Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (5)
Days 4 – 9
We took to Spanish life with unabashed ease… Lazy mornings in the ‘Plaza de la Corredera o del Huevo’ or the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’: sipping away on fragrant café con leche or cappuccino, feasting on a breakfast of divine chocolate-dipped churros followed by fresh bread liberally drizzled with local virgin olive oil and piled high with fleshy tomatoes or cured jamón. Who needed lunch when every drink we ordered after eleven in the morning was accompanied by mouth-watering tapas, their variety only limited by the chefs’ imagination… But with such an abundance of fresh produce at my fingertips in the local supermarkets, we savoured most of our lunches and dinners on our rooftop terrace, indulging in heart-healthy salads and my own Jamie Oliver-inspired, spur-of-the-moment concoctions whilst enjoying the unending views of olive groves. No need for a cookery book, we were on holiday, and so was everyone else it seemed..
We hit Cazorla at the start of Semana Santa. And whereas in secular Britain the significance of Holy Week is rather glossed over by all but committed churchgoers, in Catholic Spain it is a time for festivals and parades that bring whole towns together. In all honesty, we were quite oblivious to the advent of Easter, and apart from the pang of guilt at not yet having bought chocolate eggs for my now adult offspring, this most auspicious day on the Christian calendar hardly featured on our agenda until we ventured into town on Sunday morning in search of freshly baked bread.
It was nearing lunchtime and the plaza thronged with people milling around without apparent purpose, little clusters blocking the pavement, the air heavy with expectation. The main road leading towards our house on the hill was cordoned off, a clear no-go area for cars. It was obvious something was imminent, but it wasn’t until I spotted long and short palm leaves being waved about that I had an inkling… Palm Sunday, perhaps. We quized a young-looking couple but our lack of Spanish and their lack of English left a lot to the imagination. Our only option was to join the crowd and wait to see what all the fuss was about…
And indeed, eventually our patience paid off. To the upbeat sound of a live marching band we saw them approaching the roundabout, a massive cross at the head of the parade… Lines of strangely costumed people, wearing long, white, flowing robes and yellow conical hats with just circles for the eyes. Ku-Klux-Klan revisited? What may have looked like strange, Ku-Klux-Klan-imitation attire to tourists was the traditional garb of the ‘brotherhoods’ or cofradías, worn during the Easter observances and Easter re-enactments of The Passion of Christ.
Many participants in the procession dress in the penitential robe, consisting of a tunic and conical hood – or capirote – which conceals the face. Although today the capirote is a symbol of a Catholic trying to redeem himself in the eyes of God, and only members of a ‘brotherhood of penance’ are allowed to wear them during solemn processions, its origin is far more sinister. The use of the capirote dates back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunt instigated in 1478 by the fervently Catholic Spanish rulers to rid the country of Jews and Muslims. People condemned by the Tribunal were obliged to wear a yellow robe – sacobendito, aka blessed robe – that covered their chest and back. They also had to wear a paper-made cone on their heads with different signs on it, alluding to the type of crime they had committed. The hat’s colour reflected the sentence meted out. Red ones were for the death penalty… In time, the cap was adopted by the Catholic brotherhoods as a voluntary guise for flagellants as they walked along the streets whilst flogging themselves to make amends for their sins.
These days, cofradías are generally Christian voluntary organisations of lay people, associated with a particular church, and are involved in charitable or religious work. Each brotherhood has its own set of rules, and membership may be very exclusive to include only men, only women, or only youth. During Semana Santa, the brotherhoods are bestowed with the honour of carrying large floats, or pasos, adorned with religious sculptures depicting the various stages of the Easter story, starting on Palm Sunday with Jesus’ jubilant entry into Jerusalem. Many of these pasos are quite old and have been preserved by the brotherhoods for hundreds of years.
The members of the cofradia may no longer be indulging in flagellation as a form of penance, but taking part in the Semana Santa processions itself is seen as an act of atonement. And it sure is no mean feat to be underneath the floats in the heat of the April spring sun… We tried to count the number of feet, clad in black shoes or not clad at all, peeping from under the long skirt draped over the float. In the region of 32 men were shouldering the paso burden, shuffling along short distances at the time, to the tune of either uplifting or solemn music and the command of the foreman who decided the time between the paso being lifted and put down again – just enough time for a quick quench of thirst..
No sign of any Semana Santa processions on Monday; of course, it may have been that we were otherwise engaged and not in town.. But there was no mistaking the Tuesday extravaganza. Enjoying a spot of sun on the rooftop terrace, the afternoon peace was suddenly interrupted by the vibrant sounds of a brass band. ‘More entertainment?’ we wondered as we, curiosity roused, made our way towards the commotion. Turning the corner in front of Iglesia del Carmen we bumped into the musicians, smartly dressed in black and red and belting out cheery tunes. No way through for us, but with the road on a steep incline we could just get a glimpse of the procession leaving the church.
With a quick detour, negotiating other narrow streets, we found ourselves ahead of the parade and in a perfect spot for taking a few shots. At the fore of the procession, a red-hooded member of the Hermandad de la Juventud – a youth brotherhood – carrying the cross, a couple of Roman soldiers close on his heels.
This time, the sides of the paso were not covered and the porters, both boys and girls, were in full view as they carried the heavy float through town, followed en masse by what looked like the rest of the inhabitants of Cazorla.
Unfortunately, we needed to start our return journey to the UK on Thursday, so we missed out on the complete Semana Santa experience. But by Wednesday, we had figured out that more events were planned. Shop fronts displayed posters with the start and end points of the parades, as well as the planned route and timings. And Miercoles Santo 2019 was an evening parade…
The procession pretty much followed the familiar pattern: cross-bearer at the front; two lines of hooded and cloaked – blue and white this time – members of the brotherhood ; a weighty float with statues of Jesus, some disciples and a Roman soldier; a marching band.
But this time, there was an additional cofradía : a ‘brotherhood’ of women wearing La Mantilla – the traditional outfit made up of the lace mantle, stiffened by shell or another material, and a black dress – and all holding a rosary and a lit candle. The women’s sober cortège preceded a second paso, one depicting a glorious Mary in all splendour.
Of course, Semana Santa is celebrated all over Spain and the parades of the bigger cities, such as Seville, Malaga or Granada are probably much more elaborate and attract many more tourists than the modest one in Carzorla. But if anything, Semana Santa in Cazorla was a humbling experience… When all my Easter thoughts before had focused on chocolate, it seemed fitting to be reminded of the real meaning of Easter.