Throughout Semana Santa, Holy or Easter Week outside the Spanish speaking world, Spain essentially comes to a grinding halt. Everyone heads to the streets to participate in the festivities. Malaga had a full programme of activities, we’d picked up a timetable the night we’d arrived and, without really knowing which processions might be most interesting, started planning where we should be and at what time. This was a bit pointless, there are so many processions that you can’t really avoid bumping into them all over the city, day and night – after a few days we’d become completely blasé.
It would be fair to say that Spain, and the Spanish, enjoy a good fiesta, there seems to be one every other day somewhere in the country. Semana Santa though is in a different league, the traditions run deeper, it is more colourful, more vibrant and more devout than most fiestas. It is the highpoint of the Christian calendar and Spain celebrates it with gusto. It’s hard not to get caught up in the whole euphoric experience.
There is something extraordinary about thousands of people dressing as medieval penitents, some barefoot and blindfolded, carrying giant floats topped with life-size biblical tableaux, known as misterios, weighing 3 tonnes or more. They do this for hour after hour, all day and all night. The processions are the domain of cofradias, Catholic brotherhoods, that are associated with a particular church within a particular community of the city. The processions always start from and return to the local church, after parading through the streets to the cathedral.
As all the processions converge on the cathedral, this is a logical place to see the action; but it is well worth the effort to track down the parish churches where the floats start from and watch them as they pass through their local barrio. As a spectacle there is little to rival it. We had time and saw processions throughout the week, but if you have limited time the most important processions, often from the most ancient of the cofradias, take place towards the end of the week, and typically late at night.
The first morning we went out to a barrio away from the centre, found a cafe near the local church and waited for things to get going while we had some coffee and churros. It wasn’t long before people started to gather and the atmosphere became noticeably charged. The front of the procession consisted of children carrying incense burners and palm leaves, behind came robed and hooded penitents, and then the first of the floats. Each cofradia normally carries two floats in each procession – one of Christ, often featuring a donkey or the crucifixion, the other is of the Virgen and is normally extremely ornate.
There is a serious amount of rivalry between the cofradias, extending to a rivalry between statues of the Virgen for the affections of the people. Everyone has their favourite Virgen, apparently. Posters of the Virgens can be seen all over town, in every bar and restaurant, depending upon where the affections of the owners lie. Coming from a cold, northern Protestant background I find it all great fun while at the same time can’t help seeing the bizarre…when in Rome, as they say.