Every once in a while, without even knowing it, you turn up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. This is the story of one of those times.
We had just arrived in Cartagena, Spain, and were settling into our campsite for the evening. It was grey and cold, we were far from town, and we were surrounded, as usual, by retirees. We figured we’d spend the night and head on the following morning.
But then: “You’ve arrived just in time,” gushed the Spanish owner when we approached her office to check in. “Tomorrow starts la Semana Santa!”
I had no idea what that was, but I learned pretty quickly. And what I learned had me convinced I should – no, needed – to go into town the following day instead of driving on. I silently thanked myself to traveling with the freedom and flexibility to reinvent our plans as we please.
La Semana Santa translates as Holy Week, and refers to the week or so leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s a once-a-year festival that is celebrated all over the country – in fact, it’s one of Spain’s most famous events and rather surprising that I hadn’t heard of it.
Basically, the festival is a series of religious processions (like parades) that sort of re-enact the Passion of the Christ while serving as penance for participants. Most processions involve carrying extremely heavy floats on one’s back, and some routes are as long as 14 hours, so penance here is taken quite seriously.
Lucky for me, Cartagena hosts one of the best and most unique series of events, including the first procession in the entire country – the following morning at 3am. I didn’t expect to attend that one, but decided to attend the two other processions happening at more human in the day.
And so, just after lunch that penultimate Friday before Easter, Bruno and I hopped on a bus into the historical district of town. What struck me immediately was the palpable anticipation in the air. Crowds of families were in the streets, eating their notoriously late lunch. Vendors peddled bright plastic toys and balloons – there were even a few carnival rides in one of the main squares.
This could have been a typical Sunday in Cartagena, but a few clues gave things away. Flags and posters with religious insignia were draped over residential balconies, and heaps of plastic chairs were strung along the sides of the pedestrian-only streets.
It was clear that Cartagena was awaiting something big.
I’d learned a bit about the Semana Santa processions the previous afternoon from the very gracious and loquacious campsite owner. The processions are organized by the city’s four religious brotherhoods, the oldest of which dates back to the 17th century. Despite a bit of friendly rivalry between the city’s two main brotherhoods (the Marrajos and the Californios, the groups work together, dividing amongst themselves the days leading up to Easter to re-enact the Passion bit by bit.
I would witness a traditional Cartagenan Semana Santa procession that evening, but first up was a unique procession – the floral offering to the patron saint of the city, the Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity), in honour of her yearly Feast Day. In this procession, women and children (and a few men), dressed in traditional clothing and carrying elaborate bouquets of flowers, parade through the streets of historical Cartagena with the goal of depositing their bouquets in front of la Iglesia de la Caridad.
Bruno and I were parked at a café when the participants began to arrive and converge in front of a beautiful baroque building. It was pure chaos with loads of women, from barely-able-to-walk to surprised-they-still-could-walk, and I was doubtful that any procession would emerge out of this crowd. You could tell this event was a big deal, especially for the many little girls, who were totally dolled-up and posing for the many cameras.
Yet the procession itself was quite casual. Women pushed strollers, chatted with their friends, and talked on phones. Their kids munched on snacks. One pushed her own baby doll on a stroller. Each group was led by a banner which announced their organization or congregation. The groups proudly showcased traditional costumes from different regions – some were dressed like peasants, others like sailors, and a few looked like they were ready to dance the flamenco. Most dresses featured lace shawls, lots of satin and sparkles, and flowers in their hair. These bright and shiny costumes, worn only once a year, seemed to celebrate femininity.
It was fun to watch the conviviality of the women and families walking in the procession, but it was even more fun to watch the musicians march by. There were loads of marching, and in each of them were an impressive amount of children! There was also a group of bagpipers (I thought, of course, of my mom, who loves bagpipe music!), a few groups with castanets, and even a group of dancers with skirts that flared out when they spun! It was the cheery music that contributed most to the feeling of celebration.
And that’s why it was such a shock to witness that evening’s procession. The procession of the Most Holy Christ of Mercy and Most Holy Mary of the Rosary was the complete antithesis of that day’s jovial flower parade. Here, the participants (called “penitents”) were totally serious – they gazed forward, walked in union, and halted in unison, all to the beat of drums. The whole thing was solemn and downright creepy.
It was probably the outfits that got me the most. Almost every penitent was wearing a capirote, a tunic with a pointy hood with slits for the eyes that is so reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan that it’s impossible not to shudder. Though most were carrying candles, many held rods, guns, axes, and other weapons. With their slow, unison step, I felt like I was witnessing a procession of ghosts arising from the dead.
The truth, however, is far less eerie. The conical hoods date back to the Middle Ages (long before the KKK) and were created so that those demonstrating their penance could mask their identities. The items the penitents carried in their arms simply denote the hierarchy within the brotherhood. And, anyway, the nazarenes, the mostly-young participants who look like Little Red Riding Hoods and prance around distributing sweets and postcards with religious images on them, definitely lightened the mood.
Indeed, red was the most popular color of the evening, for it is the color of the Californios brotherhood. About half of the capirotes were dressed in red, and all the Nazarenes. Whether wearing red or not, however, all penitents displayed religious insignia on their banners or sashes. Some burned frankincense, others carried pure gold crosses. All stopped intermittently to do the sign of the cross.
The purpose of the processions is to re-enact parts of the Passion of the Christ by showcasing a series of gigantic – and extremely old – floats, or paseos. One unique aspect of Cartagena’s Semana Santa is the strict order of the processions. First come the capirotes in certain formations and carrying certain tools, then the drummer and the band (a very important part of the procession as they keep the time of the march), and then the float itself. Some paseos are pushed along on wheels, but the most impressive ones are carried.
I don’t know how much the paseos weigh, but it’s enough to warrant five rows of twenty or more bodies, squeezed together under thick wooden beams. If there was one example of penance, it was here (though the soldiers walking for hours with high kicks comes a close second!).
I was utterly entranced by the procession – by the entire day, in fact – so it was only later, as we caught the late-night bus back to the campsite, that I remembered how lucky I had been to be in Cartagena during its Semana Santa. Witnessing the festivities was a fascinating treat and gave me a glimpse into an age-old tradition that is still alive and well in Spain. It’s for these moments that I travel!
Two days later, as we drove through a little town north of Cartagena, I caught a glimpse of bright satin robes glimmering in the midday sun. I smiled inwardly. A few days before, I’d have had no idea what these outfits represented. But, thanks to my serendipitous arrival in Cartagena, I now knew that the colourful robes were evidence that, here in Spain, religion is far from dead.