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How I Accidentally Found the Coolest Cultural Experience of My Semester Abroad

by Greta Banks
How I Accidentally Found the Coolest Cultural Experience of My Semester Abroad | AIFS Study Abroad

In Spain, our equivalent to Spring Break is a week off before Easter Sunday, known as Semana Santa, or Holy Week. I decided to spend my entire 11-day break traveling through Italy: Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, and numerous cities throughout the Amalfi Coast. Every moment was amazing, but one stood out from the rest.

If you didn’t already know, Easter is a big deal in Italy. In some cities, celebrations go on for the full week leading up to Easter. I knew coming to Italy that Easter was a big event, but I didn’t really have any idea as to what exactly went on during these celebrations. I knew that the Pope spoke and led services at various times around Rome and the Vatican, and that many Italians were Catholic and would go to huge Easter services Sunday, but that was about all I knew.

The Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, I was in Venice. While walking to the train station Sunday, I passed hundreds of locals carrying palms, and a few church services in the streets. It was really cool to see. I thought this was what people were talking about when they said that Easter was big in Italy, that lots of people go to church.

The following Thursday, I took a bus from Rome to Sorrento with a student tour group for my long weekend in the Amalfi Coast. We got into Sorrento around 11:30 at night. Sorrento is a fairly small town, so I wasn’t expecting much activity when we got in. However, when we started to get into town, we ran into a lot of traffic. Our guide told us they had been having “processions” all week, and that there was probably one that night. I didn’t really think much of it; we got through the traffic pretty quickly, and all I could see was a crowd at the church. I just figured that they were having evening church processions.

That next night I went into town to have dinner. When I got off the train, I realized the streets were lined with hundreds of people. I didn’t understand what they were waiting for at first. Then, as the police directed us off the streets, I heard the beginning of the procession. Music suddenly filled the streets, silencing the crowd as a huge band began to proceed down the street. As the band passed, I stopped in anticipation; everyone around me seemed to be waiting for something else.
How I Accidentally Found the Coolest Cultural Experience of My Semester Abroad | AIFS Study Abroad

Hundreds of people, wearing long, black, hooded robes were following the band in rows. Every few rows, there would be candles. It was shocking at first; I wasn’t prepared to see anything of this size in such a small town. I joined the sea of people lining the sidewalk and watched as the robed figures kept coming. I realized, as the symbols and figures came through, that they were portraying Good Friday.

I was mesmerized by the size of the procession and by how mystical it seemed. Sometimes they would stop and chant or sing in Italian. Other times the air would get heavy with the thick smell of oils burning in the candles. I stood there, completely captivated by the sight, for at least an hour. It was without a doubt, the most enchanting thing I have ever seen.

When I went into town that night, I never expected to see anything like the Good Friday procession in Sorrento, but I am so glad I did. While I have been able to witness many different cultures while abroad, I have never seen such a grand display such as the processions. Walking into that so unexpectedly has become a defining moment in my semester abroad.

This post was contributed by Margaret (Greta) Banks, who is studying abroad with AIFS in Barcelona, Spain.

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