With the beads and revelry of Mardi Gras behind us and in the throes of the Lent season, it’s time to look forward to Semana Santa (Holy Week), a elaborate commemoration of the last week of Christ’s life. Though I’m not a religious soul, I fell into marking Semana Santa while studying abroad in Seville, Spain.
My initiation to the reams of tradition associated with Semana Santa started our very first day in sticky Seville when my classmate asked our Spanish lit teacher why Ku Klux Klan lollipops were for sale in shops throughout the city. She gasped and launched into an explanation of Semana Santa and the Nazarenos (Nazarenes), members of local churches’ cofradías (brotherhoods) who wear capirotes (peaked hats similar to those of the infamous Klan) while accompanying their Baroque wooden sculptures of Christ and the Virgin throughout the city.
Semana Santa has been celebrated in Seville in pretty much its current form since the 16th century. Over 50,000 cofradía members don traditional robes and solemnly traverse the city in over 116 pasos (passes) from Palm Sunday to Easter morning. A capella saetas (sad songs) accompany some processions, brass bands others, while some remain silent. Some pasos occur during the day while others are candlelit and border on spooky at night. During Semana Santa, the sweet smell of azahares (orange blossoms) muddled with incense and loads of candle wax permeates the city.
After the jump, get some tips on how to get the most out of Semana Santa if you’re lucky enough to experience it this year, April 5 to 12.
- If you plan to see some of the most spectacular processions, those in the madrugada
(“the wee hours of the night”) between Thursday and Good Friday, that means you’ll be heading out around 10:30 p.m. and wandering the city’s labyrinthine alleyways well into the following morning. It goes without saying: wear comfy shoes (you’ll be walking and standing a lot on cobblestones, uneven pavement, etc.) and bring a jacket.
- If you want to sleep during your time in Seville during Holy Week, don’t book a hotel smack-dab in the city center as processions happen pretty much 24/7 back and forth to the cathedral.
- If you want a seat, you’ll have to buy pricey tickets
along the “Official Section” close to the cathedral and the main drag, Avenida de la Constitución (Avenue of the Constitution). Prices range from about $103-829.
- Don’t cut in front of those already lined up along a route. To get a good spot, arrive at least an hour before you know a procession will pass a designated location. Remember, to you, Semana Santa may be a curious cultural spectacle but to many locals, it’s a very holy occasion, one they’ve waited and prepared all year for. Please be respectful of those around you.
- Give yourself time to move from place to place amid the hulking bulla
(crowd). As many as one million spectators pour forth for the most popular processions so be patient, patient, and more patient.
- Rain equals no Semana Santa, so keep your ears tuned to the local radio to plan your day. If it does rain on your parade, don’t despair–Seville offers many other attractions.
- Don’t dispose of glass bottles on the city streets. Some penitentes (penitents) still go barefoot as they accompany their floats. Don’t make their penance any harder on them than it needs to be.
- Bring a good map with you along with a printed schedule to best plan your route.
- You’ll certainly work up a good hunger from all this wandering. Most bars are open all day (and night) and offer wine, beer, and bocadillos (sandwiches). Given the torrijas–a Semana Santa staple similar to French toast made with honey, eggs, bread, and white wine–a try, too.
For more information, check out SOL, Spain Online, which has a good intro to all that happens during Semana Santa, a nitty gritty on the processions, the difference between a penitente (penitent) and a nazareno (Nazarene) and other “essential” Semana Santa vocabulary, plus maps of the routes of the pasos.
The Insider’s Guide to Semana Santa on expat-authored Exploreseville is comprehensive and provides solid
info and tips. It’ll also come in handy if it rains and you’re looking for something else to do in town.
If Semana Santa in Seville sounds a bit too somber and serious, stay tuned for an upcoming post on another of Seville’s renowned celebrations, the Feria de Abril
(the April Fair). Pretty much the polar opposite of Semana Santa, it’s a week of revelry, family, flamenco dancing, drinking, and heaps of food at the city’s fair grounds, April 28 to May 3.
Photos: Willem Kuijpers