Anyone who has taken a Spanish class has probably learned about the famous “Semana Santa” celebrated in Spain. It means holy week, and it’s the week leading up to Easter (so the dates vary from year to year). There are many traditions that are practiced during that week, including special food, events, and for many, vacation time.
One of the most emblematic foods for Spaniards during holy week are “torrijas” and they are very similar to french toast. Basically, you take thick bread and dip it in a mixture of milk, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, and sometimes wine. Then you dip it in egg and deep fry it in oil. Unlike french toast in the US, they aren’t eaten with syrup but instead sprinkled with sugar. They are delicious! Here was my first try at making them at home (we had some friends visiting).
Before all the festivities of the week started, I got a chance to go hiking with some friends from my course. I guess I didn’t realize that Madrid had such beautiful hiking trails. We went on April 9th and there was still snow on the mountain tops, as well as on the trails. The dogs loved it! It was a perfect day for a hike.
The next day, I decided to try one of the bars near our new apartment. It’s a bar with food from Galicia (northwestern Spain)–some of my favorite food. I ordered a beer and the tapa it came with was fresh mussels! That was a first. Most bars give a free tapa with a drink, but it’s usually something cheaper.
I ordered a “tostada” which is a slice of toasted bread with varying things on top. This one had morcilla, quail eggs, and roasted red peppers. It was really good, and I realized I can make this at home (yes they sell quail eggs at grocery stores here, although I’ll probably just use good ol’ chicken eggs).
On the 12th, Diego and I took a motorcycle ride to a local town called Navalcarnero. Basically when we have some free time and I have an itch for a motorcycle ride, I like to google “cute towns near Madrid” and this one was the closest to our house. It has a really charming main square. We basically just drove through, stopped at the bar, then headed up north through some windy mountain roads.
On the 13th, Jueves Santa (or holy Thursday), I decided to go downtown and see one of the famous processions of Semana Santa. They have many, most of which occur on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of holy week. Each one represents a different phase of Jesus’ life or resurrection. This one was called “Jesus el Pobre” and represents the moment when Jesus is presented to the town after he was whipped and crowned with thorns.
The processions signify different things for different people. For some, they are impressive works of art and tradition. For others, a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice and a chance to honor and worship him. Many people partake in the processions, and to me the most impressive role is that of the bearers–those who carry the “pasos” (statues). It’s hard work, but they see it as an honor. And maybe a way to show their love and committment to worshipping Jesus.
As this was my first procession here and I was going alone, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I got really lucky and found a tiny niche to stand in. One big difference between the processions here and a normal parade in the US is that the processions here go through tiny streets downtown. At times, there is only enough space for the statue to pass through. Where I was standing, there was enough room for a single file line of people to stand on each side of the street. Even then, when the marching bands went by, we almost got hit by the drumsticks. It’s an up close and personal experience that moves many people to tears (Diego did warn me to not be surprised about that).
Another element to these processions that sometimes catches foreigners off guard is the way they dress. The majority of people in the procession wear cloaks (they can be a variety of colors, but this particular procession was purple). They also wear pointed hoods that are creepily similar to what KKK members wear. Keep in mind though, that this way of dressing in the processions came way before the KKK. The idea is a tradition with the goal of hiding the identity of the people marching, so that all members of society could participate (whether rich, poor, or from any social class). The tall hats with pointed ends aim to hide the height of each person, further protecting their identity.
As the throne is carried along the street, somber music is played by marching bands and onlookers attempt to touch the statue. The general atmosphere is of respect, appreciation, and peace. I was moved by how close up everything was, and the detail put into the statues. They are adorned with fresh flowers and candles. Because of how heavy they are, every so often the procession stops and the men carrying the statue swap places with another group of men. As they walked by close to me, I could see the strain in their faces. Many were sweating and drinking water when they had the chance.
One person in the procession had the job of making sure all the candles were lit at all times. This person was busy! There was also a group of people that held burning incense, giving the procession another dimension: an herbal smell.
Right after the procession ended, the crowd watching started to walk up the street to exit the area. This created a massive traffic jam of people, and things got even more complicated when as I was trying to leave. I came across another procession that was still in process, blocking many other streets.
On Saturday, Diego and I were walking around downtown Madrid and stumbled upon another procession. We decided to stop and watch for a few minutes. This one was a bit different but the theme remains the same.
Easter Sunday in Spain is a time to go to mass and worship. Unlike in the US, in Spain they don’t have the idea of the Easter bunny, egg hunts, or Easter baskets. The holiday isn’t really catered to children, although they do enjoy time off from school and lots of sweets. What did we do? Well, Diego took Mitzy and I to a town called El Pardo to walk around. We saw the royal palace there (Spain has many, as they also built summer homes) and walked along the river.
Then he told me about a nearby park that has wild pigs and deer roaming around nearby. People throw food in the area to attract them to the fence (they are wild, but a fence stands on one side of the park). At first I had my doubts that we would see anything, but sure enough there were a few jabali (wild pigs) walking around.
Diego tells me that usally during Semana Santa it is cold and rainy in Madrid, so we got really lucky with great weather.
I highly recommend seeing at least one procession during Semana Santa if you ever get the chance. Even if you’re not Christian, it’s an impressive show of grace and an unforgettable experience.