The drum started in the distance, slow and steady, like a heartbeat.
We paused and glanced at each other just before curving around a blind corner and skidding to a stop at the top of a steep stairway.
We didn’t say it, but we were all thinking it. Uh oh.
Beneath us the streets of Granada, Spain were clogged with people. The long, metallic thrum of dozens of horns pealed through the air as a procession of white and blue figures marched slowly, disappearing behind a building.
We knew the rules. This was Semana Santa, the holy week starting on Palm Sunday and ending the Saturday before Easter Sunday. In Spain, this was a week taken very seriously. Depending on the city, there could be endless processions winding through the streets each day of the week. And thousands of people gathered to watch.
So why were we worried? Why not just enjoy the beauty of the procession? One of the main rules: No one crosses the procession. No one. If you’re on one side and need to get to the other, you must figure out a way to go around.
But in a city where streets curl, split and converge like branches on a tree, “going around” wasn’t easy. And Google Maps, our only source for navigating the twisted streets, wanted us to go straight through the parade.
“Esta no bueno,” I thought. This is not good.
(My family and I would later joke that Google Maps needs some sort of setting for religious procession avoidance.)
My stomach growled. My legs ached. We’d been walking up and down the steep mountainside town of Granada all day. We were tired and hungry. Our refuge, the restaurant where we’d made reservations for dinner, was on the other side of this procession. We had one hour to get there. Looking across the sun-bleached terracotta roofs and white stucco walls of a city whose streets confounded us, we realized we might not make it in time.
My husband raised his phone like some sort of battle signal and we darted down the stairs, heading for the crowd. I grabbed my daughter’s hand, worried we’d lose her.
At the base of the stairs, we passed a group of men wearing tank tops, jogging pants and strange head-coverings. White cloth rolled and tied in a circle around their heads in a way that made them look like pirates.
These men were the “costaleros” or “sack men”. (Named for their headdress.) They carry the “pasos,” giant floats weighing over 4,000 lbs, the highlight of every procession. The men stand inside the paso, like rowers on an ancient ship, hidden beneath an elaborate table skirt to give the illusion that the float walks by itself (i.e., it floats.)
It takes anywhere from 24 to 48 costaleros to carry a paso and they practice all year for the event. It is a once in a lifetime honor.
The group of costaleros laughed and slapped each other on the back, giving off a distinct vibe of excitement. We lost sight of the costaleros as we were absorbed by the crowd, which grew denser until we moved so slowly it felt as if we were moving through molasses.
The marching band
Moving through a crowd is a bit like trying to find your way through a labyrinth that keeps changing. The crowd would break open into a plaza where we’d feel like we could suddenly breathe again and then narrowed, pressing us tightly against strangers.
Drums and horns beat sharply in our ears as the band, dressed in navy blue with gold trim, raised their shiny instruments in the air. It reminded me of Thanksgiving when the school marching bands head down Broadway in New York City.
We weaved along the crowded sidewalks for a few blocks, enjoying the live soundtrack of Semana Santa, until we noticed the street curved up ahead around a large fountain, only the fountain’s white stone statue visible above the mass of people. We knew if we entered that mass, we may never come out.
The women in black
An alleyway, hidden in a tiny crack between the smooth-walled buildings, branched out to our right. It looked empty.
Acting on impulse (Google Maps was useless at this point), we bent right and slipped through it quickly, hearts pounding as if we were in one of those movies where we were fleeing through a crowd from a nefarious assailant. The alley broke open and we stopped abruptly. Again our path was blocked by the procession. This time it was women dressed head-to-toe in black with veils flowing like fountains of lace out of the tops of their heads.
This headdress is called a mantilla. The garment, popularized in the nineteenth century, is used as a sign of mourning and in commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
Part of me wanted to stop and revel at the sight of hundreds of women, dressed in black, walking down the street like some sort of beautiful funeral. But the clock was ticking. We only had 30 more minutes to find our way around the procession and it felt like we were cornered on all sides.
We spun around again and headed down another winding street clogged with people lining the procession like rocks along a river. The crowd grew so dense it ejected us out of its bosom and onto the street.
Suddenly, it felt like we were part of the parade, marching alongside men dressed in pointed hats and robes. Inwardly, I gasped. The Nazarenos.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen them since we got to Granada. The men and women in the Nazareno outfits wandered the streets before and after the processions. We’d even seen them in tiny figurine form in tourist shops next to statues of flamenco dancers.
But this was the first time I’d seen what looked like hundreds of them, walking in lock-step down the street, carrying giant staff-like candles. (In fact, in cities like Seville, over 2,000 Nazarenos can accompany one paso, or float, in a procession.) The onlookers were quiet as the Nazarenos walked past, clearly not feeling the same terrified emotions as me.
As an American, it’s disconcerting to see the Nazarenos. Their outfits are eerily reminiscent of a certain terrible white supremacist group in the United States whose name doesn’t deserve to be written here. (Those of you from the US will know what I mean.) However, there is no connection between the groups. It’s simply a coincidence.
Also known as the “penitentes” (penitent ones), the Nazarenos’ “look,” particularly the cone-shaped hat, is supposed to “symbolize a sort of rising towards the heavens,” according to several websites I consulted on the matter. It’s actually similar to the cone-shaped shrubs, typically cypress trees, often used in Spanish gardens and cemeteries to symbolically reach towards the heavens.
My head told me to try to enjoy this portion of the procession for what it was, a unique experience of another culture. Meanwhile, my heart pounded with anxiety as I walked just feet away from people who, through no fault of their own, electrified the hairs on my arm with fear. In the end, my head won out. I focused on the beauty of their rhythmic movement, the swish of the sound of the fabric, and the candles flickering in unison in the fading light.
We walked alongside the Nazarenos for a while, their flames just inches away from setting our jackets on fire. With no end to the procession in sight, I tugged on my husbands shirt we sunk back into the crowd, still searching for a way to get us across to the other side of the city.
As we walked, the crowd grew so thick we could barely move. A smell of incense and anticipation filled the air. Something was happening. Something different. It’s as if the air changed.
Then we saw it. Plated in gold with long brocade cape, covered in candles, the paso. The float.
The crowd hushed. I felt their emotions press against me as much as their bodies.
Not caring for a moment if we were late for our reservation, we stopped. We waited and watched, like we were truly one of them and not tourists trying to circumvent their holy procession.
The grand feel of the paso, the way it sways and moves through the head of the crowd, felt ancient and otherworldly.
The pasos mark the center of each procession and house under their canopies ornate, lifelike wooden sculptures of biblical scenes, such as the grieving Virgin Mary. In Sevilla, where would would visit after Granada, there are more than 55 church “hermandades” and “cofradias” (also know as brotherhoods), some dating as far back as the 13th century, who organize and take part in the Semana Santa processions. In total, the brotherhoods may carrying over 115 different pasos during Semana Santa.
The paso was gone too fast to really appreciate the grandeur of every ornate detail. Still, it left behind the imprint of its majesty, like the smoke from its candles, as it floated out of view.
Soon after, we found a crossing where there was no procession and made our way to our restaurant. As the sun set over Granada, we ate paella and listened to the fading sounds of drums in the distance.
A quick trip to Sevilla’s Semana Santa
We had a similar experience again in Sevilla, but on a much larger scale. In Sevilla, the city set up bleachers and chairs, sectioned off areas, closed down streets and even created passing lanes manned by police officers where people could safely and properly cross the processions. It was bigger, grander, and despite their efforts, even harder not to get surrounded by processions than Granada.
Thousands of people swarmed Sevilla. Many were dressed in suits and dresses, similar to how people dress for Easter Sunday in the US. Little children wore ties and bows. There were people in every still corner and crevice.
It was wondrous and suffocating at the same time. It was also the first time we caught a glimpse of a paso at night. Standing there, among the revelers, watching it glitter, for a moment I stopped suffocating and just enjoyed the peaceful scene.
Although at times inconvenient, if you’re a tourist, and not a devout Catholic, there is still something magical about Semana Santa in Spain. It’s filled with a loving, peaceful sense of devotion and beauty on a scale I have never seen before. It was a truly unique experience, at times frustrating and at other times awe-inspiring. Either way, it is one I won’t forget. (And may influence a book or two some day.)