Seville – Semana Santa

If you’re looking for an exotic Easter weekend, the streets of Seville – and the annual celebrations there – are hard to beat, writes James Chegwidden

Semana Santa, Seville credit: vanbeets

“Now, the first thing you need to know,” says my guide, Roberto, keen to reassure, “is that all this has nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan.” The clarification was welcome: we are, after all, looking at a cluster of men (and, I later discover, women) dressed identically from head to foot in a manner which could indeed spook the unaware: pointed cone-hats entirely covering the head and face, gloves, white tunics with a cross embroidered onto the chest, rope belts around their waist – and all walking in silence to the centre of town where a major procession is due to start.

The group, however, is not part of any suspect movement from the American South. Rather, these are nazarenos, the chief protagonists of every one of the 52 annual Holy Week processions in Seville. Their attire originated in medieval Spanish Catholicism, the intended effect being to cover the individual’s face so that only God could know their identity as they process – mainly by night and in many cases barefoot – through the streets of Seville in a hours-long, penitential procession watched by thousands.

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Holy week in Seville credit: kiko_jimenez

Semana Santa is “Holy Week” in Spanish, and as the name suggests, is a week-long event centred around the last events in the life of Jesus leading up to Easter Sunday. Though Easter itself is familiar to most already, in Andalusia, and particularly Seville, the celebration has taken on a life of its own, with customs, cuisine and street festivities in which everyone - whether believer, unbeliever or somewhere in between – is included.

Hitting the streets of Seville’s centre, I find I am competing with thousands of both locals and tourists eager to watch various processions meandering their way solemnly through the city to Seville’s gargantuan cathedral and back again. Each procession consists, first and foremost, of many hundreds of the identically dressed, cone-hatted nazarenos, each from their own particular confraternity, who form the procession’s core. Within the procession, the centre of attention is undoubtedly the paso – namely, a large, heavy, ornamented float carried on the shoulders of thirty or so specially selected local men. One paso always displays a life-sized scene from the passion of Christ, and the other a statue of the Virgin Mary, clothed in a rich cloth mantle, displayed underneath a canopy and surrounded by hundreds of candles. Add billows of incense, a brass band, lots of lace, candles, and flower petals thrown from nearby balconies, and you have got a medieval spectacle in the making. It is exotic, it is noisy, it is emotional (some participants will shed tears watching) – and it is undeniably spectacular.

The first processions start at about midday each day of Holy Week, and the last end well after midnight (we’re talking four in the morning. – Spain is no place for an early bedtime).

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I watch one procession – in this case that of San Esteban – which took about 45 minutes to move past me on the street. I soon discover that, entrancing though it is, the procession itself is only half the fun – the crowd itself is a big part of the experience. At various points during the processions I watched, someone amongst the crowd would launch unannounced into a saèta – a gypsy song of mourning directed towards either the Virgin or the dying Jesus. The haunting tune certainly hushed the otherwise noisy, and not, it seemed, particularly religious crowd – for a few minutes at least (Spanish crowds are not famous for being quiet). The large numbers of onlookers and the confined space rendered socialising with the Sevillanos standing next to me not only easy, but practically unavoidable. Which was handy since, in the sea of people flooding Seville’s old and often narrow streets and the consequent roadblocks, often only a local was able to tell me where to go next, how to get there and when.

After the exertion of watching a procession, it was time for a sugar-hit. Fortunately Seville abounds with special treats available only in Lent - my favourite was las torrijas, a local Lenten delicacy made of fried bread which is then soaked in a sweet local honey and white wine. It’s available everywhere in Seville at this time – it’s inexpensive and it’s the distinctive taste of Semana Santa. Alternatively, if you’ve been up late at a night-time procession, as I was, I found it hard to beat churros con chocolate, a fried donut-like pastry, covered in sugar and dipped into cups of melted chocolate. It didn’t help my diet, but at 3am when energy was needed and the air was cooler, it was just what I, and the many Sevillanos queuing with me, needed.

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Plaza de Espana, Seville credit: Freeartist

When not participating in a specific Holy Week event, there was plenty of the city itself to keep me busy – the Real Alkazar, a royal palace built in the Moorish style, or the Fabrica de los Cigarillos, once a store-house for all the tobacco brought to Spain from the Americas and (tobacco being then more valuable than gold) guarded at gunpoint. La Fabrica is still so famous within the city that it sponsors one of the confraternities and boasts its very own procession. The armed guards are there no longer. But Seville’s historic past lives on in the costumes and ceremonies of its principal festival.

Semana Santa takes place from March 24 to April 1 2018. Easyjet, Ryanair and Vueling all fly direct to Seville from UK airports.

www.visitasevilla.es

Spain - four unmissable festivals

Las Fallas – Held in Valencia in mid-March each year, las Fallas sees many larger-than-life street installations built largely of wood in the streets and squares of the town, often to historical themes or for comic effect, all dramatically burned on the last night of the festival. Expect loud fireworks displays and an enormous floral Virgin Mary to boot. www.visitvalencia.com/en

Feria de Abril – again in Seville, the “April Fair” is held two weeks after Semana Santa. What was originally an agricultural show is now a week-long explosion of Andalucian culture – dancing horses, flamenco dresses, sherry, parades, tapas – and very late nights. www.andalucia.com/festival/seville-feria.htm

Santiago de Compostela – The final destination of Europe’s most popular walking pilgrimage, the northern city of Compostela celebrates the feast day of its patron, St James the Apostle, each July 25, with thousands of young pilgrims and partying aplenty. www.santiago-compostela.net

La Tomatina – Held in Buñol in the province of Valencia in the last week of August, la Tomatina is quite literally the biggest food fight in Europe. The town centre is provided with limitless tomatoes that are then thrown in the course of one single afternoon by townsfolk and other visitors until all ends in a happy, tomato-flavoured pulp. www.tomatina.es/en

See here for La Tomatina tours on tournado.com

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Seville Old Town credit: tupungato