Every time I walk past a church, I feel the urge to step inside to see what kind of treasures it may hold (and depending on where you are in the world, they certainly do hold some treasure!). I still have vivid recollections of begging my mother to let me take Holy Communion and to send me to a Catholic boarding school when I was a child, though I had never attended church a day in my life. To be perfectly honest, these days I can’t remember why I was so interested, especially when I didn’t understand the significance of it all – maybe I was in it for the cool jewellery. Pardon my sacrelige, but even to this day, I have a big collection of rosary beads so it is something that has stuck with me for life! So what has that got to do with life in Ibiza? Well, this week, Semana Santa, plenty!
You see, as I grew older, my fascination with religion waned a little… it tends to rear its head when I am travelling in countries with amazing churches and cathedrals and quite often makes its way home in my suitcase via kitsch Virgin Mary effigies and even more rosary beads. But once a year in Ibiza, it is treated to an absolutely amazing experience when Semana Santa rolls around. Which leads me to this very week! Holy week in Ibiza is a very serious occasion. Sure, it’s also the time we start to see an influx of flip-flop wearing tourists embracing the early spring sunshine and revelling in an extended long weekend of openings and parties, but for many born and bred islanders, and a large percentage of visitors who have flown in from the mainland (stats say over 60,000 are expected this weekend alone), it’s also about respecting the country’s Catholic heritage.
Whether you are religious or not, the Holy week processions are a jaw-dropping sight to behold. You can’t help but be awestruck by the sombre, serious, spectacular and, if I’m honest, sometimes even a little spooky parade winds its way through the cobbled streets of Dalt Vila and around Ibiza town to make an appearance at each church on Good Friday. The most striking element of the parade is the traditional Catholic dress (called ‘nazarenos’). Huge tall pointy hats and flowing robes and tunics in white and purple, with faces covered completely in fabric hoods, save for tiny slits for the eyes and mouth – it’s quite impressive, to say the least. Yes, you can be sure you’ll hear the aesthetic association with a certain right-wing organisation by someone in the crowd at some point, but one has nothing to do with the other. These penitential robes originated in the medieval period, and were designed to mask the identity of those who were performing penance in the processions. Moving right along…
The procession is held by candlelight and accompanied by the sound of slow drumming, plus a marching band (not the type you clap and dance along to). Enormous floats featuring intricate effigies of Jesus and the Virgin Mary (some of which date back as far as 1944, according to today’s Diario de Ibiza), plus huge crucifixes are carried from the cathedral at the top of Dalt Vila, down the drawbridge and then through the streets of Ibiza town until about midnight. The streets are totally packed with people – and I mean, people in their thousands lining the pavements to watch – and I feel fortunate that the parade snakes its way right past my own balcony, so I can watch it from the comfort of my home. You can’t imagine my surprise, some 11 years ago, when I first encountered this tradition on my very doorstep.
Here’s the truth. It was Good Friday, I’d had a Great Thursday the night before and I was more hungover than I’d even been in my life (at the time, anyway!). I was pretty fresh on the island and had forgotten to buy water for the house the day before (damn you non-drinkable Ibiza tap water!). I had no choice but to venture out, or die of thirst, and though I could hear the sounds of drumming and buzz of hordes of people outside my house, I had no idea of the cultural significance of the sight I was about to be greeted with. I opened my front door… shades on, even though the sun was going down, and a man in a pointy hat came right up to me and scared the living daylights out of me! Bless – he just wanted directions. No doubt my appearance scared him more than he scared me! And so with a throbbing head and a parched throat (that walk to get water was a little like a penance march of my own doing!), I rubbernecked my way through the crowds to finally see the procession with my own eyes. My inner religious fascination perked up – this was next level stuff. How did I not know about this (err, lack of education, ignorance, inability to speak or read Spanish at the time all spring to mind)? Why had no one in Ibiza told me about this? So I then made it my mission to tell as many people as possible. I make a point of watching it every year (and I’m still not religious, in case anyone was wondering. Or cared!).
Which leads me in a roundabout way to this blog. If you are in Ibiza this Good Friday, I urge you to check it out – without judgement of course. Believers, non-believers… whatever you may be (or not be!) it’s an eye-opening experience that gives you a unique view to another side of the white isle life and history that you may not have seen before. The beach parties, the openings and the alfresco dinners, well, they’ll all still be there on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and the weeks and months and months of summer that are to follow. As will the hangovers… and on that note, here’s another Easter tip for you: Be sure to stock up on water (and aspirin!), as many of the island supermarkets close for the whole weekend in respect of the religious holidays. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!