Semana Santa is Holy Week (the week that starts on Palm Sunday and leads up to Easter Sunday), and is widely celebrated around Spain. And it’s also when all the famous pointy hats come out. You know the ones; the ones that get confused with KKK robes….
Different areas of Spain celebrate in different styles. We have seen the celebrations previously in La Linea, Andalusia. The celebrations in Andalusia (southern Spain) are said to be more ‘extravagant and glamorous’ – especially in Seville – than further north, where it is a little more muted and sombre, but certain cities are particularly well-regarded for their Semana Santa parades, and – luckily for us – Cartagena is one of them. It has even been awarded the status of ‘Festival of International Tourist Interest’, so we were pretty excited to see it.
So… What happens? It’s basically a week of events and processions commemorating the Passion (Jesus Christ’s last few days on earth)…
The different brotherhoods (which each seem to be roughly equivalent to a diocese) from around the city take responsibility for different parades and days. They also have different colours; black, red, purple, and white. What makes Cartagena unique is the involvement of the military in the processions – notably on the Tuesday of Holy Week and Easter Sunday when the Marines take part in. The participation of infantry troops at the rear of each procession in the parades is another unique feature here. And being Cartagena, there are also some Roman soldiers involved! On the Wednesday of Holy Week, we went to see the ‘Lavatorio de Pilatos’ (the washing of Pontius Pilate) – this is an event representing the sentencing of Jesus by Pilate (before sentencing Him, Pilate washes his hands in front of the gathered crowd). So, plenty of Romans, plenty of people, plenty of music and noise!
The procession basically consists of floats (called ‘tronos’) carried, usually, by a ‘regiment’ of people (but sometimes on wheels). The floats depict scenes from the Gospels of the final days of Jesus’ life or the Virgin Mary, they are extensively lit, and they are also absolutely massive – some weighing several tonnes! It is apparently only in Cartagena that the floats follow the chronological order of events as recorded in the Gospels; this is considered to be very important. In front of the float, the flags of the brotherhood are carried followed by columns of people. There is a band behind with drummers drumming the beat to which the float-carriers and other members of the regiment march. There are also lots of people carrying torches, people walking barefoot, people walking in shackles etc
The robes are a very traditional part of the Week – and, it can’t be ignored, also a real conversation starter due to the unfortunate fact the modern-day Klu Klux Klan have adapted the design of the Holy Week ‘capirotes’ (hoods) and robes for their own regalia. The capirote hoods are conical in shape, and tall; apparently designed so as to bring the wearer’s penance closer to heaven; the same reason that cemeteries here often have trees that are either naturally conical in shape, or can be pruned to be so. It’s really so different from anything we have in the UK, and seeing the procession and the robes is, for us, in a way quite spooky.
I think the coolest thing we did in Semana Santa week was to get up at 4am to go to the ‘meeting of Jesus and Mary procession’. This is four processions (that start at 3am, but we weren’t hardcore enough to do the whole thing!); two for Jesus, two for Mary that become one, and it symbolises the moment when Jesus meets Mary on the road to Calvary (carrying the cross). The four processions then join into one and continue into the church. It was a big procession – lots of people, lots of floats, but the out-and-out weirdest aspect has to have been that the route of the procession passed through the ‘late night’ area of town with all the late bars and nightclubs, so in amongst this religious display (which the subject matter meant was fairly solemn…), you had scores of people who had been out on the town for the whole night – people wandering round with beers, people grabbing pizza slices, or people finishing their night with some takeaway churros. It was really surreal, but also actually very cool. Everyone was respectful (although there were plenty of police about too), many people stopped to watch, and the procession just went on its way! At the end of the parade, we joined the churros-hunters and found a table in a cafe to sit and people-watch. Plenty of people on their way home from a night out, but also lots of people starting their day, or that had been watching the procession, and later on those who had been taking part in it, pointy hats under their arms, and flowers from the floats in bunches. And then we went back to the boat and back to bed!!!
The procession on Easter Sunday was the biggest, with everyone taking part. Since Easter Sunday symbolises the Resurrection, it was also altogether a jollier affair… And it started at a reasonable hour (10:30am….). It was so big that we didn’t realise it had started as there were so many people in robes hanging around, drinking coffees and beers, and having final cigarettes, but as we got near to the church, the head of the procession was already off! We decided we would walk the route and try and see it from the start, so we eventually found some seats and waited. It was well organised, and the seating was ticketed (at 7 Euros a ticket, Hugo was definitely sitting on our knees!). There were the normal carts preceeding the procession selling cold drinks, beers, snacks – notably pipos (sunflower seeds in their shells) that seem to be the ‘go to’ snack for any occasion – the husks just being discarded on the floor…. You could tell how long some people had been there by the size of the pile of husks….
The procession arrived at our location, and the floats and people just kept on coming! It went on for over two hours, but it was really interesting to see – and Hugo was kept happy by some handouts of sweets from the procession (every Spanish event seems to involve kids being given sweets by the people taking part! No complaints from Hugo, that’s for sure; he sat still and quiet for the whole time, watching the goings-on with a mouth full of boiled, flavoured sugar…). The finale was the Band of the Marines, with a detachment doing rifle drill; really impressive and, if we’re completely honest, timed to perfection in terms of our attention span for floats, drums, and pointy hats. It was a long procession and our bottoms were numb, but it is really fascinating to see; the robes are amazing and the atmosphere hard to describe – definitely a must-see! We made a short video of the procession – bear with us, we’re new to making videos – so you can see what sort of day it is:
I took a LOT of photos on Semana Santa week; I loved the fact that so many people had flags of their brotherhoods up, pictures, decorations etc. One day while I was photographing flags in the street, an old chap came up to me and excitedly explained that if I wanted to see something really worth photographing, I should follow him… So this was certainly an invitation…..! Luckily, it turned out to be a really cool Semana Santa balcony decoration, which I did duly photograph! I was so pleased that he had taken time out of his morning to show me it, and we have really been impressed by the pride of folks here in explaining the relevance of the Week to tourists and people that haven’t seen its like before. It is amazing the effort that people put into their decorations and celebrations – literally every corner you turn you see a flag or a tribute. In the evenings you see the processions and celebrations.
We have nothing even approaching this in the UK and, whatever your view of religion, it is a really, really cool thing to experience!