Last Friday I was guilty of being bored. I was tired of studying, I was sleepy and I really just did not want to learn anymore about the book of Judith in the Old Testament. I'm all for an empowered woman, but three hours was enough time with her for one day. Luckily, it was puente (an official three-day weekend holiday) for the Festival of the Virgen de la Almudena, the female patron saint of Madrid, and two other girls and myself decided to immerse ourselves one step further into the Spanish culture and see what a religious festival in Madrid was like.
The Virgen de la Almudena (Virgin of Almudena) is the icon of the Virgin Mary and is the image of the advocation, or summoning, of the Virgin that also is the patroness of Madrid. The devotion to la Virgen de la Almudena began in the 11th century and is celebrated every ninth of November.
According to the history of Our Lady and the history of Spain under the ruling of Dom Alfonso VI it was when Alfonso reconquered Madrid in 1083 from the Moors, who conquered the city in the eighth century, that Almudena made her presence known in a rather spooky manner. King Alfonso VI wanted the Catholic cathedral, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, to be purified after being neglected and misused by the Moors. The statue of Our Lady, placed by the Apostle St. James in Santa María, had disappeared and the King, along with other religious administrators and powers, held a procession to find the statue. They walked throughout the city and around the walls praying to God for help in order to find the statue of Almudena. They sang and prayed while waving scents along the way until at one point part of the wall fell and they found the statue of la Virgen de la Almudena, which had apparently been there, hidden, for over 300 years. The even more spooky part is that next to the statue were two candles that were still burning. At this point in history the statue was named Our Lady, not Almudena. It was when Alfonso and his religious authorities found the statue that they named her Almudena, meaning market or granary, because she was hidden near the Moorish granary.
When we arrived at the metro stop Ópera the number of people walking around the area was greater than usual. The holiday was only for Madrid and with a number of banks, shops and museums being closed as well as schools and other employees being off for the holiday the streets were buzzing with traffic.
We headed to Santa María la Real de La Almudena next to Palacio Real where the mass, celebration, and procession were taking place. Along the way were vendors selling flowers, people young and old, the occasional newborn babies dressed in all white and bonnets on their heads, and whole families in tow were at the festival. I had never seen so many Madrileños in one place, except for a Real Madrid game.
When we arrived at Plaza de la Almudena the square was full. The service, traditionally held outdoors at Plaza de España, was moved inside the cathedral due to the rain, drawing even more people to the plaza. We ventured towards the end of the square farther from the busy streets to watch the offerings of the flowers and listen to the service. Though none of us in our group of three are terribly religious, we found it nice to follow the service while standing in the crowd and take in the aroma of the thousands of flowers that were continuing to fill the temporary wall that was built for the holiday. As we stood for an hour or so we watched people pray, sing, gab and really just be happy to pay respects to their female patron saint. I was in awe with how many people were coming and going, if they had to work they paid their respects to the Virgen de la Almudena and quickly left after saying a prayer, others arrived before us and left after listening to the mass over the speakers.
After watching the flowers multiply we moved closer to the cathedral to watch the procession that would begin soon. I am not sure what I expected, but seeing hundreds of people exit the cathedral in black dresses and vales, alter boys and priests in white cloaks and superbly dressed people of importance (though we couldn't tell you who they were or why they are of significance) was not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be an intimate crowd that would exit the church and that maybe they would also say a few words to the crowd outside in the rain, and even walk over to the wall of flowers and give an offering, but none of that happened. I'm not saying it is good or bad, it's just not what I expected.