Good Friday or Vendredi Saint is marked in no small way in the town of Perpignan in Southern France with the Procession de la Sanch. This slow, somber march through the streets of the old town opens the Easter Holy Week or La Semaine Sainte celebrations. Even when we arrived a few hours before the march, the solemn hymns were already being piped through the streets, reverberating off the walls of the old buildings of the town.
The Procession was the main purpose of our visit to Perpignan. In Jerez a month earlier that we’d seen the tiny figurines of penitents in their Klu Klux Clan-like costumes in gift-shop windows, and noticed dozens of groups of local men, known as brotherhoods, rehearsing for that city’s famous Semana Santa processions.
Around midnight, night after night, dressed in track suits or t-shirts and shorts, with weightlifters’ supports wrapped around their neck and shoulders, they would heave the weighty wooden frames along the route, as if in training. We couldn’t help but be intrigued.
The brotherhood of ‘La Sanch’ (the blood) was founded in 1416 by Vincent Ferrier, originally from Valencia, Spain, to aid the condemned on their journey to their death. The robes and hoods were worn by both the executioners and the prisoners so that the identity of either party could not be determined. The march today celebrates the Passion of the Lord – or Christ – and his walk to his crucifixion.
Carl, our host in Perpignan, had printed out the map of the route of the procession for us, armed us with a more detailed map of the old town, and advised us to follow the procession when we could but to use the maps to find ways to duck in and out of lanes to get ahead of the march and not get trapped behind the crowd.
It was great local advice, but we soon discovered an even better strategy. At the front of the procession were half a dozen policemen there to clear the path, and a dozen photo-journalists there to document the march. Equipped with cameras and multiple lenses, as we were, we simply joined them, spending the next three hours, running backwards ahead of the procession.
When the march started, our first glimpse was of the distinctive cone-shaped hoods, which are intimidating to say the least, particularly that of the red-robed figure ‘le regidor’ at the front of the march who occasionally rings his bell to warn people of the procession’s approach.
As the march passed through Perpignan’s ‘gypsy neighbourhood’, a few eggs were thrown at the parade from the windows a couple of storeys above. The police began whispering warnings to each other into their microphones and listened intently through their earpieces, but did little about it, except to watch out for any further missiles.
While some of Perpignan’s residents continued to go about their daily lives, oblivious to the procession, many others gathered to watch, some even appearing bemused by the spectacle. A woman with a pram and child deliberately, and somewhat provocatively, crossed in front of the regidor, just a metre ahead of him. Another, her arms laden with shopping bags, barged between the penitents.
The march moved slowly through the town’s streets, stopping occasionally so the followers carrying the heavy life-size depictions of Jesus and Mary on wooden frames could stop to rest and swap places with other carriers. A tap of a stick on the cobbled streets was the signal to stop and after the changeover two taps signaled the resumption of the march.
The taps of the sticks formed part of the rhythm of the march, along with the beat of the drums that some penitents carried. In several places where the procession stopped, some of marchers could be heard singing the hymns softly beneath their hoods.
Near the end of the march, the procession passed through a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian inhabitants, their shops boasting Arabic signage with the occasional English or French translation, such as ‘Halal’ outside a butcher shop.
We couldn’t help but appreciate the contrast between the black pointed hoods of the penitents and the white skull caps of the North African men, and make comparisons between the black, lacy veils of the women in the procession and the headscarfs of the Muslim women.
Outside a corner café the North African immigrants sat, chatting, drinking coffee, and smoking, barely showing an interest in the procession. Except for one young man, wearing a very French navy and white striped shirt, who went right up to the penitents and accused them of being ‘evangelicals’.
The Procession de la Sanch has centuries of tradition, continuing on and off since its inception, and while it stays the same, this modern, multicultural part of France is now a radically different place to what it was at any time during the march’s history. Perhaps this gives the participants the strength to carry the weight as much as the Passion of the Christ itself.