Friday, April 06, 2012

A bit of local culture on Good Friday

When we planned this trip it was up in the air as to spending the first week in Madrid or Valencia. It really didn’t matter - the only challenging part was getting off the international flight and onto something that would bring us away from Madrid. The domestic flights were all bad as they would have entailed sitting around and waiting for hours. And since we were renting apartments, spending the first week in Madrid would have meant a night or two at the end of the trip in a hotel. While all of this was certainly manageable, the kicker turned out to be Easter – Valencia is known for its Easter celebrations. And anytime something steeped in local color is in the offing, that’s the side I’m going to err on. So I booked the train and set the rest of our plans in motion.

The Hermandades are societies for lay Catholics that are associated with a specific parish and conduct some kind of service to the community, including some for convicts, reformed alcoholics and other people with a need to atone for past sins. The concept originated in the 12th century when the brotherhoods were formed to protect and provide support for pilgrims coming to the region to visit the holy sites, Santiago de Compostela being the most famous. Most of the modern orders were founded in the past 100 years and while active during the entire year, they chiefly present themselves during Semana Santa, the period around Easter. I did a bit of research about the events and discovered an entire program of parades, processionals, masses and other celebrations called “Actos” to be held in the grittier part of town, down by the docks. With that in mind we set the alarm and arranged to hit the Metro around 9 AM for the ride down to the sea. A late evening downpour dampened the enthusiasm of the drunks and so we woke up refreshed for the first time since being here.

Our map showed the Pont du Fust station just over the bridge on the other side of the city gate down the block from our apartment. The weather was questionable – the sky had clouded up quickly following a beautiful sunrise. We dressed warmly and packed umbrellas just in case. Out of the Barrio and into the open, it was clear we were in for something. A cold wind was howling out of the north. We had no specific idea where we were going and lucked out when My Lovely Wife spotted a trolley doing a u-turn in an open area off to our right. I remembered that this station was a sort of turnaround spot so we headed over, passing an S&M clothing shop on the way, taking the time for a single photo of a sporty leather mini-dress in the window, jauntily decked in shiny buckles and zippers. Arriving at the station I was surprised to discover that this part of the Valencia Metro was above ground.

We weren’t quick enough to catch that particular train which was a good thing since the ticket buying machine was maddeningly crazy. It had a button that allowed me to choose English, but all that did was give some very basic instructions on what to do which was more or less useless since all the necessary buttons were in Catalan. A man and woman were watching me trying to figure it out. She came over and put in her rail pass and tried to explain what to do, but it seemed that this particular machine didn’t have the option of actually purchasing a ticket. The next train arrived and she left us there standing. There was another machine on the opposite platform so we crossed over and tried again. A young man offered to help and we were able to buy a pass for the trip out. He told me to make sure and validate before leaving, something that was not explained at all but was the equivalent of swiping your card over the reader at the turnstiles in a sane subway station. I did it once, he told me to do it again and we got the necessary beeps. His train came and we bid him thanks and goodbye.

A bit more waiting and we were on our way. This system seemed to be based on honor because no one checked our pass. We rolled on through progressively more down trodden parts of town, a surprise given where we had been wandering around. The only highlight was the truly enormous campus of the Universidad Polytechnic de Valencia. The stations ticked off and the weather became grayer and windier. Our line, #4 did sort of an odd thing at the end, doing a 10 block loop that turned the car back around for the return trip. Our goal was the La Marina station but the train stopped at Doctor Lluch, about 3 blocks and one station shy. And sat there. Everyone else got off and I began to wonder if it was really the end and the one we wanted was really the first in which case we were officially ticketless. We waited about 30 seconds longer before deciding it would just be easier to walk.

My plan was to find some spot on the parade of the day route and wait for them to come to us. While I knew the parish at the start, I had no idea where it was. The first sign that we were on the right track came when we found a street lined with lawn chairs on the curb. The second sign was a couple of young women dressed in biblical period garb hustling down the street, chain smoking as they went. We decided to follow them. It all came together when we heard the sound of music and trumpets and saw the first of the Hermandades coming at us up a side street, bedecked in purple and white robes, each man wearing the tall conical hat whose style has carried down from the Middle Ages. Trailing them was a small brass band and leading the way was a man struggling to carry a large carved crucifix. We fell in behind and let them lead us to the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles – the start of the parade.

We were close to the 10 AM start time and the church square was unlike anywhere I’d been before. Elaborate imagenes - decorated, carved floats - depicting some element of the Passion of Christ were parked in the middle surrounded by Hermandades in all kinds of colorful raiment. Bands were warming up and children dressed in period costumes were standing around shivering. A person dressed as Christ stood off to the side, hands bound and crown of thorns on his head. The cigarette smoke was dense and choking. At 10 the first group lined up, their band started to play and they exited the square and headed down the street. They were followed by the other societies one by one. I’ve seen these kinds of celebrations all over the world, but this one takes the cake as a feast for the eyes. Reds, gold, whites, blacks, every combination imaginable, at once solemn and celebratory. A window into the ancient mysteries of the region and the Church. I stood and watched and took pictures as the drama unfolded. The poor kids, the most lightly dressed appeared to be freezing and that wasn’t helped by the onset of a slight drizzle. One little girl, dressed in green went by visibly shivering. A group of Roman soldiers and then a band of cornet players in long maroon robes. Just as they began to play, the rain got hard, someone waved his arm and the parade went to pieces – everyone running in every direction trying to find cover. The imagenes were covered in plastic and the Hermandades disappeared down each and every side street. I joined My Lovely Wife under a very dense and accommodating tree and watched to see what would happen. The square emptied and the party was over. We opened our umbrellas and headed back to the Metro, music still wafting down the streets – the bands were now playing in place, under roofs in alleys.

After winding our way through the warren at the start of the day, we somehow managed to pick the street that led directly to the station we wanted. Buying a pass the second time around was a bit easier, albeit still amazing to me that the subway in Beijing was far easier to use. Ten minutes or so later the trolley appeared and we boarded, glad to be out of the rain and the wind. About a quarter of the way home a conductor appeared and checked our pass; apparently it’s not the honor system after all. At least all the time.































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