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Semana Santa: Easter in Barcelona

In the Turner household growing up, we primarily celebrated Easter on Easter Sunday: I received a colorful, wicker-woven basket overflowing with edible treats, the “Easter Bunny” (my mother) hid brightly colored eggs and a decent amount of candy around the back yard while my dad cooked piles of pancakes or waffles, and there followed a mad hunt for all these goodies after our brunch had digested just enough to render us fully mobile. I was aware that other families went to church and celebrated more than just food, family and finding eggs, but those traditions were never mine.

I experienced my first more religious (Orthodox) Easter celebration in Greece when I studied abroad in Athens in 2005. My program encouraged the students to participate, and I’ll never forget that evening (Greek Easter happens at night): the church square, paved in large, ancient stones and surrounded by leafy sycamore trees, was packed full of multi-generational families. Grandmas gave their grandchildren miniature, beautifully decorated sailboats decorated with ribbons, beads and pearls. People filed in and out of the church to participate in the service, and everyone mingled and celebrated until midnight (when they returned home to eat intestine soup and crack red-dyed, hardboiled eggs together until the wee hours). Small groups of students from my program hovered around the edges and were gradually absorbed into the masses. It was lively, inclusive, vibrant, and beautiful.

When I realized that Joe and I would be in Spain (a catholic country) for Easter, I thought we might be in for another treat (Orthodox Easter and Christian Easter were on the same date this year – a rare occurrence). As I quickly learned, all the important Easter festivities happen during the week prior to the actual holiday in Spain. They call it “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) and it begins on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, amid much fanfare and many processions. Catalonia is not as religious as southern Spain, but the celebrations are still pretty extensive.

On Palm Sunday, grandparents give their grandchildren elaborately woven and decorated palm fronds (sensing a theme here…) and many smaller, local churches throughout the city lead processions to the imposing, intricate Cathedral of Barcelona, one of Gaudi’s masterpieces (although less well-known than his unfinished Sagrada Familia). As the week progresses, families observe Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, and the celebrations seem to culminate not in Easter Sunday activities but rather in more parades and crowded gatherings on Good Friday. The Cathedral of Barcelona is once again at center stage, and masses of people, locals and tourists alike, pile into the expansive, rectangular square in front of and around the church to celebrate.


Finally, there are a few more parades and services on Easter Sunday, but they’re more private – Sunday is a family day here – and low-key. Joe and I spent the early afternoon soaking in the sun at the beach (along with multitudes of other, like-minded people). We set our blankets up right next to a large, multi-generational group of Scottish men who were presumably helping their bachelor enjoy his last, single weekend in Barcelona, and deciphering their sangria and beer-soaked conversations was quite entertaining. Later in the evening, as the sun was beginning to set, we walked over to the Cathedral to see if anything was still going on. We were able to walk right in, joining the softly bustling but not overly-pressed crowds inside, and soak up the towering, lofty-ceilinged grandeur while the priest’s words floated around us over the speaker system.

To finish up our Easter Sunday, I cooked a massive steak (purchased at La Boqueria earlier in the week) topped with balsamic-braised mushrooms and onions and accompanied by mashed potato and cauliflower (my husband even smashed every piece with a fork for me in the absence of a potato masher) and baked asparagus. We splurged on a fancy (more than our usual 4 euro) bottle of delicious red wine which perfectly complemented the rest of the meal. All in all, a lovely, relaxed Easter Sunday…with a little culture and history to boot.


Ex-archaeologist, business development and networking wiz, people person, aspiring author and travel writer. Loves horses, the sea, exploring, history, good food and wine, and Joe.

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