Holy Week







7 Days

Holy Week, Semana Santa

The most pompous processions take place in Andalusia. The main attractions are pasos, wooden platforms with statues of saints that men carry on their shoulders. The religious fraternities wander for hours from their church to the cathedral; there are many parades crossing Seville every day

"Quién no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla" - "He who has not seen Seville, bas not seen a miracle”, the Spaniards say about the capital of Andalusia. Who wouldn't be enchanted by the grandiose Gothic cathedral, the Alcázar Palace and its gardens, the picturesque neighbourhood Barrio de Santa Cruz or the colourful Plaza de Espaňa …

However, this article will not be about them. I visited the monuments during my previous stays, now I wanted to experience the atmosphere of Holy Week - the week preceding Easter Sunday. Because the people of Seville are temperamental; and just as strongly as they express their appetite for life during the fiesta through a fiery dance and singing; they are said to express grief for the crucifixion of Jesus and the joy of his resurrection.

I arrived on Friday and had Saturday for myself. Wandering through the winding lanes lined with whitewashed houses, I enjoyed the scent of orange blossoms. It was for the first time I saw orange trees in bloom; the whole city was saturated with their powerful, intoxicating smell and when the wind blew, thousands of petals were floating in the air as if it was snowing...

The feast was imminent - balconies were decorated with palm leaves, chairs were set up along the streets, and weeping Madonna looked down at me from every shop window.

By the way, shops ... A short paragraph just for women: Based on my experience, I think that the Spanish are the dressiest women in Europe; but they don't need to wear expensive brands like French women, nor the last, often uniform fashion trend like Italians. They mainly want to be "feminine" and elegant. And they succeed. There are still a lot of fabric stores where you can find shiny silk, fine muslin, precious brocade and beautiful lace and cotton at good prices (I really had a hard time closing my chock-full suitcase on the last day!). Spanish women sew or let their clothes sewn; each one looks different. They wear quality natural materials, not polyester.

And those accessories! I'm not talking about world-famous shoes or handbags, but jewellery. A typical señora from the south usually wears a few stones; sparking earrings, a glittering broche, eye-catching yet tasteful necklace. Everything is beautifully arranged in the shop window and illuminated in a way that, as in a trance, you walk in, pull out your wallet and buy at least a little thing. Seville is literally a shopping paradise, where I could spend a million in an hour ... if someone gave it to me : )

Now a little necessary theory. Holy Week - Semana Santa is celebrated throughout Spain, but the most pompous processions are held in Andalusia. They began with them already in the Middle Ages, around 1350; and gradually a number of the brotherhoods (so-called cofrades or cofradías) were formed to organize them. These religious associations spend the rest of their time on charity, taking care of floats (pasos), and preparing for the next Easter. They are committed to traditions and take their role very seriously.

Pasos, the main attraction of the processions, are magnificent wooden platforms on which lifelike statues of saints are placed; surrounded by many flowers and candles. The fraternity usually has two to three pasos, depicting the biblical scenes that follow each other. The first is a passion scene or an allegorical scene called a misterio (mystery). The second float represents an event from the life of Jesus that took place between his entrance to Jerusalem and the funeral. On the third car, there is the grieving Virgin Mary, "Dolorosa"; or she may be replaced by one of the local saints like Virgin de la Macarena, Virgin de la Esperanza or Virgin de la Victoria, all with heart-breaking expression and tear-stained cheeks.

Pasos are works of art of incalculable value. Many were created by well-known Spanish sculptors and painters, the oldest dating back to the sixteenth century. They are approximately 2.40 m wide and 3.50 to 5.50 m long. The sculptures on them, carved in wood and painted, are indistinguishable from living people and when I saw long, perfectly elaborated lace cloaks of the saints, my jaw dropped. After all, the members of the brotherhood were embroidering them for many years. Moreover, since 2007 all the Madonnas are covered by an ornate canopy called palio.

All these treasures, during the year on display for veneration in their home church, are an inseparable part of the live of believers who never forget to stop by and cross themselves on their way to Mass...

The local sanctuaries are a reflection of the great devotion of the Andalusians. The ceilings are beautifully painted, the walls glow with gold. In one of them, they just held the ritual of the "Kissing of the hands" (Besamanos). In the side niche, a Virgin with a large crown stood, put down from the platform. Her pale face was sprinkled with tears; the dark blue velvet cloak adorned with rich embroidery, and a white lace curled around her chest. People approached slowly and with respect kissed her hand. Two young men in suits stood patiently beside and after each kiss one of them approached the statue and gently wiped her hand with a white lace handkerchief...

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter. What is it all about? During this period, most of the fraternities make a pilgrimage with their pasos from their parish church to the majestic cathedral and back. Sounds simple, but it’s not! It is not about moving from one point to another as quickly as possible. Each cofradia has a precise route and timetable. Their members know when they have to come out (this event is known as the salida), where to go to avoid colliding with others and when they have to arrive at the Official route (Carrera oficial), the last section, common to all

In practice, ceremonial salidas take place almost every hour; and the further away the church, the sooner the fraternity sets off on the journey. At the same time, the city is crossed (and blocked) by a lot of parades; to the joy of tourists, they wander long hours through the quarters. Everything is planned so that they are arriving at the Official route smoothly, one after another.

At its beginning, in Plaza de la Campana, one of the members of cofradia asks the Council of Brotherhoods for permission to accede - if it is a silent procession, he can do so in writing. If the timetable was respected, the Council will allow entry to the last leg, and a long snake of penitents will join the centre. They cross the Sierpes Street, San Francisco Square and Avenida de la Constitución; enter the Cathedral through the Door of Saint Michael, and leave through the Palos Gate on the other side. But nor the way home is straightforward, they must again avoid others. For those who came from a distant suburb, the whole pilgrimage takes up to 14 hours! Entrance to the church (so-called entrada) is again the big event; crowds are waiting for the return of their saints even till the morning.

On Sunday, I immediately bought an indispensable printed programme, which in addition to exact time the procession is expected to leave its church and the route description explains the history of all nearly 70 fraternities, the colour of their clothing and the significance of the scenes on their floats. Also the number of members and the length of their passage, to let you know how much it will take until 1800 pilgrims pass by you - so many of them has the biggest cofradia.

I arrived at the place of salida from the St. Salvador Church one hour in advance as recommended, and yet the square was already crowded; but I managed to catch a good spot right in front of the portal. People were festively dressed, women in silk, men in suits. I had a decent dress too, as coming in jeans and flip-flops would be considered unsuitable.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We were waiting and fanning ourselves. Meanwhile, the musicians prepared their instruments and began warming up; the children chased each other among the crowd. All the others were staring at the phones, maniacally checking the weather and commenting on; which seemed strange to me. The church gate remained closed, though it was time to get out. I asked a man standing next what was going on. It turned out that they were investigating where the approaching cloud was heading….

No one grumbled; we kept patiently waiting. The cloud arrived, overshadowed us for a moment, and disappeared in the distance. Waiting continued. The musicians finished warming up and were waiting too. The sun blazed down and we were waiting and waiting; and constantly checking our mobiles.

Finally, the fraternity representatives came out of the church and announced that the salida would not take place; they learnt that it would be raining at five; so they asked permission to come out at eight in the evening. Disappointed people left...

Cancelled processions are no rarity, it happens; but the organizers usually try only to postpone a pilgrimage. The penitents would not mind a bit of rain, but water could destroy pasos, historically valuable gems. That is why everyone from early morning watches the weather forecast on the TV and radio to see if there is any hope; and if they come out they are buried in their phones and continuously check the route of even the smallest cloud. Procession is for them the event of the year and if it is definitively cancelled, many would cry…

For another salida, we waited an hour and a half. No problem, people brought folding chairs and spent the time sunbathing and picnicking. It was a good idea to stop before in a confectionery! Traditionally, there are two kinds of pastries eaten during Holy Week: very sweet, honey date pestiňos and torrijas, reminiscent of a soaked toast; dipped in egg, fried, and then soaked in milk or wine and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

At 3.30 pm, the massive gate of the church opened and everything became silent, you would hear a pin drop.

The procession has an exact structure. The first to come out was the Cruz de Guía (Guiding Cross), the pilgrim with the cross, leading the parade. He was followed by others, holding various silver insignia; the richly decorated Libro de reglas (the Book of Brotherhood) and bocinas, great trumpets that have only a symbolic function.

Then blue-and-white pilgrims (nazareno or penitentess) started to get out; some of them barefoot, some in socks. They had long tunics, cloaks, and on their heads a "capirote", pointed hat with eyeholes. They reminded members of the Ku-Klux-Klan, but their purpose is not to scare others. The conical shape of the capirote symbolizes repentance and the yearning to be as close to the heavens as possible; and it also conceals a face so that pilgrims can mourn in anonymity. They walked in pairs and carried very long processional candles. Once upon a time, a nazareno could only be a man, but in recent years women were allowed too.

Children, dressed as priests (monaguillos), had their role too, giving out sweets and blessing cards from their baskets.

Finally, the first paso appeared at the gate. But before, I should explain how it actually moves.

The pasos, weighing over a ton, are carried on the necks of the so-called costaleros, concretely, on the seventh vertebrae. Their team consists usually of 24 to 48 men; they are hidden inside the platform and covered by a curtain falling from the pedestal; occasionally you can notice their feet. It used to be a paid job, but today, being a carrier is an honour. They protect their heads with special turbans and exercise together regularly, because pressed side by side; they have to march perfectly synchronized for hours so that paso does not lose its balance. Their "overseer", capataz, walks in front of the platform and talks to them through an inconspicuous opening and with help of a beautifully decorated knocker called llamador, attached to the paso. Costaleros walk through a certain stretch, then stop, put down the structure and relax. At the command of the leader, they stand up again, lift it up and on the knocker strike, they set out forward. Sounds simple, but a good capataz is said to be able to create his own style and become famous.

The door was small, the paso large; but it had to fit somehow beneath the doorway. It went slowly; a step forth, a step backwards, a little more to the right, and finally it came out of the gate. People sighed as they saw gold glittering in the sun. Suddenly the marching band, accompanying the statue, began to play mournful, wailing melodies and the paso stepped forward. The most impressive was to see the platform moving in the rhythm of human steps; dangling, it leaned to the right and to the left, and copied accurately the movement of its carriers. It seemed as if the saints really walked... It moved imposingly above our heads, while the music cried ... Then the costaleros stopped for a moment, rested, and when they put the float back on their shoulders, they were greeted by clapping.

The wobbling paso slowly turned the corner, followed by penitents preceding the second paso. As a sign of repentance, they carried large wooden crosses on their shoulders.

Then the platform with the Mother of God came out of the portal; she was almost invisible for the fuming (and stinking) incense. But when she emerged from the haze at the sound of howling tones, I had to admire the beautiful, sophisticated candlesticks and silver vases, full of flowers that surrounded her. Her pale, tearful face almost disappeared behind a multitude of huge candles. The canopy swayed around me, and in a moment her long blue cloak disappeared behind the curve. But there were more and more nazarenos coming out from the sanctuary - in the largest processions it can take over an hour and a half!

In the rhythm of music, the colossi continued to the centre and could not avoid the typical narrow streets. It was interesting to watch them take a turn. Paso rushed straight at us, the audience; then backed up, scurried sideways, advanced again, went back ... like when you tried for the first time to park between two cars. Finally, it took a turn and marched victoriously in the marked direction.

A little farther, a saeta resounded from the balcony above us, a throaty, heart-breaking flamenco-style song. Although the saeta seems spontaneous, the singer knows exactly when he or she must start, everything is agreed in advance. The procession stops and people listen to a lament to the Holy mother, many with tears in their eyes ... No one can perform sad songs better than the Spaniards, they sing with heart and you want to weep even if you don't understand a word ... At the end the singer showered the crowd with petals and the parade went forward; the cathedral was still far away.

And I went for coffee. While in some bars the walls are adorned with photos of the football players, here they were decorated with pictures of saints, and half-meter tall statues of saints stood even between the bottles of alcohol. The incense burner in the form of a factory chimney also contributed to the gloomy atmosphere; although it only emanated a fine stream of smoke, the whole room was saturated with it.

These domestic incense burners are obviously very popular; vendors sold them on the streets, but I also saw some commercials offering them together with aromatic blends to burn.

And of course, in bars, restaurants and shops, the radio is tuned all day to a station that broadcasts live, so it's like being at the funeral 24 hours a day; it is not easy to enjoy a dinner while listening to a dolorous howling…

The last section of the Carrera Oficial can be watched for a fee from the reserved places on the street or from the balcony opposite the cathedral.

In the evening, the processions are even more impressive and spooky, as the nazarenos now carry those tall candles lit. The intoxicating smell of orange blossoms was mixing with incense and melting wax. From above, I could see an infinite, slow-moving, continuous row of lights and somewhere in the middle there was a paso swaying. The candles surrounding Madonna were burning too, the paso was glowing and blinking, and her tears, gleaming in the firelight, were even more realistic. If something flamed out, at the next break one of the pilgrims laid down the ladder and lit everything again. In the darkness, pasos were like huge glowing peacocks, shuffling their feet, and the audience welcomed the arrival of each one with applause. Approximately every half an hour a new group arrived with a wail and a cry; except the one to which it took about 80 minutes, they just walked and walked and walked.

Before the entrance to the cathedral, the costaleros had to take a turn again and overcome the small ascent; then they received a blessing inside and left the dome through the second gate to set out on their journey back home.

I went to the hotel. It used to take me 15 minutes, but during Holy Week at 3pm, when the processions began arriving on the main route, they closed many streets, so I had to walk around. Pasos with candles lit were crossing the city and they were everywhere, along with waiting or exultant masses. Trying to avoid one from the left, I barged into another one, and in a moment I was blocked by the third. I kept getting around and bypassing, and I couldn't get to the hotel. The saints were running this way and that way all night long and it took me almost two hours to get to bed. But I felt safe; the streets were alive with people. Despite the sadness, there was fiesta in the city; friends and families were sitting in the bars and restaurants, even with toddlers – they must get used to Spanish nightlifing...

At the hotel I watched a live broadcast of pilgrimages for a while and it was quite amusing. The moderator commented on it as on a sports event: ,,These costaleros have a very nice, confident step. Now a dangerous curve is ahead, but the paso took it gracefully and continues its journey...”

The highlight of the week is the night of Holy Thursday, when the processions set out after midnight to arrive at the cathedral on the dawn of Good Friday, called La Madrugá.

Already on Thursday morning, women dressed according to the dress code, reflecting the reverence and grief for Jesus. It was even better than my expectations. The seňoritas had mini and seňoras longer dresses of black colour, black stockings, shoes and some also gloves. They wore their hair in a bun, shielded with a huge peineta (decorative comb) on which a mantilla rested - a beautiful black lace veil embellished with a silver brooch. Outfit was complemented with silver jewellery, and it is said that each woman should carry a rosary with her. The men wore black suits and a black tie on this day.

The habit of wearing a mantilla seemed to fall into oblivion, however, in the 1980s returned. I was convinced that only older women would wear it, but I am not at all surprised that the young Spanish girls embraced the tradition, because it is very sexy and feminine.

So when I saw the words "Discount mantillas" at one store, I didn't hesitate (also because the most beautiful, hand embroidered pieces can costs hundreds of euros); I bought a veil, a comb and a brooch, had the willing saleswomen explain me the know-how, and then ran to the hotel to change.

I put my hair into a bun, affixed a peineta and threw a mantilla over it; clasped it in the back, and went out. Of course, the whole masterpiece fell apart after three steps. I returned to the room and pinned the lace with two hairclips I accidentally had, but I felt like a cheater. How is it possible that on the heads of the Spanish women it remains in place for many hours?!

On the street, my veil fell again, so I asked local girls for advice (three times). They were very helpful, immediately took out hairgrips and pins from their mini handbags - so they used them, too - and got to work. It was like a course, everybody has a different way and they all have their own tricks. The bun must be as high as possible so that the peineta protrudes high above the head. The veil rests on the comb; its upper edge is either tucked between the comb and the head (and pinned with a hundred bobby pins) or draped like a bonnet on the top (and pinned with a hundred bobby pins). At the back, the two longest ends of the mantilla are fastened with a brooch, one "teacher" pinned it even to my shoulders. Then everything was holding as it should and I stole the show; I noticed that while I was taking pictures of a paso, sevillanos were taking pictures of an exotic foreigner : ).

On the way to see another salida, I got lost and logically asked for the right direction to the first passer-by in a tunic. Phew! I couldn't know he was going to a silent procession. He pointed a finger at his mouth, shook his head and scowled at me.

I read that the streets are extremely jam-packed in this period, nothing for claustrophobics; but if one does not need to stand directly by the church, he can easily find a good place on a wide avenue.

The paso walked tenderly around us with its howling accompaniment, covered with petals falling from above. I turned to see how far the second one was, but the weeping girl next to me turned my head after the first, though it was already far away: "Look there, it hasn't gone yet!" Well, it's true that Semana Santa is not a tourist attraction. People held the crosses, prayed, and watched with tears every step of the golden colossus, believing that by their participation they would cleanse themselves of last year's sins...

The biggest crowd began to gather in the evening in front of the Basilica de la Macarena, which houses the most adored Virgen de la Esperanza, the Virgin of Hope, in short Macarena. She was honoured to come out as the first one on Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus. I admit that I finally gave up because I didn't want to get crushed and there was more space only in the streets where the Lady was supposed to arrive in the early hours… so I watched the whole ceremony on TV. They know why they live broadcast it.

At midnight, the Basilica gate opened and the most solemn part of Holy Week began. Welcomed by enthusiastic applause from the crowds, the first paso came out ... then an endless, but truly endless mass of nazarenos... and after 2 am, the much-awaited queen of the evening, Macarena in a long green cloak with gold embroidered ornaments finally appeared at the gate. The wooden statuette has a bruise on the right cheek because once a drunkard threw a bottle at her. Many artists tried to repair the damage, but nobody managed. Virgin wears five mariquillas, emerald brooches; a gift from the famous bullfighter José Gómez Ortega; who died in the arena at the age of twenty-five. It was in his honour that Macarena dressed black clothes in 1920 for the only time in her life to acknowledge the public's enormous sadness for its beloved...

A little later, her concurrent, the second most popular Esperanza de Triana, the Virgin of Hope of Triana, also left her home. Both are very popular and their melancholy faces decorate many bars, shops and cars.

Then I finally turned off the TV and fell asleep while the two saints wandered through the night city with their wailing parade, accompanied by devout masses...

Holy Week officially concludes the procession on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection of Jesus. It is traditionally performed by the "Hermandad de la Resurrección" fraternity and it is the only "cheerful" or rather "not sad" one. The statue of the Virgen de la Aurora has no tears; she embodies the joy of the mother from the resurrection of her son.

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