Seville's two most important spring festivals couldn't be any more different from each other, and both are uniquely "Sevillano"
Semana Santa (literally Holy Week) is the week before Easter, starting on Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos), and finishing on Easter Sunday (Domingo de Resurección). The celebrations in Seville are the most elaborate anywhere in the world and the city's biggest annual public festival. This year the dates for Easter Holy Week are April 17-24.
Its origins date back to the 13th century, and are, of course, religious. Although nowadays it is also an important social event and holiday marking the arrival of spring, it still retains a strong religious significance for many, with up to 60,000 people participating in the processions in one way or another.
So what's it all about, what can you expect to see and hear, and what's the best way to enjoy it? (And what are the possible pitfalls and drawbacks?)
Basically, Semana Santa consists of about 60 processions organised by the hermandades and cofradias, lay brotherhoods who may either have their own chapel, or be attached to one of the churches. In each procession the images of Christ and the Virgin are carried on pasos (floats) to the cathedral to be blessed, and then return to their home churches. The oldest surviving images date back to the 16th century, and a number, including the two virgins known as La Esperanza, from Triana and Macarena, El Cachorro, and Jesus del Gran Poder, are important works of art in their own right.
For me, the most striking feature of the processions are the nazarenos, members of the brotherhood wearing pointed hoods and carrying long candles, and penitentes, carrying crosses, who accompany the images. There can be up to 2,000 celebrants in the largest processions, which can take more than an hour to pass. The brotherhoods all have their own colour of robes, hoods and candles, and most of the processions include marching bands (el Silencio is the most notable exception) that play a fixed and distinctive repertoire.
There are also the costaleros, the men who carry the floats on their shoulders, with their distinctive turban-like headgear, which helps prevent injury from the weight. You don't normally see them, of course, except when they change teams, or you find a group of them taking refreshment in one of the bars.
Thursday night/Friday morning is la Madrugá, when the brotherhoods of El Silencio, El Gran Poder, La Macarena, El Calvario, La Esperanza de Triana and Los Gitanos have their processions. These are some of the most important and popular pasos, and the atmosphere as they make their way through the night, candles flickering, is surprisingly emotional and moving, even for the non-religious, and is the highlight of the week for many people. It's definitely worth staying up late for.
What are the drawbacks of coming to Seville during Semana Santa?
For the visitor there are three good reasons for not coming to Seville during Semana Santa, if that's not the main reason for your visit. The first is that the cost of hotels and other accommodation increases dramatically, and you could easily pay double what you would pay the rest of the year. The second is that many bars and restaurants only serve raciones, not tapas, during Semana Santa and, of course, they're all very crowded and busy, making it difficult to have a relaxed and unhurried meal. And, thirdly, you don't get to see Seville as it normally is, without the crowds and other inconveniences.
Not all Sevillanos are madly enthusiastic about Semana Santa, though, and many prefer to head out of the city and spend the week at the beach or in the country. It's not hard to understand why, as the crowds seriously disrupt normal daily activities for people who live or work in the centre. For all that, I quite like the madness and, living in the centre, I get to see a lot of it without having to make a special trip out.
Feria de Abril
If you're looking for something completely different, go to the Feria de Abril (April Fair) which begins two weeks after Semana Santa, and so this year it is actually going to be held in May (3-8), which is a first for me. It is quite different to Semana Santa, having its origins in medieval horse and cattle fairs. From the 1840s it was held on the Prado San Sebastian, gradually evolving into the social event we know today. Around 1970 it moved to its present location on the south side of the Los Remedios neighbourhood.
The site itself consists of several streets (named after famous bullfighters) on a grid pattern, and is entered through a huge portada which is rebuilt on a different theme for each year's event. The official opening, or alumbrado, when the portada and site is lit up by thousands of bulbs strung along the streets, is at midnight on Monday. Inside, the socialising revolves around the casetas, which evolved from fair booths, where you can buy food and drinks. Ownership of a caseta, whether by companies, professional associations or wealthy individuals, is something of a status symbol here and as the demand for them has grown, the public casetas have gradually been squeezed out. This means that you may have trouble finding one where you are allowed in, and even if you are lucky enough to find a place to sit, the food is likely to be expensive. Always remember to take a bottle of water with you, because it can get pretty hot mid-afternoon, and there's not much shade on the streets.
It is often said that Feria is really two different events. During the day is the "traditional" feria, the time for children and families to enjoy the festive, holiday atmosphere, for dressing up in flamenco costume, and to see and be seen. It's still about horses, too, and the best way to be seen, if you can afford it, is to be part of the parade of horses and carriages in full rig that continually circulates around the fairground, with the rest of us as spectators.
Night time is the time for dancing and partying, and the party carries on until the sun comes up. Manzanilla sherry (from Sanlúcar del Barrameda) and Sevillanos (a local variant of flamenco) are the order of the day. In recent years Feria at night has also become the venue for botillons, drinking parties of teenagers and young adults who can't afford, or don't have access to, the casetas. It's also when the fairground (the aptly named Calle del Infierno or Hell Street) is busiest, with that combination of lights, noise and the smell of candyfloss that seems to be common to travelling fairs everywhere in the world.
The Feria de Abril is also the main bullfighting season. It's a subject that raises passions, both for and against, but it is an integral part of the culture of southern Spain, and of the social scene surrounding Feria in Seville in particular. Love it or hate it, the Real Maestranza bullring is definitely the premier venue for it, and even if you don't go in there's plenty of local colour to be had before and after as the local upper crust arrive and depart by horse and carriage, and the local bars fill up with noisy bullfight aficionados.
Where to stay
For the ultimate ringside seat at Semana Santa stay at the trendy five-star EME Fusion Hotel in Calle Alemanes, opposite the cathedral, in one of the rooms facing the street. But be warned – it won't come cheap.
More affordable, but still comfortable and close to the action, is the Hotel Alminar in Calle Alvarez Quintero.
If you want to be a bit away from it all, the Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza offers an oasis of calm, but is still a walkable distance to the centre of town.