Here they come, stepping in line to a sombre drum beat, the Nazarenos. Their hoods rise to the night sky, penitent cloth and bare feet a symbol, a request. They march through the narrow streets, under rippling velvet banners displaying the colour and symbol of their church.
They carry with them staves, candles, crosses and images. Their bellies are full of candy, which they hand out to the eager children on the street, and small pictures of Christ to hand to their parents. In the middle of their mass is an image out of time. Jesus hangs from a cross while carved people weep around him. The Last Supper. They are wooden, covered in glittering jewels, sitting on plinths of carved gold which, in turn, sits on the shoulders of dozens of Nazarenos. To carry these icons is to carry tradition. Tradition is heavy and impressive.
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is celebrated throughout Spain and the Christian world before Easter. In the Region of Murcia it is celebrated with particular gusto. The two largest cities in the region, Murcia and Cartagena, each keep the Passion of Christ story alive in unique ways. Murcia has its famous Salzillo-made thrones and socks, while Cartagena has its martial orderliness.
No matter where it is celebrated, though, Spanish Semana Santa is a sight to behold. As ghostly Nazarenos march through darkened streets in silence and strangely beautiful images of bloodied Christ float by on golden thrones, one could be forgiven for finding the whole thing a bit spooky. When you see the Nazarenos, in their long, spiked hoods, handing out candy to children on the street though, you begin to see the celebratory side come out. The constant drumming and swelling of grand, trumpet-heavy music also fills the heart with some hot-blooded passion. It’s impossible to not feel something during the processions.
Of course, Semana Santa celebrations have their detractors, especially since the grand affair is paid for, in large part, by tax-payer money. And for those of the billions of us on this planet who don’t celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in the Catholic tradition, it’s bound to be a strange affair. Still, I don’t think the pageantry and cultural relevance of the event can be denied. It’s a week of powerful imagery and world-halting drama.
The Parades of Cartagena
This Electric Holy Road-er was lucky enough to have a pretty grand view of Cartagena’s processions on Good Friday. Invited into the house of Bonica’s family, I got to peak over the edge of a first floor balcony to watch the Nazarenos, priests, tronos and military men stomp by.
Cartagena’s Holy Week processions are by the book and straight as an arrow. While in most towns, Nazareno’s would wander to and fro, in Cartagena, they step in almost perfect unison, to the point that their robes flow to the side at the same time.
The Nazareno costume itself is an interesting thing. It’s easy for people to mistake them for a rather… darker costume. But just because they serve a “holy” purpose doesn’t mean that they are free from their own darkness. They can either be seen as “reaching” towards heaven or representing the penitent hoods worn by prisoners of the Inquisition.
Almost all of the Nazarenos of Murcia carry fat sacks full of candy under their costumes for the kids on the street. In Cartagena, the majority are a bit more serious. They walk in groups according to the colour of their “station” or church. The procession of colours, proceeding their related trono, is like a sombre rainbow. All the costumes are immaculate, shiny, quite proper and very impressive.
In Cartagena the holy parade is joined by military officials and soldiers from the barracks within the city. The military tradition is powerful in Cartagena, a port history with a city of invasion and civil war. While I’m not one to venerate an army of any kind, witnessing the well-drilled marching is a large part of the power of Cartagena processions.
Murcia is a strange, beautiful city, in a lot of different ways. It’s surrounded by huerta, a type of farmland within and bordering the city centre, yet has a growing heart of business, art and hospitality. It also has a strong Catholic tradition.
Murcia’s cathedral is one of the most beautiful in Spain (in my humble opinion) and its Holy Week is blessed by the works of Salzillo, Spain’s most famous sculptor of religious works. The procession featuring his tronos is probably the most spectacular of all and one of the most popular. The Gran Via (main commercial road) of Murcia is named after him. He even has his own museum where his tronos sleep for the majority of the year. On Holy Week, they are decked with fresh flowers and taken out through the city for a parade that lasts up to five hours. Cool, huh?
The Holy Week processions in Murcia are much wilder than in Cartagena, full of laughter (and candy). However, on (Maundy) Thursday night the street lights go out, people go silent and the procession dedicated to Jesus’ crucifixion passes in an effective display of observance. The only light that remained on, almost sacrilegiously, was the bright fluros of the Burger King sign. I guess Burger King doesn’t recognise any other.
The music of Holy Week is probably the most incredible aspects of the whole big deal. Since my arrival in Murcia, I’ve been hearing the bands practice under a near-by highway bridge. To hear all those disparate drums and trumpets come together in a grand explosion of (very Spanish) music was moving.
Getting little insights into the creation and planning of these events really makes you appreciate just how much blood, sweat and tears must go into it. Tradition can be dangerous, no one’s denying that, but it can also be a powerful tool for social cohesion and a source of employment for artists.
Primavera empieza en Murcia
Pushing through the crowd can be a bit of a pain during this time of year but it’s all worth it to see Murcia spring to life for Spring.
The reason I titled this post “Holy Week and a Half” is because the celebrations in Murcia continue on for a good few more days after Holy Week finishes in other cities. The Spring Festival begins right after Holy Week with the decadent “Bando de la Huerta.” Peñas (pop-up versions of traditional restaurants) are opened in one of Murcia’s biggest parks. Flowers bloom, birds flock, dogs run about with the children. There’s a hell of a lot of drinking and eating. It’s a fiesta and a half. It’s Murcia’s Oktoberfest.
My favourite thing about Bando though are the costumes. If your first image of Oktoberfest in Munich is Lederhosen and beer, then your first thought of Bando should be chalecos and tinto de verano. Most locals dress up in traditional dresses, vests and hats, cover themselves in pins and head out on the street for barbecues, picnics and a lot of drinking.
Under the hot Spring sun (it was 30 degrees out in the sun this year), this fiesta becomes a celebration of the good life, a life we often forget about in this fast paced world. Letting your hair down and taking the day to feast, drink and smile may seem decadent, but you need to do it once in a while. It’s healthy for the soul and the soul of the city.
Like many Murcianos though, the day after was grey and quiet. It seemed like the city itself was hungover. That’s how you know it’s been a good party.
Burying the Sardine
There’s one last Spring event in Murcia that I will, unfortunately, miss. The Sardine will be buried.
That’s no innuendo. Instead, the people of Murcia come out to cremate a big statue of a sardine (reminiscent of the Fallas in Valencia). It might sound a bit weird, but it’s bound to be an appropriate, fiery ending for the Easter festival period. Doesn’t it seem appropriate? A big, beautiful funeral for a big, beautiful fish. It’s fantastic.
I won’t be seeing the sardine burn. With a very heavy heart (but one full of hope for the future), I’m heading out of Murcia. It’s growing mighty close to my return to a world without burning sardines and huge plates of tuna salad.
But what a way to go. I feel a bit like the honoured fish.
I’ve been incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged, to have lived in such an interesting part of the world for so long. I have seen Murcia rise from Winter to vibrant Spring, felt the chill wind turn to burning sun. I’ve seen the people come together just for the simple joy available in this blessed life.
And I’ve done it all with my best friend by my side. I’ve come to feel at home, part of the people. I’ve even improved my Spanish a bit, how about that?
But the sardine funeral has to happen at some point. The important thing is realising that it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event. The fiesta, like the seasons, comes around again and again. It’s a beautiful cycle of love, fire, marching, candy.