Sevilla boasts two of the largest festival celebrations in Spain. The first, Semana Santa (Holy Week), always spectacular in Andalucía, is here at its peak with extraordinary processions of masked penitents and carnival-style floats. The second, the Fería de Abril , is unique to the city: a one-time market festival, long converted to a week-long party of drink, food and flamenco. The fería follows close on the heels of Semana Santa . If you have the energy and time, experience both.
Semana Santa may be a religious festival, but for most of the week solemnity isn't the keynote - there's lots of carousing and frivolity, and bars are full day and night. In essence, it involves the marching in procession of fifty-odd brotherhoods (many now including women) of the church ( cofradías
) and penitents, followed by pasos
, elaborate platforms or floats on which sit seventeenth-century images of the Virgin or Christ in tableaux from the Passion. For weeks beforehand the cofradías
painstakingly adorn the hundred or so pasos
, spending vast amounts on costumes and precious stones. The bearers ( costaleros
) walk in time to stirring, traditional dirges and drumbeats from the bands, which are often punctuated by impromptu and moving street-corner saetas
from the citizenry - short, fervent, flamenco hymns about the Passion and the Virgin's sorrows.
The last lap of the official route for every paso goes from La Campana south along c/Sierpes, through the cathedral, and around the Giralda and the Bishop's Palace. Throughout the week pasos leave churches all over town from early afternoon onward, snaking through the city and back to their resting place many hours later. Good Friday morning is the climax, when the pasos leave the churches at midnight and move through the town for much of the night, watched by large crowds. The highlight is the arrival at the cathedral of the paso bearing La Macarena , an image of the patroness of bullfighters, and, by extension, of Sevilla itself.
The pattern of events changes every day; banks, hotels and businesses produce free skeleton timetables , and route maps are also issued with local papers, which are essential if you want to know which events are where - the ultra-Catholic ABC paper has the best listings with piles of background and historical info on each brotherhood. On Maundy Thursday women dress in black and it's considered respectful for tourists not to dress in shorts or T-shirts. Triana is a good location on this day, and there's always a crush of spectators outside the cathedral and on c/Sierpes, the most awe-inspiring venue. Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes under the Giralda is a good viewing point but even here it gets chaotic. The best way of all to see the processions is to pick them up near their starting and finishing points in their respective barrios ; here you'll see the true teatro de la calle - theatre of the streets.
Fería de Abril
The Fería de Abril is staged a fortnight after Semana Santa ends and lasts nonstop for a week. For its duration a vast area on the far bank of the river in the barrio of Los Remedios, the Real de la Feria , is totally covered in rows of casetas , canvas pavilions or tents of varying sizes. Some of these belong to eminent sevillano families, some to groups of friends, others to clubs, trade associations or political parties. In each one - from around nine at night until perhaps six or seven the following morning - there is flamenco singing and dancing. Many of the men and virtually all the women wear traditional costume, the latter in an astonishing array of brilliantly coloured, flounced gypsy dresses.
The sheer size of this spectacle is extraordinary, and the dancing, with its intense and knowing sexuality, a revelation. But most infectious of all is the universal spontaneity of enjoyment; after wandering around staring with the crowds you wind up a part of it, drinking and dancing in one of the "open" casetas which have commercial bars. Among these you'll usually find lively casetas erected by the anarchist trade union CNT and various leftist groups.
Earlier in the day, from 1pm until 5pm, Sevillana society parades around the fairground in carriages or on horseback. An incredible extravaganza of display and voyeurism, this has subtle but distinct gradations of dress and style; catch it at least once. Each day, too, there are bullfights (at around 5.30pm; very expensive tickets in advance from the ring), generally reckoned to be the best of the season.