IN SPAIN, they really know how to celebrate Easter. Over here we commemorate the most significant festival in the liturgical year by going to Mass a couple of times, staying out of the pubs on Good Friday and eating copious amounts of chocolate.
Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is among the most popular festivals in the Spanish calendar, with flamboyant, week-long celebrations taking place in towns and cities up and down the country. And it is in the narrow, winding backstreets of Alicante that I discover some of the most spectacular Easter week tronos (floats carrying lifelike wooden sculptures of biblical scenes and characters) to be found anywhere in Spain.
Alicante is a popular destinations for Irish holidaymakers — but most head straight for the sandy beaches of Bendiorm and other resort towns on the Costa del Sol, bypassing this pleasingly compact city of 300,000 nestled on a sheltered bend in the Costa Blanca, the Mediterranean lapping gently against its spacious harbour. It’s their loss, though, as Alicante has plenty to offer the discerning visitor.
The Easter festivities begin on Palm Sunday, with the first in a series of processions, which range from vibrantly colourful pageants to solemn, intense affairs. A common feature of Alicante’s Easter parades are nazareno, penitential robes that consist of a tunic and a hood with a capirote, or conical tip. The robes date from the medieval ages, when they were used to demonstrate a penitent’s piety while still masking their identity, and have been a part of Easter celebrations ever since.
If Palm Sunday is the prelude, then Easter Wednesday and Thursday are the main events in Alicante’s Semana Santa. On the first day, La Procesión de la Santa Cruz (the Procession of the Holy Cross) takes place in the working-class district of the same name, located on the slope of the imposing Mount Benacantil. From Santa Cruz, floats beating El Cristo Gitano (the Gipsy Christ) and El Descendimiento (the Descent) wind through the old town towards the centre. These tronos are incredibly heavy, and take up to 16 men, known as costaleros, to carry — and no little skill to negotiate the narrow, winding cobbled street of El Barrio, as the old town is also known.
On the night of Maundy Thursday, the prelude to the Crucifixion, the main event is the imposing Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence). Here two main figures — Nicolás de Bussi’s dramatic 17th century carving of Christ, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte and a statue of La Virgen de las Angustias by Francisco Salzillo — are accompanied by flickering candlelight, and the occasional blast of bugles and kettledrums, as they make their way through the 20,000 hardy souls crammed into the old town. Once the processions end, around midnight, the party starts in the numerous bars and clubs dotted around the Barrio.
Spanish clubs are renowned for starting late and finishing later and Alicante is no exception: while the beer flows in the city’s myriad Irish and English bars from early evening on, Calle Labradores — the Barrio’s main thoroughfare — stirs into life much later, mostly with under 25s. Housed in the old town’s narrow traditional stone buildings, discos keep going until the sun comes up.
There are plenty of daytime activities to wile away the daylight hours before the Easter processions kick off. The beautiful city beach at Playa Postiguet is within easy walking distance of most of the best hotels. Such accessibility is one of the main reasons why the city, the second largest in the Valencia region, is so popular among Spanish tourists.
Walking along its bright, commodious boulevards and pristine harbour, brimming with yachts, it’s hard to imagine Alicante as anything other than a rich Spaniard’s paradise. But the view on the road in from the airport — all cranes, cement mixers and ugly high-rises — hints at the city’s past problems.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, as both industry and tourism waned, Alicante fell into disrepair. But in the last decade it has emerged from the doldrums — as a stroll down swanky Rambla Méndez Núñez and past the upmarket boutiques of the Calle Teatro shopping district testifies.
As any tour guide will explain, such recent fluctuations in fortunes are in keeping with the city’s long (and often bloody) history: Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Goths all claimed control of Alicante before it fell to the Moors at the beginning of the 8th century.
The Arabs built present day Alicante and you can still feel the Moorish influence woven through the city’s fabric, from the truncated street patterns of El Barrio through to the dramatic Castillo de Santa Barbara, the fortress 166m above sea level on Mount Benacantil.
The Castillo still dominates Alicante’s skyline, although the lumpen, multi-storey 1960s’ hotels in the centre of town give it a run for its money. From the top the view is simply breathtaking: on a clear day you can see all the way from Playa de San Juan’s golden strands to the beautiful, clear blue water encircling the fishing isle of Tabarca, 15km south. My descent from the castle takes me through Ereta Park before arriving eventually at the old white-washed homes that mark the beginning of the Barrio.
In the centre of the old town lies the baroque church of Iglesia Santa Maria. It is here that Good Friday’s morning procession finishes, with an array of figures depicting Christ’s Passion making their way along the beautiful Explanada.
Finally, on Easter Sunday, Semana Santa comes to a close with one last procession — of the image of Christ resurrected — through the city streets. Thousands watch the end of Alicante’s celebrations on the boardwalk.
Easter is almost over and there’s not a chocolate egg or bunny in sight.
Getting to Alicante isn’t expensive. Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) flies to Alicante from Belfast, Cork and Dublin. Ryanair flies from Cork, Derry, Dublin, Kerry and Knock. Flights start at €39.99 one way.
Alicante also boasts a very healthy selection of quality hotels at reasonable prices.
The four-star AC Alicante (Avenida de Elche 3, 00-34-965-120178, www.ac-hotels.com) is close to the harbour and boasts a roof-top pool, sauna room and free minibars in each room. Double rooms start at €65.
Right in the heart of town, Hospes Amerigo (Rafael Altamira 7, 00-34-965-146570 www.hospes.com) is a popular boutique hotel that houses a renowned tapas bar, too.
Elsewhere La City Hotel (Avenida de Salamanca 16, 00-34-965-131973, www.lacityhotel.com) is close to the shopping district. Double rooms begin at €60.
More of a shopper than a sun worshipper? Then Maisonnave Avenue is the place for you. Dubbed Alicante’s ‘Golden Mile’, this city centre boulevard boasts top Spanish and international high-street emporiums and department stores.
Check out the Castillo de Santa Barbara. First used as a fortress during Moorish times, today’s castle dates back to the 16th century. Take the cable car up from Jovellanas Avenue and climb the old citadel to get the best of the spectacular view.
When it comes to food there really is only one name in town: Nou Manolin (Calle Villegas 3, 00-34-965-200368, www.noumanolin.com). This palatial restaurant fancies itself as Alicante’s número uno, and with good reason.