Happy Easter, everyone! True, it’s been a number of weeks since the holiday, but it’s still the Easter season in the Catholic Church! Basically, I’m using any excuse I can for the tardiness of my blog posts. I apologize for the delay! The last few weeks of my time abroad were even busier than the rest of the semester. I hope to finish the rest of my posts by the end of this month.
I hope you had a marvelous holiday with friends or family, reader. I am happy to say that I was gifted with such a day this year with my host family in Spain. I had the chance to experience most of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain, Monday and most of Tuesday in Seville in Spain’s southern province of Andalusia and the rest of it in Toledo.
At midnight on Palm Sunday/Holy Monday, I boarded a bus in Madrid for Sevilla, as it is known in Spanish, and arrived there around 6:15 a.m. I stayed in the bus station and took a nap for an hour, then struck out in the direction of the historic city center and, in that district, my hostel. I couldn’t check in and drop off my luggage until 8 a.m., so I walked around the old city and took photos of the buildings and monuments that caught my attention. The city, even in its newer parts around the bus station, was basically silent; I was one of the few people walking on the streets. I found this quiet atmosphere delightful, especially because I was expecting (correctly) large crowds of people later in the day for the Semana Santa celebrations.
After walking through the Plaza Nueva and past the Ayuntamiento (town council) building, I ended up at Seville’s cathedral, the heart of the old city. The cathedral of Seville is the largest in Spain and, technically, in the world. Larger churches do exist, like St. Peter’s in the Vatican City, but these are officially classified as basilicas. This cathedral was begun in and finished in ; it is an immense and impressive example of the Gothic style of architecture.
The cathedral naturally formed the focus of my attention (and camera) for quite a while. At one of its many doors, I found a sign for Mass at 8 a.m., which was only a few minutes away! I stepped into the side chapel to which the door led (it could have qualified as a church in itself with its size and decoration) and received the gift of the Eucharist during a nice Mass. Afterward, I took some photographs of the chapel, walked through the connecting door to the cathedral proper (open in some sections to visitors before official tourist hours), and took photographs of while gaping in awe at the massive space in which I found myself.
After exiting the cathedral, I walked around a bit more and took some photos of the neighborhood and the outside of Sevilla’s Alcázar, or castle, before arriving at my hostel. After checking in, I freshened up for the day and then enjoyed the free cookies, Nutella, coffee, tea, and milk provided as a morning snack by the hostel. The hostel staff and the guests there were very friendly and cheery, so I quickly felt at ease there. A little after 10:30, I headed out with most of the people at “breakfast” to the plaza in front of the cathedral’s north side for a free tour through the city.
The tours were provided in both English and Spanish; I took the easy route and joined the English group. Our tour guide was originally from Italy but had lived in Spain for several years, and he gave us excellent information about every site that we visited. We went from the plaza, where we learned about the cathedral and the Alcázar, past the General Archive of the Indies, through a park and past the Torre de Oro, to the regional government building, to a +5-star hotel (where a room in the low season costs at least $400 a night and during Semana Santa at least $1000 a night), through the old tobacco factory (now a university building), through another park, and to the Plaza de España. This last site, a huge semicircular space surrounded by buildings that appear to be from the medieval and Renaissance eras, is actually fairly recent. The Plaza de España was built in 1928 in both neo-Mudéjar and neo-Renaissance styles for the first Ibero-American Exposition, a sort of World’s Fair for Spain and all the American countries with which it has historical ties (i.e., most of Latin America and the United States), in 1929.
After the tour ended, I walked around the plaza a bit more and took quite a few pictures. The Plaza de España has tile sections of every province in Spain, appropriately named the Alcoves of the Provinces. I took a photo of each province I had visited during my semester in Spain; it was a great way to review and remember all that I had seen and done in my host country over the past three months.
From the Plaza de España, I made my way to the Torre del Oro, a tower (torre, in Spanish) built on the Guadalquivir River that runs through Seville. It was erected as a defensive edifice in the first half of the 1200s during the Almohad Caliphate, a Muslim kingdom that ruled much of North Africa and all of Islamic Spain during the height of its power in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. This “Tower of Gold” received its name from the golden color of its reflection on the river it guarded; this was caused by the mortar, lime, and hay used in its construction. The tower itself does not appear all that golden but rather a light tan. The Torre del Oro served numerous functions and received various additions and renovations through the centuries. Today, it houses a museum dedicated to itself and the maritime history of Seville and Spain in general. It also offers spectacular views of the city!
After visiting the Torre del Oro, I walked to the old city and visited the Archivo General de Indias, or the General Archive of the Indies. This is a valuable and unique collection of documents relating to Spain’s colonial presence in and relationship with the Western Hemisphere and, as a result, a must-see for me. What’s more, the archives call home a beautiful edifice designed in 1572 by Juan de Herrera (a name that popped up in my art and architecture class) in Renaissance style to house the consulado de mercaderes, or merchants’ exchange, of Seville. The building obtained its current function in 1785 when Rey Carlos el Tercer (Charles the Third) ordered that all the documents from the Council of the Indies be housed under one roof and specifically the roof of the merchants’ exchange.
Entrance to the archives was completely free, so I happily entered the building and marveled not only at its ordered beauty but also the rare and fascinating materials on display in its halls. I watched a short video about the history of the building and the archives and walked through an exhibit on one set of documents created in the sixteenth century concerning society in what had been the Inca Empire and was now a Spanish colony. Basically, I was in an archivist’s heaven for about an hour!
Once I was done visiting the archives, I went back to the hostel, officially checked in, freshened up and relaxed a bit, and then headed to the cathedral. I thought that I would arrive in time for a tourist entrance into and tour of the church, but I had arrived just after its closing at 5 that day. This was an earlier closing time than usual due to the Semana Santa celebrations. Luckily for me, the processions of Semana Santa in Seville end in the cathedral, so I joined a line that had formed outside its easter portal and, after some waiting, entered the building.
Only a section of the cathedral was open, but it was an area I had not been able to reach that morning, probably because of the preparations for the Holy Week events. Folding chairs were set up on either side of the eastern portal, and they were soon filled with those eager to see the floats and their associated hermandades enter into the cathedral. I ended up sitting next to a woman who took part of her name for one of the pasos, or floats, that was carried on Holy Monday each year: la Virgen del Rosario, or the Virgin of the Rosary, carried by the hermandad of Las Aguas (the Waters). A native of Seville, she explained to me some of the traditions of Semana Santa in Sevilla and in Spain in general. It was wonderful to chat with her a little as I watched the floats come in and pass with groups of cofradía members before, around, and behind them. After three pasos (the floats) entered the cathedral, I decided to leave to get some food and then head back to the hostel, where there would be free dinner – one of my favorite word combinations!
Getting food proved to be a bit trickier than I expected. Though there were grocery stores open in the old city, getting to and from one required me to weave around, into, and out of the crowds that turned out to watch the processions on the streets. Imagine trying to work your way through a Fourth of July parade in a major city in the United States, except the streets are usually not straight but usually are narrow: that was basically my experience in Seville early Monday evening. I even ended up walking in a procession (though thankfully not under a float!) before getting myself and my groceries back to the hostel.
I arrived with time to spare for dinner at the hostel. Speaking of dinner: wow! One of the workers made a delicious pasta dish (in vegetarian and meat versions) in huge quantities, allowing everyone present to dig in and then indulge in seconds and (in my case) thirds. I met people from Costa Rica, Great Britain, the United States, and other countires while eating, and we had some great conversation. To top it all off, we had a delicious dessert of cookie squares topped with chocolate shavings and berries. It was one of the best meals I’d ever had in a hostel!
A little after dinner, I headed out into the streets of Seville again, this time to view a procession on the street. I headed in and placed myself just northeast of the cathedral, putting me near the end of the procession route. A lot of people were still gathered for the processions, many with sandwiches and other snacks to tide them over before they headed home. Now that I was outside the cathedral, I also got to see and hear more clearly the bands that accompanied each paso. These groups stopped outside the church when the floats entered, so I had not heard their interesting music – a mix of joy and sorrow, sweetness and bitterness – the first time I had watched the processions.
One float was enough for me, so after seeing it pass I returned to the hostel and went to bed. I was excited for the next day and hoped to see Seville’s other major complex, its Alcázar.
The next morning, I arrived at the Alcázar a little after its opening time of 9 a.m. I wasn’t very surprised to see a line already stretching through the plaza in front of it, given the amount of tourists in the city for Holy Week and, as I would find out in about two hours, the wondrous realm that lay beyond the palace’s exterior walls.
I entered the Alcázar just after 11 a.m. and was almost immediately enchanted. With sections dating from the twelfth century and its upper levels still used by Spain’s royal family as its official residence in the city, Seville’s Alcázar is the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use. It is also considered one of the best examples of Mudéjar architecture, the style created by Moorish artisans working on Christian buildings (whether sacred or secular).
The complex reminded me of a smaller Alhambra, with intricate gypsum-work, breathtaking wooden ceilings (artesonados, in Spanish), tranquil fountains, and lush gardens. One nice difference was that it was warm and sunny instead of cool and rainy this time around! Here’s just one photo from the complex to give you an idea of its beauty.
After wandering in wonder through the palace complex for over two hours, I hurried backed to my hostel, inhaled some lunch, gathered my things, and speed-walked to the bus station. The streets were busy – the processions for the day were just getting started – but thankfully I made it to the correct dock before my bus even arrived. There I found my friends Emma and Danielle, who had traveled to Morocco for spring break and had stopped in Seville on their way back to Toledo. It was great to see them and exchange travel stories as we waited for and then rode on our bus to Madrid.
In Madrid, the three of us made our way to the bus station and dock for Toledo, got on a bus, and arrived to our host home around 8:30 p.m. I was happy to see my host family and excited to spend the rest of Semana Santa in Toledo, but my first focus this night was on getting to bed!
On Wednesday evening, I went with my host mother to La Iglesia de San Juan de los Reyes to watch the processions for the evening. We were supposed to meet one of my host sisters there, but we were unfortunately separated by the crowds of people that had already gathered to see the paso. This one was la Procesión del Santísimo Cristo de la Humildad, or the Procession of the Sacred Christ of Humility; it depicts Jesus sitting with his hands bound with a Roman soldier at his side and Simon the Cyrenian behind him lifting the cross. The float is so tall that the men carrying it each year have to kneel in order to pass it through the door of the church. It was incredible to see this process unfold and then view the paso, as well as the band that accompanied it, make its way through the streets from San Juan.
After the float passed our section of the crowd, my host mother and I joined with my host sister and went with her (and many other toledanos!) to another spot on the route of the procesión to see the float pass again. Just before it passed, however, it stopped at the door of Convent of Saint Anthony, where the door to the convent was opened and a group of nuns (and, I think, regular parishioners) inside sang to the float. It was an unexpected but delightful addition to the procession!
After the second pass of the paso, my host mother took me to the Convent of Saint Dominic the Old (Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo), from which we saw another paso leave, this one of Christ the Redeemer. This float had a statue of Jesus in a full scarlet robe carrying the cross, while its brotherhood (hermandad) wore white robes with black hoods. Some of the brotherhood members stood by the entrance from which the float left and sang a cappella to it.
13 April was Holy Thursday or the commemoration of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. My host brother Alonso and host sister Edith were attending a youth event for the Triduum and Easter Sunday at the minor seminary in Toledo. My host parents went earlier in the day to drop them off, while I went on a walk through Toledo and eventually made my way to the seminary to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass with them there. I would end up attending Good Friday and Holy Saturday Masses in this place, too, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of zeal and sincerity produced by the young people attending the event and their family members.
After the Holy Thursday Mass, my host parents and I walked to the Plaza Zocodover, where we watched the processions for the evening. These included statues of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the pillar of flagellation, carrying the cross, and being crucified, as well as Nuestra Señora del Amparo (Our Lady of Shelter/Protection). There were a lot of people on the sides of the streets and in the plaza for the processions, but, as I had noticed the previous night, the mood was in general a bit calmer and more sober than that of Seville.
The music played by the bands accompanying the pasos reminded me of a Tim Burton movie: a mix of fun, joy, and humor with sadness, scariness, and the macabre. I enjoyed it quite a bit! There was also some impromptu music: a woman standing in a balcony close to us sang to one of the floats of Jesus and later to the float of Mary. I couldn’t understand much of what she sang, but the songs were obviously ones of sorrow and mourning. Members of the cofradías for each paso gave the woman flowers from the pasos, gifts that were well deserved, in my opinion.
Once we got back from the processions for Thursday, it was almost midnight, and, thus, almost Good Friday. Since we had eaten supper early that night (5 p.m.; compared to 9 p.m., it’s really early!), we had a little more food so that we would start off the day of fasting on Good Friday not too hungry.
The morning of Good Friday, I went with my host father to a male monastery a few kilometers from Toledo, the only contemplative male monastery in the city’s diocese, for a Via Crucis, or an observation of the Stations of the Cross. Just off of a highway, the monastery maintained a very tranquil atmosphere and a feel of wilderness within its grounds. The Stations started in the monastery church (from the Middle Ages, no big deal) and then made its way down and back a path in the garden. The monks and those attending the Stations took turns carrying the crucifix and candles or reading Scripture passages associated with each station. Even I ended up carrying the crucifix and reading! According to the other Spaniards there, I read well enough to pass as a native. In addition to the centering experience of the Stations, this compliment provided a wonderful start to my day.
From the monastery, my host father took us to a spot just beyond the old city’s walls, from which we walked to the old city and took in los monumentos. What are these “monuments”? On Holy Thursday, when the Eucharist is taken from the main altar after the day’s Mass, it is stored in a temporary altar. In Spain (and, according to Father Ciferni from St. Norbert College, the US over fifty years ago), these altars receive a lot of decoration and attention, and people visit them throughout the morning of Good Friday. A lot of churches in Toledo that are closed most of the year are thus open these days for people to visit and pray before the Eucharist. Walking through the city, my host father and I visited around ten churches, affording remarkable opportunities for photography and prayer. I was so grateful to him and to God for this day, especially after we visited the Church of Saint Justus (San Justo). This is the church connected to the Fundación (recall that it used to be a convent), and I had wanted to visit it since my first week in the city. Now I had my chance! The church has a beautiful side chapel dedicated to the Eucharist (or Corpus Christi, the body of Christ) in the Mudéjar style from the fourteenth century that was recently restored. This was where the monumento for the Church resided for Good Friday, allowing me to gaze in awe at the chapel while praying before the Eucharist.
After our tour of los monumentos, my host father and I visited his parents briefly and then returned home for the main meal of the day. That evening, we returned with my host mother to the minor seminary for the Good Friday service, after which we ventured into Toledo for the last major processions of Semana Santa. We met with my oldest host brother, Francisco, and his wife and children and found an excellent spot to watch the pasos. All the floats for the night – ten in all, eleven counting a reliquary carried on a float – passed by us with their hermandades, some of whom dressed as Roman soldiers, and bands. Good Friday is the biggest day of Semana Santa in most of Spain, and this was certainly true for Toledo. I was incredibly happy and grateful to spend this evening with my host family and so fully immerse myself in the local culture.
Holy Saturday is often characterized as a day of expectation, of waiting for the coming Resurrection of Jesus. I indeed spent much of the day waiting for the Easter Vigil Mass with my host family, but I also visited another church in the city, that of Saint Luke, with my friend Amy. This is one of the Mozarabic churches in Toledo that celebrates Mass according to the rite of the same name. The city’s consortium (consortio), the same group that runs free historical tours at different sites in the city each week, was offering tours of the building for the day. They were in Spanish, of course, but at this point in the semester Amy and I were perfectly fine and even happy with that.
The main church of Saint Luke, only a two-minutes’ walk from the Fund, is in the Mudéjar style and dates back at least to the eleventh century, but it also boasts a Baroque chapel added in the seventeenth century. It is the only church in Toledo with a walled garden. Another unique feature is a song for la Virgen de la Esperanza (the Virgin of Hope, the patron saint of the church) portrayed in a painting with its lyrics expressed through pictures instead of words. I found it incredible to discover yet another historical treasure in Toledo, a city of seemingly inexhaustible surprises; it was even better to discover it with a friend from the Fund!
That night, I returned to the minor seminary with my host parents for the Easter Vigil Mass at 11:30 p.m. This Mass, the highpoint of the liturgical year, is my favorite of all Masses, and getting to experience it in Toledo with my host family was truly incredible. The Mass was held in the courtyard of the seminary building; it filled with the soft glow of candles in the beginning of the service. Even after we blew the candles out, I still felt a glow around me and all those in attendance for the Mass. We joyfully commemorated the Resurrection of the Lord and listened as bells across the city pealed to do the same. Jesus Christ had risen!
Easter Sunday is a public and – of course – religious holiday in Spain, but it is not marked with the same pomp as Semana Santa. It’s mainly a day to be with family and enjoy a meal together. Before the main meal of the day, I went to the cathedral in Toledo for the Easter Mass celebrated by the archbishop. The area immediately in front of the high altar and its elaborate Gothic reredos (retablo) was opened for this special occasion, and I got to sit in it! The boys’ choir for the cathedral sang for the Mass, as well. I considered and consider myself blessed yet again to have this experience abroad.
After the Mass, I returned to my host home and enjoyed a lovely meal with my family. We had great conversation, and it was even better for me because I was able to actively participate in it. For the past couple of weeks and for the remainder of the semester, I felt confident in my conversational fluency and talked much more with my host family, allowing me to learn about and enjoy my host country even more.
On Easter Sunday, I also had the chance to video-chat with my parents and my grandmother and aunt. It was fantastic to see and talk with them. For some reason, I was not feeling as homesick as I had been two or so weeks before, but I still gave thanks for the technology that enabled me to talk so easily with my loved ones.
Well, that’s the rundown of my Semana Santa, reader. Any questions, concerns, or comments? Feel free to let me know here! I’d love to hear about your Semana Santa experiences, too, if you’ve had any. Thanks for your patience with my posts, and, until the next one, ¡hasta luego!