Easter in Alicante

Feature on the spectacular Easter celebrations in the Costa Blanca from todays Irish Times.

IT’S ALMOST midnight, but the street lights are off in El Barrio. Thousands of people line the narrow backstreets of this part of Alicante, creating a din of excited chatter in the warm evening air. The scent of fresh flowers and burning incense hangs heavy while, in the distance, bugles sound and drums beat.

Pressed hard against an aged stone wall by the weight of the crowd, I can see only the empty street immediately in front of me. Then, from around the corner, a troop of men in cloaks, like Klansmen but with blue instead of white capriotes , or pointed hoods, emerge, followed by a parade of ostentatious floats so large they take 16 men to carry.

First there is El Cristo Gitano (the Gipsy Christ), then El Descendimiento (the Descent) and, finally, more penitents in pointed hats. The whole procession lasts an hour and a half. It’s only Holy (or Spy) Wednesday, but already Alicante’s traditional Easter festivities are well under way.

If merely passing through the arrivals hall qualifies as a visit, then Alicante is one of Ireland’s favourite destinations. Each year tens of thousands of us, sombreros, shorts and factor 15 in tow, thread through the city’s international airport. Most head straight for the apartment blocks and sandy beaches of Benidorm, but less than 20km from the terminal building lies a vibrant city teeming with culture, history and, at Easter, some serious celebrations.

Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, processions ranging from the flamboyantly colourful to the darkly solemn are a daily occurrence in the Costa Blanca’s capital, but it is Holy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday that mark the pinnacle of the Holy Week calendar.

On Wednesday La Procesión de la Santa Cruz (the Procession of the Holy Cross) begins in the working-class district of the same name that hugs the lower slopes of Mount Benacantil, the imposing mountain that dominates the city skyline and atop which sits the dramatic Castillo de Santa Bárbara.

From Santa Cruz colourful floats and banners, accompanied by sombre brass bands and hundreds of priests and cloaked penitents, move slowly through the 20,000-strong crowd sandwiched into the Barrio’s streets.

If the procession is reasonably reserved, the festivities that follow are anything but. No sooner have the floats and on-lookers dispersed, around midnight, than the Barrio’s legendary nightlife kicks into gear.

Calle Labradores, the old town’s main thoroughfare, is home to myriad bars offering €2 cocktails and trashy Euro-pop, but venture a little farther along the quaint stone streets and you’ll quickly stumble on something a little more civilised. Spanish clubs are renowned for starting late and finishing even later, and Alicante is no exception: by 4am the entire neighbourhood, bulked out by the city’s sizeable student population, is thronged, mostly with under-25s. A friendly barman assures me that the discos keep going until the sun comes up. With one eye on Thursday’s parade I hit the road long before last orders.

The next day, the city beach at Playa Postiguet is the perfect place to relax in the April sun before heading on to Piripi (Avenida Oscar Esplá 30, 00-34-965- 227940, noumanolin.com), one of Alicante’s top tapas bars, for a Maundy Thursday dinner: the arroz con sepionet con alcachofas (baby squid and artichokes) is a local delicacy.

Then it’s out on to the street again for the imposing Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence), a candlelit – and largely quiet, save the odd rap of a kettledrum – prelude to the Crucifixion. This short parade features two of Alicante’s most iconic Holy Week figures: Nicolás de Bussi’s 17th-century carving of Jesus, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte , and the 18th- century Virgen de las Angustias by Francisco Salzillo.

Given its long (and often bloody) religious history, Alicante is a fitting spot for such dramatic Easter celebrations. The Moors arrived in the eighth century and built the present-day settlement. Their influence is still woven through the city’s fabric, from the truncated street patterns of the Barrio through to the town’s name: legend has it that the Moorish king’s daughter, Cantella, threw herself into the sea when her beloved, Ali, failed to gain her father’s permission to marry. Ali did the same, and the city was renamed in honour of the two doomed lovers.

Now the city is overwhelmingly Catholic. As if to emphasise the point, the Easter Sunday procession of the Virgen de la Alegría takes place among the swaying palm trees on the majestic waterfront esplanade. Alicante’s Holy Week festivities are finally over – and I still haven’t bumped into anyone from the flight.