Why I will never forget Palermo - The haunting processions on Good Friday in Palermo must be seen to be believed.
If you’re in Palermo during Easter time and you’ve never experienced Easter abroad before you are in for a treat! Good Friday in Palermo has to be one of the most intense celebrations I have witnessed.
As with any religious holiday the ever-turning cogs of cities tend to grind to a halt, shops close, transport links differ, taxi prices rise, and parties spill on to the streets. Palermo is no exception. So, with all of this in mind our experience of abroad started with a trip to the tourist information centre. Our goal was to find out a more about the Easter Good Friday Processions in Palermo I’d read about, understand the transport changes, and learn about what the people of Palermo traditionally do over this period. We left with a long list and decided to head to the Cathedral the following afternoon. I do kick myself for our lack of Italian language skills at times like this as we had no idea how the Easter programme we had been given worked and there is little information available online.
After a morning of work, we headed out of our apartment and turned the corner only to come face to face with a complete carnival of activity. Right on our doorstep! It was surreal to see so many people crowding the quiet old town street that we are staying on.
The music was blasting. We felt like were in a movie. Jesus dragged the cross through the streets flanked by armed Roman soldiers and a throng of on lookers and mourners. It felt so real that it didn’t seem implausible that the soldiers would cast lots for his clothes and I almost expected the crowd to start taunting. *Note: The powerful soundtrack is called Moving Mountains and it’s by Thomas Bergersen. Turn it up as loud as you can for the full effect.
Although we knew the story off by heart, the live re-enactment had an eerie dystopian feel to it with the parked cars, mopeds and watching police. In a sobering moment I looked at the sea of smart phones and cameras all around us and it all felt very wrong. Niall must have felt the same as he turned to me and wondered out loud “Is this what it would look like if the crucifixion took place today? Everyone just filming and taking selfies?” We shuddered and put our phones down.
The brutal and horrific scene played out and ended with a blood curdling cry from the Virgin Mary and the whole Piazza fell silent. Hundreds of people stood quietly in the crowd. Mourning. There was a buzz of emotion and devotion around us and that I just hadn’t expected.
After what felt like hours, the scene was finished, the crowd dissipated, and the piazza returned to its usual quiet atmosphere. Only the crucifixes remained as a solemn and harrowing reminder of what had just happened. Although we missed them, if you have the chance to visit Palermo over Easter you can be part of a re-enactment of the last supper in Piazza Bellini on Holy Thursday, the trial of Jesus, and a harrowing meeting with the between Jesus and Our Lady of Sorrows in Quattro Canti on Good Friday.
Clearing our heads
We needed a walk to clear our heads after the intensity of what we had watched. We wandered to the Cathedral which, in a stark contrast, was a hub of activity, bubbly and lively. The courtyard around the Cathedral is a meeting place in Palermo and always busy and energetic. Couples kissing, friends meeting up to sit on the wall with a bottle of wine and plastic cups. We heard some familiar music playing - a group of 20 or so young people were blasting Eminem on a portable speaker and just hanging out leaning up against the wall near the Cathedral front doors. No one minded. In most places we’ve visited, famous religious buildings like the beautiful Cathedral have turned into ‘tourist traps’ and you barely see locals. As such, it’s pretty impressive that the Church in Sicily has remained a central, social, meeting point in people’s everyday lives; especially in an age where, in the UK at least, I regularly see headlines which tell us that Christianity is in decline or in crisis.
The Cathedral itself is an astounding piece of architecture. Inside the grand hall is lined with pews and extravagantly decorated with gold, art and giant candles under its huge vaulted ceiling and dome. The roof of the Cathedral is actually accessible to the public allowing beautiful panoramic views of Palermo. But this time the mood in the Cathedral was even more sombre but at the same time a hive of silent activity. With a sense of awe we left the grandeur of the Cathedral knowing that we had a experienced it in a way many tourists and visitors would never see it.
We had no idea there was more to come. Back at home and about to crack open a bottle of wine we heard more music, live this time and very close. We headed into the street to see what was happening. In the street was the saddest carnival I’ve ever seen.
It was like being part of the most intense funeral procession. An earlier google search had told us that Palermo doesn’t have the biggest or most famous Good Friday events in Sicily; but for us, this was on another level. The music was monotonous, and haltingly painful, yet resigned, surely played to keep marchers in time and in line. Groups of around 30 or so men, young and old, were heaving and leaning against one another to bear the weight of the huge edifices which they shouldered through the narrow streets for hours, as if completing their own personal passions.
There were over 30 Good Friday Processions in Palermo. We experienced just one. The emotion of the whole event was truly moving and whether you have faith or not it was hard not to be moved.
At the time of writing this it was almost 3am and I could still hear the band echoing through the narrow alleys by our apartment. I hope you all had a wonderful Easter. We would love to hear any experiences you have had of Good Friday in Palermo, Easter abroad, or of a religious holiday in another culture, please do let us know!
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