The horns are blowing and the morning star is glowing: Malaga is celebrating Semana Santa and the entire city lines the streets to watch the endless processions march on down town and all around to the beat of drum bands announcing the coming of a crucified Christ or a Virgin Mary. Joining the crowds someone asks me: “Has Christ come yet?”, or words to that effect, and I respond: “well they’ve been telling me for a while now he’s sure to come, but this time I think he really is just around the corner”, or words to that effect, and sure enough he arrives, gypsy party in tow and with sinful drunken singing and guitars strumming they seemingly mock the piety of the beautiful black-mantilla-ed women marching ahead of the two hundred man float. Every so often from the mass of people little kids emerge with a ball of wax in their hand, the patient result of many Semana Santa’s worth of asking the hooded marchers for a few drops from their melting candles to add to their growing wax-balls. Later on I run into another procession of pointy-hatted penitentes – or peni-tontos as some call them (that is, silly penitents) – slowly walking through the golden cathedral lights and the full moon’s bathing glow. These nazarenos – those of Nazareth – I wonder; are they really the religious extremists that they look like, or are they just faithful believers or even theologically ambivalent tradition bearers? I do not know – probably one of the latter options – but the honest reaction of any Enlightenment man or women would be a mixture of bewilderment at the phenomenon itself (what on earth does it all mean and how in hell did it all evolve?) and an unease at the faceless figures ringing their bells about and swinging their incense coals around.
But it is, of course, both aesthetically and emotionally impressive – you can’t help but be moved by the strained faces of the men carrying the gigantic pasos or tronos, or the silence of the crowd as they pass, nor the rousing horns, drums and clarinets which march down the candle lit streets full of spectators. The following words found in a local newspaper describing how it feels to be an anonymous repentant can be appreciated by the heathens and the holy alike, and even if it might be an embellished description it is a beautifully written one. It’s entitled The Surge, written by Txema Rodríguez, and tells us that to be part of that slowly moving mass of hooded figures is:
“To disappear behind a fabric, to be but one wave amongst a thousand others, a figure, a kind of human gelatine. To deny the face and identity. To be one more, just one other, a silhouette, an equal. It is to belong to a group, follow someone else’s pace until you make it your own, crawl on your knees cry and smile without witnesses, to never be remembered as nothing more than being but one part of the whole, a piece, a fragment, a drop, a grain. To be nothing, anonymous. Energy, an atom, a piece of an elemental particle. To dissolve into space, to fuse yourself with others, be part of them, of their conscience, of that wave that sways like a sea made rough from gravity. To be able to look to the sky and see heaven.”
But Malaga’s appeal doesn’t just lie in its ancient rituals but in its recent renaissance. The city is a Barcelona of the south: cosmopolitan, Mediterranean, urban, beautiful, it is full of galleries, museums, and theatres where you can see Andalusian art through all its phases, from nineteenth romanticism and a version of southern-oriented Orientalism to the home grown genius of Pablo Picasso and on into the head-popping and head-aching modern art of the Centre of Contemporary Art [CAC]. But the best art to see is in the free smorgasbord of graffiti on display in the punk noir Soho district down by the port: this street art will inspire you and could challenge you, or maybe it will confuse you but it will definitely sooth you. Past the port you will find the beaches, which are, like any urban beach, not pretty. But the hills around the city give this city a dramatic landscape, and besides, like all Spanish cities, any physical urban ugliness is ignored by its residents who take to the beautiful old central streets on mass to seize the perfect weather at the millions of restaurants and bars which pepper the barrios: because who, after all, would notice the imperfect sand with a glass of fino in hand and a tapa ready to be tasted?
Yes, Malaga has it all. And what’s more, Malaga is not yet flooded by the tourist torrent which normally does so much to damage Spanish cities with its cheap imitation-brand Spanish culture which you can stick on your fridge door. It is a beautiful mix of old and new, traditional and (post?)modern, holy and hedonistic: Malaga is, then, a paradox – a schizophrenic city which cannot be defined, held still, held back. No, because this city has its own groove, and although it is big and it is bustling, I’d happily live here for a while, I think, and burn some idle time ambling by under this sunny Mediterranean sky.