The Procession de la Sanch, Perpignan, France. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Perpignan and The Procession de la Sanch – How to Spend Good Friday in Southern France

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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 Procession de la Sanch, the solemn hymns were already being piped through the streets, reverberating off the walls of the old buildings of the town.

The Procession de la Sanch 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.

Perpignan and The Procession de la Sanch – How to Spend Good Friday in Southern France

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. Today, the Procession de la Sanch commemorates the ‘Passion of the Lord Christ’ and his walk to his crucifixion.

Carl, our host in Perpignan, had printed out the map of the route of the Procession de la Sanch 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 to clear the path, and a dozen photo-journalists 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 whispered warnings to each other into lapel microphones and listened intently through their earpieces, but did little else about the egg-throwers, except to look 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 wait and 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 Procession de la Sanch 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 signalled 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 route, the Procession de la Sanch 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 contrasts 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 colourful headscarfs of the Muslim women.

Outside a corner café a group of elderly North African immigrants sat together, chatting, drinking coffee and smoking, barely showing an interest in the procession as it passed by. Except for one young man, wearing a very French navy and white striped shirt, who left the group and went right up to the penitents, passionately calling them “evangelicals” to their face.

The Procession de la Sanch has centuries of tradition, having continued (on and off) every Good Friday for hundreds of years since its inception. However, while it stays the same, this modern, multicultural part of France is now a radically different place to what it was at any other time during the march’s history. Perhaps this gives its participants the strength to carry the weight as much as the Passion of the Christ itself.

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Terence Carter is an editorial food and travel photographer and infrequent travel writer with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food. After living in the Middle East for a dozen years, he settled in South-East Asia a dozen years ago with his wife, travel and food writer and sometime magazine editor Lara Dunston.

6 thoughts on “Perpignan and The Procession de la Sanch – How to Spend Good Friday in Southern France”

  1. You guys are the only other person I know who’ve been to Perpignan! Of course, last time I was there was during my 1996 backpacking trip. I loved how quiet the city was. But it looks like the city was out in full force on Holy Week!

    After Perpignan, I headed to the lovely coastal town of Collioure. I hope you’re heading that way as well!

  2. Wow. This sounds like an intense experience. It’s very similar to processions that happen in the Azores.

  3. Firstly, congrats! What the hell are you doing commenting when you have a new addition to the family? You’re crazy!
    Holy Week is full on. Great vibe in the town. We spent an extra day in Perpignan so no Collioure for us – we’re having a dinner party here in Ceret on Friday and hiking tomorrow. The markets are here on Saturday, so we’re out of time!
    Collioure does come highly recommended from a bunch of Perpignan locals – next time!

  4. How fun! This looks very similar to the processions in Antigua – though it seems as though the locals have a bit more respect for it – you would NEVER see someone walk in front of the procession rudely!

  5. Hi Shannon, there is, as I tried to hint at, a little tension between the different groups that make up the community. It wasn’t anything too serious, but you can tell it’s there. Thanks for your comment!

  6. I’ve just been to the 2012 edition of the Sanch. What surprised most was the sheer number of participants (as opposed to onlookers), 700 of them. I didn’t pick up on any of the tensions you mentioned, but perhaps I wasn’t in the right place at the right time. Certainly here in France everything seems on edge at present, with the presidential elections stirring things up.

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