Monday, April 13, 2009

Semana Santa or How many Spaniards does it take to move a KIA?

The week preceding Easter is high times in Spain. Known as the Semana Santa or Holy Week, every pueblo has its own series of daily processions with fluctuation levels of strange traditions that could only be inherited over centuries of cultural layering. Several of us at FV sought out a cross section of events for our cultural edification. The big day was Viernes Santo – Good Friday. 4 of us ladies rented a roomy KIA and took off up the coast for adventures.

The first stop was Vera, a small, industrial town about 20 minutes from Mojacar. We parked on a side street and began wandering through the streets in search of the church. After asking directions, we crossed a plaza, turned a corner and were confronted by a crowd of people dressed to the nines in black suits. Feeling very touristy in our beachy colors and sandals, we squeezed
in the back of the crowd and got a view of the church entrance. Coming out the door was a life-sized figure of Maria Dolorosa, her silver face and ashen expression the very definition of misery. Under her gold brocaded velvet gown we could see several pairs of suited legs – men bearing her heavy weight through the crowd. She made her way through the narrow streets, stopping every now and then for a rest and then backed into another church around the corner. Then the not-so-somber crowd dispersed to the bars for a café or cervesa before the next icon was scheduled to appear.

We didn’t want to wait around, so hopped back into our KIA and winded our way up the rugged coast. Being the only person who had driven in Spain before, I was the designated driver. It was a beautiful spring day, green and floral. We paused in a turn off to poke around some ruins and enjoy the view. Piling back in, I backed down a narrow road to turn around. Suddenly, the rear of the car dropped and lurched and we heard sandy scraping on the bottom. Upon further inspection, it appeared I had backed into a rather large ditch, full of prickly bushes. One rear wheel was completely floating in mid air, while the other was spinning in sandy gravel digging the middle underside of the car firmly into the dirt. Both front tires were still on the road, but pretty much useless without power from the rear. We were officially stuck.
A few hundred meters down the road were some cars and picnickers fishing from the beach. Shelley and Jane went off to recruit some help and came back with two reluctant 20-something Spaniards. We enlisted their muscles as I gunned the engine, but the result was only to spray one of them with dirt from the spinning front tire. We discussed calling a tow truck as a white VW van drove up from the beach. The rail thin, hippie-ish man in his 60’s stepped out with his barking dogs and scratched his head at the conundrum.

At this point, Jane had taken things into her own capable hands and was standing by the main road waving down any SUV type vehicle she saw. First a Land Rover with an elderly couple pulled off, then another vehicle passed us, turned around and pulled off. Here we had hit the jackpot. Out stepped a formidable woman and 3 burly men in their 30s. We now numbered 12 able bodies and decided to give it one more go. Not even turning the car on, we but it in neutral and everyone together pushed. It moved! Once again, uno, dos, tres! And the wheels began to roll. Once under its own inertia, we easily pushed it out of the ditch and back onto the road! Everyone cheered and we expressed our profound thanks in broken Spanish and broad smiles.

Viernes Santo: Part 2
On our way again, we enjoyed the scenic route to Cartagena, map-making center of the world. At 2 pm everyone was out walking around in holiday style, a promenade to see and be seen. We enjoyed paella y postre at a cafeteria on the main square with our amiable waiter, Oscar, serving our every whim with a smile. After lunch we admired boats in the marina and tasted sweets and meats at the artisan market but by 4pm the entire town had emptied out. It was time to move on.

Our last stop was Murcia, a small interior city which reputed to have some of the best processions within the area. We parked by the river as the first drops of rain began to fall and ducked our way to the main cathedral for refuge from the deluge. The rain lightened after about 30 minutes and we asked a few people about processions, getting various answers and indications of the direction we are supposed to go. We had a schedule and a map, but over the course of the evening, both items turned out to be somewhat useless. However, making our way in the general direction of someone’s indication we came around a corner and were confronted with bar crowded by men in black dresses with white lace trimmings and the traditional Spanish footwear. Women in black lace, children in velvet robes mingled with the jovial crowd. These clearly were the people to ask. Turns out we were behind one of the churches and the procession was scheduled to start at either 6:30, 7:00 or 7:15 depending who you asked. So, we went to the front and staked out some plastic chairs along the route for a good view as strangely dressed people continued to stream by, some talking on cell phones, others smoking a cigarette, all holding various walking sticks, lanterns, posts. Many had billows of fabric hanging over their cinched belt like a pillowy layer of fat. Later we discovered these rolls of fabric were stuffed with candies, toys even hard boiled eggs and sweet breads which they handed out to children and the occasional lucky adult in the crowds (we tried our luck at getting some but were mostly ignored).

It had been drizzling off and on for the last 30 minutes and now, at 7:15 it started raining harder. Our neighbor on the sidelines explained to me that if the rain didn’t stop by 7:30 they would probably call the procession off. A few minutes later there was a sky-breaking peal of thunder, the ambient daylight faded as though someone had leaned on the celestial light switch and it began to pour! Everyone raced for the shelter of shop doorway, overhangs and strangers with paraguas. The downpour lightened to steady rain in 5 minutes and soon the municipal men were stacking the chairs and the crowds dashing off to the local bars. We followed, disappointed that the costumes and props we had seen were left to our imaginations. Evening fell as we sipped hot drinks in a café and we thought about heading home.

But around 8:30, as we were getting ready to leave, we noticed a great crown over by the church and music bouncing off the buildings. Hurrying over, we saw a float coming out of the cathedral doors! Not sure if this was the same procession finally starting or a new one at the scheduled time, we really didn’t care. At least we could see something!

I cannot describe the strangeness of the procession. It went on for an hour. Hooded men in black handed out sweets from the bowels of their robes to small children who were well on their way to a strong sugar buzz. Huge floats carried by 30 or more men kept coming out of the church and proceeding along the streets. The floats consisted of a rectangular wooden base, gilded and decorated with roses, candles, lights and who knows what else. On top of everything was a statue of Jesus or Mary, or a crucifixion scene. They were obviously incredibly heavy. The men would walk about 30 feet and the leader would knock his walking stick against the icon with a loud CRACK and they would stop, resting their loads on wooden crutches. Then, at another crack, they would start again. Watching them turn a corner was amazing.

To see more pictures of the procession, visit this link.

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