I had reservations about booking for this time of year. Having lived through Las Fallas in Valencia, I’m no stranger to the chaos that can ensue when parades take to the streets and bystanders come out in force. With that in mind, I did consider whether, for a restorative and hopefully restful weekend away with my mum, Seville would be the best bet. Luckily, I ignored all of my instincts and ploughed on. I’m so thrilled I did.
Seville at Semana Santa is a city alive with scents on the breeze. I couldn’t have predicted that this would be what I remembered the most. Entirely by chance we arrived during orange blossom season during which Seville sings with the sweet scent of these delicate, little, white flowers. There is nothing more joyous than emerging into a courtyard dappled with specks of golden sunlight and being swathed in their delicate perfume. Even wandering along the street under the bows, which line the cobbles, you are often caught unawares by this delicious fragrance and I would pause time and again to linger in the moment just that little bit longer.
Layered over the hum of the flowers, another more preponderant but intermittent bouquet heralds one of the iconic features of Seville in the throes of Semana Santa, ‘Los Pasos’. Incense hangs thick in the air ahead of the splendid icons that are carried labouredly around the city flanked by the members of the brotherhoods (Nazarenos). The emblematic pointed peaks jut above the heads of the bustling masses moving determinedly onwards to the rallying beat of the accompanying musicians.
It isn’t a wonder that people flock to the city to witness the unique processions that wind through the maze of streets in the week leading up to Easter. By no means does it feel like tourists have appropriated this ceremony. Semana Santa is a thriving, local occasion propagated by the fervour and passion of the Sevillanos themselves. Family tradition and pride adorn what, is essence, a form of spiritual penitence.
If you do go over the Easter period, I would wholeheartedly suggest you just surrender to the occasion and see where it takes you. The best thing is to wander, sometimes without a destination in mind, and to be very flexible about your schedule. Often it’s thanks to this approach that you happen upon something unexpected and rather spectacular. There are route maps and timings of course, but, to the uninitiated, trying to correlate the timetable with the map and then subsequently to orientate yourself in the city, is something of a challenge. The wafts of incense and the rumbling music of the procession are your best clues, as much should you wish to gravitate towards the spectacle, as if you want to run from packed streets if you’re in a rush. However, the extent and duration of the whole event means that the city can’t afford to grind to a halt and they’ve honed the practice such that very few roads are closed for any length of time. Moreover, as a pedestrian you can rest assured that they’re not too precious about people darting across in front of the Nazarenos. If you spot a gap it’s not the end of the world if you seize the opportunity to sprint for the other side.
Whatever your personal feelings on religion, there is something to be gleamed from bearing witness to Semana Santa in Seville. I was most struck by the staunchness and conviction of the gentlemen who take it in turns to shuffle, en masse, carrying the enormous effigies on their heads. This is an achievement in itself, but to soldier on with that weight to bear in the heat of the midday Sevillian sun commands my utmost respect. I admit, I was powerfully affected by what the experience obviously meant to them and to the community as a whole. The unifying force of the occasion was palpable and undeniably moving.
Quick words of advice, you can sometimes suss out good vantage points from which you can observe at your leisure without getting trampled. The steps in front of El Mirador, or Las Setas as they’re commonly known, were a great option for us, particularly early on Saturday evening. The night-time pasos are a little more chaotic. The world and its wife come out to soak up the atmosphere and it’s understandable why. It’s true, the pasos do take on a different feel in the evenings with the candles alight against the sapphire sky. For one, the lights and the colours are a new spectacle, for another the slightly endearing disorganised charm now definitely reigns supreme as weary Nazarenos start to flag. We arrived too late to see one of the most famous processions, El Silencio, on Holy Thursday, running into the early hours of Good Friday and I’m not all that upset for, I imagine seeing the capirotes pass in the silence and the darkness would be altogether more unsettling.
On reflection, I think the timing of our visit could not have been better. During Semana Santa Seville wears its soul on its sleeve. The celebrations are so integral to the city’s identity and so indicative of the warmth and commitment to family characteristic of the Spanish, that even just watching you feel included. Were I to visit again, I would probably pick another time of year, just for a different experience once the tumult had ebbed away. To anyone toying with the idea, go to Seville for your long Easter break, I couldn’t recommend it more.