The heady waft of incense hits you first. Then you notice the relative hush settle over the expectant crowd. Next, it’s the distant bang of the drums and the strident notes of the brass band starting up. The guiding cross and its bearer step into view. The procession is beginning.
No matter where in Spain you find yourself during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, this will be how most processions start. A tradition observed mainly in the southern region of Andalucía and certain pockets around the country (including Valladolid and Zamora), processions during Easter week involve members of local brotherhoods carrying ornate figurines of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and sometimes other saints and biblical characters around the town’s official route.
If this sounds deeply dull or irrelevant to all but the most devout, throw in crowds of hundreds (or even thousands), from newborns to the elderly; a marching band or two; rich cultural traditions, and above all some Spanish passion, and it may start to sound more inspiring. And if that doesn’t move you, maybe the night-time fiestas that often accompany Semana Santa celebrations might.
Although the basic ingredients of Semana Santa are the same all around Andalucía, each town puts its own twist on proceedings. The best-known festivities may take place in the cities of Sevilla and Málaga, but the eight towns in western Andalucía which make up the Caminos de Pasión route allow locals and visitors alike to experience the processions on a more intimate scale – and all with a quirky touch. Founded in 2002, Caminos de Pasión suggests itineraries and activities encompassing the towns that make up its route (Alcalá la Real, Baena, Cabra, Carmona, Lucena, Priego de Córdoba, Puente Genil and Osuna), with cultural, natural and architectural options – and of course, plenty of suggestions for Semana Santa.
To a first-time visitor, Holy Week traditions may seem the same no matter where you find yourself: marching bands; candle bearers; cloaked figures carrying huge wood and metal pasos, structures used to transport the Virgin Mary, Jesus and other biblical figures through the streets before the adoring crowds; the singing of saetas (traditional, often mournful songs). But when you look a little closer, tiny details set Andalucía’s towns and cities apart, with some processions more solemn or even silent, variations in the way the pasos are carried (across the back of the neck or on the shoulders), differences of dress and music. It’s these details that make a deeper exploration of this key aspect of southern Spanish culture all the more rewarding.
The diversity was never more apparent for me than in the contrast between the solemnity of a candle-lit silent procession through the cobbled streets of Osuna and the high jinks of the following day in Puente Genil. This town in the province of Córdoba is famous for its membrillo, a quince jelly, but it should really be known for its Holy Week. A confusing jumble of traditions involving brotherhoods that resemble glorified boys’ clubs (clubhouse included), biblical re-enactments in the street and an appealing informality all made the atmosphere in Puente Genil memorable.
Brotherhood members bustle through town in their robes; locals casually cross the street during processions (a move that can earn you a telling-off in other towns). This festive atmosphere was rivalled in Baena, a place famed for its drumming. Known locally as judíos, men dressed in red wearing golden helmets adorned with a horse’s tail parade through town banging their drums seemingly at random until they join a procession – those with sensitive ears should give Baena a miss.
The theatrical element is also alive and well in Alcalá la Real, in the province of Jaén. The Spanish historical tradition of mystery plays has been incorporated into Semana Santa here, with living dioramas of biblical events taking place in the streets. As in Puente Genil, brotherhood members dress as characters from the bible, with traditional dress and masks. The quirky traditions continue over in pretty Priego de Córdoba, where on Good Friday there’s a speeded-up parade that culminates in a blessing of Easter pies. Where these unusual customs come from is much-debated, but it’s more fun to participate than speculate.
One thing that surprised me as I worked my way from town to town was the fact that so few people I encountered declared themselves to be religious. Even the men and women who belong to brotherhoods and carry the pasos aren’t necessarily believers; sometimes they partake for personal spiritual reasons, but often it’s a chance to be part of local culture and tradition. The mixture of people partaking showed that the appeal of Semana Santa transcends age, religious commitment and class: from trainer-wearing teenagers to suited-and-booted elderly gentleman, everyone can get involved. Talking to the youngest member of the Siete Macabeos brotherhood in Puente Genil, he revealed that he’d been keen to join in order to follow in family footsteps and because the group has a big social side. It’s clear that the significance of Semana Santa has grown beyond its origins, and is now much more a cultural festival than a Christian one.
One advantage of seeing Semana Santa in the Caminos de Pasión towns is that they’re significantly less crowded than the more-visited cities, so you’ll get a much better view of the processions. Locals are likely to be interested in your presence, which can literally open doors: you might be lucky enough to find yourself with a prime balcony view thanks to curious residents. But outside of procession times, what is there to do in these little towns? Thankfully, there are no ugly ducklings on the list: each one has its own beauty and merits further exploration beyond its Semna Santa processions. Nestled among olive-strewn hills on the border between three provinces, Priego de Córdoba is a rural tourism hub. Its whitewashed houses and cobbled streets make it a typical Andalucían pueblo blanco, but its real highlight is the Fuente del Rey. An enormous, elaborate fountain filled with statues, this monument wouldn’t look out of place in Rome. Priego de Córdoba’s also a great spot if you’re looking for some relaxation: the intimate Casa Baños de la Villa offers guests comfortable, modern rooms, a roof terrace with a church view – and Arab-style baths in the basement.
With its Roman heritage and city walls overlooking the countryside of Seville province, Carmona is another picturesque town worth a wander. Spacious, traditionally designed rooms and great food can be found at the heart of town at the Hotel Alcázar de la Reina. Back in Alcalá la Real, La Mota Castle broods over proceedings from its hilltop position: it’s well worth the walk up to explore.
And if you’re more concerned with cuisine than culture, these towns won’t disappoint either – from informal tapas bars to traditional restaurants, in Puente Genil you can dine well for relatively little. Lucena’s Restaurante Tres Culturas is worth seeking out: drawing on the town’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim heritage, it serves dishes that reflect traditional recipes from these cultures.
Religious or not, Semana Santa is well worth experiencing – the rich cultural traditions just have to be seen to be believed.
You can organize a trip to any of these towns through the Caminos de Pasión website.
Fly from London Stansted to Seville with Ryanair, or fly from to Madrid and take the high-speed AVE train to Córdoba or Seville.
Holy Week 2015 runs from 29 March to 6 April.