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Easter in Andalusia: 'Remembering fiestas and processions remind us that we too, will rise again'

'There will be no processions this year, no stations of the cross, no Semana Santa,' writes Henry Murphy, who lives in a small village in Ansalusia. But there is hope...

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Holy Week ceremonies in Spain are atmospheric and evocative occasions

Holy Week ceremonies in Spain are atmospheric and evocative occasions

'Tilting At Windmills: A Spanish Year Chasing A Novel Dream' by Henry Murphy

'Tilting At Windmills: A Spanish Year Chasing A Novel Dream' by Henry Murphy

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Holy Week ceremonies in Spain are atmospheric and evocative occasions

It was my first night in a small white-washed village in the Andalusian mountains about half way between Malaga and Granada. In the middle of a profound sleep, I was awoken by what sounded like a bell.

I fumbled for my watch. 6.30am. It was still pitch dark. The bell was still ringing. I stumbled outside, crossed the plaza and followed the noise to what we think of as the 'commercial' centre of the village, which comprises two convenience stores, ambitiously called supermercados, and a bank that is permanently closed. It is after all a small village.

A man of small stature was walking purposefully, carrying an old school bell. He was alone until I caught up with him.

I didn't have a word of Spanish. My foreign language at school had been French, which was of little assistance in the mountains in the south of Spain.

I tried to ask him what was going on and very kindly he tried to answer. Whatever he said didn't sound like a language. He indicated to me to follow him and over the next half hour I got a tour of the village, which brought us back to the church in the plaza where a number of people had now assembled. I didn't know why. What was clear was that he was travelling the village summoning the villagers to the plaza. The villagers responding to his call were all male.

At 7.15 we departed. Still in darkness. Accompanied now by some men bearing a massive cross. We were led by the bell ringer, who had ceased his summons. About 20m out of the plaza, we stopped in front of a plaque on the wall of a house depicting Jesus Condemned to Death.

The Stations of the Cross! Of course - my first friend in the village had been announcing the Stations. It was Good Friday. With all of the stress of moving away for a year, I had forgotten that we had arrived during Semana Santa, Holy Week.

We were 40 men, including our leader. All shapes, sizes and ages. At each station, the men recited a prayer and sang a hymn and then we were off again. Our procession snaked its way around the labyrinthine streets of this 700-year-old village, many so narrow that it was difficult to manoeuvre the cross.

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Henry Murphy in Andalusia

Henry Murphy in Andalusia

Henry Murphy in Andalusia

I noticed that one street was called Calle Laberinto. Another was named after a poet who was born and grew up in the village: Calle Poeta Miguinas. We must have covered every centimetre of the village. God help the poor fellows carrying the cross. Not to mention any newcomer opening his eyes just as the crucified Christ passed his bedroom window.

At each station, the men sang out. Not the monks of Glenstal Abbey perhaps, but they were doing their best. It was eerie walking the calles as part of an all-male congregation bearing a crucifix and pausing at plaques on the village walls for a prayer and a hymn as the village opened its sleepy eyes. From time to time, we were joined by a latecomer; at the 10th station, we were joined by a man accompanied by an elderly woman. She had a little English and explained that she was looking after her brother.

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As we reached the centro commercial, the commerce of this village-still-in-darkness was beginning to stir. The two supermercados were opening their doors. To our left we had a view of the Mediterranean, 25km of winding road below us. As we sang at a station, the sun was beginning to surf the rooftops of Sayalonga, the neighbouring village lying between us and the sea.

At the 12th station, nailed to the wall of the village cemetery, Jesus dies. Those who could knelt on the pebbly road for the prayer and hymn. We waited longer there, watching the sun inch up the mountain opposite.

That was seven years ago. We are still in the village. We came initially for a year out - I wanted to write a novel - and stayed.

Most people who take a year out do so in their 40s or 50s. As a barrister in my 60s I was pushing that concept a bit. In an earlier era, the idea of a year out was associated with what was then known as a mid-life crisis.

Our house in the village has a roof terrace with 360° views down to the Mediterranean and up to Maroma - at 2,000m the highest mountain in the province.

Apparently, by law, the ayuntamiento, the town council, is permitted to land a helicopter on roof terraces in times of emergency - for example, to take water from your swimming pool in the event of a mountain fire.

As we don't have a garden, let alone a swimming pool, this is unlikely to be a problem.

It is a small village, population 800, with hardly a car and certainly not a traffic jam: above all, it is tranquilo. Our neighbours are welcoming, frequently leaving a bag of avocados or olives, picked in their own small orchards and groves, on our doorstep.

Communication is challenging. Not only is my Spanish inadequate but the villagers speak Andaluz - a mountain dialect very different from Castilian Spanish. They guillotine their words and speak more quickly than anyone else in the world.

Not a month goes by without a fiesta, necessitating a village procession, the erection of a marquee, live music, dancing until breakfast. In subsequent years, I have seen the full gamut of Semana Santa processions, starting with the branches being blessed in the street for Palm Sunday, then the statues from the church being swept out into the streets, born aloft on biers called tronos, or thrones, swaying in step to the music from the municipal band leading the procession.

And then, on Good Friday, the procession of Christ and the Virgin at night, by candlelight, the locals in sombre robes and eerie hoods, called capirotes.

For four weeks now, we have been in lockdown. Confined to the casa. Not allowed to walk around the empty village, nor to walk the short mountain path to our neighbouring village, nor to walk in the Sierras which are on our doorstep.

There will be no processions this year, no stations of the cross, no Semana Santa. The capirotes will be replaced by face masks, and gloves, and social distancing, the only sound the applause of the villagers on their balconies at eight each night as they acknowledge the sacrifice of their health workers.

Easter Sunday here is called Domingo de Resurreccion, Sunday of the Resurrection. In time, the village, too, will rise again.

'Tilting At Windmills: A Spanish Year Chasing A Novel Dream' by Henry Murphy will be published by Orpen Press in paperback in June 2020. It is currently available in Kindle and e-book format

Getting there

* For over 500 years, Holy Week in Spain has been commemorated in ceremonial pomp, and also in the religious and popular feeling of local people. This year will of course be different.

* Holy Week festivities are especially marked in Andalusia, with elaborate religious celebrations in Malaga, Cordoba, Seville and Granada that are famous worldwide. Processions begin on Palm Sunday and continue until Easter Sunday; the most dramatic and solemn ones take place on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

* In Malaga and Granada, the hugely ornate tronos (floats or thrones) can weigh more than 5,000kg and are carried by up to 250 members of local religious confraternities wearing hoods.

* The atmosphere of the processions in the streets is arresting, with penitents dressed in long purple robes and pointed hats, followed by women in black carrying candles.

* Drums and trumpets play solemn music, and occasionally someone spontaneously sings a mournful saeta dedicated to the floats as it makes its way slowly round the streets.

* If you want to see these ceremonies for yourself, you will have to book long in advance to get a hotel room with a balcony overlooking the processions. However, Holy Week commemorations take place everywhere in Spain - and often you may be more charmed by a parade in a small village than by an ornate baroque confection in one of the big cities.

* This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.


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