The following is a guest post written exclusively for Spain Savvy by Fiona Flores Watson
A spine-tingling melee of high-pitched brass bands, trumpets glinting in the sunlight, clouds of incense, and mysterious candle-lit images swaying gently as they pass: this is Semana Santa, the biggest annual religious event in Spain, and one of the most spectacular.
Holy Week, which lasts from Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) to Domingo de Resurrección (Resurrection Sunday), sees sombre processions of nazarenos – robed figures wearing capirotes (pointed hoods with eyeholes), and sometimes walking barefoot – snake in long lines through the streets of towns and cities throughout the Iberian peninsula. The resemblance to the KKK can be unnerving, although their only common feature is desire for anonymity.
Probably Spain’s most famous Semana Santa celebrations are in Seville, with around 60 processions over nine days in total (two extra days are tagged on before Palm Sunday), attracting up to a million spectators. Sevillanos are extremely proud of the exquisite artistry of their pasos, from the 500-year-old wooden sculptures, to the Virgins’ hand-embroidered velvet and gold capes.
To criss-cross the city’s streets, map or smart phone in hand, tracking the progress of different processions, is an orienteering challenge all of its own. You turn a corner and suddenly you’re greeted by a carved wooden statue of Jesus on the cross, alarmingly life-like, or the Virgin Mary under her beautiful canopy, floating on a sea of white blooms; banging drums add to the somber, dramatically charged atmosphere. You’ll rarely see anything else like it in your life – guaranteed.
Each procession is organized by an hermandad (brotherhood based in a church), and consists of hooded nazarenos carrying candles or crosses, and the costaleros, who shoulder the weight – up to 600kg each – of the pasos. Hidden behind a curtain beneath the float, only their shoes visible, the costaleros take slow steps (hence the swaying, designed to make the statue appear to move on its own). You’ll spot them in the street, still wearing the white head padding they use to carry the paso, having a well-earned beer during their breaks.
In some processions, you can count as many as 3,000 nazarenos, taking over an hour to file past. They make their way from their church to the cathedral, along a carefully pre-planned route, and then back again; some take 14 hours to complete the journey. The logistics are extraordinary, with up to nine hermandades in the street at any one time, which cannot cross or meet each other.
The most mesmerizing moments happen after night falls – at dusk, the candles carried by the nazarenos, and on the Virgin’s paso, are lit, and the sight of silent candlelit hooded figures slowly marching along narrow medieval streets takes your breath away. Haunting music; the jumbled scents of incense, flowers and candles; and the high point – a mournful, heart-rending saeta – a gypsy prayer-turned-flamenco song addressed to the Virgin or Christ figure, delivered from a balcony overlooking the statue (the processions know exactly where to stop). This song of high intensity and passion, along with the salida (when the paso leaves its church, greeted by adoring cries and gasps), cannot be missed. Batteries charged, memory empty, ready to record – you’ll want to keep these images forever.