La Fiesta de Maria Santisima de la Aurora is a religious festival that takes place every so often in the Albayzin neighbourhood of Granada, Spain. This year, it celebrated its 75th anniversary with a spectacular and cinematic street procession which lasted well into the night. I was there completely by accident.
It was our last night in Granada. My boyfriend and I were sun-baked, bruised and scraped from a week of roaming the hills and forests like a pair of carefree, vagrant children. When he said, “let’s go somewhere new” he was talking about a place to eat. But to me it sounded like a call to adventure. I was desperate to get out of my own head and forget we were flying back home the next day. London felt like a memory from a past life. I darted ahead over a little hill, which landed us directly in the middle of the most formidable religious procession I’ve ever seen.
La Fiesta de Maria Santisima de la Aurora snaked up and down the length of the street and out of view. It seemed to contain the entire neighbourhood’s population. Everybody was here. In the stream of people, town officials and police mixed with elderly grandmothers and coquettish teenagers in high heels. A glamorous woman in her forties spotted my camera and started fixing her veil. The brass band from the local high-school nervously arranged their sheet music.
The night was heavy with anticipation. The noise of the crowd had mostly died down and somewhere a baby started to fuss. Church officials and police checked their watches, tugged at their collars. The moment was closing in on them and it made them feel claustrophobic.
And just when nobody could stand the tension anymore, she appeared at the top of the hill and the trumpets burst into song all at once. It felt like it does when someone switches on the lights and you wake up, suddenly and violently overstimulated. The Madonna was a glorious and frightening sight.
Her gigantic palanquin bobbed at window-level as 20 men carried it down the street, stopping every few minutes to rest and switch places. The Madonna bore down on her procession wrapped in layers of embroidered fabric. Someone had painted her face to look permanently irritated or distraught. Coupled with the burning candles and candelabra surrounding her on all sides, this gave the procession a nightmare quality as it lurched past worshippers and gawking tourists. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt such intense awe.
But looking around me, I noticed this was not the norm. Though it was an important night for the community, in many other ways it was completely ordinary. Elderly couples were out on an evening walk. Families met to coo over a stroller or have philosophical debates. Teenagers looked around with a pinched expression, as if the real party were someplace else and they’d drawn the short straw by being here instead. Everywhere around this solemn religious display, normal, everyday life happened and was just as captivating.