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April 18, 2011

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Majesty of Holy Week in Spain

Throughout southern Spain, the week before Easter unfolds with magnificent nighttime processions, penitents and floats carrying life-size statues of Jesus and Mary. There are also bullfights and flamenco. Ron DePasquale reports.

As incense and candles burn, trumpets blare and drums beat, penitents covered in colorful tunics and conical hoods march slowly through the night toward the cathedral. Life-size statues of Jesus and Mary are carried by porters hidden beneath floats, making the several-ton structures appear to hover through the air.

The ritual plays out every year during Holy Week, or Semana Santa, part of an Easter tradition celebrated throughout Spain. In the southern region of Andalusia, cities spend all year planning for the spectacle. Seville, the regional capital, hosts some of the biggest processions, dating back to medieval times and organized by brotherhoods, or cofradias, each sporting their own colors. Easter is on April 24.

For tourists here to see the Easter spectacle, Seville offers plenty of other things to do as well with its soaring cathedral, Real Alcazar (royal fortress), bullfighting ring, flamenco clubs, tapas bars and art galleries. Seville is also a convenient base for exploring Andalusia, making it easy to hop from city to city while seeing some of the best parades set against some of its most beautiful historic places.

Cordoba, with its tangled warren of narrow streets and rich Catholic, Islamic and Jewish history, is only about 45 minutes away. Within a two-to-three-hour trip are Cadiz, one of Europe's oldest cities; Granada, home of the breathtaking Alhambra fortress; and Malaga, where the Semana Santa floats are bigger and are accompanied by more exuberant music and applause. Each city could merit an overnight stay.

The tradition

Each wooden or plaster paso is a distinct depiction of the Passion or a grieving Mary, and some are centuries-old artistic masterpieces. They are tended to by the cofradias, many of which formed back in the 1500s and 1600s. Some of the pasos from back then are still carried today.

Female spectators dress in mourning, wearing black dresses with a lace scarf, or mantilla, held by a comb made of shell. Some lay Catholic associations started allowing women to march in recent years, but legend has it that women have always secretly donned the face-covering habits with pointed hoods and marched as penitents, or Nazarenos (the outfit was appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan). This year, the archbishop of Seville decreed that women must be allowed to participate, including carrying the massive floats. Only God is supposed to know the identity of a Nazareno. A jarring sight is to watch the hooded penitents scurrying around town, rushing to their parishes before the marches begin.

Nowadays, many parents enlist their children in the brotherhoods at a very young age because it takes years to move up the ranks and earn a prestigious spot in a procession, such as the coveted position of carrying a great cross at the head.

Most processions are at night, and the Nazarenos carry long candles to light the way from their parish church to the cathedral and back again, an arduous journey that can take over 12 hours. Some walk barefoot or even with shackles. In some of the biggest processions, a group of Roman soldiers follows.

The Nazarenos are followed by altar boys, some carrying incense. Then comes the main attraction, the pasos, decorated with flowers and candles. They are carried by costaleros, named for the sack-cloth they wear. Anywhere from two dozen to several dozen costaleros will carry the paso, and will set it down and raise it back up again periodically (their toil can draw applause from appreciative crowds). The costaleros, who can be seen reaching for water during breaks, are guided by an overseer, or capataz, who calls out commands or uses a hammer to signal directions.

The biggest brotherhoods parade up to three pasos. While some processions are eerily silent, others are followed by a brass band that plays mournful music on trumpets, drums and cymbals. Sometimes singers along the parade route will offer a saeta, a religious form of improvised singing that sounds similar to flamenco and is often sung from balconies. The procession peaks when it finally reaches the cathedral.

Processions in Andalusia begin on Palm Sunday and reach their pinnacle after midnight on Good Friday, a time known as La Madrugada. Ask at a tourist office for timetables, names of the must-see processions and where to view them. Take a map and allow plenty of time, as navigating a maze of blocked streets can be difficult. Expect the unexpected, such as tourist sites closing early or processions being canceled by rain.

Kids can collect a souvenir prized by local children: a ball of wax formed by asking the Nazarenos for drips from their candles, which can be of various colors.

During Lent, the Spanish eat plenty of vegetables and fish. One Easter pastry is torrijas, sweet fried bread soaked in wine.

If you go

Here are some details on visiting Seville, Cordoba and other cities:

? Seville

Seville, a two-and-a-half hour high-speed rail trip or short flight from Madrid, is the dynamic hub of Andalusia, known as Al-Andalus during the nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule over various parts of the region.

The medieval city's most prominent relic of the Muslim era is the towering La Giralda, which began as a minaret and later became the bell tower of Seville's Santa Maria Cathedral, one of the world's biggest churches.

On Easter Sunday, a parade of over a dozen cardinals and bishops attends Mass. The area around the cathedral is a hive of activity during Seville's Semana Santa.

After midnight on Good Friday, the first procession is said to be the oldest: El Silencio, which marches in silence. Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of the Great Power) follows, parading its prized image of Jesus carrying the cross. Next is La Macarena, with its popular image of the grieving Mary. The last of six processions is Los Gitanos (The Gypsies), which arrives at about dawn.

Seville dedicates a weeklong fair after Semana Santa - this year it's May 3-8 - to flamenco dress and dancing, bullfighting, eating and drinking sherry, or Jerez (the part of Andalusia it comes from).

? Cordoba

Its ancient center might seem quaint and charming now, but a thousand years ago, Cordoba was considered a megacity and an intellectual hub as the Umayyad caliphate's capital. The city's multi-faith past can be seen at the Mezquita-Catedral.

Originally the site of a Roman temple and then a church, it was transformed into one of the world's biggest mosques, with its endless red and white arches. Not far away is the white-walled Jewish Quarter, where one of the world's largest Jewish communities once lived and where the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was born.

Semana Santa is more somber here. A boisterous time to visit is during the Cordoba Guitar Festival, when world-class guitarists play and courses on flamenco guitar, dance and song are given (July 5-16).

? Other cities

For a more low-key approach to Semana Santa, Madrid hosts some parades, and more elaborate processions can be seen in nearby cities like Toledo and Segovia; Cuenca, an hour away; and Valencia, 90 minutes away.

Semana Santa is also a venerated tradition across the north in places like Zaragoza in Aragon and Zamora, Valladolid, Leon and Salamanca in Castilla-Leon.


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