Semana Santa in our town is noisy, colourful – in many senses – and a time of opportunity. Officially, our town is a ‘pueblo blanco’ – a white “village”: it’s scarcely that. Too many northern Europeans have moved into shoddy, get-the-promoter-rich-quick apartment blocks that injure the skyline. Town planners think if the concrete’s painted white the traditional look of the town is preserved. But one thing is true: the purple and the green of the rival brotherhoods in the town show up brilliantly against the white of the buildings, when it gets to Holy Week.
Not much work gets done. On the Saturday before this holiest of weeks, the members of the brotherhoods are putting the finishing touches to the floats for the procession. These floats – or Tronos (thrones) as they are known locally – usually, but not exclusively, depict a scene from the Passion – in the gothically gory style beloved of most Catholic religious image makers. There may be something blasphemously humorous hidden away on the float. After all, this is the country where some figure, somewhere, in every nativity scene, is graphically shown in the midst of a bowel movement. In the towns official Nativity Scene – or Belen – last Christmas, the mayor’s likeness was used for the ‘Kakador’. This may have been just a bit of fun, but, since he was under investigation for corruption at the time, it may have been waspish political satire. And there is some work involved in maintaining these floats: they are over a hundred years old.
High ranking members of the Purple and Green brotherhoods receive the honour of carrying them on their shoulders through the town on Good Friday. As many as 18 per float. More people carry in Malaga City where their Tronos can weigh in the tonnes. Leather-covered pads, or costales, are attached to the poles to make the couple of miles of the procession more comfortable. During the procession itself other members of the brotherhoods, dressed in some camp-Hollywood designers idea of maroon and loden musketeers’ uniforms march behind. They actually have muskets. A band consisting entirely of valveless trumpets and drums follows them. They have been rehearsing all week: the noise proper starts on Palm Sunday. About 2 a.m on Monday, after a relaxing beer one final musket volley signals bedtime or at least the dispersal of the dedicated performers. They’ll reconvene later the same day for more marching, shooting, parping and drumming. The bands and musketeers are followed by Penitents – or Nazarenos – sinister figures in long purple (or green) robes and pointed hoods. The effect is like a made-over KuKluxKlan convention; ‘yes, yes I think it just needs more colour, don’t you?’
And yes, it is colourful, fun and even spectacular. It happens in every town, so it’s not strictly a tourist attraction, although World Heritage seems to think so. Nevertheless, the town heaves with bodies by Friday; even though the next nearest town is only 8 kilometres away. But families, generations from outlying fincas, ganaderias, ranchos and villas converge on our town. If you want to be able to park at all, never mind legally, you’d better come in four hours before the procession starts.
So people do, Jose Maria takes time off from the bank and drives 6k down a rough track and picks up his mother-in-law’s mother from a two-room house. Granny or Abuela Rueda has been dressed for hours. Traditional andalusian dress. Not black, not this time of year. She’ll have a handbag and a formidable carpetbag and a tubular aluminium deckchair that’s seen better days. Abuela Rueda will talk all the way into town and Jose Maria will listen because he has to, because that’s what you do. They’ll park the car in front of the integral garage of Jose Maria’s smart town villa. Like most bankers of 40 or so Jose M has 3 or 4 houses, he’ll retire at 55 and do very nicely thank-you. The rest of the family is there already: Inma, Jose Maria’s wife, who as part of the new-wave of 40ish Andalusian women actually does something about her figure; her two daughters, one at Malaga Uni and the other going next year. It’s a fact that there is a shortage of middle-class boys in our town. Maybe that’s why the girls end up marrying their cousins. Jose M’s widowed mother in law is there too. Obviously; even though Jose M has several houses, Inma’s mother moved in as soon as her husband died, of course.
Jose M is the manager of the Bank, a big cheese in the Purple Brotherhood and if he’s disappointed he’s no son to follow him into the brotherhood, he never says – just hopes for a suitable son-in-law one day. Anyway, with 4 hours or so to go until the procession starts, he’ll pile all the family into the BMW X5 and drop them off at Alegria, where they’ll have a 3 hour lunch. Jose M will then relax; go and join the other float carriers to get ready for the procession.
Others’ days are different. Miguel Fernandez Guerrero of the Policia Local is lucky this year. He’s got the day shift. He has spent most of it putting out ‘no parking’ barriers all over town, watching as people knock them over to park. His shoulders ache from shrugging. 3 hours to go to shift-end and procession-start and Miguel is now removing the town’s three beggars from the street. Again, there’s little point: the beggars have been at it for years and will make sure that each of them will be in the prime locations come the procession’s start: at the Stone Cross roundabout, outside the Green’s church in Plaza Baja (which -despite it’s name- you walk up a hill to get to) and in front of the Purple’s church, just a few hundred metres away as the crow flies but several kilometres as the float’s carried.
Semana Santa is also a time for hedonism. Respectable matrons meet younger lovers in the afternoon; the ‘Night Clubs’, neon-lit bordellos on the main roads miles out of town, do their best business of the year, and the morning default setting for anyone under 30 is ‘hangover’, even the new priest in the Greens’ church.
Burglary increases. Opportunities provided by empty country and town houses are too tempting to pass up. Miguel Fernandez is not the only local policeman diverted to sysephean tasks. The Guardia Civil only turn up for the procession itself, on the lookout for a free drink and tapas. The Civil still stick to the ban on serving in your hometown for recruits, so they’ve no vested interest in the proceedings themselves. They probably watch and think to themselves how it’s not as good as in Sevilla or Leon, while they flirt with the teenage girls of the town.
These processions go on all week: from Palm Sunday, through to Easter Sunday itself, with the serious business being on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you really want to hear the sound of depression try listening to the singing accompanying the procession on those two days.
But the best thing – the very best – is to walk down Camino Gerald Brenan across the Cruz de la Piedra roundabout and up the hill towards Plaza Baja on the Monday after Easter. Do it at 8.00 a.m. It’s an ordinary working day. The shops in the south don’t open until 10. You will be quite alone. Litter will decorate the street; los basureros don’t come overnight for once. There won’t be any stray piles of vomit; although in a couple of hours the supermarket check-out girl’s hangover will be painful to witness – if she’s not asleep on the conveyor belt when you get there. And it will be so quiet. Until the next Fiesta, in a couple of weeks time.