When Julie rang on Sunday lunchtime to say there was some kind of religious procession (Palm Sunday?) happening near her place, I initially wondered if I was all that interested. Then I thought – I’m in Spain, this is clearly something traditionally Spanish and it’s not like I’m doing anything else!
So in another attempt to get some exercise and save money on the Metro, I walked the hour to Plaza Mayor. At least it was via a mostly new route, as I’m starting to think I could do the whole Bravo Murillo / Fuencarral route in my sleep! I met Julie and we headed off to find the right church for later.
Duly sorted, we decided it was time for that other Sunday necessity – beer. A great little dark and stone bar round the corner served us exactly what we wanted – una cana (a small or medium beer depending on where you are) for 1 Euro, with a free plate of deep fried crisps and egg. It never fails to surprise me that free food still comes with your beer, economic crisis or not. It’s not like it was a 3 course meal, but it was the kind of helping that you can imagine some British café trying to charge you a couple of quid for. And of course you would have had to order it!
It was soon time to go and find ourselves a place on the barrier-lined route of the procession. Easier said than done – initially it was no problem, but then we decided we were way too early and went off to find another drink (see a pattern emerging here?). By the time we got back it was a different story. The crowds had multiplied probably five-fold and we had to cross the narrow street and slot ourselves into a small space.
There was still about 45 minutes until it was due to start but we had come this far and were going to wait it out no matter what. Almost all the rest of the crowd were Spanish and I admit I did start to feel a bit conspicuous. They were all there for clearly genuine religious reasons, and there was I, lifelong atheist, camera in hand, there for the spectacle. I felt a little better when, as it became clear that something was happening at the unseen front of the church, other cameras came out.
And so it began, extremely slowly! First of all came what I can only describe as an ebony version of the Ku Klux Klan. Men in long black robes, with woven mat thick cummerbunds, topped off with immense black pointy hoods, with tiny eye holes cut in them. Most carried tall candles, some religious artefacts. They processed slowly and as it started, a complete hush descended over the crowd. Frankly, it was quite spooky.
Shortly after the black-clad guys, were more in white and green, then purple. Then a murmur came through the crowd and the first ripples of applause. It soon became clear that it was for the emergence through the church doors of what I can only describe as a truly immense wooden dresser topped off with a giant crucifix. We could see it descending the ramp that covered the church steps – it must have been 15 or 20 feet high. There was more applause as it reached the bottom of the ramp and turned to follow the procession of candle-bearing men towards us. To begin with, we couldn’t work out how it was moving but as it came closer and past us, the sight of about 10 pairs of shuffling feet poking out from underneath it, gave the game away. As it passed, I could see through the carvings that there were maybe 30 guys inside it, all shuffling along and occasionally chanting. It was pretty amazing. On the way past, most of the Spaniards near me crossed themselves and reached out to touch it. I still felt a little bad about taking photos but I can’t pretend it was anything but an intriguing spectacle to me, which I needed to record.
Behind this, came a group of people in very simple clothes, headscarves and with their arms folded. As far as I could tell from their little badges, they were the “penitents”. Shortly they were followed by more of the pointy-hatted people along with some very small children in some kind of traditional garb, who also handed out sweets to people along the way. They were followed by splendid black-clad women, all with the hair comb and lace headdress combination, seen on so many Spanish souvenir dolls, in my childhood at least.
The smell of incense was all-pervading, and was very heady!
A helpful guy in the crowd was explaining to Julie that the procession would take at least a couple of hours to complete its circuit but that there was more to come. True enough, we heard more applause and all attention fell on the church doors again. This time, an enormous kind of four-poster bed affair was descending the ramp. It was all white and gold, with about 50 lit candles at the front, silver lanterns hanging from the canopy and it contained a huge Virgin Mary. The silence, in between the applause each time it negotiated a ramp or a corner, was quite something. This was clearly the highlight of the procession and several of the Spaniards around were clearly having a profound religious experience as it passed – crying, genuflecting and praying. Initially, it felt a little uncomfortable and again I wondered if we were seen as unwelcome outsiders as again we were simply watching and photographing events. But as I understand it, most religious experiences are a very personal thing, so I doubt anyone even noticed us.
Once that had gone past, we were only left with the marching band in uniform (not sure which uniform), who were very good, though the fact that they stopped just as the trombonists were right in front of me, did little for my eardrums!
And then they were gone. The 2 gigantic carried items had successfully turned the corner into the next street on their journey and people began to wander away. It would have been good to find out a little more about what it was all about, the history of it etc, but the spectacle would have to do. Can’t get the link to the photos to work at the moment, but I will!