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Holy Week in Spain

Morgan Smith
Procession, Caravaca de la Cruz, Spain
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The lights go out. Suddenly we’re in pitch-black darkness. The crowd is silent. Then, with a great creaking sound, the enormous wooden doors of the cathedral swing open.We’ve just arrived in Caravaca de la Cruz, a small town in the little-known region of Murcia in southern Spain. It’s midnight on the Thursday before Easter and this is our first Semana Santa, or Holy Week, experience. We have no idea what to expect.

Through the huge doors, we can see that a procession has formed in the semi-darkness inside the cathedral. Men, wearing black robes and huge, white peaked hats, stand in two lines, holding lanterns. With a start, we realize that the hats make them look like Ku Klux Klansmen but this ceremony has a very different meaning – penitence. These starkly clad men are “penitentes.”The procession moves into the narrow, dark street. The dense crowd presses against us; the only sound is their breathing.Then we hear a single, commanding voice. A huge float, or “paso,” bearing a statue of Jesus on the cross follows the two columns of penitentes and moves toward us with a swaying movement. A hooded man precedes the float, and it is his voice that we hear. He is giving directions to some 20 men who are underneath the paso, hidden by the robes that cloak its sides, groaning under its staggering weight. They’re called “costaleros” and because they can’t see anything, they have no idea which way the street leads or how to maneuver the narrow corners. They are totally dependent on this man, called a “capataz.” He steers them with his voice, by tapping a long pole on the ground or ringing a small metal knocker on the side of the paso. We had only moved to Barcelona a few months earlier and by the time we decided to go to Semana Santa, there wasn’t a hotel room available in all of Andalusia. So we ended up in the little-known region of Murcia, staying in an attractive “casa rural” up a beautiful valley above Caravaca run by an enterprising young man named Pedro Bernal and his fiancee, Elena. It turned out to be a miraculous experience.

Earlier that evening, we’d wandered into a small, jampacked bar called “Los Pajaritos.” Along the back wall were little cages full of songbirds. The owners, Santos and Maravilla, raise these birds and enter them in contests all over Spain. The birds sang happily as the cheerful customers feasted on “pulpo a la gallega” (octopus, Galician-style), long green beans that looked like oversized lima beans, local almonds, codfish fried in little dough balls, olives and other treats, all washed down by local wines and draft beer.Then as midnight neared, the crowds surged out of the bars and headed toward the cathedral.Suddenly a song broke out. A woman was leaning out of a window, singing what is called a “saeta,” a religious lament, sung without any accompaniment. The paso stopped amid dead silence, except for her deeply moving voice. When she finished, a roar of cheering erupted from the crowd around us. Then there was silence again as the swaying paso continued along the narrow street, squeezing past the throngs.Since that unique Thursday night in 1999, we’ve been to Semana Santa all over Spain:

• The somber processions in Valladolid north of Madrid. • The extraordinary pageant of Lorca with women in lace gowns on purebred white horses, and men, women and children dressed as gladiators, Roman soldiers, Marcus Antonio, Cleopatra, Moses, Nero and Julius Caesar.• Sevilla, which most people think is the highlight.• Small towns like Antequera, Cieza, Castellar de la Frontera, Archidona, Cañete La Real and Guadix, where you can visit the churches where the pasos are being adorned.

• Granada, Spain’s most unique city. We’re not Catholics, not even churchgoers. But this is a spiritual experience of stunning beauty. It is also logistically complicated, however, and takes some advance planning. Here are some recommendations.Avoid Valladolid. It is far too austere and somber.Sevilla’s processions are the most famous of all and, for me, watching the procession of the Virgen de la Macarena at dawn was unique. But, without a guide who really knows the city, Sevilla can be very confusing and crowded.

Granada is more accommodating for a large city experience. In addition, Granada is much easier to drive in and out of, which offers the opportunity for some interesting day trips.Another option is a smaller town like Antequera, where there is a good hotel on the Plaza San Sebastián, through which most of the processions pass. In terms of photography, the most dramatic processions are Thursday midnight in Caravaca, the Friday night pageant in Lorca (about an hour by car from Caravaca) and the one of the Cofradia ( brotherhood) de Cristo Resucitado which takes place on Easter Sunday afternoon in Guadix, a town 40 miles east of Granada where many of the residents still live in caves.In fact, those are our goals for this year – staying in Caravaca, seeing Lorca’s Friday pageant and then going to Guadix for the Sunday afternoon procession.The rest of the time? Well, that’s the magical part. Something unique and fascinating will always turn up.

Here are some hotel recommendations. Keep in mind that reservations must be made early and, since this is a holiday week, they’ll probably have to be for a minimum of four days. Also, because this is considered the high season, rooms will be more expensive than they usually are.

The hotels already mentioned in Sevilla, Granada and Antequera are along the route of the processions so it’s possible to watch from the hotel window.• Sevilla: Hotel Venecia, Calle Trajano, 31, Tel. 011 34 954 38 11 61, info@hotelvenecia.net. • Granada: Hotel Molinos, Calle Molinos 12, Tel. 011 34 958 227 471, hotelmolinos@usa.net. • Antequera: Hotel Plaza San Sebastián, Plaza San Sebastián, 4, Tel. 011 34 952 84 42 39, http://www.hotelplazasansebastian.com, info@hotelplazasansebastian.com.

• Guadix: Hotel Cuevas Abuelo Ventura, Tel. 011 34 958 664 050 or 654 383 451, http://www.cuevasabueloventura.com. This is a very pleasant cave hotel on the edge of Guadix run by a woman named Adoración ( Dori).• Caravaca de la Cruz: Cortijo Peña Rubia, Tel. 011 34 968 700 584, Fax 011 34 968 708 776. Ask for Pedro or Elena.Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite who has lived in and written extensively about Spain. He can be reached at morgan-smith@comcast.net.


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