Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Holy Week Procession in Madrid

They call it a procession, a march, but it is more like a dance to the beat of a brass band. In a Spanish Semana Santa, a Holy Week procession, the candles and wooden crosses carriers in their penitential robes, capes and conical hats, and the accompanied women, mostly dressed in black and wearing the traditional Spanish mantilla head dress, do their best, to march to the band’s “militarized” music, as if it was playing Johann Strauss Sr.’s, Radetzky Marsch Opus 228, but the heavy pasos, the priceless religious floats of artwork, sway to the waltzing rhythm of the costaleros or “sack men”, the carriers of these floats, as if they are the upper class of the late 19th Century Vienna dancing to the music of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube at an imperial ball in the Schönbrunn Palace. No wonder in some regions of Spain the pasos, procession, this waltzing dance, is called a bailadosto, a ballet.

(Watch the video at the end of the post and see what I am talking about.)

 At the beginning of the long wait
On a bright, sunny, but cool day, only a few hours after our arrival in Madrid from Barcelona, and after a visit to Mercado de San Miguel for tapas we discovered that the Semana Santa procession was to pass through the Plaza Mayor, which was adjacent to the Mercado (food market.) We exited the tapas marketplace at around 5:30 pm and by accident saw that police were preparing for the procession. We entered the Plaza and found a table at one of the restaurants inside the plaza to kill time. For the next hour or more I made a big deal out of drinking a glass or two of white wine and munching on a bowl of Manzanilla olives and M savoring a cup of tea to while away the time until the arrival of the procession. Because we were occupying prime table space the waiters constantly came around to ask if we wanted dinner. Even though we were satiated from the tapas, in hind sight we should have ordered a light “tourist” dinner, which is all that the restaurants on the plaza were good for, because it turned out to be a very, very long night. By 7:30 pm the police started to cordon off a small area inside the plaza in readiness for the procession but the whole path was not cordoned off. So we abandoned our table and joined the crowd right in front of the precession’s path in a prime standing location. And we waited!

As the evening grew older, a late winter coolness descended upon an ever increasing crowd, a full moon slowly rose above the Islesia Santa Cruz located just outside the historic plaza. We felt like pimento stuffed Spanish olives packed in a jar.

And we waited! Asking any one of the thousands around us what time the procession would come through the plaza was useless. We did. No one knew. No even the police, who was in communication with other police along the procession's path via cellphones and walkie-talkies did not know. They kept telling anyone who asked, “in one hour.” M and I couldn't quite understand this situation. How on earth could they not know? They have done these processions before, year after year, since around year 1530 AD, maybe skipping a few processions during wars or revolutions. And Spain has its fair share of those. I would find out later why no one knew the exact time.

Standing there with time to think aplenty, I also found it rather strange why the procession’s path was cleared so many hours ahead of time without them actually putting up any form of physical barriers like they do in New York for the many parades that that city hosts. The result was really hilarious. The police would clear a piece of road through the plaza and once the 2 or 3 policeman moved on people would cross the opened path constantly and over a short period of time the masses would encroach upon the clearing and then the police would come along again and push the crowd back. And this snaking path and concertina movement would continue for at least 2 hours or more. Simple mobile steel barriers could have kept the clearing open and they would have had to do it only once. I could only guess that in case of a sudden frightful event the lack of barriers could prevent people from being squashed and injured against a ridged object. Or the fact that once the procession passed there was no cleanup to be done.

Eventually, shortly after 9 pm we heard the first sounds of a marching band nearing the plaza. Ten to fifteen minutes later and with a great sigh of relief, the procession entered Plaza Mayor through the Calle Cdad. Rodrigo entrance. Leading the procession were the Nazarenos, the ones wearing the penitential robes with conical hats (in America you would associate this outfit with the Ku Klux Klan, but in this case they were all in purple.) They were followed by a marching band which tried their best, but was sometimes out of tune. Then came a group of women dressed in black and wearing the familiar Spanish mantilla head dress, then more Nazarenos carrying wooden crosses, followed by the candle carriers in white robes and purple capes. Shortly after 10 pm the “Pasos” Jesus Nazareno “El Pobre” (The Procession of Our Father Jesus of Nazarene, the Poor) appeared.

It was then that I understood why no one knew the exact time the floats would arrive. The procession was not marching to anyone’s clock. It was marching to its own rhythm. The portion of the procession leading the first float took an hour to pass us. It took another half hour for the first float to move 200 feet and the whole procession took more than 2 hours to go through the plaza. The costaleros, the float carriers, often rested and the floats were accompanied by medical staff. It was obvious that these floats were very heavy. Each float that passed us was carried by about 60 men. The first float was followed by another band, more Nazarenos, more ladies in black and then came the second float, the María Santísima del Dulce Nombre, (The Holy Mary with the sweet name) which was followed by a third band.

 The entrance of the Holy Mary's float 

The whole procession was an unbelievable spectacle! It is not easy to describe a Semana Santa because it really is something that needs to be experienced, visually and physically. The scene could not have been more dramatic. Inside Plaza Mayor, encircled by the historic red buildings with hundreds of white framed windows and an illuminated colonnade below, a transparent ceiling of a blackened sky, watched over by a full moon, and surrounded by thousands of spectators, the procession was absolutely amazing and we felt very privileged to have been part of this celebrated cultural festival. The visually striking and physically exhausting extravaganza was worth the long wait. It is seldom that when  one travels to foreign places and happens upon a festival and see something extraordinary one knows that what is being experienced at that moment is a once in a life time experience. This was one of those times.  

“Pasos” Jesus Nazareno “El Pobre” (The Procession of Our Father Jesus of Nazarene, the Poor)

It was way after midnight and we were totally exhausted. Cold, with stiff joints and on swollen feet we staggered our way toward Puerta del Sol’s metro station.  The place was packed with people, but luckily there was a metro worker at the ticket vending machine to expedite the process and the next train for us came soon thereafter. Sol was thankfully only three metro stops away from our destination, the Atocha metro station.


Close by the Atocha station we found an open-till-late fast food place that looked dodgy with napkins and other trash lying in the floor, but its la fresco tables were still packed with youngsters. African street vendors and half-drunken beggars were standing around outside, but we took a gamble because we were thirsty! Behind a long serving bar counter a large fellow with a greasy ponytail and a wild beard greeted us in a friendly smiley manner. We ordered two café con leches. We savored the coffee sip after sip and we both agreed it was quite a good cup o’Joe. Satisfied we took the short walk from there to our rented apartment. 

The next day was supposed to be one of the highlights of our trip, as if the Semana Santa was not already a major highlight.

The next day we would be going to the Prado Museum, not just Spain’s but one of Europe’s premier art museums, to have our visual senses overwhelmed by the likes of Diego Valazques, El Greco, Goya, Pieter Paul Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch and many more.  

But tomorrow was another day. Tonight we needed to crash and get some sleep. It was a very long and eventful day.  (Also see the post Madrid and the Pickpockets.)          


María Santísima del Dulce Nombre, (The Holy Mary with the sweet name)

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