Semana Santa/Holy Week

I must admit, as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, that I was aware that much of my enjoyment of Paris came at the cost of Spain, Córdoba more specifically.

In addition to all of the real gems Paris had to offer, there were also the pleasant surprises that one really only appreciates after living for some time in Spain–the ability of the populace to form a line without taking numbers from a machine, the common usage of please, thank you, and excuse me, bathrooms with both toilet paper AND soap, napkins that sort of absorb, and people calmly getting on and off public transportation with minimal pushing, shoving, or deep sighs. And I won’t even get into the relief I felt when I saw people reading. Books. In public. Sometimes even alone. Whoa.

It’s absurd to compare Paris, a city of millions, a cultural Mecca, a place where I was a tourist, to Córdoba. But it was sort of unavoidable. When Adam and I remarked about how quiet the Parisian streets and metros seemed, what we really meant was, “No one here is double parked, leading the person trying to get out no other choice but to lay on his or her horn until someone shows up. Assuming someone shows up.” People seem really mellow equals “No one has accelerated when they saw us at a crosswalk.” Paris seems really walkable meant “No one is parked on the sidewalk. And people apparently pick up after their dogs.” And this is just referring to people and their cars.

It’s a strange city, Córdoba, because despite having 300,000 inhabitants, people are quick to point out, with cordobés pride, that it’s still a pueblo. I’ve been somewhat hesitant to criticize it, seeing as how it’s where I live and all, it’s really a pretty attractive city, it’s been a center of culture for a couple thousand years, where Jews, Muslims and Christians supposedly came together in peace and tolerance. But somewhere along the way those ideals were lost (if they ever existed), leaving not much to do, few cultural options, and people who combine the manners of an urban population with the closedmindedness of small towns. Whereas the average percentage of immigrants in Spanish society is somewhere around ten percent, Córdoba hovers around four, meaning I can’t go anywhere, ever, without being weird, having people stare at me and giving me the once over. And this is before summer has really arrived and I bust out the ghost skin. In Spanish, they call the once over “escanear”–when someone’s head moves up and down like the light in a scanner. I mostly don’t let it bother me and I am able to laugh at the yokels of this town, but some days it gets a little hard to take. Sometimes I am shocked and a little embarrassed to find how important being normal apparently is to me. Mostly I just wish people wouldn’t mad dog me. That’s right, I said it. I get mad dogged in Spain.

The moral of this story is that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to coming back to Córdoba, especially with the 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. bus ride from Madrid lying ahead. But somewhere near Ciudad Real, I discovered some music on my iPod that I hadn’t heard for years, I was able to ignore the guy next to me wriggling his ass more and more into my seat, and I found a somewhat surprising calm. Stepping out of the bus station in the gray light of early morning, the kind of light I mostly only see walking home from the disco, at a moment when I’m not paying too much attention to the shades of light, the first thing I smelled was azahar–orange blossoms. The trees had bloomed while I was away, filling the streets with the most magnificent, heady scent. In its own way, spring had arrived in Córdoba too. Walking back to our apartments, it was too early for the cafés to be open, too late (or too early, depending on how you look at it) on a Wednesday for people to be coming home from the clubs. Passing by the park, Adam and I heard birds chirping for the first time and wondered whether this was a morning ritual or something that happens all the time but is just drowned out by the sounds of kids screaming, fountains gurgling, and the lottery man shouting out that you, too, can win three million euros this weekend.

After a day of sleeping off the bus ride, trying my first, and possibly last, caracol (snail), and generally getting back into the rhythm here, it was time for a little Semana Santa. Semana Santa is Holy Week–the week before Easter–and Spain is famous for its Holy week processions. Also for the Klu Klux Klan-like hoods some of the people wear. But I’m getting to that. Since pretty much everyone I know travels during the week of vacation, I wasn’t too sure what to expect or how many people would still be around. But the cordobeses were out in force, every afternoon until late in the night, dressed up and matching their bags to their shoes to their makeup more than ever.

Each procession has two pasos–huge, heavy platforms that are carried through the streets by unseen burly men. It’s no coincidence that paso is also the word for step–these platforms move through the streets slowly, shaking back and forth with each step. In Córdoba, you don’t see the men below because they are surrounded by heavy velvet curtains on all sides, but you can hear them grunting, you can smell the sweat through the silver filigree, and you see some guys walking through the streets on their way to their processions, wearing tennis shoes, back support belts and turban-like head coverings that are supposed to protect their necks.

The first paso is a scene from the Bible corresponding to the day of the week–aka Jesus is condemned to death, Jesus takes the cross, Jesus dies, He is risen. The figures are surprisingly life-like and flanked by candles, silver vases, and flowers galore.

paso de la muerte de cristo

Between the first paso and the second are the penitents, people who walk, occasionally barefoot, carrying candles. They wear the aforementioned KKK hoods to hide their identity, the idea being that no one could tell their height with the pointy hood. It was explained to me, with some reverence and awe, that it’s a personal thing many choose to do annually, believers or no.


Then the second paso is a Virgin, the specific type depending on the church and the day.

paso de una virgen

We saw the Patron Virgin of Bullfighters, which was sort of interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the Virgin of the Legionarios, a wing of the Spanish military known for its courage, its muscles and its tattoos. Historically, its been comprised of the sons of poor people, with a large percent these days being immigrants. They are normally the first to be sent into a crisis. In the middle of Jesus and Virgins and penitents, seeing the Legionarios marching in uniform, whacking the sides of their guns, and throwing knives in the air was really very, very strange. After the Virgin come the women dressed in traditional clothes of mourning. They wear all black, with the lovely carved tortoiseshell hair combs called peinetas and long black lace veils. Depending on the day and the church, some processions have a band at the end, while others walk in silence.

As for the pasos, they weigh a ton. They move through the street slowly, making the spectators really aware of the men below. Every little while a man who is sort of like a coach hits a silver knocker once against the paso, telling the men below to stop walking, and then twice more, signaling for them to rest. After a minute or two, he yells a pep talk through the carved wood or silver, knocks to let them know it’s time to get ready, and then knocks twice more as a symbol to lift. When the men lift the paso quickly and high, it often leaves their shoulders bruised or even bleeding–and draws applause from the crowd. It’s something to be seen.

One of the pasos I saw, which left the church a little after midnight, was too big for the door to the church, meaning it had to be taken out with the men below on their knees. Moving from their knees to their feet with this couple ton thing above them was sort of interesting, with it looking like it was going to fall over for a minute. Despite the silence in the plaza, some, myself included, couldn’t help but gasp. And then a few minutes later it passed within about a foot of my nose.

de las rodillas

Everyone says Sevilla is the real heart of Semana Santa (which also means it’s the heart of Semana Santa tourism…) and when La Macarena, the most famous virgin statue of Semana Santa, was taken out of Triana this year, the most sevillano of the barrios of Sevilla, she was paraded around until six or seven in the morning–something like fourteen hours in total. People rain down flower petals from their balconies and yell “guapa” (beautiful) with tears in their eyes.

When the pasos stop, kids wander among the penitents, collecting the wax drippings to form huge balls of color.

candle wax balls

Being newagey and all, the idea of pain and punishment within religion seems a bit Opus Dei to me. And most of the Spaniards I talked to here agreed with me, had no real desire to take part in the carrying of the pasos, no desire to walk barefoot for six or eight, or in the case of Sevilla, twelve or fourteen hours. But almost all of them felt some sort of respect for the tradition, one I couldn’t help but feel a bit, too. After the penitents and the women dressed as widowers, there are just a ton of members of the church walking together, holding candles. I am not certain that the infliction of pain has to be involved, but there’s something to be said for a lasting sense of community, one that’s passed down among the generations.

As Spanish as Semana Santa seemed, the mixture of bullfighting and virgin worship, machismo and faith, one very Spanish habit seemed to be largely missing–smoking. Lots of people give it up for the week, meaning they take up eating sunflower seeds with serious gusto, filling the streets with shells. The lack of smoking during the week was really only made obvious when it returned in force on Easter Sunday. After Holy Thursday, I took a couple days’ break. But on Easter Sunday I got up and went for a walk, running into the procession in my yoga pants and tennis shoes and surrounded by everyone in their Sunday best. I earned those stares, I suppose. All bets were off on Easter. People were crossing the paths of the processions, something I had been told was considered uneducated during the serious processions of the week. The curtains were pulled up on the sides of the pasos, allowing people to see the men below.

This girl apparently couldn’t wait to have some chips.

mid-procession snack

I’ll conclude with this video, which like for a lot of reasons, among them the pep talk “To the sky, men! To the sky!”, the fact you can see the men walking below the paso, the lift, and then the guy who’s like, so over Semana Santa, enjoying a cigarette along with his enthusiasm.

Tomorrow I am headed to Sevilla to experience the other side of springtime in the capital of Andalucía–La Fería de Abril. Normally the fería can be a bit of a bummer for outsiders, I’m told, as the tents that make up the fairgrounds are almost all private/invitation only, but I lucked out when I was invited by Chari, the sevillana I work with. She’s going to show me the ropes–we take the train from Córdoba about an hour after school ends at 2, will get to Sevilla 45 minutes later in time to change clothes and such, will head to the fería in the afternoon and spend the night dancing sevillanas (her) and taking pictures (me) and then will be back at the station at 6:30 a.m., catching trains back to Córdoba for another day at our elementary school. Again I tell you, Welcome to Spain.

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No responses to “Semana Santa/Holy Week”

  1. Eamon


    I’ve been to Semana Santa in Seville. The flowers, the candles, the cobbled streets, the night – it’s all quite romantic. Most romantic of all, when someone sings a saeta flamenco song from a balcony.

  2. Eamon

    I like Cordoba because it has a special kind of old-fashioned atmosphere about it. And I met one of the nicest and friendliest spaniards ever (they can be a bit funny about foreigners in the south in old towns such as Cordoba as you suggest) – the landlady of a BB in a really old building with patio etc .. I believe there is a well-known festival in Cordoba when people open their patios up to the public.
    I had my money stolen there though ..

  3. Carol

    You look beautiful in your dress. And you can’t even tell you’re not breathing.