From the moment summer steals it away and sends Seville crawling into winter, sevillanos anticipate the return of primavera. I’ve heard spring referred to as “Seville’s season” and it is easy to see why; flowers are blooming in bursts of lavender and fuscia, Cruzcampos are sweating in tiny street bars, and the two fiestas that sevillanos anticipate all year are just around the corner.
Though equally delighted in, these celebrations could not be any more different. Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is the week between Domingo de Ramos, or Palm Sunday, and Easter in the Christian faith. This is the week that commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and is the most important holiday for Christians across the globe. Semana Santa in Seville is truly something to behold; tourists come from every corner of the world to witness the pasos (elaborately decorated floats made for religious purposes), nazarenos (members of the local brotherhoods who march alongside the pasos as a display of penitence), and to honor the various representations of the Virgin Mary and Christ. Admittedly, Sam and I, along with many locals, took advantage of the week-long holiday and set sail for Istanbul, but we returned in time to enjoy a few of the pasos.
Seville’s Holy Week celebration is arguably the most famous in the world. Each procession is sponsored by an hermandad or cofradía (brotherhood or sorority). The processions vary in size and form; some are filled with marching bands and up to thousands of nazarenos, while others are smaller and silent. Costaleros (larger men who wear white cloths on their heads and help carry the pasos) are located beneath the paso and hoist it onto their shoulders just below the bases of their necks to carry it from their home church to the Catedral de Sevilla. Their movement is directed by the capataz, who offers words of encouragement and makes sure all costaleros are well. Nazarenos walk alongside the pasos and often carry long candles (cirios) while penitentes are typically burdened with heavy crosses. For many, walking alongside a paso is a great honor and many view it as a deeply spiritual experience. Nazarenos are of all ages and some of the most devout even journey through the streets barefoot to atone for their sins. Children gather along the streets with balls of aluminum foil on which they ask nazarenos to drip wax from their cirios as a momento of the event.
For me, Semana Santa is one of the oddest spectacles in which I have ever taken part. People crowd the streets and shove and elbow to get a good look or snap a photo of the Virgin they’ve more than likely seen dozens of times and, it cannot go without mentioning, the nazarenos (especially those in white, though they are not pictured here) drum up difficult emotions for Americans who associate hooded anonymity with the Klu Klux Klan (though it must be said that these Spanish traditions predate the KKK by hundreds of years). The nazarenos are even so popular that shops market dolls, figurines, and even candies in their likeness during Semana Santa.
For many sevillanos (at least those I know), Semana Santa is more about tradition than religious devotion and they more often take advantage of the puente (literally bridge, but also used to signify a break from work) by heading to the beach. Unfortunately, despite the representations of Christ and Mary around each and every corner, the religious and spiritual connection was almost lost on me as I had to focus on not being stepped on or shoved out of the way by an eager on-looker.
As much as Semana Santa was not my cup of tea, the second of the grand spring festivals in Seville was right up my alley. La Feria de Abril (this year occurring in May) is one of the most deeply cultural, beautiful, and exciting festivals in the world. The fair begins two weeks after the conclusion of Semana Santa and lasts from Monday at midnight when the impressive portada is lit, until the following Saturday. The first fair dates from 1847 and it has remained one of the most important cultural traditions in Seville.
From the traditional traje de gitana (flamenco dress), to the rebujito (a drink made with dry sherry and Sprite), to the caballeros on horseback and bright paper lanterns, Feria is gushing with color and life. Of course, I couldn’t resist getting all gussied up and decked out in my sevillana best. I snagged a used traje from El Mercadillo del Jueves for just 40 euro – a steal considering that most dresses are somewhere between 500 and 1,000. I was told that when it comes to complementos (accessories), the bigger and bolder, the better. I went with two large flowers, large gold and red earrings, a yellow mantoncillo (shawl), two brooches, and a peineta (comb).
Feria is composed of hundreds of casetas, or family tents, which are located in the same place every year and are almost like small temporary restaurants. Families take their casetas very seriously and spend weeks painting, decorating, and designing what will become their home for the week of Feria. Though there are many public casetas which can be accessed by anyone, it is better to try to snag an invitation to a family caseta. Most of the casetas require passes or a family escort to get past the security, so having an “in” is definitely worthwhile.
And, what would a fair be without amusement rides? While the front of the designated area in Los Remedios is lined with casetas, the back portion of the fair, known as Calle de Infierno (Hell Street) is packed with roller coasters, ferris wheels, fun houses, carnival games, doodads, and whirlamagigs. We took a spin on the ferris wheel for the incredible views of the area glowing and spinning like the inside of a kaleidoscope.
Feria is unlike anything I’ve ever seen: beautiful women young and old feeling confidant in impressive dresses while flicking hand fans with grace, gentlemen riding in on horseback clad in sharp suits and smart hats, smiles and laughter trickling through the air lightly, and everyone is infectiously happy. Sometimes Spain really just does it right.