3 a.m., Seville, Southern Spain, Semana Santa–The black Spanish sky merges with the darkened vault of the Iglesia de Santa Marina. Inside the church, he waits patiently with his mother. He is 7 years old. His mother fusses with his cape– white, pressed, reflecting in the candlelight. The candle is slightly smaller than he is. The 3-foot wax cylinders touch against the neighboring capes in the sleepy confusion of the early morning hours, adding an element of risk to the austerity of reverence. His fastidious mother straightens the pleats of his robe, adjusts his braided belt and finally, as the procession begins, she assists the placement of his peaked hood upon his small shoulders. Ultimately, his eyes find the horizontal cat-like slits and he is ready. “One man’s feast is another man’s poison.” This adage takes form in comparing the pointed hats of this very Catholic ceremony to the robes of the Ku Klux Klan as they change polarity and meaning, traversing an ocean. This is the culmination of Easter week. It starts with such celebrations as Carnival Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This is the culmination of the Lenten season that begins in February and ends in the processions of Southern Spain in mid-April. Just ahead of the boy is a man: 25, stronger, dressed in a turban whose neck shield is is embroidered with the Madonna. He takes his place under the paso with the other 50 men. At the three sharp reports by the major domo on the front of the float, the hundreds of pounds of gold, silver, candle and flame are thrown into the air and vibrate to a singular moment on the backs of the men as the doors of the cathedral open and the Christ paso is framed, silhouetted by the streetlights beyond the arches. Slowly the processional moves forward into the night. The Christ, followed by the wave of candle-bearing penitents, crawls silently by. The paso of the Madonna, awash in the light of hundreds of candles from below, looks down upon the devoted thousands in the streets praying as the parade goes by. pulsing through the narrow arteries of Seville. At each corner the float must carefully negotiate and maneuver with the control of the major domo leading the blind bearers below the float. Each hundred paces the paso halts, the men rest, their necks bleeding, raw from the weight of the reverence they bear. The plumes of the centurions cast feathered shadows from candlelight on the ochre walls framing both sides of the serpentine passage. The armor of the men glistens with the labor of the year’s polishing in anticipating this night of glory. The bell and the incense activate every sense as the paso continues with the sun’s rise. The streets allow little forgiveness for the casual observer. There is no room for the uncommitted. With a 15-foot wide float turning corners on streets barely 20 feet across, the viewers must give full attention. The hierarchy of leadership of the church controls the pace and navigation of the passage through the masses. The dawn’s light adds to the shadows, to the magic light dancing. A warming sun wrestles with the light of the candles for dominance, making the mid-April day begin to cook uncomfortably. The processional stops as a formally dressed matron, mantilla framing her face, looks down on the Virgin and sings carefully, clean, precise and passionate words, the crying of a woman who understands pain and suffering. It is the emotion only another woman can feel and share the loss of a son. The floats throb onward, moving, resting, milling, shuffling slowly forward. Ten a.m., noon, 2 p.m. the candles have not noticeably diminished in height, but the hoods and capes have lost some of their crispness from the coolness of the evening. Still the procession pulsates forward. The Madonna, Christ and attendants of all ages approach the entry after 12 hours’ march, returning to the welcoming Iglesia de Santa Marina. Finally the processional is met by a lone man. He is 47 years old, formally dressed on a balcony overlooking the church entryway. The arrival is marked by a hush among the masses. The vacuum of silence is filled by the piercing beauty of a tenor voice that, a capella, celebrates the return of the column with a note that he has practiced of the 51 weeks preceding this one. The song he sings fills the thick, hushed afternoon air as the moment is suspended. The reverence of the singer is so pure and rich his notes can be tasted. Minutes pass and the motionless crowd remains breathless, the only movement is the falling tears of the devoted young and old who share this moment. The tenor is silenced, weeping uncontrollably as the paso is swallowed up once again by the darkness and coolness of the waiting church. The centurions, penetentias and Moorish bearers offer tears and embraces at the end of the week of Easter, at the end of the day, at the end of the paso. Temporal intersections of religion, music, sweat, tears, light, costume and smells pass and fade as they must. The celebrants leave this instant of reverence and return to the world of the secular, and the masses counter the heat with sangria, cool beers and their hunger with pincho de pollos and pincho de carne. The exhausted children are collected by their equally spent parents. The bars in the barrio are swollen with children grasping hoods and wearing communion-like dresses. They drape over the shoulders of parents who share a beer with the centurions. All slake their their while still dressed in costumes, playing a role, a part in the pageant. The plumes tilt back as their heads are raised to accept the libation of cool beers. There is joy, pride, sweat, love and exhaustion all mixed in a steady stream of conversation, reviewing the pageantry as if it had changed this year from the past 500. It is a line that is not only physical, but spiritual and chronological. The scene changes from day to day with the pasos changing from barrio to barrio. By weeks end the streets are fat with the smell of wax. As the cars navigate the turns, snaking through the streets, the squeal reverberates where the rubber meets the wax. The nights turn into days, the drinks turn from thirst quenching to celebratory, the reverence to joy, party to prayer, light from sun to moon to candles. The city never sleeps. This is the week of sheer joy, devotion, celebration of God, city and self. It is Southern Spain, Seville, Samana Santa.
Veracruz, a party for the senses. Multi-colored skirts lift and twirl as the dancers spin to the accompanying music that fills the night air. The evening is filled with jasmine blossoms riding on mist; droplets of water from waves warm with Caribbean rhythms.
A breeze snakes over moonlight sands. It is accompanied by fragrances from islands far away. Intertwined with the air are notes spilling like drops of water from the doorway of a nightclub. Inside drums, trumpets, guitars and piano are played by ancient musicians to accompany their equally enthusiastic audience as they dance the “Dancon” A normal weekend evening in Vera Cruz, where time has stopped.
The music is Cuban, played by six expatriate musicians in a nightclub, or traditional Mexican to accompany the “Dancon,” a mannered, stylistic, semi-samba. The dancers are unselfconscious; dancing young and old with the sheer joy and exuberance of movement. Move further along the square and there is a military brass band. It is as if you are living in a house full of teen-agers with varying musical tastes. As you walk from block to block, the music changes, nut never stops. It is a seamless carpet of changing sounds; a paisley quilt of dance.
The Veracruzanos are a people that celebrate themselves. The seaport, 260 miles from Mexico City, is a destination and escape for the crowds and pollution of the capitol and the occasional tourist, the “norteamericano.”
The Zocalo, a classic Mexican square, centers the nightlife of restaurants, cotton candy vendors, natural herbalists, bands, fortune tellers—the entire spectrum of a culture that enjoys walking on warm Fall evenings, rather than watching MTV at home. This is traditional Mexico; a city that invites to in to share rather than exploit you as a tourist.
Walk a block from the Zocalo, near the Cathedral, and have a coffee at the “Gran Café de Parroquia.” This landmark is white tile room, punctuated with white-coated waiters who place clear glass cups in front of diners. The customer will “clink” the side of their cup to signal the desire for milk and a small boy will appear and arch a stream of warm milk into the center of strong black coffee from an alarming height with unbelievable velocity and accuracy. The room is dominated by two giant chrome and copper coffee urns, topped by two gleaming metal birds.
As you walk from the café to the zocalo, you can encounter a young naval cadet, ablaze in a starched whiteness with gold braid, standing under a streetlight, talking to a young woman in an emerald green suit. The circle of light embraces the couple in Pirates of Penzance splendor. They are engaged in each other, and oblivious to the stimulation around them. The sailor and his girl are blind and deaf to the sights and sounds cacophonous around them. She takes his arm, on the side without the sword, and they begin their walk.
Veracruz is a pedestrian city. Walking isn’t a convenience, it’s a way of life. The Malecon, is the traditional oceanfront walk. These offer the two basic after dinner venues, and the evenings entertainment. For a few pesos, you can have your name etched into a grain of rice and sold as an amulet or just sit on white, lace iron benches flanked by swaying coconut palms, and contemplate the dark water on moonlit nights. This is a postcard from the 1950’s, both visually and temporally. This is not the instant gratification of the Internet; turn off your cell phones and beepers, they won’t work here—or they shouldn’t. Progress can be a pariah, and Veracruz has not be tainted.
The beaches are not as clean as they should be, the city is far from manicured, but there is a gentleness and tranquillity that shouldn’t be missed. During the warm tropical days, you can relax on the soft brown sands and swim in the inviting gentle body-temperature waters. In California we live in the land of environmental monitoring, grown accustomed to listening with half an ear to potential beach closures. The water is not exactly the azure clarity of the traditional islands of the Caribbean, nor the deep royal blue of the Pacific, and there seems to be a noticeable slick on the horizon. For more enticing, exotic beaches visit the shop Tridente, that offers trips to some of the 22 off-shore coral reefs, islands and clean beaches. Here the few tourists in Veracruz, become non-existent. The world is yours alone.
I wouldn’t visit Veracruz for the hotels or the food. It is not a city that requires you to do specific sites, nor events—but it is the being there that finds you walking slower and listening more.
Restaurants in Veracruz are nothing special; the sit down, white-tablecloth variety are nothing special, rather the best in town are in the Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. The second floor is filled with competing food stalls. Here the fish is always fresh, and best prepared as “Veracruzana”, a mixture of garlic, tomato, olive, chile and spices. The market is populated with live chickens, fresh vegetables, and endless rows of “pescas y camarones.”
The major tourist site is the fort, the Castillo de San Juan de Uluia, which guards the harbor. This was the site of the climactic scene of “Romancing the Stone.” This was perhaps the forts most notable accomplishment. As a fort, it was a singular failure. Invading forces would invariably land somewhere up or down the coast, capture the city, cut off the fort and wait. This was a well proven strategy employed by Caribbean pirates, the French and even twice by US forces.
If you grow tired of walking and absolutely have to see the sights, and perhaps prefer to explore a more exotic landscape, take a cab and drive to Coatepec, a Spanish Colonial town, high in the mountains surrounding Veracruz. Surrounding Veracruz the mountainside is full of lush greenery, dancing to the peaks of surrounding volcanoes, where waterfalls slam down into the streams feeding Veracruz. Here the air here is fat with the smell of roasting coffees. The houses are the colors of spice. The air is cooler, crisper and Veracruz seems a world away.
When visiting Veracruz, “seeing” or “doing” is not the goal; rather it is “being” in a relaxed 1950 small Mexican coastal city. If it were not for an extravagance of color and music, you might even be an extra in a Black and White silent movie. Relax and enjoy it, perhaps even dance.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Mexicana and Aeromexico have several flights daily through Mexico City, Continental flies direct from Houston.
Accommodations: Mar y Tierra 10 minutes from the zucola, at the beach-front mid priced tel 52-29/32-02-60 or the Royalty, close to the center, friendly staff tel 52-29/36-14-90
Seedy—but the best location–Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Eating: Gran Café de Parroquia, Independencia 105 (6AM-1AM)
Information: Helpful tourist office (at the square) 52-29/32-19-99 (9AM-9PM)