I feel the drums coming well before I see them. The tinny sound of snares crawls up the back of my neck like a spider. Then the deep pounding of synchronized bass drums — dozens of them — warms my innards like a shot of my favorite Scotch. I half expect the beating of my heart to fall into rhythm with this procession of drums heading for Plaza Mayor, where I’m one of thousands of people massed to see, hear and feel them.
Welcome to Easter Sunday in Madrid.
But my heartbeat doesn’t sync. As the first members of the troupe come into view, it certainly quickens, though. It stays like that for the duration of tamborrada — a parade of drummers — and then, at the end, when the thousands of spectators simultaneously head for the square’s nine arched exits, formed by buildings dating from the early 17th century, it quickens even more. The last time I experienced such crowds was in college, on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Thankfully, these crowds are much more polite. And pious.
My friend Jeremy Hastings and I thought we were going to Madrid for a quick weekend getaway — to walk around in warm spring weather in flip-flops, eat ham in as many forms as possible, wander the Prado and maybe catch a Real Madrid football game.
But then we realized we’d be there over Easter weekend. Faster than we could say “Semana Santa” — holy week in Spanish — friends who live, or have lived, in Spain sent us warnings by email and Facebook.
“Easter week in Spain is crazy.”
“You won’t be able to do anything. Everything will be closed.”
“Good luck getting a hotel! Or a train ticket. I think every Spaniard takes a local vacation that weekend.”
“Maybe you can find a hotel with a nice spa and just hang out there?”
These warnings did not come with specifics, so visions of Easter bunnies run amok danced through my head. But Easter in Madrid, and across Spain, is not the holiday it is in the United States. Cadbury has yet to crack the Spanish market with its eggs. I ask around a grocery store for Peeps and get only blank stares.
In Spain, Easter is Roman Catholic, and celebrations last for a week, from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. Since neither myself nor my friend is religious, we wondered how it would go, but we weren’t about to cancel our trip — especially after we got reservations at the second hotel we tried and also found that the tours we wanted to do were running and had availability.
Madrid’s Semana Santa does not have the International Tourist Interest designation that the Easter celebrations in Granada, Zaragoza, Crevillent, Orihuela, Medina de Rioseco, Medina del Campo, Avila, Palencia, Toledo, Viveiro or Ferrol do. But, while enjoying the Easter events that Madrid does have — several processions of hooded penitents and religious art both Thursday and Friday nights and Sunday’s tamborrada — I don’t have to give up restaurants, museums or shopping as Semana Santa tourists in smaller towns often do. Madrid celebrates Easter, but not so much that you can’t enjoy the culture that makes the city worthwhile to visit any time of year.
Hellin, a small city in the central Spanish province of Albacete, has a Semana Santa tamborrada with nearly 20,000 drums. (Madrid’s has maybe a couple hundred.) But after Hellín’s tamborrada, Jer and I couldn’t see art by Picasso, Goya, Dalí, El Greco, Titian, Caravaggio and Miró. Easter Sunday Madrid’s famous art museums are open their usual hours, and we’re told they are less crowded than usual.
The fact that life as usual continues in Madrid does not mean Semana Santa is any less of a holiday here than elsewhere in the country.
Growing up Catholic, including eight years at St. Pius X in Bowie, I do know Easter is more than Easter Sunday. There’s Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter Sunday and celebrates Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. Good Friday is the day Jesus was killed on a cross. We land the morning of Maundy Thursday, which I think I’ve heard of but don’t know what it marks until I Google it later (the last supper Jesus had with his disciples). In the United States, this day is mostly a nonevent.
In Spain, Maundy Thursday is the beginning of Easter Week prime time.
In Madrid that night, upward of a thousand nazarenos, or penitents, take part in processions along various routes through the center of the city. The nazarenos walk in front of and behind ornate gold and silver thrones crowned with wooden pasos, or painted sculptures, of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Together, these thrones and pasos can weigh more than 3,000 pounds. The procession routes are closed to cars and crammed with tens of thousands of spectators.
Maundy Thursday is also the night Jeremy and I have reservations for Madrid Food Tours’ “Tapas, Taverns & History Tour.” When we meet for the tour in Plaza de Isabel II, there are no signs of any procession. There are street performers dressed as Bart Simpson and Mickey Mouse and painted in gold head to toe.
We wander into our first tavern, Taberna Real. Neither the food (seasoned olives and also toast with crushed tomato and olive oil) nor the drink (vermouth from Catalonia) here is remarkable, but the atmosphere is. I think we’re the only tourists in the place.
Guide Debbie Musgrove gives us a quick lesson in fitting in: Throw olive pits, toothpicks, crusts and napkins on the floor. “If you want to know how good a bar is, look at its floor,” Debbie says. “The more trash, the more popular it is,” she says, her olive pit landing on the tavern’s tile.
While we were in Taberna Real, the sun set. Still, walking to our second (of five) taverns, Casa del Abuelo, there are no signs of a procession. Abuelo’s house white wine, made from verdejo grapes from Spain’s Toro region, is sublime — fruity without being overly sweet — and two glasses of it help me forget anything that might be going on outside.
As soon as the tavern’s gambas al ajillo — shrimp with chili peppers in a pool of garlic, parsley, salt and a wonderful excess of olive oil — touch my tongue, I forget such a thing as Easter exists. Gambas al ajillo is among the most popular tapas across Spain, and Debbie tells us the recipe originated right here at Casa del Abuelo.
Trying not to draw the attention of my six fellow food tourers, I pull the second dish of shrimp closer to me. When they’re all gone, I use bread to soak up as much of the oil as possible. As I stand up to leave, the smell of garlic coming off me is impressive.
But this smell is short-lived.
I step out of Abuelo and into my childhood church, or at least into the smell — frankincense — of a special Mass at St. Pius X. Frankincense was the aroma of St. Pius’s incense, and it’s the scent of incense that most of the rest of the Catholic world uses, too.
Debbie immediately calls us into a huddle. “There’s a procession between us and the next place,” she says. “Stay right behind me when walking. We’ll probably have to push our way through.”
We turn a corner and smash into a wall of people. The smell of frankincense deepens and, over the heads of at least 10 rows of people in front of me, I just barely see wisps of smoke trailing into the air from censers. I also see candles. And crosses. And pointy, purple hats.
Before I can think too much about the hats, which are the top of a uniform that very much resembles those of the Ku Klux Klan, a massive, and massively ornate, gold and silver “float” topped by an almost-life-size crucified Jesus comes into view. It is so tall that it’s easily visible over all of the heads in front of me.
A middle-aged woman near me begins to weep. A mother shushes a crying baby. A father hoists twin toddlers onto his shoulders. I disobey Debbie’s directive and stop in the crowd.
I’m not religious, but neither am I oblivious. (At least not most of the time. I think.) To be a voyeur in the middle of this crowd is a gift. I stand quietly at the back of it as the procession — row after row of nazarenos following the throne and pasos — continues past. And then, suddenly and in unison, everyone and everything stops.
I’ve never before shared complete silence with so many people.
The lone voice of a woman breaks the silence. Drums and trumpets accompany the procession, but she sings a cappella. I follow the gazes of those around me to find her. She stands on a balcony across and above the street, grasping the filigree iron railing as she sings words I don’t need to know to understand to the pasos and penitents below.
It’s one of those instances in which time is elastic. I don’t know whether her song, a saeta, lasts two or 10 minutes. It ends sooner than I’d like, though. As suddenly as the procession stopped, it starts again. In three minutes, it’s around the next corner, and the crowd here begins to quietly disperse.
Finding Debbie and the group again isn’t difficult. I’m not the only one who stopped.
Walking into our third tavern, Los Gatos, is jarring. It’s no more crowded than the street we just left, but this crowd is as loud as the procession crowd was subdued, talking, laughing, eating and drinking under murals of a reclining naked woman and dancing skeletons. This tavern’s comprehensively eclectic decor includes an antique cash register atop an antique gas pump, a taxidermied bull’s head and a crystal chandelier. At one end of the bar hangs a sign reading, “The cat and its housekeeper live here.” “Gato” means cat.
We get a blended red wine — tempranillo, grenache and graciano — from Rioja and a heaping plate of surtido de tostas, open-faced sandwiches topped with mushrooms, pesto, shrimp, roasted peppers or salmon.
Everything here, as well as at the final two stops of the night — La Venencia, a sherry bar owned and run by four brothers and formerly frequented by Ernest Hemingway, and Casa Toni, where Debbie grabs us two tables upstairs and servers bring plate after plate of tapas, including lamb sweetbreads — is good. Still, I find my mind racing with questions about the procession and wishing I were following it.
Many of my questions are answered in the late morning of the next day, Good Friday, when we meet up with Sean Retana. Retana, who has a thick Irish accent but a 100 percent Spanish heart, is the co-founder of the travel and tour company Singular Madrid. Despite his Irish name and accent, Retana, who has lived in Spain his entire life, is set to give us a history lesson as we walk about downtown. He also happily answers my barrage of questions about Semana Santa processions.
Although the nazarenos’ outfits — in addition to capirotes (the pointed hats), they also wear cloths that hide their faces and robes — might remind Americans of the KKK, Spanish penitents have nothing in common with that group. The garb has its roots in medieval times.
Different colors — white, purple, red — are associated with different brotherhoods, religious groups for laypeople that meet year-round and are a large part of Semana Santa processions. As Retana explains that some brotherhoods are centuries old, he pulls us back to the city’s history, pointing out a sign of Madrid’s Arab past — a section of wall built in the ninth century — and then a bronze, baroque statue “that took three geniuses to figure out,” he says.
The statue is of Philip IV of Spain in the saddle of a horse rearing on its two hind legs. Sculptor Pietro Tacca, puzzled as to how two legs could support a statue as heavy as this one and made from a fairly weak metal, turned to scientist Galileo Galilei for help engineering it. Galileo obliged, and the statue, based on a painting by Diego Velázquez, still stands more than 350 years later.
We walk past the church where Retana’s son was christened and then one with its two front doors flung open and a line of people waiting to get in. On display inside is one of the thrones and pasos that processed through the city last night.
It is not the pasos and throne I saw the night before of Jesus on the cross. This one is of the Virgin Mary. Its throne must have nearly a hundred white candles on it. Some of the candles are almost three feet tall. I can only imagine what it looked like with all of them lit.
The throne itself is quite a sight. The artistry — filigree details, engraving, hammering, stamping — astounds me. The size of it astounds me, too. “How do these move?” I ask Retana.
While the penitents process publicly — or as publicly as you can with your face covered — hidden beneath the throne by thick velvet drapes are up to 40 men, costaleros. They carry the whole thing on their head or shoulders. Even with the weight shared among so many, each man carries between 40 and 80 pounds, depending on the float’s weight. Some processions last 10 hours. “The floats are art, but so is the work of the men underneath,” Retana says. “The teamwork required is like nothing else.”
My Semana Santa questions answered for the time being, Retana points to a nearby window, similar to at least a dozen others we’ve already walked past. “Spain might be a Catholic country, but this is our true religion,” he says, gesturing to hanging rows of jamón Ibérico, cured Iberian ham. “Time to learn about something else.”
The rest of the afternoon is spent popping into various charcutería, which specialize in cured meat, and taverns, testing different types of ham. Some comes from free-range Iberian pigs fed only on acorns. (Iberian pigs are recognizable for their black hooves.) This is considered the very finest type of ham. Lesser ham, but still very fine, comes from Iberian pigs that eat a combination of grain and acorns or only grains.
The lowest ham, jamón serrano, comes from an entirely different breed of pig (it has white hooves), is substantially less expensive than jamón Ibérico and still tastes better than anything similar I’ve had in the United States.
Easter Sunday, left to our own devices, Jer and I experience the tamborrada and then transition into a classic Madrid day: We pop into a bar for a drink and jamón and then hit the Prado and Reina Sofía museums. The tamborrada drums beat inside me until dinner.
Mishev is the editor of Inspirato magazine.
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Correction: An earlier version of the “If You Go” incorrectly stated the price for the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour. It has been updated to $107.
NH Collection Madrid Eurobuilding
23 Calle de Padre Damián
A newly remodeled hotel in the financial district with three-star Michelin restaurant DiverXO and more than 400 rooms. It is several miles from downtown processions — so you can enjoy quiet when necessary — but a short walk to a metro station and Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home field for Real Madrid. Rooms start at $163.
Principal Madrid Hotel
2 Gran Via
Many of the city’s main attractions are a short walk from this newish (opened January 2015) boutique hotel in downtown Madrid. Rooms and the hotel’s seventh-floor rooftop terrace are contemporary. The latter has what might be the best views of the city. Rooms start at $303.
Sobrino de Botin
17 Calle de los Cucchilleros
011-34-913-66 42 17
Novelist Ernest Hemingway liked eating upstairs at this restaurant, recognized by Guinness as the world’s oldest. The suckling pig is cooked in the same wood-fired oven that was used when the restaurant opened in 1725.
Tapas, Taverns & History Tour
Sample tapas and drinks at five family-owned taverns on this foodie-led walking tour that also includes history lessons. Tour is $107 and open to guests age 13 years and older.
Upwards of a hundred drums march into Plaza Mayor and play in synchronization at noon on Easter Sunday. Free.
Semana Santa processions through Centro, Madrid
On the Thursday and Friday prior to Easter, hooded penitents belonging to various brotherhoods process along designated routes through Centro, accompanied by drums and trumpets and artistic floats depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Free.
7 Calle Echegaray
In the late 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, this sherry bar was a refuge for left-leaning Republicans. While there’s little fear of fascist spies today, you’re still not allowed to take photos, and bar tabs are written on the bar in chalk.
Paseo del Prado
One of the world’s finest art museums, the Prado’s collection includes more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints dating from the 12th to 19th century, even though there’s only room for about 2,000 to be exhibited at any time. Work in the collection includes pieces by Titian, Raphael, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, Rubens and Caravaggio. Admission is $15.75.
Local guides bring color to personalized city tours, which include Semana Santa-specific itineraries.
Visit Madrid: esmadrid.com/en