Dancing in the streets, horse drawn carriages, sherry flowing, and flamenco mark the week long celebration of Feria de Abril in Seville. Local expert Fiona Watson gets her groove on in a pink flamenco dress and parties down. With an insider’s look at this week of singing, eating, drinking, and dancing, it is hard to believe it all started as a livestock fair. For more of Fiona’s insights into living in Spain, visit her website: Scribbler In Seville.
By Fiona Flores Watson
I hadn’t been living in Seville for long when I first heard about the Feria. From January onwards – with a break for Semana Santa – it’s all the women here talk about. The colour of their spotty flamenca dress, the length, the cut, the sleeves, the accessories. For a week in April, a huge recinto (fairground) just outside the city centre is jammed with swirling spotty dresses in little striped casetas (tents), all lit up by strings of farolillos (paper lanterns), as sevillanos dance the night away.
The Feria de Abril is the high point of Seville´s social calendar, and comes two weeks after Semana Santa ends. This is hardcore celebration, Spanish-style: a six-day, 24-hour, all-singing, all-dancing Andalucian get-together of sherry-drinking, hand-clapping, skirt-swirling madness. Deals are struck, love matches made (many people meet their media naranja – other half – at the Seville Feria), and friendships cemented amid the charged atmosphere of sevillanas (a dance typical for Seville), rebujito, and late-night caseta-hopping.
Originally started in 1847 as a livestock fair, this event has evolved into not just a local highlight, but one which draws aficionados from all over Spain and beyond. Actors, TV personalities, and blue-bloods wouldn´t miss it.
The setting is spectacular: the portada (entrance arch, which has a new design each year; this one’s is modelled on the façade of El Salvador church), lit up with 350,000 coloured bulbs as dusk falls; horse-drawn open-top carriages, the drivers dressed in period costume; men in tight breeches and hats astride snorting, prancing stallions, with women in brightly-coloured frilly flamenco frocks riding side-saddle behind; and groups of these flamencas dancing in the street, hands aloft, kicking up the dust, twirling and stomping as someone spontaneously bursts into song, with hand-clapping to beat out the rhythm of the sevillana songs.
So, as an outsider, how can you fit in? It always helps to know people when you’re at a festival in a foreign country, and never more so than at the Seville Feria.
Each caseta is owned by a family, company, or group of friends – there are over 1,000 or so casetas ranged along 13 avenues, each furnished with tables, chairs, and a bar. Most have a portero (doorman), and you’ll need to give him the name of a member to be allowed in. Non-Spanish visitors are seen as curiosities, which helps with being invited, but being able to converse – and joining in on the dance floor – once you´re in, are essential.
If you’re not lucky enough to have invitations, your chances of sneaking in (especially at night, when door policies are relaxed) are much better if you’re dressed up – as well as the dress, you need a colour-coordinated flower, comb, shawl and jewellery (tip: El Corte Ingles – a department store). Being dressed up is not only an experience in itself – wearing a figure-hugging traje de flamenca (dress) will transform you into a foot-stamping, head-tossing gitana – it makes you fit in.
And what do you eat, and drink? Raciones of cheese, prawns, jamón, pescao frito (fried fish); montaditos (little toasted sandwiches) are a quick, cheap option. Beer or rebujito, a mix of manzanilla sherry and lemonade, served in a jug and drunk out of tiny glasses, will give you the Dutch courage needed to hit the dance floor.
As a foreigner, you won’t be able to get away with excuses like ‘Sorry, I don’t know how to dance Sevillanas’ or ‘I’m fine, thanks, I’d rather watch’, because Tio Juan will be whirling you round the dance floor whether you like it or not. If your sevillanas (flamenco-style dance of the Feria) are rusty, just mirror your partner, twirl your hands, and smile like you know exactly what you’re doing.
By about 7pm, after a long lunch and some dancing, the first shift – families with young children and the elderly – is heading home. That’s when the nighttime feriantes start to appear. As the lights come on at dusk – especially those on the portada – the place takes on a timeless, magical feel.
Casetas with live music – a big band on a stage in the larger ones, but even better a few guys with guitars in the corner of a small caseta’s front area – along with constantly flowing drinks and animated conversations combine to produce the feeling you’re in another world entirely, and the hours pass so fast that before you know it, it’s 4am. Time go to home (thanks to the all-night buses, 1.50 euros), catch some shut-eye, get up a few hours later… and then it’s time to go back and do it all again. Olé!
Fiona Flores Watson is a journalist and blogger who is a dedicated feriante. Since arriving in Seville eight years ago, she has enjoyed the Seville Feria more and more each year – it’s a party where you can prowl the streets wearing a tight, frilly dress, stamp your feet and shake your booty all night long. She loves her rebujito, tries her best at dancing sevillanas, and can often be found quizzing locals about this year’s top Feria trends.