Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish) is the week leading up to Easter. In Barcelona many of the locals leave to spend the week at nearby villages or coastal resorts, so it´s actually an ideal time to visit because there are fewer crowds. And while Catalonia isn´t as well known for its religious celebrations as other parts of Spain, it does have plenty of unique traditions. Semana Santa in Spain lasts for ten days, finishing on Domingo de la Resurrección - what the English-speaking world calls ‘Easter Sunday’.
This year it will take place from 28th of March till the 4th of April
In Barcelona the most important event of Semana Santa is the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday (Diumenge de Rams), which is the Sunday before Easter. Traditionally godmothers present their godchildren with a large palm branch. The palm carried by boys is plain but the palm carried by girls is decorated with ribbons or candy. It used to be that the palm branches were made by the godmother, but these days it´s more common for them to be bought, which is why on this day the streets are full of stands selling palm branches, especially on Las Ramblas. The palms are taken to mass and blessed by the priest, and then taken home and hung on balconies for the rest of the year to ward off evil.
There is also a procession, known as the Procesión del Domingo de Ramos, which starts at Barcelona´s cathedral, La Catedral de la Seu, directly after the morning mass.
As in other parts of Spain, Barcelona also celebrates Semana Santa with religious processions. One of the most well known in the city begins at the church of Sant Agustí. It normally takes place at 5:00pm on Good Friday in Plaça Sant Agustí, which is located in the neighborhood of Raval, and winds around the old quarters of the city before ending in the same plaza around 10:30pm. There are over 300 participants including musicians and hooded penitents. The church of Sant Jaume, on Calle Ferran in the Gothic quarter also has a procession on Good Friday. It normally leaves the church at 6:45pm.
Hospitalet de Llobregat, a suburb of Barcelona, also has some impressive Semana Santa processions. It´s said that they were started in 1977 by a group of homesick Andalusians who were watching the Semana Santa processions in Seville and missed their traditions so much that they decided to start their own processions. They became known as the brotherhood of Cofradía 15+1, because 15 was the number of the original organizers and the 1 symbolizes Hospitalet. Their processions are unique because they are not organized by the church and have no church involvement. They normally have processions on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday in Barcelona is normally spent going to church and then having a meal with the family. If you want to attend Easter mass there are many churches to choose from, but Catedral de la Seu is a good option as afterwards the sardana is danced in the plaza in front.
In Catalonia, the day after Easter Sunday is also a holiday, known as Easter Monday. On this day one of the most important culinary traditions of Semana Santa takes place, known as the mona de Pascua. Pascua in the Spanish word for Easter and mona in the Spanish word for monkey (and also means cute), although most people think the word mona actually comes from the Arabic word “munna” which refers to something you eat. La Mona is actually a cake that is given by godfathers to their godchildren, and which can be decorated with anything from feathers to eggs. The bakers and confectioners compete with each other to have the best monas, and display them in their windows to attract the attention of the children as they go by. If you want to see some of the best you can check out the bakeries on Rambla Catalunya.
There are also several towns and cities outside of Barcelona that are known for their Semana Santa traditions.
The town of Esparraguera is famous for their theatrical performance of the Passion of Christ. The citizens themselves put on the performance and normally over 700 of them are involved. This year it will take place on March 7, 14, 20, 21, and 27, and April 2, 11, 18, and 25.
The town of Verges, near Girona, is famous for La Dansa de la Mort, the Death Dance, in which two adults and three children dressed as skeletons walk along the streets followed by the sound of a drum. It will take place the Thursday before Easter.
The most widely known processions in Catalonia take place in Tarragona. Their most famous is called the Processó del Sant Enterrament (The Holy Burial Procession), which takes place on Good Friday. It dates back to 1550 and is considered by some to be the most important Semana Santa celebration in Catalonia. 5,000 people participate, many of them carrying swords and dressed as Roman soldiers. It starts in the Plaza del Rey at 4:00pm although the actual march doesn´t begin until after 7:00pm.
Visitors should keep in mind that shops will be closed on Friday and Monday as they are both bank holidays and make sure to plan accordingly. If you visit during this week the best option is to make a list of things that you want to see and do and plan the schedule in advance, to avoid arriving to a museum or planning your shopping for a day when they are closed.