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Travel Stories






Holy Moly its the KKK!

From the day I arrived in Seville everyone has spoken to me about the Holy Week in Easter where thousands of Spaniards and Tourists flock to the historical city to catch a glimpse of the manic week known as Semana Santa. I’m not a religious person, so the thought of spending a week traipsing round the crammed city for 4 or 5 hours a day in a religious festival was not really my idea of fun, but I soon learnt why this is a world famous event.

My first image of what happens in this festive period struck me whilst wandering round an art museum ‘Why are they dressed like the KKK?’ I asked Chia, my girlfriend ‘its tradition’ she replied, this I had to see. My Spanish students had mixed opinions. Some couldn’t wait to get to the beach and away from the chaos for the week. Whilst others had been preparing and waiting all year for the spectacle to arrive. I was dubious but something inspired me to stay.

On the first Sunday I woke up and peered out my window, I had to rub my eyes twice as a small man dressed like the Ku Klux Klan walked past, it wasn’t my imagination. There were hoards of people heading into the centre of town, most of them were dressed up to the T in their Sunday best and the poor kids in their variety of dungarees with green or red tights, it’s a Spanish thing. I whacked on a shirt and trousers and headed off to Chia’s house, to have lunch with her family. As I left the house I could sense the buzz in the air, and smell the mixture of incense and orange bloom that fills the city during the week. In the centre everything was prepared for the Pasos (processions) to display their magnificent images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I took pictures of the stands set up for the fanatics along the official route by the 4th biggest Cathedral in the world.

The atmosphere at Chia’s house was like Christmas morning everyone was preparing for the lunch and getting their best clothes ready to take to the streets. After a hefty lunch, a few beers and some spirits combined with toasts to the strength in our Pepinos (Cucumbers) it was time for the first manic afternoon. We found a good spot with the other sardines in the can and waited for the first Paso. It was like waiting for a concert to start, everyone crammed in together to witness something spectacular, but I didn’t know which group was playing and you couldn’t see the faces of the band. The first set of Nazarenos appeared, they were walking their penitence dressed in a robe, a long pointed hat (Capirote) and a mask (Antifaz). Depending on their penitence they carry a large candle by their side or a cross over their back, some even go barefoot. The colours they wear depend on their Brotherhood, most Brotherhoods have hundreds of Nazarenos, the most was 2,400.

‘Why are they walking so slowly?’ I asked Chia’s Dad, Manolo, ‘wait and you will see’. Then the first image of Christ appeared. It was a huge gold plated wooden float carried by a cuadrilla a group of 30 men (costaleros) each supporting a weight of 40 or 50 kg on their shoulders and back, which could last an agonising 12 hours depending on the Brotherhood! As the Christ came closer the crowd moved tighter to let it pass. Then the capatace who guides the costaleros knocked on a golden device at the front of the float and they stopped for a break. This lasted four or five minutes. ‘Hay esta’ said the capatace, ‘that’s it’ and they were off again. As it passed us people touched the gold for good luck, some made a cross sign and said a prayer. I couldn’t believe that these guys were walking 8 hours carrying such a work of art on their back. Ten years ago they were paid by each Brotherhood to carry the floats, now they pay the Brotherhood for the privilege of walking.

After twenty minutes watching more Nazarenos walk slowly past I heard the traditional music of the brass bands creeping round the corner, in front was their Virgin Mary. This was again carried by costaleros and to the rhythm of the music that was playing. She was carried under a canopy wearing a long cape, one of the main attractions of art the detail and time spent on making these was amazing.

We waited one hour to watch both the Christ and Virgin, there were about eight Pasos each day, from 3pm until 2am. It was like a marathon, but as each day passed I became more interested. Each Christ displayed a different scene in the week leading up to the week Jesus was crucified and as the week went on the images were more gruesome. ‘The Passion of Christ’ by Mel Gibson gave me a deeper understanding of the stages and the pain felt by Jesus during this week.

For me the buzz came when watching the images move to the rhythm of the music and watching the costaleros lifting the floats in a mighty heave and listening to them grunt in pain as the float rested on their shoulders and back. Some of them are more subdued with no music to mark respect for the images. One in particular left me with a lump in my throat. We waited about 30 minutes for the Christ to appear in silence, as it approached the door of the church you could hear the feet stomping along, then as it turned to enter the church the float lowered, Manolo informed me they were now on their knees ‘Que?’ I could hear the bone crunching steps as the Christ entered the church, all in total silence, amazing.

Nando, Chia’s brother had been waiting two years to walk as a Nazareno because the year before it rained and no Pasos could leave, so this year it was very important for the family. I went round to see him before he left and had the privilege of trying on his costume and feeling the weight of the belt and how uncomfortable the hood was, I didn’t fancy wearing that for 8 hours ‘next year you can come with me yeah?’ ‘Uhh yeah maybe’ I responded hesitantly. We watched his Paso leave the church and then saw some others whilst we waited for it to return some 7 hours later, where I witnessed a fabulous site. It was about 1.30am as we waited in a square near the church to watch the Christ come past, all the lights had been turned off and it was only lit up by the candles of the Nazarenos, the atmosphere was creepy. They stopped for a break and a voice flew out from a window behind me, it was too dark to see the face, I looked at Monolo in despair ‘Es una Saeta’.

A Saeta is a religious flamenco song, the lyrics are related to the statue or the bible that the Brotherhood represents its amazing when you are luckily enough to be nearby. I felt the goose bumps on my neck and arms stand on edge as it got more profound. We met Nando his feet looked sore and he felt dead but was happy to have completed it.

The highlight of the week was La Madruga in the early morning of Good Friday. Another 8 Pasos started at 1am and finished the following afternoon. We had been out all evening on Thursday and my legs were killing me from all the walking and waiting about during the week so we slept and woke up early to watch the most respected Brotherhoods. These included El Silencio, La Macarena, Los Gitanos and Esperanza de Triana where I’m lucky enough to live. The beauty of these Pasos is that they were so different to each other, on the one hand they would be deadly silent to mark the respect, or on the other hand like La Macarena people would shout ‘Guapa, Guapa’ (beautiful) at the Virgin as she passed. We finished at 1.30pm the following afternoon completely shattered.

The rest of the week was quieter and an anti climax after witnessing the extraordinary Madruga and my interest started to dive as the rain started on Good Friday stopping the Pasos from leaving for a second year in a row. I saw people crying in the street because they had to wait another year to see their images. The whole event was breathtaking and I learnt a lot about Spanish culture thanks to Chia and her family who were great hosts during the week. If you fancy witnessing something out of this world, I’d recommend booking a hotel soon because the city is already preparing for next years manic event.

By Barry O'Leary

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