SEVILLE - FIESTAS
Spring in Seville has a special atmosphere, garlanded with the sweet scent of orange blossom and jasmine, and a frisson of excited anticipation, as the city`s two most important events take place - first Semana Santa and then the Spring Fair, the Feria.
Seville boasts two of the largest festive celebrations in the whole province ... even the whole of Spain. The first is Semana Santa (Easter Week) which is truly spectacular with extraordinary processions of masked penitents and carnival-style floats. People travel from across the country and around the world to witness this annual week-long event. Next comes the Feria de Abril or April Fair which possibly the largest annual fair in Andalucia. This is a week long party of drink, food, fino and flamenco.
One of the two celebrations practically synonymous with Sevilla is its spectacular Semana Santa (Holy Week), lasting from Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday. People from near and far, music, processions, and juxtaposing sentiments of solemnity and celebration saturate the normally tranquil atmosphere of Sevilla`s winding, cobbled streets.
The centuries-old tradition showcases the efforts of each of Sevilla`s more than fifty cofradías (brotherhoods), some of which go back as far as a century and a half. Each cofradía´s processional entourage includes hooded penitents and enormous ornate floats topped with images of the Virgin or of scenes from Christ`s Passion. Thirty to forty hidden men, called costaleros, haul these massive floats upon their shoulders and uniformly move in time to the goosebump-inducing music of trumpets, coronets, and drums. For months beforehand, the bands practice their short, fervent flamenco style hymns about the Passion and the Virgin`s sorrows throughout the city.
Throughout the week, the processions leave churches all over the city from early afternoon onwards, snaking through the city and back to their resting place many hours later. Good Friday morning is the climax, when the processions leave the churches at midnight and move through the town for most of the night. The highlight is the arrival at the cathedral in the early hours of the morning.
Strictly speaking this is a religious festival, but for most of the week, solemnity isn`t the keynote - there`s a lot of carousing and frivolity, and bars are full day and night with entire families, from grandparents to babes in arms staying up until three or four in the morning.
The Seville Fair takes place just two weeks after Semana Santa. This is a week of serious dancing, drinking, eating and socializing, with late nights or all nighters the norm. The sheer size of the April Fair`s spectacle is extraordinary. Many people are shocked to find out that Sevilla`s extravagant Feria de Abril (April Fair), a week-long festival bursting with vibrancy that only those "carpe diem" sevillanos can pull off, began long ago as a simple agricultural fair. Nowadays, the livestock stalls are long gone, making room for the colors, music and festivities of this ultimate celebration of simply enjoying life.
The week of round-the-clock fiestas begins with the midnight alumbrado, for which Sevillanos and visitors alike turn out in droves to get their first look at the lit up feria grounds. The elated crowd bursts into cheers as more than 22,000 light bulbs flicker into action, joyfully illuminating the grounds and the towering main gateway, which architects design and construct a new every single year. From this moment until the end of the week, the fair grounds – which come to life exclusively during the Feria – brim with the energy created by lively music, dancing and the cheerful colors of those infamous polka-dotted flamenco dresses.
The Real de la Feria, where the Feria takes place, covers three-quarters square miles and includes the amusement park, called ´Calle de Infierno` (Hell Street), and the casetas, canvas tent pavilions of varying sizes arranged along 12 streets. Numbering over 1,000, they belong to eminent local families, groups of friends, businesses, clubs, trade associations and political parties. Most of the casetas are private and open only to members and their guests. If you have a Sevillano friend with a caseta, you could be lucky enough to receive a much-coveted invite. Alternatively, there are also seven public casetas - the `caseta municipal` and one for each of six districts of Seville. Inside the tents the drinks begin to flow, and tapas are served, from around 1:30pm till early next morning. Each caseta is equipped with a bar, kitchen and sound system or live entertainment playing Sevillanas . This is the official genre of folk music in Seville, which has its own set dance. It`s worth taking a few classes before the Feria so you don`t have to be a wallflower.
Some men, and many women, wear the traditional costume. For men - particularly those on horseback or driving carriages, this is the "traje corto" - or short suit consisting of fitted pants and a short cut jacket with wide-brimmed hat. Women wear the traditional `traje de gitana,` literally gypsy outfits or flamenco dresses, often in bright colors, and accessorized with matching/coordinating flower in hair, comb, jewelry, tasseled scarf/shawl and fan.
Andalucía is famous for its pilgrimages or `romerías` - so called because pilgrims traditionally walked to Rome, and therefore became known as romeros, to popular shrines, around which fiestas are held.
Many towns celebrate their Romeria to a local shrine a few miles away. It is a day in the countryside visiting a chapel or a sanctuary. Interestingly it is one of the few fiestas that is celebrated outside the nucleus of the town. The sanctuary is a physical and a spiritual point of reference. The departure from the town for the sanctuary is a proud public ceremony with all the necessary elements in a certain order. Flags and standards carried are by horsemen, decorated carts, men or women who are serving a penance, then tractors and all sorts of agricultural vehicles. The municipal band usually provides the music.
Perhaps the most spectacular is the one devoted to the Virgen del Rocío, popularly called `El Rocio` for short. Nearly a million people from all over Spain and Andalucía make the long journey to gather in a small hamlet of El Rocio in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir River delta (south of Almonte), where the statue of the `Madonna of the Dew` has been worshipped since 1280. The pilgrims come on horseback and in gaily decorated covered wagons from all over the region, transforming the area into a colorful and noisy party. The climax of the festival is the weekend before Pentecost Monday when the virgin is brought out of the church in the early hours.
On January 5, Sevillanos - especially families with excited children - come out in droves during the evening hours to see the highly anticipated Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos, a huge lively parade that treks through the city celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings. The atmosphere buzzes with energy, lights and vibrant colors as the Three Kings, and their equally costumed entourage, toss sweets from their extravagantly decorated floats to the scrambling children lining the parade route. The excitement continues the next morning, when those same children awaken with delight to discover that the Three Kings visited during the night to leave hoards of presents.
The traditions of the yearly Corpus Christi, commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, include a mass, a religious procession, and the dance of los seises. Throughout the center of Sevilla, flower-adorned balconies compose a quaint backdrop to a beautiful procession that passes through the labyrinth of winding streets. In the cathedral, a special mass is celebrated and los seises, a group of ten young choirboys donning red and gold garb, sing and perform traditional dances within the solemn, awe-inspiring atmosphere of Sevilla`s enormous gothic cathedral.
Lights illuminating the intertwining streets, vendors selling roasted chestnuts, and hundreds of Nativity scenes set the stage for the Christmas season in Sevilla. Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) is an extremely family-oriented holiday as family members from near and far gather to excessively eat, drink, and basically have a blast late into the night. The family fun continues on Navidad (Christmas day) although it`s definitely a bit more low-key than the previous night`s festivities. A present or two from Santa Claus may await children when they get up, but the day they`re really waiting for is January 6, when the Three Kings – a la Santa Claus times three - come bearing gifts.
A celebration that takes place across Spain, the Nochevieja consists largely of family gatherings early on that then give way to partying with friends in the streets and plazas. In Sevilla, the place to be is the plaza right front of the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) - preferably with a good view of the clock. When midnight is struck, the widespread Spanish tradition is to eat twelve grapes – one with each stroke of the clock – resulting in quite the spectacle and a year of good luck for those who manage to do it.