Semana Santa in surprising Malaga

I freely admit my prejudice, I had only ever considered Malaga as part of the horrors of the package holiday nightmare that has swept the Costa del Sol for the last four decades. This coastline has become a byword for unsustainable and unsympathetic development, the sort that has seen formerly picturesque villages and golden beaches consumed by one of Europe’s greatest concentrations of ugly apartment blocks. A place that, until recent attempts to clean it up, was also a byword for a type of tourism that regularly makes tabloid headlines.

Let me go on record and apologise to Malaga and its people. This is a wonderful city that has an historic old town, a vibrant nightlife, tremendous food and some great museums. During the Easter, Semana Santa, celebrations, it is also one of the most entertaining places I’ve ever been. We’d been told that Malaga and Sevilla compete for best Semana Santa celebrations, and while Sevilla is better resourced and more glitzy, Malaga is more down to earth, grittier, quintessentially Spanish. Plus, have you ever tried to find reasonably priced accommodation in Sevilla during Semana Santa?

Despite its proximity to the resorts of the Costa del Sol, Malaga seems decidedly non-touristy, and the Semana Santa celebrations seem to attract only a tiny number of the tourists that go to Sevilla, Granada and other Holy Week hot spots. That in no way detracts from the spectacle of the celebrations or the exuberance of the festivities. Although the scene of serious religious devotions, Malaga is known to have a non-traditional approach to Semana Santa. Less dour, if not less devout.

To my untrained eye that translates as more raucous. The impression I got was that for many younger people Semana Santa is, first and foremost, a reason to party…and people party hard. Luckily Malaga has a wide variety of excellent tapas bars, restaurants and sherry hostelries to accommodate this tendency. Tired of watching the parades? There is always some convenient place to recharge the batteries with a glass of sweet Malaga Virgen wine and a tapas or two, before rejoining the throngs of merry makers.

We arrived after dark and almost immediately found ourselves stuck in the midst of a Procesión, the parades which carry the giant Pasos, floats or litters, topped with biblical tableaux. These things weigh an enormous amount and are carried by dozens of people. They move at a snails pace…we were going to be late reaching the hotel. As it happened the Procesión belonged to a Cofradías which had its temple on the street next to our hotel. It didn’t seem like we’d be getting much sleep that night…time to take to the streets and see what else was happening.

The Cofradías are Catholic groups, often referred to as brotherhoods or fraternities, that promote religious training and undertake charitable activities. The Brotherhoods also commission and maintain the floats and organise the parades, as well as (the male members) carrying the Pasos along the Procesión route. The floats are sometime made by famous designers and some are centuries old. There are dozens of Cofradias in Malaga, thousands throughout Spain.

This first glimpse of the near constant parading that takes place during Semana Santa was just an amuse bouche for what was to come over the next few days. It would be fair to say we enjoyed ourselves massively, although the shock of seeing people dressed up like Klu Klux Klan extras from Mississippi Burning took a while to get used to.

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