Semana Santa: Parties and Penance

I remember a holiday once to Seville with my family when I was younger, which must have been in about late March time. During our wanderings around that gorgeous city, we came across a patisserie with a window full of cakes and biscuits; all covered in different coloured icing, but all in the shape of the same thing – robed figures with tall pointed hoods. Completely ignorant as to what this could mean, we joked all day about what on Earth they could be. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I saw these same biscuits in the Pastelería section of my local supermarket and took some home to my host mother, that I finally found out what they were. She found my incredulity when I showed them to her rather amusing – not a surprise considering how ubiquitous and normal they are here – and proceeded to tell me all about the strange delights of Semana Santa.

Nazareno biscuitsnazareno 2The family explained to me that these sweet things depict Nazarenos, members of religious groups (usually clubs for socialising and charity based around a local church) who parade through the streets in the Holy Week preceding Easter, atoning for their sins. The pointed hat – called a Capirote – is thought to come from medieval clowns, who would wear them to appear stupid or amusing; hence they became a sign of humility and self-deprecation. The Capirote also covers the face, with small slits for eyes, so in previous times those genuinely doing penance could hide their identity. Googling these figures didn’t turn up much information, but gave the impression of a solemn ceremony performed only by devout Catholic men; I also couldn’t help but associate the identity-hiding masks, with their tiny eyeholes, with something sinister.

semana santa 1a

But when I finally got to see them, on Monday of this year’s Semana Santa in the city of Málaga, their velvet and satinet robes glowing in the late sunshine, I was pleasantly surprised by what I encountered. Far from something exclusive and serious, the atmosphere was celebratory and joyous; the streets were full of Spanish families and tourists alike, watching the processions and listening to the marching bands.  Through the slits in their masks I saw teenagers’ glasses awkwardly placed beneath, and the occasional flash of bright blue eyeliner – my host father told me that actually women had taken part in the processions secretly for centuries, but now anyone could join the religious groups. Toddlers were dressed in their own adorable miniature versions of the traditional Nazareno dress, hanging onto the older ones’ hands, and hoards of women wax 2with endless amounts of black lace falling from the combs in their hair – the traditional mantilla and peinata – stalked along the roads, carrying silver-headed staffs engraved with the city’s symbol. Children weaved through the lines of the procession, playing a game in which they collected molten wax on balls of silver foil, dripped from an obliging Nazareno’s candle. Tiny stalls battling for space amongst all the people sold Limones Cascarúos – which are a type of lemon grown here, sweeter and larger than normal ones, eaten whole and sprinkled with salt – and mysterious pale green sticks (my host father mimed chewing on them over the noise of the crowd so I assume they’re edible, whatever they are).

A float passing Malaga cathedral

A trono passing by Málaga cathedral

The main focus of the processions is the ‘tronos’ (called ‘pasos’ outside the area around Málaga), which are floats that carry statues of religious figures and scenes from the Easter story. The first of these I saw was on Sunday in my town San Pedro de Alcántara. Above the heads of the crowd I could see the painted figure of Jesus on a donkey, surrounded by palm leaves and bright flowers. Being so used to floats at British carnivals supported by cars or vans, I didn’t really notice the box on which the display stood. It drew closer and stopped in front of me; a man then stepped up to the float, and clanged twice with a large knocker on its front. A hand appeared in the carved wooden grating, and then retreated swiftly as a great lurch upwards revealed a line of black-slippered feet beneath the trono. On seeing my face aghast and bewildered, the host family explained that all floats in Semana Santa are carried through the streets by teams of men. Here they were enclosed underneath, with the weight resting around their neck and the top of their backs, after the style of the processions in Cádiz.

A float or tronoA float with jesus on the cross

The floats I saw the next day in Málaga, however, were carried by means of long poles which lines of men lifted with one shoulder. Compared to the simple painted wooden statue and array of plants used for San Pedro’s Palm Sunday procession, they were also much more ornately decorated; festooned with gold and silver reliefs on their sides, and with plush embroidered hangings sheltering over the various Virgin Marys as they were paraded through the crowds. The statues themselves were beautifully realised – their delicate-featured faces somehow always managed to stand out against the rich adornment around them. They wore wistful, pained expressions, as if weighed down by the long velvet cloaks that stretched out behind them, glittering in the light from the sea of candles placed all around. I also particularly loved the way the tronos moved – the almost-perfect synchronisation of the men’s steps as they carried them through the city made them sway gently from side to side, flickering the candle flames and (on someone in utter awe of her first experience of Semana Santa) having an almost hypnotic effect.

A beautiful statue on display in a shrine for Semana Santa

A shrine on display for Semana Santa in Málaga

San Pedro (not to be outdone of course) offered her own vision of loveliness in the form of a night-time procession later in the week. This was a more sombre affair, as there was no musical accompaniment, and the throng of Sampedrileños waited in silence for the trono to appear from the church steps. In the darkness the candlelight made the Virgin Mary’s painted face glow, and the silver carvings sparkle dimly – a beautiful sight.

semana santa 2trono 3

As a non-Catholic I was surprised by how affecting I found the whole experience of the Holy Week – the dedication of the people involved and the sheer craftsmanship on display, as well as the community spirit, were wonderful to see. And it seems that many Spaniards feel the same. Talking to my family, I learned that among much of their generation, in which Catholic fervour is dwindling, these events are more about preserving tradition and culture than religious feeling. This week is one of celebration and family gatherings, hailing the start of the beautiful summer weather – and as great an excuse as any to meet with loved ones, and to eat, drink and be merry.

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Marbella: First Impressions

In between refereeing grudge matches between two under-ten-year-olds, and wiping off whatever new sticky substance they have on their faces today (…?), I’ve also found time to go on a couple of day trips to Marbella. Before I came to this part of the world I’d only ever heard of the city in that evocative phrase ‘no carbs before marbs’, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Memories of a holiday in another party town, Kavos – which principally involved wearing an ad hoc sound-muffling device made of earplugs, two towels and a bra (in order to block out the pumping music played all night every night), and escaping to the other side of the island as much as possible – didn’t exactly help to whet my appetite. Nevertheless, I thought I’d give it a go.

Marbella city district's symbol and official seal

The city may have a rowdy reputation, but the reality is quite different; the endless signs for golf courses and strip clubs on the road into Marbella may be off-putting, but they belie the cultural heart of the place. Just a few steps from the beach and seafront bars is the glorious Casco Antiguo, a little island of atmospheric historical loveliness amidst all the industrialisation and tower-block hotels. Unlike bigger and more famous places, however, Marbella’s centre doesn’t have the stale air of a museum masquerading as a city – it is more a living patchwork of different eras and cultures, weaved in with the modern life of the Marballeros.

Street in the Casco Antiguo of MarbellaWall niche of Virgin Mary in Casco Antiguo

The old town is centred around the Plaza de los Naranjos – a picturesque little square of trees, restaurants, and fountains – from which narrow streets meander their way out to the medieval walls at its edge, filled with a mixture of bars, churches, and shops selling everything from ice cream to antique typewriters. Wall niches with statuettes of religious figures and crosses strung with rosaries can be found in all sorts of tucked away places, complete with miniature chandeliers and fresh flowers wound through their grating. Every time I’ve visited there’s been music in the streets – one crossroads hosted its own mini rock concert, while a group of friends at a bar in the Plaza burst into impromptu song when I was milling about nearby, accompanied by a guitar, and what I’m sure was a drinks tray as percussion. In the run up to Semana Santa I even saw some scruffy-looking workmen in dusty overalls polishing the most incredibly ornate chest-height pieces of silver in front of a church – an example of the sort of happy contradiction you see here, and the way life is lived in the streets rather than indoors.

Surrealist tiles on a bench in the Alameda

Some rather odd tiles, including what I assume is a surrealist boob with a book tattoo…

Cross the main road and you come to the Alameda, a leafy park where you can sit and people-watch on one of the many unusually-tiled benches. The street from here down to the beach is lined with replicas of Dalí sculptures (which I find endlessly amusing), and opens onto the Paseo Marítimo. There are some great restaurants around here; The Beach Club Restaurant and Grill sits right on the beach and serves gorgeous calamari and cheap beer. For authentic Spanish service there’s The Madrileña, where the waiters have that efficient little head movement that makes them seem like birds, and they do great ‘boquerones fritos’.

Beer in the sunshine on the beach

‘No carbs’ eat your heart out

But what about that infamous nightlife? Well, it’s pretty great. Forget huge personality-drained clubs, the Puerto Deportivo (a few minutes’ walk from the centre) is full of unique bars packed with character. On Saturday nights they might be so packed with people as well that you can’t see the walls… but the local clientele more than make up for it. One particular place, Locos (which is just as crazy as the name suggests), is just wonderful. When I mentioned I’d been there to the mother of my host family, it sparked a half-hour of wistful reminiscence on the part of her and her sister about their youth (mis)spent there. With live music at the weekends and a distinctly colourful array of punters (I myself got some beer-fuelled Salsa lessons from a Brazilian tourist), this place is a lot of fun, and great for practising your Spanish with the locals.

To sum this city up as a holiday destination, I’ve got to mention another great Marbellan bar – La Librería, i.e. The Bookshop – where I’ve spent several nights drinking Tinto de Verano (red wine with lemonade, which is nicer than it sounds) within walls covered floor-to-ceiling in books. Essentially, you can have a lot of fun surrounded by a lot of culture – making Marbella the perfect spot for those who love having the best of both worlds.

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How to Survive Being an Au-Pair

View from the kid's park in San Pedro de Alcantara

For the last month I have been living in San Pedro de Alcántara (a small town on the edge of Marbella), and working with a family here as an au-pair. The idea of being an au-pair had appealed to me for some time before I started, so when I finally got a tempting offer from a family, I said yes with no hesitation. I was so relieved to have found somewhere I liked I didn’t even consider what it was to be an au-pair, and how I might prepare myself for the role. I didn’t so much as google ‘tips for au-pairs’. This, dear readers, was a mistake.

Hence the last four weeks have been something of a baptism of fire for me, struggling through and learning as I go. So I’ve compiled a list of a few things I think every au-pair should think about before they take the (snotty, tantrummy, exhausting) plunge…



The first thing to do before you go is to get as much information as possible about your chosen family and their daily lives. Establish set working hours and weekly pocket money; don’t be shy about asking questions and setting boundaries, as it’ll be very much worth your while in the end. If you’re going to be attempting to teach a language find out exactly how much the children already speak, and how quickly they pick things up. These things are the basics really, which any good au-pairing website will advise you to do (incidentally I used, which I would heartily recommend), but still need time and thought. For tips on how to pick the right family for you, take a look at this, and for advice on what to pack have a gander around here.



For the first couple of weeks of my stay here I worried constantly about whether I was doing the right thing. Was I teaching enough English? Was I dealing with difficult moments in the right way? Were the kids learning? Did the family like me? The truth is that au-pairing is not an exact art and involves different things in different situations. The key is to not worry; you have been invited to spend a while with a family, sharing your culture and enjoying theirs. You are not expected to be a professional nanny or teacher, and above all do not need to give yourself stress over what is meant to be an enriching experience for all. If anything is bothering you, you can always bring it up with your host family, and don’t worry about taking your time in figuring things out. If you’re worried about the first meeting with your family visit here for a few ideas on how to get through the first day.



It may feel rough having to get strict with kids in those necessary moments, but the great thing with children is that though they may be moody and difficult, or fighting and crying one moment, a few minutes later they’ll be smiling and laughing – seemingly completely unaware of their previous promises that they hate you and never want to be happy again. They will also forget the hundred times their demands are refused, but as soon as you give in will remember it forever, and from then on increase their pestering tenfold… so stand your ground and don’t be phased by tears and grizzling.



This sounds like an odd one, but once you’ve spent a lot of time with your host family’s children and grow fond of them, it’s very easy to start feeling responsible for every aspect of their lives. After a while I found myself worrying about whether the children were doing well enough at school, if they were learning to be good people, and what I could to do to improve things. And this is definitely a mindfield au-pairs shouldn’t have to traverse. It may be difficult at times, but you have to bear in mind that after the months you spend with these children, you will leave and carry on with your life. Their parents will have their own prerogatives in their way of bringing up their kids; take a step back and remind yourself that you are not responsible for who they will be in the future.



Mas vale beber vino que aceite de ricino, a great tip for au-pairs in Spain and everywhere

“Better to drink wine than castor oil”: a handy little Spanish phrase to remember to enjoy life rather than fret.

If you’re happy and having a good time, the family will probably be happy too. Try and meet other au-pairs in the area (Facebook groups are a good bet for this), and make sure your free time isn’t eaten up with organising stuff for the kids, or trying to make a good impression with doing housework that isn’t your responsibility. Go out and explore, and benefit from the unique position of living for an extended time in a community different from your own. Also remember kids can tell if you’re not enjoying something; being an au-pair is a brilliant opportunity to be a big kid and do all the things you did when you were younger and secretly still love – building lego, playing with toy cars, finger painting, running around and screaming for no reason, etc. The more genuinely enthusiastic you are about something, the more the kids’ll be into it too, and happy, absorbed children are actually a joy to be around (and don’t have tantrums…).


All this may seem a bit intense and daunting, but really I cannot express how much I have gained from being an au-pair. Though some moments are definitely difficult and testing in a way I’ve not experienced before, living with a native family is such a rewarding way to immerse yourself in a different culture. And it can be a lot of fun. So if you’re thinking about doing it but are hesitating on the threshold, just jump in and give it a go – you won’t regret it!

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