Semana Santa [Holy Week] is the most important religious festival in Catholic Spain. Everywhere from the tiniest village to the biggest city celebrate the week with devout processions through the streets and Gaucín is no exception.
Here, Semana Santa kicks off with a Borriquita procession on Palm Sunday as an expression of piety and the villagers shuffle silently down the winding streets carrying their precious cargo.
Similar processions take place throughout the week: The Holy Office on Maunday Thursday, the Way of the Holy Cross on Good Friday and a Holy Vigil on Easter Saturday. Although the procession itself is silent, it is always heralded by the enthusiastic village band. Maunday Thursday’s procession are led by Nasarenos in ceremonial indigo robes and caps, altar boys in pasture green, the parish Priest and the Mayor. Both men and women carry the two litters: Gaucín’s litters are modest affairs made from a simple varnished wood platform with stair finials supporting the candles but they are abundantly decorated with flowers – creamy white lilies for The Madonna and blood red carnations for Christ.
In cities like Seville the processions are spectacular and the litters that the Nasarenos (the Brotherhood in their spooky pointed caps) carry are enormous and ornate. On my only experience of Semana Santa in Seville rained stopped play and the temporary grandstands that lined the streets lay drenched and empty. The only opportunity to see the ornate litters (too old and precious to risk getting wet) was in the Hermandades whose doors were flung open and insides lit with hundreds of candles. The litters were elaborately decorated in velvet, gold and silver and incorporated immense candleholders. Dotted around the city, they glowed in the twilight with a dazzling angelic light as if lit by God Himself.
Despite the weather, crowds thronged the streets. Little children were immaculately dressed in old-fashioned dresses or tailored knee-shorts topped with fine wool cardigans in refined hues such as duck egg, jade or strawberry.
At the toe-end, these colours were flawlessly echoed in their socks and gleaming leather shoes and the girls’ silky hair was tied back with toning ribbons. The children clustered doe-eyed at their parents’ knees; the men all wore suits or at the very least a sports jacket whilst the women were impeccably dressed in jewel-bright dresses and black lace mantillas.
Across the region each procession has its own identity. In Malaga, the Gitano procession is said to be the most colourful and gay whilst of Ronda’s fourteen processions, the Paz y Caridad y de la Vera Cruz on Maunday Thursday is the most solemn and pious. Hushed crowds gather outside the Colegiata Santa Maria La Mayor at dusk.
Finally, the last whisper trails off as the massive church doors swing open, incense billows in pungent smoky blue clouds into the square and the Brotherhood gradually emerge through the haze.
You can hear a pin drop as they shuffle slowly into the courtyard the attendants swaying slightly with the effort of carrying the colossal litter aloft. The crowd fall in behind the procession and silently make their way down to the main street and across the Puente Nuevo that spans Ronda’s famous gorge before heading up to the Plaza del Socorro in the heart of the town to be greeted by the Mayor and other town officials.
Whether watching Gaucín’s humble Semana Santa processions from a roof terrace with a sundowner or jostling with the hordes lining the streets in a bigger town or city, witnessing a Semana Santa procession is an unforgettable experience and one that celebrates and reflects the area’s culture like few others.