After Barcelona, it is comforting to be in a small town once again. Marbella, on the Mediterranean Sea, was a village of 10,000 in the 1950s. Then the tourist/resort industry boomed and it is now 140,000 – still plenty small enough for my tastes. We were lucky enough to find accommodations in a small hotel during Holy Week. It was situated on Calle San Ramon, a street too small for cars. So the taxi dropped us off on the nearest main street, and we schlepped our luggage up the hill. The hotel location was worth the effort – only a block from what we had come here to see, the Semana Santa procession on the evening of Holy Thursday. Semana Santa is Holy Week, and in Spain is characterized by processions with men carrying large floats or thrones weighing up to 5 tons. I could have picked almost any town in Spain, but Marbella had a good recommendation for beachcombing, too.
After dropping off our large clunky room key with the lady at the hotel desk (an actual desk), we wandered around the old town – a labyrinth of tiny lanes, small open plazas with cafes, and shopping, my daughter’s favorite sport. The buildings of old Marbella are mostly white – blinding white in the strong sunshine. I was thankful for shade in the late afternoon.
Colorful tiles and potted plants adorned walls. A kitty wove her way among tourist feet and found her favorite napping spot right in the doorway of a local shop.
The Marbella website said the first procession started at 6 pm. The lady at the hotel desk reminded us that we were on Spanish time (much like Island Time back in Hawaii). So at 6:30 we walked to the street with the procession, and were surprised to see cars still driving up and down, and an open table right on the street at a café. We took it and ordered coffee and orange juice. By 7 pm the police arrived on motorcycles and began to close the street to traffic. Families began to mill around, though not exactly nailing a viewing spot. At 7:30 an older couple looking distressed searched for a place to sit at the café, and we offered them the two extra chairs at our table. They made for interesting companions: they spoke Spanish and German. My daughter, our only link, spoke a bit of ‘school’ Spanish. (“Ask them this.” “It’s too difficult. First I have to conjugate the verb to blah-blah tense and then…”) But we all made ourselves understood with hand gestures and shrugs. We pointed to our watches, then the street with a questioning “Cuando?” They shrugged.
About 8 pm we heard intermittent drumming. Now people were seriously lining the street. Our spot was near the reviewing stand, at the bottom of a hill. Each group in the procession would have the same structure. First to arrive were the penitents, people in long robes and pointed hats covering their faces, carrying lighted candles, and looking like the Ku Klux Klan. In centuries past, these would have been people walking the procession in prayer for their sins, yet remaining anonymous. These days, based on the height of the walkers, they appeared to be tweens and teens who volunteered for or were recruited for the procession.
The next group was the ladies in black, marching in high heels (!) and beautiful mantillas. Each procession was sponsored by a different fraternal brotherhood associated with different parishes in the town. The ladies were presumably the mothers or wives of the men who would be carrying the throne. Clerics accompanied by a young person with an incense burner followed the ladies and preceded the throne.
A parade leader in bare feet, carrying a cross, led them all. The penitents, mothers, and clerics came down the hill then stopped – for about 10 minutes. What was the hold-up? It soon became clear, as a band struck up music and the first throne appeared at the top of the hill.
This was a carefully choreographed walk, men packed together with their free hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. The throne swayed with the walking, the men carefully stepping together. Then, at a signal of a bell, they stood still and set the throne down while they took a rest. The whole procession stopped during this break.
Then with another bell signal, they hoisted the throne in unison. The band behind the throne was always playing while the throne was moving. The music has been especially composed for these processions.
Then a gap, and we could see another fraternal order’s procession coming down the hill. There were five in all with the penitents, the mothers in black, the clerics, a child swinging the incense thurible, then the throne, and finally the band. Several thrones were decked out with a multitude of candles. It made me a bit nervous to see them swaying in time to the march. But the tweens and teens with candles made me even more nervous. By the grace of God, no one caught their hood on fire.
Each procession had a special twist to their performance. Several thrones included a man with a blindfold and barefooted; he only had the feel of the man’s shoulder in front of him to guide him. If he went down, I imagine the whole throne would go down. One group hoisted the support beams straight up, arms fully extended for about three feet of the procession route. One group included a small company of men with guns twirling. Some groups had the lead man in each row fold their arms instead of hanging onto the beams.
During sections of the procession, one or two men in front of the throne walked backwards, holding the jutting ends of the beams that sat on the shoulders of the men carrying the throne. They looked like they were trying to hold them back, which may have been true. If the throne ahead of them was too slow, they had their men sway in place. Some fraternal orders did a better job than others of having men of all the same height. Besides the aesthetic appeal, I’d think it would make the load even.
Procession Four had an overly enthusiastic thurible swinger. The little girl in charge of the incense went wild with her responsibilities – if they wanted smoke, she’d make sure they had plenty of it. While it was funny for the observers (even we were coughing as she passed by us), it could not have been pleasant for the men behind her.
The entire event took three hours, and we headed back to the hotel a bit after 11pm. But each of the groups made a full circuit around the city center and then processed back to their own church. I can only imagine how tired everyone was at the end – the penitents holding onto their masks and candles, the mothers in their high heels, the men carrying the weight of the throne, the band members carrying and playing their instruments.
I admire the Spanish people for keeping up the tradition of the centuries to carry it on for their children. During this Holy Thursday evening, I reflected on what would be happening back in the US. A relatively recent way we have enriched the celebration of Holy Week in the Catholic Church is the priest washing parishioner’s feet on Holy Thursday, just as the Master did. I hope it is a tradition we can carry on for generations, just as the Spanish have done with Semana Santa Processions.
For other essays on my Spanish adventure, see:
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