Planning a spring holiday this Easter? Seville hosts the world-famous Semana Santa celebrations – Holy Week processions protagonised by other-worldly hooded, robed figures and gently swaying floats borne by burly men, carrying flower-adorned figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Long-term resident Fiona Flores Watson gives you the lowdown on what to see, where to see it, and how to avoid the crowds.
By Fiona Flores Watson
Orange blossom, incense, mournful trumpets and slow, heavy steps – the smells and sounds of Semana Santa, or Easter Holy Week, in Seville. One of the city’s most important annual events, which takes place just a few weeks before the other, the Feria de Abril, these days of elaborate processions and brass bands inspire strong emotion in Sevillanos – you only have to hear a saeta, the plaintive songs sung from balconies to the Virgin as she passes below in the street – to realise. This isn’t about religion, it’s about your city, your barrio or neighborhood, your Virgin and your family – you spend the week with your nearest and dearest, watching your favourite processions at their best moments. Mystery, passion, drama and la familia.
So what can you expect to see?
From around 12.30 every day from Palm Sunday (24 March this year), until Resurrection Sunday (31 March), you can watch these processions as they make their slow, stately way from their own parish church to the cathedral, where they’re blessed by the archbishop, and back again. About 60 processions come out during the eight days in total (those on the Friday and Saturday before Palm Sunday aren’t part of the official programme) – up to nine per day. Most shops are closed in the afternoon, and Jueves and Viernes Santo (28 and 29 March) are national holidays, so expect all shops and banks to be closed. Restaurants, however, will do a roaring trade – some places make more this one week than they do in the rest of the year.
Each procession is an hermandad (brotherhood), an association attached to a local church. The hooded figures who walk behind the pasos or floats, are called nazarenos, and originally hid their faces to disguise their identity, as taking part in the procession was an act of penance. These days many women take part, and children too. As well as the tall, pointed capirote (hood), they wear a long tunic in black, brown, purple or white.
First comes the cruz de guia, which leads the procession; then the nazarenos, some holding cirios (long candles), crosses or varas (staffs); then the Christ statue (which may have additional characters), followed by more hooded figures, and a brass band; and finally the Virgin Mary, under a palio (canopy), with fresh, fragrant blooms at her feet, wearing an intricately embroidered manto (velvet gown). The bigger hermandades have up to 2,000 members, and take well over an hour to go past.
If you want to see the heightened emotion of a salida, as the procession leaves its church and locals cry as they catch a first glimpse of the Virgin, and shout “Guapa!” (Beautiful!), get there early to find a good vantage point – railings, steps, a doorway or any raised area. The street outside the church will be heaving with locals jostling to see their beloved Virgin dressed in her finery – loyalty and affection for these figures rivals that felt towards a football team.
Watching a paso or parade, as it progresses on its way is fascinating: the costaleros – men hidden underneath, bearing the massive weight on their shoulders (most pasos weigh over 2000kg), inch their way out of narrow Gothic stone archways, or round tight street corners, following instructions called out by the capataz walking in front as he directs their delicate maneouvres – left a bit, right a bit, forward, back, STOP! Three taps from the llamador (hammer, literally “caller”) means “Lift up the paso.”
The procession will stop frequently to give the those carrying the paso a well-earned rest, so you can give your legs and your camera a break, for a beer or a torrija, the traditional Semana Santa pastry (something like French toast). Following pasos can be a long-term commitment: the largest hermandades, and those with the longest journey to and from the cathedral, can take up to 12 hours to complete their ruta de penitencia, or route. Choose either the salida (exit point), official route section – (Calle Campana to the cathedral), or entrada (return); alternatively, any which pass through the narrow streets of Semana Santa make an especially memorable sight, although in jam-packed tiny streets.
The best time for many, when the atmosphere takes on an unreal, timeless quality, is when darkness is falling: candles are lit, the light glows softly golden, the trumpets squeal, and a hush descends. All sense of the present fades away – you could just as well be in 2013, or 1813, or 1613. Always theatrical, Semana Santa is prime movie material as dusk fades into night.
The climax of Seville’s Semana Santa is the Madruga’, or late Thursday night/early Friday morning (28 – 29 March) – the entire Macarena district comes out to watch their Virgin leave her basilica; shortly afterwards the other lot, over the river in Triana, gasp in awe as their Esperanza makes her appearance; and the other main events of the night are Jesus del Gran Poder, in San Lorenzo, whose Christ statue is one of the city’s best-loved; for solemnity, El Silencio is the most moving. For the full Semana Santa experience, join the crowds either for the salida at the Arco de la Macarena in the small hours, or on Triana bridge heading home on Friday morning. All-night bars serving beer, then churros and chocolate, then coffee, will keep you going.
Top insider tips
Check the weather forecast, and accordingly take an umbrella/raincoat/sunglasses/suncream/hat. You might be in for sunny holidays this Easter, and then again it may pour; hard to tell this time of year. You’ll also need a street map, water and snacks, and wear layers of clothes and comfortable shoes. You will be standing outside in the street for many hours. If it rains, or is forecast to, processions will be cancelled, with decisions on whether or not to go out often left to very the last minute. Various apps, such as Canal Sur’s iLlamador or Giralda TV’s iSemana Santa, can provide you with up-to-date information, latest locations and timings.
For the claustrophobic, as these narrow streets get as packed as a Justin Bieber concert, a better bet is standing in one of the wider avenues (Constitucion, Alameda), main squares (Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Triunfo), avoiding the stands of seats, or even better on a roof terrace – the Doña Maria hotel’s bar has a great view of the cathedral, the destination for all processions, before they return home. Only one procession, La Paz, goes through Parque Maria Luisa – a good option if you have children with you; this is on Palm Sunday afternoon. Alternatively, some pasos pass though Plaza de Encarnacion (San Roque and La Cena, on Palm Sunday evening; La Macarena, on Friday morning) – if you stand on the steps of Metropol Parasol you’ll get a great view.
Pick up a printed guide to Semana Santa from your hotel, the tourist office, or with a local newspaper. It lists the times and route of each procession, and sometimes a map, along with the colour of robes worn and details of the images. That way, you can plan your afternoon – catch the processions you want to see, and know which streets to avoid when you’ve had enough (using your map). You can see a detailed listing of each hermandad’s schedule here, while this website has a suggested hour-by-hour itinerary for the entire week.
Semana Santa is a gift for photographers: clear all your memory cards and spend time getting used to the rhythm, watching and absorbing, choosing moments to focus on, and finding good vantage points, before you start snapping your shutter. All details are precious: a man singing a saeta beseechingly to his Virgin, flowers and flickering candles on a paso, people in the crowd gazing adoringly at the statues, a Virgin’s face close-up showing the anguish and tears, a costalero enjoying a beer with his fellows. Day and night are different experiences – bright sunshine as a stunning backdrop, or moody dusk enhanced by candlelight; you need to see both.
If you haven’t booked a hotel in Seville yet, you may be out of luck, or be asked to pay big bucks for accommodations. Travel discounts can be found outside the city.
Fiona Flores Watson’s blog, Scribbler in Seville, gives an insight into life in southern Spain’s largest city – living as an expat journalist with bi-cultural, bilingual children, who doesn’t eat jamon or adhere to religious principles, but is fascinated by Semana Santa.