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Semana Santa

The atmospheric processions held across Spain in the week before Easter create some unforgettable scenes. What’s fascinating is that although there are many things in common, almost every city in the country has a different interpretation of Semana Santa (Holy Week).

At its extremes the atmosphere can be colourful and demonstrative, or regimented and sombre. Here’s a look at the history of the tradition, what goes into it and how Semana Santa is observed in different places. Semana Santa - What does it mean? We’ve all seen them; the images of people in robes marching down Spanish streets in long candle-lit processions. They wear conical hats and have their faces covered by hoods in a way that might seem eerie and menacing to the uninitiated.

Really, these are penitents demonstrating their piety made in whole communities, and the ritual goes back to the medieval and baroque periods. It’s a Catholic tradition observed by local brotherhoods known in Spanish as cofradías, but in this era Semana Santa has also come to symbolise a sense of continuity with the past and family bonds. The main elements of the Semana Santa marches  The clothing was adopted by penitents in the Middle Ages, and the hoods were a means of hiding the marcher’s identity. The garment is known as a ‘nazareno’ and includes a tunic, which comes in different colours according to the brotherhood and location. Another key part of the tradition are the huge wooden floats, or ‘pasos’ carried by sections of the procession. These depict a host of different images or scenes from the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary or the Passion of Christ. In many places these large sculptures date back hundreds of years, and the strain of the weight on their carriers is often visible up close.

Accompanying the floats and penitents are brass bands and drummers, playing slow, solemn marches. Semana Santa in Alicante and Murcia Orihuela, Alicante The parades here are noted for the sculptural intricacy of the floats, several of which were created by the renowned 18th Century Sculptor Francisco Salzillo. The must-see event is El Silencio takes place on the night of Good Friday, when, as the name suggests, 10,000 penitents march in perfect silence. The only sound to be heard from this unworldly candlelit procession are footsteps.

Cartagena, Murcia The processions set off from the Santa María de Gracia church and are remarkable for the elaborate flower arrangements that decorate the floats. It is also one of the only places where the images from the Passion are paraded in chronological order. On top of that there’s a historic friendly rivalry between the two local Catholic brotherhoods—the majarros in purple robes, and the californios in red. Lorca, Murcia Here there’s a lot more glamour to be found. One of the main sights each year is the float devoted to Cleopatra, carried by people in ancient Egyptian costume. On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday there’s a rivalry between the “Whites” bearing the image of the Virgin of the Affliction, and the “Blues” carrying the Virgin of the Suffering. Orihuela is half an hour from the Drivalia car rental depot at Alicante airport; Lorca around 90 minutes and Cartegena approximately 75 minutes.