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BY SANDRA SHEVEY  Copyright 2012 all rights reserved

OK.  Pack your gear.  You`re going to Lorca for Holy Week- sea sand, sun, sangria and the processional which lasts from previous Friday through to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This processional, like the German Passion Play, is heralded the world over. Semana Santa,  begun in the mid-19thc,  is now a succession of 4-hour spectaculars and has been granted heritage status. Application has been made to UNESCO for recognition as an `immaterial heritage site`.

The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain and, I ought add, out of Lorca which boasts an unique sub-tropical climate in the heart of south-eastern Spain. Its location justifies the attribution `city of the sun` as the locality has almost 365 days of perfect weather.

That said, there was a downpour on Holy Thursday, which caught me out as I arrived without a brolly and with only one pair of shoes. The town, despite gentrification, still has the presence of frontier border territory between Christians and Moslems.  

The old castle, now a tri-faith heritage site (Jew, Christian and Moslem), sits on the hill overlooking river and mountain ranges, formidable and impenetrable, but for the crumbling walls that indicate change. Hot, arid, bereft of water but for man-made irrigation, the area is unique for having some of the only desert flower, fauna and wildlife in all of Europe.

Here it is not unusual to see desert vegetation- jujube trees, saltwort, palm trees and cactus whilst mulberry trees, fig trees, olive groves and lemon/orange trees grow in the watercourses. Here you’ll find the rare mora tortoise, the protected runner toad, lizards, seagulls, white egrets, patridged eagles and the peregrine falcon. Lorca has thirteen beaches over the littoral (plains) none of which has been spoiled by commercialization, and all of which are surrounded by an amphitheatre of fossilize dunes.

Change of plan….upon arrival we learn the itinerary for the press trip has been changed and for the next few days we’ll be briefed solely on and about the Semana Santa processions taking place over Holy Week. No sun, no sand and no sangria!

When I was asked upon departing by the representative from Murcia tourism what I liked best about the trip, I said - `the hotel`.

Why? Well, the Jardines de Lorca Hotel, although based about half a mile from the town centre near the old bull ring (where sport has been abated only because of the 2011 earthquake) caters to a high standard. It is a business hotel, modern and new, which boasts a spa (and pool) in separate premises…a charming  old Spanish stucco house (painted royal blue) with traditional hollow tile roof. The restaurant serves until 11:30pm whilst the bar serves tapas well past midnight. Lorca has a Papal dispensation which allows consumption of food on Good Friday and thus the hotel was alive with families and children eating, drinking and having a fabulous time throughout the Easter holiday weekend.

The penetrating sun and contrived irrigation make Lorca an eating and drinking gem.  I had some of the best red wine in the region, heaps better than Rioja- more mellow and congenial. Forget Italian.  Forget French.  The food here is epicurean heaven.  On Good Friday we had a special stew served during Holy Week. It’s a regional speciality of barley broth, snails, artichoke and rabbit. Pork is one of the main exports and thus you can`t get away from it in any and all varieties. The breakfast buffet had lovely pinky ham and fresh serrano whilst lunch at the castle café purveyed pork medallions. The French sacked Spain twice- in 1635 and 1808- and this is reflected in a bit of fusion cuisine.  Onion soup is anything but what you’d expect.  The French original has been hispanicized with condiments.  Whites of eggs float in the broth.

Partners in crime on this press trip were only two - a religious tourism journalist who works for a church magazine in northern Spain and speaks fluent Spanish; and a photo-journalist who looks like Brad Pitt and hails from Belgium (with whom I argued anti-Semitism).

The itinerary seemed orientated solely toward the needs of the former journalist. Lorca has been called a `moody, brooding town` with a fierce population as far back as the 19thc when travel writers began profiling the place. It has not changed demonstrably and remains a dour outpost of agricultural workers and pig breeders.  It makes no attempt to pose as disposed to tourism.  These people are hard to know. Take us or leave us…they seem to say.

That said, locals are decent, hard working and celebratory on religious and festive occasions.  They are also slightly hidden, vaguely suspicious and less engaging than those in other parts of Spain.  This is great, because once you get to know them, you`ve made a friend for life. R Rivalry?  Yes!  Lorca remains divided by the Blue (farm workers) and White (townies) Brotherhoods which organize, orchestrate and support the Holy Week pageants.  

Both Brotherhoods attach to the town’s two main churches that evolve out of monasteries which existed centuries before. The White and Blue Brotherhoods (and/or Steps) still vie for superiority in conception and execution of religious floats whilst keeping up a bit of the same competition in everyday town life. During the processionals all of the flats and apartments lining the Avenue Juan Carlos (route of the processionals) are decorated with flags, banners, standards and other fanfare identifying Blue and/or White Brotherhoods. It is not unlikely to hear someone say of the other side.  “Well, if one of `our` own gets injured I’d be concerned.  But not if it is one of theirs. It is also not unusual for rivalry to exist within the Brotherhoods and for the more important members to push their own sons and daughters into principal roles within the pageants.  Shades of Hollywood???? Yes! So what does it all cost? Hundreds of thousands of Euros, which pay for 1,000 participants and 700 horses.  Often 10 horses at a time are used for the fierce chariot runs. Tickets are precious and costly, so you’d be wise to book at least a year in advance. The plan was to view the floats and exhibitions being mounted at the processions prior and to include interviews with the embroiderers who were putting last minute touches to pieces of embroidery…cloaks, scarves, banners, etc.

Bad timing… we were too late and the embroiderers had already left. The exhibitions on display at churches San Francisco and Santa Domingo contain traditionally hand-stitched embroidery on some of the finest silk in all the world. For centuries Lorca had a robust silk industry, which generated wealth and was responsible for many of the hidalgo houses and fine churches including the one named for St. Patrick, intended as a cathedral and constructed over 200 years but which became a church when the money ran out. The Moors introduced the white mulberry tree into the area and whilst the industry has died due to cheaper purchase of man-made fibers the streets of Lorca are still prolix with the ancient trees which you see as you amble about the town.

The exhibits of religious and historical scenes are meant to contextualise ancient cultures within the Christian framework and to show that Christianity is the true consummation of Judaism, Islam and other faiths/cultures which are now moribund. Many of the sculptures of Christ and the Virgin were created by Francisco Salzillo (1707-1783) and are accounted as having immediacy and a reality which recommend the Semana Santa as deserving of UNESCO immaterial heritage site status. Salzillo uses a technique known as `estofado` in which gold leaf is applied beneath a polychrome paint, then rubbed away to reveal the gold below, giving a real feel of motion and movement t the sculptures. The culmination of the trip was of course to view the floats away from the museums and within the context of the actual processionals. Prior to the event we had a chance to visit the stables where horses, chariots, and participants were getting finishing touches from the huge team of support staff who put the event together.

So what’s it like playing Julius Caesar? I ask one boy upon whom the make-up lady is applying a large Roman nose.  `Great!` laughs the boy. I ask a Centurion how it feels wearing the helmet and carrying the sword and to give the Nazi salute? (before the Nazis copped it). "Not that great!` Still, you have to remember these displays were conceived and choreographed as from 1855 and years before the Pope absolved the Jews of the murder of Christ.  

Thus bands of penitents who walk among us in chains, wearing hoods and robes to hide their shame are not indictments of the horrid Inquisition.  They are only participants in a kind of Halloween Trick or Treat parody. Before deciding whether to give this processional listed status I would urge UNESCO to consider if the sub-text couldn’t better elucidate our own culpability and do something about raising awareness about our own Christian heritage of Zero Tolerance. Two nights of the processional were more than enough.  

The chariot races with 10 horses across were sensational but then the bolting horses kicked sand into the faces of those of us in the first and second bleacher rows. Latterly I learned many of the riders were not locals but were professionals who worked in American films shot in Spain. Verdict?  More sangria please and less tuition.

Hospitality courtesy Murcia Tourism…

Sandra Shevey is keen to accept travel and/or pr tourism commissions.  ontact:



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