The sound of the rattling metal balls and chains is disturbingly lugubrious as the penitents walk barefoot on the cobbled streets of Ronda. I am on a trip to southern Spain, attending one of its most vivid traditions and most popular celebrations: the Semana Santa in Andalucia. Tonight is the night of “El Silencio”, one of the most impressive processions during the “Holy Week”.
The Holy Week is one of the most important celebrations in Andalucía. Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, Catholic fraternities celebrate the annual commemoration of the “Passion of Christ”. While every city has its own traditions, there is a general order to most. Read on below and the Semana Santa will no longer hold any secrets!
What happens during the Easter processions?
The processions are organized by “cofradías” or brotherhoods. They usually leave the brotherhood’s local church, leading up to the city’s cathedral or the city centre.
- The people participating in the Easter processions are called “nazarenos”. They are easily recognizable with their long robes and tall conical hat, which also covers their face. Although strikingly similar, they have nothing to do with the hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan!
- The hats are called “capirote”, they used to be reserved for people doing penance: as a sign of atoning their sins, they would walk through the town wearing the hat. Their faces were covered so the sinners couldn’t be recognized as such. Nowadays, some of the nazarenos still do it out of religious beliefs, other ones purely out of tradition.
- The nazarenos walk behind a big giant cross and usually carry candles. In some processions (like the one in Sevilla), there can be over 2.000 of them! They proceed slowly to the sound of emotionally-charged music. Women can also walk in the processions, in Sevilla for example they usually wear a “mantilla”, a black lace veil, worn high on the back of the head.
- The focal point of every procession are the “pasos”. They are large floats adorned with flowers and candles. They carry religious sculptures depicting Jesus or Mary, or both. Some of them weigh over 5 tonnes and are carried by what must definitely be the strongest men in the brotherhood! The “costaleros”, the men carrying the floats, are hidden underneath them, so it looks like the float is walking on its own!
- When the flower-bedecked Virgin in her gold-emboidered mantle emerges, people shout “guapa!” (beautiful!) – it’s a moment charged with great emotion! This is also the moment when you are most likely to witness a “saeta”. A saeta is a very old traditional Spanish religious song, which sounds a bit like flamenco. It is usually sung from a balcony and is very impressive, even for a non-religious person like me!
I would highly encourage you to travel from city to city to get a feeling of the various celebrations.Despite the general similarities, the atmosphere and proceedings can be very different.
Three very different Easter processions in Andalucia
The famous one: La Madruga in Sevilla
Málaga and Sevilla are home to the most famous Semana Santa celebrations in Andalucia. Both cities attract over 1 million visitors every year and rightly so! If you are going to visit only one city for the Semana Santa, I’d suggest you choose either of them. It’ll give you a perfect example of the epic proportion the Holy Week has in this part of the world!
I was in Sevilla for its most important and popular night: La Madruga! “Madrugada” means early morning and it’s pretty obvious where the name comes from: the 6 different processions only start between midnight and 2am! La Madruga is celebrated during the night of Holy Thursday and Good Friday and is the night during which two of the most popular Virgins are paraded around the city: the Macarena and the Triana. You will need some stamina to keep going and I wouldn’t advise you to want to see every single moment as some processions last over 12 hours! I started off around midnight to see “La Salida”, (when a procession is leaving the church), stayed out till 5am to see various processions along the way, went to bed for a few hours and then went to see “La Entrada” (when a procession finishes back at the church)
I must admit that the battling with the crowds and the waiting took a lot out of me, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat! The atmosphere, the beauty of the floats and the serenity make La Madruga one of the most impressive celebrations I’ve ever witnessed!
The haunting one: El Silencio in Ronda
The procession of the “El Silencio” brotherhood takes place during the night of Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday from 11pm till 3am.
Just before 11pm, the “paso” is brought outside the church of Santa Maria la Mayor. When the president knocks three times, a huge curtain is drawn to show the float to the public and the procession begins. As the name “silencio” suggests, this procession takes place in eerie silence. The nazarenos are moving slowly, only lit by candelight and are observed by hushed crowds.The only “music” is the sound of chains, attached to the bare feet of the nazarenos, dragging along the cobblestones.
It can be a pretty intense and slightly unsettling experience to be honest, but it’s certainly an unforgettable one!
The quirky one: Easter Sunday in Cartajima
A few weeks before the Semana Santa, I helped out at a charming boutique hotel in Cartajima, a small mountain village in the Serranía de Ronda. This is where I met Silvia. Silvia was involved in the local community and was very keen to show me the local Easter celebrations.
In Cartajima Easter Sunday is the day of “Las Cortesias”, a ceremony in which the statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus reunite.
At 7am, after the church bells have been rung, baby Jesus is taken out of the village church to a place called “El Huerto”, representing the Garden of Olives. At midday, Our Lady of the Rosary leaves the church and heads for the street where her son is. When she arrives, Jesus is lifted to meet his mother. That’s when a small dance, called “Cortesías”, is performed.
The most impressive thing to witness for me however was the burning of Judas! People shut their doors and windows when fire-crackers are put onto a petrol-drenched puppet of Judas and after a loud bang, everything literally explodes!! That’s health and safety for you in Cartajima!
In the afternoon, the village square is filled with drinks, music and food and everyone comes together to chat, have fun and dance! A brilliant way to celebrate Easter if you ask me and I felt really privileged to be part of that small community for a day!
Semana Santa: practical tips
To get the maximum out of your Semana Santa experience, there are a few things to bear in mind, especially if you’re going to the most famous cities like Sevilla or Málaga.
- Easter is one of the busiest times of the year in Andalucia, so book your accommodation well ahead! Needless to say prices tend to go up during that time of the year, especially in Sevilla and Málaga. I would advice to stay in the city centre, close enough to walk everywhere, so you can be totally flexible on which processions you want to follow and you can get back to your hotel quickly for a few hours of much needed rest.
- For the bigger processions, make sure you’ve got a programme and itinerary. For Sevilla, you can check them on the official Semana Santa itinerary website or get the paper version from the tourist office. The schedule will coordinate the street names and times for each procession on each day, so you’ll have a good idea on where to go at what time.
- Position yourself well! People will queue long in advance for a good spot and locals often pay for reserved seating. Trying to get a good vantage point without being crushed is often tricky. In Sevilla avoid the area around the Cathedral, calle Sierpes, Plaza San Francisco,… Things can get really, really crowded here, it’s almost impossible to see anything and you might wait a long time before being able to cross. Instead try the Puente de Isabel II, connecting the city centre with the Triana district.
- Don’t overdo it and be patient. It’s impossible to see everything. Choose a few processions you’d like to see and stick to them. It’ll save you a lot of frustration. Also realize that the bigger processions can take 2 hours to pass! Because of the crowds and the blocked off streets, what seems like a 10 minute walk can take up to an hour during the Semana Santa!
- Take breaks. The Madruga’ in Sevilla lasts all night long and well into the next day. No need to see every single nazareno, you will need food and sleep at some point. After a while, the crowds and the waiting might get too much, so take time to have a few tapas (some bars along the route stay open all night) or go for a few hours rest.
- Be respectful. A lot of people attend Semana Santa out of tradition or religious beliefs, so show respect when the “pasos” are passing. Don’t make fun of people who get very emotional, don’t shout, … Processions that are called “El Silencio” walk in total silence, so when they pass, do the same.
- Bear in mind that a lot of restaurants and shops in the city centre close early during that time of year. Certain tourist attractions in Sevilla have reduced opening hours as well. It’s worth bearing in mind that Semana Santa is not the ideal week for sight-seeing in Sevilla!
- Wear comfortable shoes! You will be on your feet for a very long time, whether it’s walking from one procession to another or just standing, waiting for the processions to pass. Ronda and Sevilla have a lot of cobblestone streets, so high heels are a very bad idea, ladies!
- Watch your pockets. As everywhere when big crowds gather, they attract pick-pockets. Keep a close eye on your belongings or better, leave them at your hotel.
- If it’s raining, the processions will not go out! Most of the floats are too easily damaged, so no risks will be taken.
- Enjoy! Despite the crowds and tiredness, it is an event not to be missed and one that offers a great insight into this Spanish tradition!
When in the area, make sure you don’t miss out on the white villages of Andalucia, another perfect way to discover the true Andalusian lifestyle!
Have you witnessed the Holy Week in Andalucia? Or anywhere else? Looking forward to your comments!