Stone, timber, clay tile and lime are being combined following the Island’s architectural style. Different façades offset shielded by splendid rows of balconies which overlook the sea. Exhuberant gardens finely enriched by a thousand endemic plants enclose this cozy place where contact with nature is a must.
This old saltworks, which date from the XVIIIth century, can be found in Los Cancajos, right by the shoreline. The Fierros were a wealthy family who set up this small enterprise meant to make salt by evaporation and thus preserve meats and fish at times when fresh food supplies were scarce.
On crossing its fine masonry main front, the visitor will be able to admire the pools where seawater evaporated once it had been collected from within the creek and lifted by two windmills. The so-called tanning and drying pools (where the density of water increases till salt crystals emerge) as well as some wells and a traditional two-storey house will make those who visit this old inheritance marvel at what once constituted an important economic activity.
Mirador de La Cumbre
Following the road that goes through San Isidro and leads to the other side of the Island over Refugio del Pilar, we will find Montaña de La Venta, at the foot of which, 1,300 metres above sea level, there is an excellent viewpoint wherefrom the visitor’s eyes will meet some of the Island’s mountain peaks, The laurisilva wood (redoubt of the tertiary era) covers the slopes with its green thickness to where it mixes with pine woods. Birds such as blue finches, tits, buzzards and rooks overfly the local ecosystems under the bright sky.
Santa Cruz de La Palma, Las Breñas and Mazo can be seen afar off; but even farther, often plotted on a misty skyline, the Teide and La Gomera fade up as though they were the background of a painting.
Camino del Tonolero y la ermita del Socorro
Narrow alleys that run along banana plantations will lead the visitor to El Tonolero; centenarian dragos show their majestic presence sinking their rotts in the ground in their fight for survival. This path runs between El Zumacal and El Socorro, where a XVIIth-century hermitage stands. Thick crenellated walls shelter this architectural treasure where time seems to have come to a standstill. Its construction was funded by a gentleman farmer to fulfill a promise he made for having saved his life in dangerous circumstances, thereby his devotion to La Virgen del Socorro -Our Lady of Aid. Her gorgeous carving was created by native artists and is zealously kept within the building walls.
This picturesque spot is fraught with old and beautiful family seats which open their balconies toward the East and display their solid gateways as though they were testifying to a way of life only enjoyed by those wealthy and influential people who populated the Island long ago.
No very far, along the path known by the name of La Pata and on El Fuerte beach, the traveller will find old lime kilms ramainders. Their conic structures were filled with limestone -brought from the Eastern islands- and heated very slowly until it all turned into the white powder with which water tanks were disinfected and their faces painted.
In the now restored XIXth-century building known as « La Carnicería », meat was sold, up until the thirties, twice a week. It is sited in the outskirts of San josé and it has been remodelled so as to house the Local Traditional Handicraft Selling Centre, though the original architectural characteristics have been preserved along with its name. Despite its small area, there is a wide range of handicraft and agroalimentary articles on sale. Strong and dexterous hands handle the tools with which various kinds of baskets and carboys are made out of woven follao and chestnut trees thin strips. Palm trees offer the craftsman their long leaves out of which mats, fans, handbags and hats are made. Also, basketworks made of rye straws and bramble twigs, embroidery, macramé, crochet, tatting, flax and wool fabrics woven in looms can be found in this cozy place.
Furthermore, woodworks and locksmith’s handicraft are exhibited together with candles made from beeswax. The visitor will also be able to purchase traditional confectionary, honey, mojo (garlic and herbs sauce), spirits, wines and the internationally known and well-reputed tobacco.
Copyright. Asociación para el Desarrollo Rural de la Isla de La Palma (ADER-La Palma).