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Tarragona’s Semana Santa

Kate Christie on the celebrations of Holy Week a small bar to the side of the plaza.... 12 fully uniformed Roman soldiers, leaning against the bar,
knocking back beers.

Good Friday morning dawned bright and cheery and we quickly got ready, jumped on the motorcycle and headed into Tarragona. We arrived in the old part of the town, up a very steep road made of stone - polished smooth by centuries of traffic. The old town is full of ancient Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre close to the beach and right in the middle of the old houses, the remains of the vaults of the Roman Circus, where chariot races were once held.

We stopped for a coffee in the large central plaza outside a wonderful shop full of salamis, dried peppers and whole legs of pig (trotter and all), hanging from the roof. In Spain this specialty is called ‘Jamon Serrano’ - a type of cured ham. A young woman seated outside the cafe explained the curing process to us.... basically the whole leg is treated in salted water then left tohang outside in the woods for up to two years. This accounted for the rather green look of the outside of the ham! This same women informed us that the Semana Santa procession began at 7.00pm that night, rather than 7.00am. We decided to enjoy the city in the quiet of the early morning then return in the evening.

Upon our return we were met by an entirely transformed city. This time we entered the city on foot, through one of the old gates and discovered that already it was filled with people, cramming the narrow streets that we had walked with such ease earlier this same day. The crowds carried us in past the cathedral. Here we discovered hundreds of people sitting on the stairs leading up to the front of the church. We headed for the plaza where we had sat in the morning - sat at the same table by the hams and salamis and enjoyed a coffee and watched the swifts diving back and forth, catching insects between the buildings on either side of the plaza. Most of the Tarragonians around us were very well dressed and it seemed that this was an evening for meeting up with friends and family. We witnessed many affectionate greetings between young men and women and grandparents and children.

The clock at the end of the plaza struck every half hour and as the sun set it started getting chillier and still there was no sign of the procession. By this stage it was 8.30pm and we were in a pretty silly mood. We started singing songs and coming up with all sorts of ridiculous explanations for the delay. We were in great spirits.

Finally at about 9.30pm we heard the distant beating of drums and the clatter of feet on the stone streets. The procession began spectacularly with about 100 Roman soldiers marching rhythmically to the beat from a team of drummers. The costumes were very bright - each soldier carried a shield and a large spear. They repeatedly struck the spear on the ground and marched in a strange sideways sliding motion.

Following the Roman soldiers were the first series of ‘ cofradias’ - the religious brotherhoods. They were dressed in long gowns with very tall pointed hoods and completely masked faces with eye holes cut out - frighteningly like the Ku Klux Klan. This first group were all in black but as the evening’s procession continued we saw blue, gold and red. They appeared quite menacing, walking in a slow shuffling manner.

More reassuringly, a long line of beautiful, young children followed in long black robes and lace collars, carrying huge candles. And then we saw the first of the ‘floats’ - enormous platforms depicting scenes from Christ’s life (I think maybe it was the stations of the cross, but I am not sure). These scenes consisted of life-size and lifelike figures of Christ on the Cross, the Last Supper, a Roman soldier whipping Christ as he carried the cross, Christ being lifted down from the cross. All were bloody and gory.

The platforms were carried by between 8 and 12 large men dressed in the cofradias outfits. The platforms were carried like a sedan chair, with two men each holding one of four or six wooden poles. Like the Roman soldiers at the beginning of the procession they marched in a sideways, sliding motion to the rhythm of drummers marching behind them. This made the platforms swing and sway.

At about 11.00pm we decided it was time to go. This proved to be easier said than done.... and so the real fun began.....

Having quite successfully ‘mapped’ the old city earlier in the day we were quite confident of our escape route out of the walled city. What eventuated however would make a rather splendid escape scene for a James Bond film....

Our first move was to head back to the last main street before the old city. Thwarted by the procession crossing the street in full strength we laughed, linked arms and headed back into the old city, up a narrow street that we knew led to the cathedral. This decision was made in the belief that by now the procession would have passed this point. Aaaagh! Not so. As we approached the end of the street we could see the pointy-hatted silhouettes of the confradias passing, backlit by the glaring lights of the film crew documenting this significant Millennium Year procession. ‘About face,’ we cried and headed back along the narrow street. This time we thought we had it sorted. We remembered a smallish plaza - to one side of the cathedral that had been completely deserted this morning and that according to our reckoning was situated behind the flow of the procession. The closer we got to the plaza the more nervous we became.... we could hear the quiet hum of many voices and a strange but bright glow from the direction of the square.

Before we realised it, we literally tripped into the plaza and the sight blew our minds. Like some bad drug trip we were confronted by hundreds of the confradias - mostly with their hoods pulled back and faces exposed, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers. There were 10 enormous floats sitting around the edge of the plaza still waiting to JOIN the parade, and everywhere there were musicians wandering around with their instruments in hand, practicing notes or tuning. It seemed we had stumbled into the back stage plaza of the whole parade! And there were hundreds of people milling around.... one hilarious sight in a small bar to the side of the plaza.... 12 fully uniformed Roman soldiers, leaning against the bar, knocking back beers.

We then realised the full direness of our situation...the procession was only about halfway through and it was snaking its way down through the old city in every direction, there was no escape.

We cut across the plaza, dodging spears, candles and musical instruments and spotted a small group of travellers plotting a similar escape. They boldly crossed the stream of the procession, so with equal nonchalance we crossed too and moved quickly along the pavement next to the procession. This all went pretty smoothly, as the procession was particularly loud and boisterous here with drums and clarinets, trumpets and even bagpipes. We managed to make a good 200m on the procession.

But suddenly all went very quiet and solemn. Two long lines of the confraidas were passing and all that could be heard was the quiet shuffling of shoes over the stone street. Worse still the street had narrowed right down into a curve alongside the main outside wall and there was suddenly no pavement. Undaunted, we and the other escapees stopped and propped and watched the parade for about 30 minutes. We sat with our bike helmets in hand, our backs against the old stone wall and watched. The action picked up so we decided to make a run for it - we crossed the procession once again and shuffled down the street through the crowd.

Suddenly we rounded a curve into the full glare and overhead swing-arm camera of the film crew. I was completely overwhelmed. But at this point it was sink or swim and with elderly Spanish men and women sitting on folded chairs right on the street we had no choice but to join the parade for about 30 yards. It seemed like a mile.Under blazing lights, with heads down, wearing bright, reflecting motorbike jackets and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, we each marched behind one of the cofradias, concentrating on not stepping on the back of their robes. I had no idea where the camera was pointing and I am still convinced we are part of the year 2000 documentary. (I got a deserved smack on the leg and a stream of Spanish abuse from an elderly matron for my performance). But we did escape.

An amazing Holy Week experience.

© Kate Christie

This journal is one of many emails sent home on my 12 month journey on a motorcycle with my beloved (covering 46,000km, three continents and 16 countries).
We rode from the most westerly point of Ireland, to the magical, medieval city of Prague in Czech Republic. From Scotland's beautiful, misty capital, to the dry stark edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. In between we put the motorcycle onto 10 different ferries - small and large. We crossed the Swiss Alps with their snow-covered peaks rising sharply over us and then the French Alps in October in wonderful Autumn glory. We crossed the High Atlas and the English Channel. And that was just the Northern Hemisphere.
In Australia we road another 12,000 kms - down the east coast from Brisbane to Melbourne, rode nearly every road in Tasmania, strapped the motorcycle to another 7 ferries and got far too close to an emu 200kms out of Broken Hill.
Kate Christie
Melbourne Australia

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