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Zaragoza Easter Parades

Midnight. We fall off the bus: dirty, dishevelled. Fernando meets us, escorting us to an apartment on Avenida de Goya. We talk over beer, tired. He buzzes, but we agree to sleep, meet in the afternoon.

Zaragoza, laid out along long avenidas, connected through with plazas, looks like streets in computer racing games: Paseo de Sagasta, Gran Via, Paseo de Independencia. Great thick palm trees, wide rough trunks, are set in front of narrow-bricked Romanesque churches.

By night we follow Fernando through narrow alleyways. Soon will be the festival. We turn a corner and hundreds of silent people, lined up along the narrow street, watch the parade. Huge great drums are beaten in unison: boom, boom, ba-boom; boom, boom, ba-boom. Behind them are slow marchers carrying silver lanterns, in coloured robes and pointed hooded masks that cover their faces, reaching down to their chests (like KKK costumes, but green, purple, black, red). We push through the quiet crowds, come to an arbitrary place of rest, watching as the Easter Parade of Brotherhoods slowly, quietly, rhythmically, eerily marches past us. A truly strange, spooky, ephemeral experience. The drums echo off into the distance of the street. ‘Come,’ says Fernando. There is no time left in the world. Time falls away. None of us carries watches.

The festival parades still echo around me, the next day: I stand on the balcony overlooking the church courtyard in the early evening light. The thunderous drums boom from all directions in the city. White-robed girls run down the church corridor; men in white T-shirts, black trousers, black shoes, wait nervously; children in white robes twirl in the courtyard, spinning the lemon capes of their church in fan shapes, playing at being matadors and bulls; priests move between the waiting men; people greet each other with kisses to cheeks; small girls are in yellow ribbons and white gloves; women carry long silver lanterns, some are dressed in all black, with veils, like grieving widows. Men help each other into costumes. Others carry high-coned headwear, cut with eye-holes. The echo of drums thunders around the city like individual hits of café solo to the nervous system.

On Avenida de Goya, costumed people carrying drums stand in lines around their float (depicting some scene from the Resurrection). Thousands line the avenida. This procession will make its way through the city, like those of other churches, to meet at the old town’s Plaza delle Justicia. We watch here, on Goya, for a while: wide bass drums are beaten in unison; down the column’s flanks, snare drums are rattled with quicker, tinnier, more urgent crackling between the boom-boom-booms. Ornate gold and silver lanterns, and poles yielding candles, are carried; incense is swung from chained caskets or wafted over the crowd from torches. We make our way up Paseo de Sagasta, leaving the Goya drums echoing back behind us. The city is full of people. Half-way up Independencia, we run into another procession: robed, caped, hooded; carrying lanterns, gold crosses, incense; spread across the four-lane carriageway. The black-hooded drumming is fast and celebratory behind the beatific Virgin Mary’s float. The beat carries us forwards on a wave, like a rush. We skip along because the drums urge us to, on to Plaza de España, where Independencia ends, and into the old town. Fernando points his finger into the air, beckons us, darting around corners of side streets, examining, nodding earnestly. We hear the drums all around us, ebbing and flowing through the night. We skip and march up an alley to the serious urgent beat of ‘boom-boom da-da-da, boom-boom’ (‘My drum’s bigger than your drum,’ we intone). Here is the small Plaza delle Justicia: for presentations of the Virgin Mary, or shining gold statues of Roman soldiers bearing down on the persecuted Jesus. The pale blue hoods beat out their rhythms amidst incense; the Virgin is presented through the church gates. One more thunderous rapport: the drums stop, hoods are removed, clapping, sweating drummers embrace and find friends and family; the crowd thins, swells again as the next brotherhood arrives with a different beat. A real prisoner will be released from jail, we’re told, in imitation of Pilate.

We dart into a narrow tapas bar: two huge bulls’ heads hang from the wall. It’s hot, packed full with people eating small pieces of bread, topped with oil-drenched greasy pork and vegetables. A fat man and his assistants work a narrow serving passageway. I examine the old black and white photos of matadors with long noses, of Ava Gardner (she of the famous matador affair). At another tapas bar, Fernando orders black pudding, sausage pieces, octopus, squid, greasily-oiled mushroom slivers, green chillis, garlic bread, red wine. I’m not hungry. Really. I drink beer, watch the others wolf down food from communal plates. Later, we see the all-white robes and hoods. This is the scariest group so far, we agree, making reference to the KKK. Children keep the beat on their drums. A huge gold float navigates the narrow corner; the crowd moves back for its turn. The incense pungency wafts over us; the black widow-veiled women, carrying sceptres and crosses and gold and silver lanterns, file past (but they smile, unlike widows). The end of this procession squeezes into the alley, on towards Justicia; the crowd closes in behind it. ‘Vamos,’ I say; we smear ourselves away, into a different crowded street.

— Dean Cody Cassady

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