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Stories About Spain

Semana Santa, The Soul of Spain

Written by: Don Harris

Holy Week processionIn a few weeks, as Easter approaches, towns and cities across Spain will be immersed in the striking ceremonies and processions of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, commemorating the last few days leading up to Easter.

Semana Santa expresses the heart and soul of Spain. Semana Santa is not a show, nor is it designed to be a tourist attraction. Throughout the preceding year, both the physical and spiritual preparations involve hundreds of people in each town. It just as much an expression of community as it is of devotion. And you don't need to be religious to appreciate the beauty and artistry of these celebrations - there is something profound about a town or city coming together in this way that transcends your personal beliefs.

In many towns elaborate pasos, or heavy wooden platforms, are brought out by the local parishes to recall the last few days of the life of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Many of the sculptures stretch back many generations and the pasos lie in repose in the local parishes all year long. On the appropriate day during Holy Week, robed parishioners strain to lift and carry the venerated life-like images through the town on a set route that can take many hours. Each parish has a brotherhood of penitential men and boys who are committed to shoulder this immensely heavy burden in procession during Holy Week.
girl in a Holy Week procession
Every town and city throughout Spain has her own rendition. One of my favorites occurs in the ancient walled city of Zamora in Northern Spain, near the Portuguese border. It is a city filled with priceless 12th century Romanesque churches. The tone of their Semana Santa celebration is very somber. To this day, my wife Ruth and I can recall looking down from the battlements about midnight and seeing a long candlelit procession headed toward the city gate. It was a remarkable sight.

In Zamora most of the citizens, from toddlers to retired people - called jubilados in Spain - are involved in the preparations. It is a binding communal event. If you would like to share in this amazing experience I strongly recommend that you make a reservation for the Zamora Parador, a restored 15th-century Renaissance palace, with medieval touches, including suits of armor, tapestries and interior stone walls. The 12th-century Zamora Cathedral is 9 minutes' walk away. However, do it right now for next year, 2017. I am sure most of the rooms are already booked at about $125 per night – not bad for a palace!

On the other hand, if you were to go to Andalucía in southern Spain you would have quite a different experience. Sevilla has a huge and festive Semana. The pasos are equally as beautiful and refined as the North. The cofradias, the men of the brotherhood who carry the massive pasos on their shoulders, are equally devout as in Castile. But Sevilla is an elegant place, kissed by the sun. As you can imagine, it is hard to capture the severe piety of a place like Zamora when you are surrounded by avenues of citrus trees laden with oranges, spectacular purple bougainvillea, and deep red geraniums all surrounded by palm trees. Sevilla is by nature festive.
drummers in Holy Week procession
Yet another amazing Semana Santa is located in the cliff town of Cuenca with its dramatic hanging balconies. It is only a two-hour drive from the Barajas Airport in Madrid, yet it definitely is another world. Their weeklong celebration is in many ways similar to other towns', but if you stay by the plaza up the steep hill in front of the Cathedral, you will find the ancient cobblestone streets very narrow and the processions are close enough to touch. Spectators are only two or three deep at a maximum.

Another dramatic feature of Cuenca processions is the presence of scores of drummers in traditional garb, whose muffled snare drumming heightens the intensity of the processions. Good Friday morning is an experience you will never forget, as the life sized statue of Jesus arrives in the plaza and the hundreds of drummers begin to mock him, representing the crowd at his crucifixion.
hand holding drum sticks in the air
If this were not enough to recommend this beautiful city, during the day is the international medieval religious music festival. Choirs and musical ensembles come from all over Europe, from Belgium and Germany as well as Spain's El Escorial, to sing at various chapels during the day. As a result, on the same day you attend a moving musical performance, then stop for tapas at a local café then get ready for the processions in the evening!

The Parador hotel in Cuenca is a restored 16th-century monastery, just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. On the other hand, we found rooms in an ancient dormitory which was just steps from the old Norman Cathedral.

These are just a few of the mesmerizing and beautiful Holy Week celebrations that occur all across Spain. I can think of no better way to experience the living traditions of ancient Spain than by experiencing Semana Santa. It is a week of beauty, tradition, celebration, devotion, family and community that goes to the heart of what it is to be Spanish.

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"Thanks for your article about the Semana Santa in Spain.You refer to the retired people as jubileos, the right word is jubilados. Also brotherhood is cofradias and not cofredios. In Sevilla thepasos are carried on the shoulders of the costaleros, they are under the paso, totally in the dark, guided by the capataz. There is no other Semana Santa in Spain like the one in Sevilla. "
March 2016

"Hola Juana! Thank you for those corrections. I was being a lazy writer writing about my fond memories and not proofreading. One of my young friends, Alejandro (whom I wrote about when he was a young man participating in the apostles of Córdoba), is part of founding a new brotherhood in Madrid and will be under a new paso processing through the poorest sections of Madrid."

March 2016

"Thank you Dianna! Your comments are especially valued since you have spent a lifetime traveling around Europe for the past 80 years! You are a remarkable woman (I met her as she was buying our Galician bread at our store in Williamsburg. She said it was the very best Old Country bread she could buy and took a ferry across the James River in order to have it! She is originally a native of Poland and the Ukraine)"

"Ah, Semana Santa - brings back such memories. In 2004 we had just moved to Cartagena in the southeast of Spain and everyone said we should go to the processions. Off my wife, who grew up in New Orleans, and I went. We parked in the old city and could hear the drums beating out the diurge. We wandered about the streets following the sound, turned a corner and there was a line of marchers approaching us - all dressed in long white robes, with pointy white hats and masked faces. We didn't know weather to run or laugh. Then another group came around the corner with the same outfits only in blue - and more and more groups came carrying the statues and progressing to the slow beat of the drums in the narrow streets. It turns out the costumes they were wearing were replicas of the way penitants had to dress in the Middle Ages which fit perfectly into the spirit of lent. It was one of memorable occasions we enjoyed in Spain."
March 2016

"Thank you Pat for that beautiful word picture. The preparation and acting upon these important expressions of faith and piety is part of why Spain remains a special source of authentic spirituality."

"Great article, Makes you wish to be there"
March 2016

"Hola Peter, It sounds as if you have had fond memories too! And long-lasting ones, at that! Being there in the 1960s was a special time as the Spaniards were still climbing out of the wreckage of the Civil War. My first visit to Spain was 1964, and as you know it changed my life!"

"My husband and I traveled to Spain in 1999. Part of our time was during Holy Week. We stayed in Paradors and enjoyed the Samana Santa processions in 3 town. It was an unforgettable experience."
February 2018

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Semana Santa , El Alma de España

Holy Week processionDentro de unas semanas, a medida que la Pascua se aproxima, los pueblos y ciudades de España se verán inmersos en llamativas procesiones y oficios de Semana Santa, para conmemorar los últimos días que desembocan en la Pascua.

La Semana Santa pone de manifiesto el corazón y el alma de España. La Semana Santa no es un espectáculo, ni está diseñada para ser una atracción turística. A lo largo de todo el año, la preparación tanto física como espiritual involucra a cientos de personas en cada localidad. Es tanto una manifestación de comunidad como lo es de devoción. Y uno no necesita ser creyente para apreciar la belleza y el arte de estas celebraciones. Hay algo tan profundo acerca del hecho de que un pueblo o ciudad se una de esta manera, que va más allá de las creencias personales que uno pueda tener.

En muchas localidades, las parroquias sacan a la calle elaborados pasos, que no son otra cosa que pesadas estructuras de madera sobre las que se conmemoran los últimos días de vida de Jesús antes de su crucifixión. Muchas de las esculturas se remontan generaciones atrás y los pasos se guardan durante todo el año en las parroquias. En el día que tengan asignado durante la Semana Santa, los feligreses vestidos con sus hábitos se esfuerzan en levantar y transportar las veneradas imágenes por las calles de la localidad en una ruta determinada que puede durar horas. Cada parroquia tiene una hermandad de penitentes, hombres y jóvenes comprometidos a llevar en procesión a hombros durante la Semana Santa esta carga tan sumamente pesada.
girl in a Holy Week procession
Cada pueblo y ciudad de España tiene su propia versión. Una de mis favoritas transcurre en la antigua ciudad amurallada de Zamora en el norte de España, cerca de la frontera con Portugal. Es una ciudad repleta de iglesias románicas del siglo XII de valor incalculable. El tono de sus celebraciones de Semana Santa es muy sombrío. Aún hoy en día, mi esposa Ruth y yo recordamos asomarnos a las almenas alrededor de la media noche y ver como una larga procesión iluminada por la luz de las velas se dirigía hacia las puertas de la ciudad. Fue un espectáculo excepcional.

En Zamora la mayoría de sus habitantes, desde niños pequeños hasta jubilados, están implicados en los preparativos. Es un acontecimiento que une a nivel de comunidad. Si les interesa formar parte de esta increíble experiencia, les recomiendo particularmente que hagan una reserva en el parador de Zamora, un palacio renacentista del siglo XV que ha sido restaurado y que cuenta con toques medievales entre los que se encuentran armaduras, tapices y paredes interiores de piedra. La catedral de Zamora que data del siglo XII está a tan sólo 9 minutos caminando. Pero reserven ahora mismo para el año que viene, 2017. Esto seguro de que la mayoría de las habitaciones ya están reservadas ¡125$ la noche no está nada mal para un palacio!

Por otro lado, si decidiesen ir a Andalucía, en el sur de España, tendrían una experiencia bien distinta. Sevilla tiene una impresionante y alegre semana santa. Los pasos son tan bonitos y refinados como los del norte. Los cofradias, los miembros de las hermandades que llevan los pasos a hombros, son igualmente devotos que en Castilla. Pero Sevilla es una lugar elegante bañado por el sol. Como uno se puede imaginar, es difícil captar la devoción sobria de lugares como Zamora cuando uno está rodeado de avenidas repletas de arboles cargados de naranjas, de espectaculares buganvillas rosas y de geranios rojísimos todo ello además rodeado de palmeras. Sevilla es alegre por naturaleza.
drummers in Holy Week procession
Otra Semana Santa impresionante es la que encontramos en la ciudad de Cuenca, una ciudad encaramada sobre un acantilado con dramáticos balcones colgados. Está a tan sólo dos horas en coche del aeropuerto de Madrid Barajas pero sin embargo es un mundo aparte. Sus celebraciones que duran toda la semana son en muchos aspectos similares a las de otras ciudades, pero si uno se queda en la plaza en lo alto de la cuesta delante de la Catedral, verá las estrechísimas calles empedradas y las procesiones estarán tan cerca que se podrán tocar. Sólo hay dos o tres filas de espectadores como mucho.

Otra de las características impresionastes de las procesiones de Cuenca es la presencia de un gran número de bandas de tambores ataviadas con sus trajes tradicionales, y cuyos redobles aumentan la intensidad de las procesiones. La mañana del Viernes Santo es una experiencia que uno nunca podrá olvidar, cuando la estatua de Jesús a tamaño real llega a la plaza y cientos de tambores comienza a burlarse de él, rememorando el comportamiento de la muchedumbre presente el día de su crucifixión.
hand holding drum sticks in the air
Por si todo esto no fuese suficiente para recomendar esta hermosa ciudad, durante el día tiene lugar el festival internacional de música religiosa medieval. Coros y conjuntos musicales llegan de toda Europa, desde Bélgica y Alemania y también de El Escorial en España, para cantar en varias capillas durante el día. Por lo tanto, en el mismo día se asiste a un emotivo espectáculo musical, luego uno hace una paradita para tomarse unas tapas en un bar y así reponer fuerzas para las procesiones de la tarde.

El parador de Cuenca es un monasterio del siglo XVI restaurado y situado a un tiro de piedra de la catedral. Además encontramos habitación en una antiguo dormitorio que estaba a sólo unos pasos de la antigua catedral normanda.

Estas son sólo unas pocas de las muchas hermosas y cautivadoras celebraciones de Semana Santa que tienen lugar en toda España. No se me ocurre ninguna manera mejor de experimentar las tradiciones vivas de la España antigua que vivir la Semana Santa. Es una semana de belleza, tradición, celebración, devoción, familia y comunidad que va hasta el corazón de lo que es ser español.

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