Whilst I’m not particularly religious, I do tend to end up visiting many religious sites on my travels. Mosques, temples, churches, deities, religious sites (mainly referring to all of the places I read about when I was a kid at Sunday School – Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho), stupas… and we all remember what happened when I spent a month in Chiang Mai in January don’t we… I became obsessed with all the hundred’s of wat’s that are found all over the city! The call to prayer has long been one of my most favourite sounds. I’m currently in Malaysia writing this and we have the most wonderful lyrical muezzin next to our apartment calling the prescribed five times a day.
Back in March 2016 I spent a week in Portugal and with my travelling companion heading home but still having the whole of Easter weekend to go I added on a cheeky trip to Sanitago de Compostela in Northern Spain. I had wanted to visit the old town of Sanitago after watching the film ‘The Way’ with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. The Way is the nickname given to the Camino de Santiago – a 500 mile pilgrimage walk ending at the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Sanitago de Compostela. Whilst I would still like to walk some (maybe all if I get fitter) of the Camino it was the Pilgrim’s Mass on Friday evenings I had wanted to attend to see the swinging of the Botafumerio – simply translated to “smoke expeller”, a gigantic incense burner that is swung the length of the cathedral immersing smoke. If you have a spare couple of minutes watch the Botafumerio in action here.
On arrival in Santiago I headed straight to the magnificent cathedral. The cathedral was partly covered in scaffolding but that didn’t stop the sun from making it look immensely golden during the sunset. I made it in time for the evening Pilgrim’s Mass, only to stand through the whole mass, being a. not religious, b. not understanding Spanish, c. I’m not a true Pilgrim that’s just completed walking the Camino, d. wondering why the Botafumerio wasn’t swung. Oh, no swinging today?! What I didn’t do was my research… it was Easter Weekend. The ONE Friday of the year they do not swing the Botafumerio is Good Friday. Silly Heather. Whilst we’re talking about silly me, the photography in this post is terrible… these are from back in the day when I used my Hipstamatic app and I thought I was cool. Now, as many people had warned me I have quite a lot of regret. But it wouldn’t be right without some visual representation so I have still included the photos.
Upon leaving the Cathedral, people were gathering on the streets. Being the typical English person I am, I decided to join them with absolutely no idea why, but it must be something, surely?! Then the sound of a drum came, a slow beat, a brass band with all of the musicians in cloaks and hooded masks. Then more cloaked and hooded men appeared carrying on their shoulders a float with a beautiful ornate statue of the Virgin Mary set amongst flowers and candles. They all slowly swayed side to side to the beat of the drum in the darkness of the evening whilst taking a little step forward along what I had now realised was going to be a processional route. What I didn’t know (I have since upped my researching game pre arrival!) is that most Spanish towns have Easter processions depicting the Passion of Christ and the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary during the Holy Week leading up to Easter.
The procession is known as the Semana Santa which translates to penance processions. Members of the brotherhood parade from their church to the city’s cathedral. The “sinners” in the penance procession are dressed in traditional capirote – tall conical hats that also cover their faces as they walk the penance trail whilst atoning their sins. I was very thankful to find this out quickly as I had initially thought that I had uncovered the Santiago Ku Klux Klan. Terrifying! The experience that night was fascinating. Bearing in mind I come from a country that celebrates the religious weekend with the Easter Bunny and chocolate..
The next morning I was up and out early to get a prime spot for the morning procession like an excited kid on Christmas or rather Easter… but it was pouring with rain and no one seemed to be around. Turns out they had moved the procession inside the Cathedral and took me a while to cotton on. That’s ok though, the services last for quite a long time so I was able to catch some of the purple hooded men drag a cross to the alter. Afterwards I managed to weave my way through the queues, out into the rain and catch up with the short parade happening outside.
Still raining, so the 6pm procession was held just outside the tiny little church at the starting point. Luckily I had visited the Tourist Office earlier in the day who pointed me in the right direction. Everything is in Spanish and all I know is “Hola” and “cerveza, por favor” (and now I don’t drink so that’s kind of redundant!).
The 8pm procession was in the larger church next door. Managed to bag myself a fourth row seat and quite grateful that the rain was still pouring so this one was kept inside for the full duration, which meant I got to sit down for all of it. There were two main floats this time – one of Jesus laid down in an open casket carried by ten red hooded men. Closely followed by the very ornate Mary that I had seen the night before, carried by blue hooded men. These were both followed by women in funeral clothing and the church leaders. Behind them all was an elderly gentleman, I think he was just a member of the congregation but he walked behind Mary for the full hour. Every time the procession stopped for the Priest to preach he longingly looked up at the statue. The concert band played a very eerie version of the funeral march as the carriers slowly rocked and swayed to the beat. It was incredible to watch, if a little eerie.
Four hours of church services, all in Spanish… Whilst it’s been a long long time since I’ve spent that much time in a church, with the dedication of the congregation and the marvels of the gospel statues, I’m very glad I came.