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Travel: Spain's holy week party

GEORGE LUKE discovers Easter celebrations in southern Spain are a real feast for the senses …

GEORGE LUKE discovers Easter celebrations in southern Spain are a real feast for the senses …

It's past midnight – and out on the narrow streets of Osuna, ‘La Fiesta Mayor’ is in full swing and will keep going for at least another hour. Osuna is my first stop on a trip visiting eight towns in the south of Spain (Baena, Cabra, Priego, Puente Genil, Lucena, Alcalá la Real, Osuna and Carmona), to see how they celebrate ‘Semana Santa’ (Holy Week).

I’m reliably informed by my hosts that “Holy Week is not just a religious festival; it’s a party.” It’s certainly a feast for all the senses. There are the sounds: brass bands in procession; the non-stop drumming of Baena’s ‘Colinegros’ and ‘Coliblancos’; and the ‘saetas’ – mournful, Flamenco-style laments, sung with passion from church balconies.

There are the tastes and smells of the food and drink associated with Holy Week; various fish dishes and an array of sugary pastries, eaten with extremely sweet wines and liqueurs. People do seem to get through a lot of sweet stuff during Holy Week here!

Then there are the sights. Scores and scores of robed penitents sporting cone-shaped pointy hats, many of them with their faces covered. Various locals dressed up as characters from the Bible. The enormous pasos (floats), hundreds of years old and made of wood which is either given a dark varnish or coated with gold or silver. Each paso depicts a scene from the Gospels, or a statue of Jesus or Mary; 35 local men go inside each paso and carry it along in the processions (I went inside one. This is not a job for the claustrophobic!).

And what about the sense of touch? Well, unlike the big Spanish cities where Holy Week celebrations are polished and detached, in the smaller towns Holy Week is a much more immersive, more tactile experience. If you’re watching a procession, chances are you’ll be standing very close to the people marching in it …

Each Andalucian town has its own take on Holy Week. In Baena, for example, the theme is a Baroque one. During the day, ‘judios’ (Jews) walk all over the town, divided into two groups: ‘Colinegros’ (“black tails”) and ‘Coliblancos’ (“white tails”).

They’re all dressed in red jackets and black trousers, with gold helmets that have long, flowing manes of hair trailing behind them – black hair for the Colinegros, white for the Coliblancos. As they walk the streets of Baena, they play snare drums called ‘cajas’. The drumming never stops. Some of the little children I saw drumming had incredible technique for their age!

Andalucia’s Easter Week celebrations are a tradition that date back to the 16th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, their popularity took a state-enforced dip and they became an underground thing. But from the late 1970s onwards, they have grown in popularity and become an extremely significant part of Andalucian culture – despite a general rise in secularisation in Spain.

Salvador, the Spanish historian who accompanied me on this trip, puts this down to Holy Week being a tradition rooted deep in the Andalucian psyche.

“We love the tradition,” he says. “Many of the people taking part don’t even believe in Jesus Christ, but the pasos are a part of our history.”

Holy Week celebrations are big business all over Spain. But in smaller towns like the ones I visited on this trip, they are a key element in the glue that holds communities together. Church-based social groups known as ‘brotherhoods’ coordinate the celebrations in each town. In the smaller towns, nearly everyone belongs to a brotherhood.

If you’re thinking of visiting Andalucía during Holy Week,you’d be best advised to book early. The population of some of the smaller Andalucian towns can easily double during Holy Week, and hotels fill up fast.

What else can you do while you’re out here? Well, if you like olive oil, holidaying in Andalucía is like being the proverbial kid in the equally proverbial confectionery shop. Olive oil is this area’s biggest export, and there are lots of places you can go to take part in olive oil tasting. Just remember: if you’re bringing some home, wrap the bottles in plastic bags before putting them in your suitcase!

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