Semana Santa in Seville
“Once you’ve seen the Virgin of the Macarena,” the immaculately dressed older woman says, suddenly gripping my arm, “you’ll never be the same.” Her friend nods in agreement.
It’s 4:30 a.m. on the Good Friday of Semana Santa (Holy Week) and I’m in a huge crowd on Trajano Street in Seville, Spain. Above, my wife, Julie, is looking down from our room in the Hotel Venecia. We’re waiting for the Virgin ” The Virgin of the Macarena.
An enormous procession ” some 2,500 people ” left the Basilica de la Macarena at midnight and is working its way slowly through the narrow streets of Seville. As I wait, these two wonderful women are telling me where to have breakfast (churros and chocolate at La Esperanza) and instructing me generally on Holy Week.
Seville is the capital of the southern region of Andalucia, the most exciting of Spanish cities and the most famous place to see the extraordinary Semana Santa processions. Of the 50-or-so processions that would slowly wind their way through the streets in these seven days, the Virgin of the Macarena is the most revered.
Julie and I aren’t Catholic; we aren’t even churchgoers. But for the last five years, we’ve visited Semana Santa celebrations throughout Spain. The first was the tiny town of Caravaca de la Cruz where, at midnight Thursday, all the lights are turned off and the procession silently moves through the narrow, dark streets. Then festive Lorca with its pageant of chariots, Roman soldiers, Egyptian kings and men and women on beautiful white horses. Next somber Valladolid in northern Spain and, last year, the fervor of Granada.
Semana Santa is a week of staggering beauty that I wouldn’t miss. Being in Seville, however, is the high point among high points.
There are more than 50 brotherhoods here, called “cofradias” or “hermandads,” all linked to their particular church. Most of them are hundreds of years old. People join at a young age and participants include men, women and children as young as 4 or 5.
At some point during Holy Week, each brotherhood slowly leaves its church in a long procession. First come the penitents (called “nazarenos” in Seville), dressed in long cloaks and peaked hats so that you can only see their eyes, hands and, in some cases, bare feet. They carry long, heavy silver candlesticks called “cirials” and hand out little cards with a picture of their virgin on one side and the name of their brotherhood on the other.
Then come Seville’s version of “penitentes,” carrying wooden crosses, their heads covered in loose cloth. They pass in columns of two. Often the processions are so long that they move in “tramos” or groups of 100. There may also be columns of women wearing black dresses with high black mantillas and carrying long candles.
There is usually a band featuring drummers and wonderfully shrill trumpets or comets. It might be led by children no more than 6 or 8 years old or feature band members dressed as Roman soldiers with huge white plumes jutting up from their polished helmets.
Now the spectators begin to shift and murmur in excitement. The first huge “paso” or float appears bearing a statue of Jesus. Then a young woman leans out from a balcony and begins singing a “saeta,” a deeply moving religious lament. The procession comes to a complete stop and there is dead silence except for her voice.
Soon the second paso appears, swaying back and forth, adorned with flowers and carrying the statue of the young and pretty Virgin de la Macarena. Everyone shouts, “Viva la Virgen! Guapa [ beautiful]! Guapa!” The two women are in tears, each gripping one of my arms so tightly that I can barely lift my camera. As the enormous paso comes near, the crowd pushes forward, everyone trying to touch it. We are pressed so tightly against it that we can feel the heat from the “costaleros,” the 40-or-so men beneath who are carrying it. It is an intense, spine-tingling moment; then the paso moves on.
It’s not immediately apparent how these pasos move. Out of sight, beneath the floats and hidden by drapes are up to 40 costaleros, powerful men who carry the huge load. (In some cities, the costaleros are women.) On their heads, they wear strange, turbanlike clothes with padding to protect their necks.
A man called a “capataz” gives commands in whispers, or by tapping a pole against the ground, or sometimes tapping what looks like a door knocker on the side of the paso. These signals help the costaleros to make tight turns, to bend low under wires or other obstacles, or to stop. These Sevilleno spectators know how difficult these maneuvers are, and they cheer wildly when the moves are performed correctly.
Some processions take four or five hours, others 12 or 13 hours as they move slowly from their church through the narrow streets, past the cathedral and back again. Some begin during the day; others at midnight or later. All this is explained in various free guidebooks.
Of course, Seville exists outside of Holy Week. This ancient city was founded by the Iberians, then inhabited by Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians. In 47 B.C., it became one of Rome’s major cities. Two Roman emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, were born in Italica, just a few miles to the north.
In the 700s, Seville became the Moorish capital and in 1258 the Christians recaptured it. Because of its location on the Guadalquivir (Arabic for “river of life”) River, it became the main departure point for the New World after 1492. In the mid-1500s and before the river began to silt up, it was the third-largest city in Europe.
Mixes of all these civilizations can be found in modern-day Seville. The Giralda, once a minaret, is the most beautiful building in the city. The cathedral next to it is built on the site of the 12th-century Almohad mosque and took 100 years to complete. It is the largest church in the world. The Alcazar or Royal Palace, earlier the court of al’Mu’tadid, who allegedly had a harem of 800 women, was rebuilt beginning in 1364 and used extensively by various Spanish kings. These buildings are all located at the edge of the Barrio de Santa Cruz, a fascinating maze of twisting and narrow streets and one of the best areas to linger in and explore.
Just by chance, we also found the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija, a 16th-century palace, later rebuilt by the Countess of Lebrija and full of art, mosaics and fine furniture.
In short, this is a city for all seasons, whether it be the spine-tingling intensity of Semana Santa or a quieter time for exploration and enjoyment.
Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at firstname.lastname@example.org