Though undisputedly one of the biggest events of the Spanish calendar, the celebration of Semana Santa (Holy Week) holds mixed perceptions for many elsewhere in the world. The week is dominated by the – admittedly sombre – themes of death, sacrifice and piety, and it’s easy to be put off by the image of a multitude of religious fraternities processing through cities (not to mention their eerie traditional attire, notoriously copied by the Ku Klux Klan).
The reality, however, is completely different. Semana Santa, while undoubtedly a time of faith and reflection for Spaniards, is as much a social as a religious affair, as the Holy Week sees the coming together of families, friends, and entire communities. Nowhere is this truer than in Seville. People of all ages and generations gather in the streets (and, of course, in the local bars) chatting excitedly over drinks while waiting to watch the various pasos (processions).
Sevillanos gather in the Plaza de San Francisco to watch the Holy Week procession of one of the city’s many brotherhoods (image: Bar Tapas Sevilla)
The week gets underway with Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), when the streets are lined with animated Sevillanos leaving Church together, dressed up in their Sunday best. This in itself is a spectacle, like something out of a Dolce and Gabbana campaign – think classic southern European chic, with slick navy suits, palazzo trousers and towering wedged high heels everywhere you look.
As the first pasos take place, it becomes remarkably clear how many of the local people are involved in some way in the festivities, which are clearly deeply embedded in local culture. Thousands of Nazarenos – men and women wearing matching tunics and long, pointed hats – process through the streets, some carrying crosses and others bearing the enormous weight of the huge, ornately decorated floats. These floats are the centrepieces of the parades, and they represent the pride and joy of each of the brotherhoods.
The ‘nazarenos’ of one local brotherhood process through one of Seville’s packed streets (image: ABC de Sevilla)
The sound of brass bands playing sombre, spiritual melodies fills the air as they pass, while small children wearing matching tunics and hats follow alongside the processions in support of their parents and family members. Meanwhile, groups of families and friends both old and young sit on pavements chatting and waiting for hours on end to watch the pasos take place, demonstrating a relaxed and truly Spanish approach to the messy strands of people fighting their way through the crowds.
By nightfall, the streets are buzzing. The bars are full and television screens inside broadcast local news coverage of the day’s most spectacular pasos. As the night goes on and the pasos come to an end, the younger generation continues the festivities in the mojito bars that line the Guadalquivir River and the clubs hidden away in the Arenal and San Vicente districts of the city.
Seville’s bar scene comes to life each evening during Semana Santa (image: airpano.com)
After a few days of this spectacle, it’s easy to become frustrated and fed up of having to fight your way through the crowded streets. The only way to survive the madness is to embrace it and go with the flow. This means sleeping through the morning, venturing out for a lazy lunch, siesta-ing your way through the afternoon and then heading straight out for the night, paso-hopping through the city one tapa at a time.
It’s also a great week to see one of the famous Andalucian flamenco shows. Try the Casa de la Guitarra for a truly intimate, authentic display of traditional Spanish guitar and dance. Another top pick is an afternoon at the ancient Arabic Baths, where you can enjoy a few tranquil hours in their candlelit indoor baths, detoxing with a green juice or enjoying an unparalleled view of the city from their rooftop pool with a cool glass of wine. And if you really need to get away from the cacophony of the city, the Costa de la Luz and Cadiz – the oldest city in Spain – are just a bus ride away.
Casa de la Guitarra is one of Seville’s most popular spots to enjoy a display of traditional Spanish guitar and flamenco dance (image: Lonely Planet)
Whether you’re visiting as a culture vulture or for a boozey, sun-soaked city break, Seville’s Semana Santa has everything you could possibly want out of an Easter holiday. In true Spanish style, this poignant religious festival doubles as a dazzling social affair – and a fabulous excuse for enjoying the finest Andalusian food and wine. You’ll inevitably leave with a hangover and that holiday food baby, dying for a detox and already planning your next trip…