Semana Santa in Spain

Christ leaving the church. Cristo
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Semana Santa is the Spanish celebration for Holy Week leading up to Easter, which dates back to the 16th century when the Catholic Church decided to present the story of the Passion of Christ in a way that the layperson could understand. From that point on, scenes from the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ were told through a series of processions through the streets each year.

Today, Semana Santa is still celebrated in all the pomp and circumstance of 16th-century Spanish Catholicism in cities across Spain. Andalusian cities like Seville and Malaga particularly shine in this regard, but some Spaniards argue that "true Semana Santa" takes place in the region of Castile and León in cities like Zamora, Valladolid, Salamanca, Avila, and Segovia.

When Is Semana Santa?

Semana Santa takes place throughout the week leading up to Easter Sunday, so be sure to check Semana Santa dates before booking your hotels and flights. The exact dates change every year, but it usually falls around the last weeks of March or the first weeks of April.

The start date varies also varies across regions. In Andalusia, where the most popular events occur, the processions typically begin on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) and last until Easter Sunday. In other parts of Spain, the observances last even longer: In Castile and León, events run from two Fridays before, making for 10 days of celebration in total; in Toledo, Semana Santa starts on the Thursday two weeks before Easter.

Common Features of Semana Santa Celebrations

Though the style and mood of Semana Santa in Spain vary from city to city, the basic components remain the same. Each day there are a number of processions, one from each religious brotherhood in the city, made up of floats that are carried from their church to the town's central cathedral and back again.

Processions

Most brotherhoods carry two floats, one with Christ and one with his mourning mother, Mary the Virgin. Each procession is different and each has its own particular followers, either due to the location of the church or the exact nature of the procession. The music, the time of day, and the size of the church all factor into the crowds that follow these displays.

The floats are heavy, especially so in Andalusia, which is the most extravagant region for Semana Santa. Strong men carry the floats, but with the procession lasting many hours, even they will feel the pain. The suffering experienced is likened to that experienced by Christ, and the men—known as costaleros—consider it a great honor to carry the float, despite (and indeed, because of) the pain involved.

Semana Santa is an outdoor event, so rain is bad news, and with many of the floats being very old and easily damaged, processions are called off with even the slightest drop of rain. If rain is in the forecast, there'll be nothing to see, so be sure to check the forecast before you go out for the day.

Saetas

In Andalusia, specifically Seville, you can also expect to witness several saetas during Semana Santa. These performances of flamenco are sung from one of the balconies in the narrow streets of the city. Although they were once spontaneous outbursts of worshippers overcome with emotion, they are invariably preplanned these days, and the entire procession stops to listen until the song is finished.

Capirotes

One of the most ubiquitous sights throughout Semana Santa is the coned hood—or capirote—worn by those walking in the processions, which look disturbingly similar to those used by Klan members in the U.S. Even though it can be jarring for American travelers to see hundreds of cloaked men walking through the streets wearing a symbol of racial hatred, just remember that these religious brothers donned their outfits centuries before the Klan existed in the U.S.

Torrijas

Semana Santa isn't just about religious processions and penitence. One of the more delicious aspects of the week is that it's the season for torrijas, the Spanish version of French toast. You'll see pastry shops, cafés, and even bars all touting their homemade torrijas, usually made with day-old brioche bread that's soaked in milk or wine, dipped in beaten eggs, and then fried in Spanish olive oil before being topped with cinnamon and other spices. Even though French toast is generally eaten for breakfast, you can eat torrijas at any time of day. Most locals enjoy them after lunch as something sweet to enjoy with a coffee.

Best Places to Experience Semana Santa in Spain

Depending on what type of celebration and how long you want to enjoy the festivities, there are many options to choose from when selecting a city in Spain to experience Semana Santa. While tourists usually flock to Andalusian cities like Seville and Malaga for more elaborate floats and processions, Castile and León cities celebrate longer and feature more events.

Andalusia

The southern region of Andalusia is by far the most popular place to experience Semana Santa in Spain, especially in major cities like Seville and Malaga. Unfortunately, its popularity means that hotel rates skyrocket—assuming you can even find a hotel with availability. Many of them book up months in advance, so be sure to plan well ahead of time and book your flights and hotel reservations as early as possible.

If you don't need to be in the center of Spain's Holy Week celebrations, consider other cities throughout Andalusia such as Cordoba, Granada, or Jaen. Virtually all of them have some kind of Semana Santa processions, even if they aren't as opulent as the grand performances in Seville and Malaga.

Castile and León

Castile and León is the region north of Madrid and is home to some of Spain's most historical cities, with roots that go back to the Kingdom of Castille. The biggest cities all have major cathedrals and, during Semana Santa, they host processions that rival those in the south. Take part in Holy Week celebrations in Segovia, Avila, Salamanca, and Valladolid, which are the "big cities" of the region but feel like small medieval towns compared to Seville and Malaga. It's a completely different vibe from the lavishness you'll find in Andalusia.

Toledo

The city of Toledo in the region of Castile La Mancha is one of Spain's oldest and historically most important cities. It's also where Semana Santa kicks off in Spain since the first processions typically take place on the Thursday before Holy Week—eleven full days before Easter Sunday. The city's religious brotherhoods parade through the small medieval streets while navigating with their giant floats, a route that seems impossible until you see it with your own eyes. Many of them also happen at night and are led by gas lanterns, adding to the Old World magic of the entire event.

Madrid

You don't even have to leave the Spanish capital to see Semana Santa processions. Pick up some torrijas from a local bakery and head to one of the city's central neighborhoods, like Malasaña or La Latina, and you'll likely come across some processions as they make their way through the city toward the local church. The processions admittedly aren't as grand as the ones in other regions of Spain, but it's a great way to get a taste of Holy Week if you don't have time to venture elsewhere.

However, you could easily take a day trip from Madrid to Toledo, Segovia, Avila, Valladolid, and even Salamanca. All of them are within two hours of Madrid, so you could spend the afternoon and be back in Madrid by dinnertime. You might want to check out the schedule of processions in whatever city you decide to visit, however, since many of them start after sundown.

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