First, Easter is Spain is a big event. That might be expected because so many Spanish are at least nominally Catholic, but we have spent Easter in Italy which is also largely inhabited by Catholics and the public display, even in Rome, is nothing like Spain.
On Palm Sunday, we saw many families walking with their huge palm branches, we guess, headed to or from church. And we saw tables of palm branches lining the streets.
Most notable are the processions of penitents from various churches. They bring out their historic, precious icons, usually the Virgin Mary or Jesus (in various scenes leading to his crucifixion) or both May and Jesus, and paraded on a route going to and from their church. The intent is to show the Passion of Christ in a very public display. The processions are so popular and numerous we were able to pick up a booklet at various churches which listed the schedule for the processions and the routes, as well, there were posters advertising different processions in shop, restaurant and bar windows. But if it rains, like it did the Thursday we were there, the processions for that day were called off lest the icons, most of which are wooden and very old, get damaged.
The icons are on a float, decorated with flowers, jewels and even burning candles, and carried by numerous (I assume strong) members of the brotherhood responsible for the procession. We were told that much effort goes into the decorations. The processions we saw included a band, mainly brass instruments and drums. Most notable were the penitents who were wearing a nazareno or penitential robe. This garment consists in a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and a cloak. The colors and forms of these robes depend on the particular procession. The hood, mask and cloak look very much like the Ku Klux Klan costume and while the origins of the KKK gear is not certain, the likelihood that the two are related seems high given the similarity. Some of the penitents carried candles or rough-hewn wooden crosses, some walked the city streets barefoot.
Even more surprising, from our secular North American point of view, was the reaction of some of the people watching the processions. Many were crying. Although the Easter Sunday processions were more upbeat with people smiling and the music of the bands less sombre. Our walking tour guide, who was from Madrid, explained that the processions were as much about being Spanish as being Catholic and that even she, who did not go to church otherwise, celebrated Easter by partaking in Spanish traditions.
The processions occurred on various days but most were between Thursday and Sunday. Some started as early as 7:00 in the morning and others throughout the day and into the evening. They stopped traffic, which could make getting around a bit more challenging because some of the processions were long and everyone was moving slowly. The processions were televised, not only in Madrid, but you could turn on the tv and watch processions in other cities in Spain.
Also interesting were the dress of some of the people lining the streets. Many were dressed up with women wearing black mantillas over a high comb. We saw similarly dressed women at some of the churches throughout the week.
The other interesting experience because of Easter was the traditional desserts. A torrija is a bit like French toast or the French pain perdu, a bread soaked in egg and cream, then fried and dusted with sugar. The dish is much creamier than any French toast we have ever had and very, very sweet. But many people were crowding into pastry shops and walking out eating them on the streets. The other unique thing we saw, but did not sample, were cakes shaped like a nest with an egg in the centre, some had real eggs, others had chocolate eggs. And we tried the chocolate eggs which were made of very good chocolate, some with fillings, some were hollow with another chocolate inside.
The downside of being in Madrid during Easter was the reduced hours or closure of many small shops and restaurants, particularly on Good Friday through to Easter Sunday. We were told flamenco dancing was not likely to be on during those days as well. There were, of course, some stores, especially the big ones, and restaurants open but many were not. Easter Monday is not a holiday in Madrid, although, we discovered it is a holiday in Barcelona.
The Easter holiday did not affect any of the big museums we visited, the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza or Reina Sofia. It also did not stop bullfights on Sundays.
The other really big downside of being in Madrid during Easter week was trying to get on a train at the last minute for a day trip out of Madrid. It seems like all the Madrileños were enjoying their holidays by going out of town by train. The trains were full going to Seville or Toledo.
We did not book tickets ahead because we wanted to see what the weather was going to be like. Before we left, rain was predicted for most of the week and we did not want to be on a day trip walking around in the rain. As it turned out, it only rained during the day time on two of the nine days so a day trip would have been nice, but we could not book tickets for the times we wanted – a lesson learned. If you want to travel during Easter, pre-book.