Spanish Holy Week
At the intersection of Gran Via avenue and Calle Rosario in Salamanca, under the arcades of a bar, I was on a camera screen reviewing photos taken in the past few days. I ordered a glass of rioja, a red wine from the province of the same name. I waited for Milan to show up from somewhere, as at the end of the afternoon a couple of hours ago we each went after our own motives. After an intense travel week we finally reached Salamanca, where we will dedicate 4 days to the pulse of the city during the Easter holidays.
My this time travel companion Milan Pirc, a retiree from Kamnik
Several times it crossed my mind I am already on the third trip to Spain, but I refused the thought of it getting under my skin. Less than 30 years ago, the three of us set off across the Iberian Peninsula. With Lada Samara and basic gear, then without Garmin, Lonely Planet, Booking or anything web-like. Equipped only with sleeping bags, we spent the night in fields, pastures, on construction sites and beaches, without tents and repellents. In addition to Spain and Portugal, we also pushed Gibraltar and Andorra in the package. Although we didn’s see much, the memories of the adventure still linger.
A couple of years ago I set my eyes on Andalusia and the south of Spain. I took that journey with Dejan, a travel-hardened companion from Iran and North Africa. A relatively cheap trip of two weeks was instigated by those two “time and money” factors that influence such decisions. I don’t remember where anymore, but on that trip I saw a motif of an Easter procession in Seville in some painting or tapestry. Participants wore long tunics, high tapered hoods, and covered faces. I was immediately reminded of Asterix in Spain, as well as the main actor in The Da Vinci Code, when he reveals the predominant associative connection with the racist group Ku Klux Klan at the very beginning of the film. That’s when I said to myself I had to see it, and the event landed on my list, somewhere between the Voodoo Festival in Benin and Road of Bones in Siberia.
Salamanca – a six-hour procession that ends in the evening
ATTENTION! At this point I must say, especially to those who find it more difficult to deviate from their own convictions, that the present text and the accompanying photographs do not speak of the aforementioned KKK. Nor about the source of the clan. The hoods and other parts of the chores you’ll see in the photos below were created centuries before the infamous racist organization. Generations after the Christianity and fraternities were brought to the south of the present-day U.S. by the Spaniards, a prominent member of the clan who admired unique clothing took over their chores including pointed headgear. Until then unappealing potato sacks with holes for the eyes have been used. This is where any ideological similarity ends, as the clan members hate not only blacks and other races, but also Catholics. They are Protestants.
Spaniards are staunch Catholics. Their historical rulers are referred to as “Catholic kings – Reyes catolicos”, streets and squares are named after saints and bishops, the Reconquista is the most important event in their history, and they take the whole week off for Easter. There are many accompanying events this week, but the most picturesque are the Easter processions, which take place every day from Palm Sunday onwards until Easter. They line up in practically all cities, are included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage, and are declared by local authorities as events of special tourist significance. In smaller cities, the population may double or triple during this time due to tourists.
Badajoz – Uniformed brass band
Salamanca – one of the brass orchestras
Although tourist guides recommend southern Spain with Seville and Malaga for Easter, I opted for Salamanca nonetheless, mostly because of the view offered by the illuminated cathedral on the hill above the old Roman bridge over the Tormes River. At the time, I didn’t even know that only one of the many processions crosses the bridge.
Salamanca – ancient Roman bridge and cathedral in the background
But the history of pointed hoods and concealed faces nevertheless has a more obscure connotation. They date back to the time of the Inquisition, when heretics were put a simple paper cone on their heads and dressed in tunics before being burned at the stake. Later, similar garments were taken over by individuals who thereby demonstrated that they were doing penance for their sins but did not want to be recognized in the local community. They walked barefoot, some even in iron shackles and with a cross on their shoulders. From this arose fraternities (cofradias), whose members participated as penitents in processions in remembrance of Christ’s suffering. Over the centuries, various fraternities have formed. They are most easily distinguished by the colors of their clothes, but they also have different coats of arms and other religious insignia. It is now more important that each family has at least one member participating in the fraternity, a shackled barefoot is more of an exception. The children participate too.
Zamora – during preparations for the procession
Processions take place slowly, with stops and pauses. In some places, during breaks, the scaffolds are lowered onto the girders, and the team of girders is replaced. Extinguished candles are lit, the orchestra changes notes, and the photographer replaces the card if necessary.
There are several roles in the processions – some carry candlesticks, some stages with passion figures, others crosses or incense, but also children participate, and brass band, guardsmen, civil and religious dignitaries and more.
Badajoz – Women in black lace veils in processions symbolize mourning
Zamora – a photographer-friendly city, here they also cover traffic signs and other modern informative clutter in the old part of the city
Easter is usually in April, and April in Spain is rainy. If it starts to rain, the procession immediately turns back towards the church, where the fraternity’s headquarters are, and valuable passion figures are instantly covered to protect them from the water. In case of a bad forecast, the processions are canceled the next day. And there are many cancellations.
Salamanca – procession interrupted by rain
Someone told me that there is a correlation between the date of Easter in April and the amount of rain. The later the Easter, the less rain there is. This time, 2019, Easter was in the second half of April, and the number of rainy days fortunately coincided with the statistics.
Most of the stages with passion figures are carried by men, in larger cities hundreds of porters are needed. Smaller and lighter are also worn by women, some are even made to fit teenagers. In all, porters walk right next to each other, so their steps are coordinated, otherwise they would stumble. Each procession begins in one of the parish churches, goes to the cathedral and back. A special time is devoted to exiting and entering through doors that allow only inches of error.
Some figures are centuries old and were made by famous carving masters.
Salamanca – a passion stage worn by women
Salamanca – this fraternity has a stage carried by teenagers; girls mostly braid their buns, long hair fluttering into someone else’s face may be annoying
Salamanca – night procession
Tips for travel photographers
Moving within processions
Narrow streets with even narrower sidewalks are already full of people before the procession starts, so it is best for the photographer in most cases to move inside the procession. There is in general enough space, retreat to the sidewalk when there is no other way. The people are mostly friendly and let you pass, but the procession participants don’t back down, it’s you who has to give way or step aside. Care must be taken with candles that are held at an angle and from which the wax just flows.
Semana santa is advertised because it is good business. A lot of information is online, you get a brochure in every hotel or tourist information
with route maps, program by days and hours. Sometimes it is necessary to give 1 €.
I will not bug you with Spanish expressions, for the curious I am available for further clarification. Don’t expect all hoteliers to be fluent in english either.
Wine, beer & snacks
I usually order red (vino tinto), they offer either Rioja (pronounced Rioha) or Aranda de Duero. Basically, these are not wines, but districts. Anyway, a glass, which is usually more than 1 dl, costs 2-3 euros. It’s not cheap, but if you get a tapa, it’s fine. Tapas are served in the southern provinces, and most visitors mistakenly think they are not served elsewhere. Some cities have a decree that a tapa must be served with wine or beer. Ask at the accommodation. Food prices are higher than here (in Slovenia), but if you are targeting “platos combinados” as a kind of lunch, it should not be more than 12-15 €.
Transport and accommodation
Over the thumb a double room around € 50, with 2 travellers the cost becomes bearable. The flight Venice – Madrid was around € 200 (Iberia) including luggage below, renting a smaller car for two weeks was also just over € 200.
I booked first 2 nights and 4 nights in Salamanca in advance. The rest of overnights Milan and I booked through Booking in the evening for next day or in the morning for same day and there were no problems. Larger hotels are not more expensive, they have parking spaces and rich breakfast buffets. In the smaller ones you get an ascetic breakfast.
Our trip included Segovia, Ávila, La Mancha, Badajoz, Cáceres, Plasencia, Salamanca and Zamora in the 9- to 10-day trip.
Segovia – a Roman aqueduct in the middle of the city
La Mancha – an arid province with an interesting landscape that is forever
immortalized by Cervantes in Don Quixote