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The Spanish city of Seville, with its stunning architecture, multi-layered history, rich culture and traditional tapas, was named the No1 city to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet.
We decided to go at Easter when, in addition to everything that goes on there year-round, the Semana Santa Sevilla, one of the largest, emotionally-charged religious festivals in the world, was under way.
The core events in Semana Santa are the processions of the hermandades and cofradias, or brotherhoods.
Starting on the afternoon of Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and continuing until the morning of Domingo de Resurreccion (Easter Sunday), nearly 70 brotherhoods comprising 100 to 3000 nazarenos (penitents) wearing medieval robes and conical pointed hats (yes, they resemble the Klu Klux Klan, but there is absolutely no connection) set off from their home church or chapel accompanying life-sized religious effigies and colourful misterios (tableaux of Bible scenes) on elaborately-decorated pasos (floats) through the old city to the Cathedral of Seville and back again.
We arrived in Seville two days before Palm Sunday. As our taxi entered the old quarter of the city, final preparations were well under way for the week-long festival with road detours in place and stacks of portable chairs at intervals along the pavements. What we thought of as ''free seating'' turned out to be reserved seats booked months in advance. In the next 48 hours, rows of them would be set up in roped-off sections along the official route from Calle Campana to Plaza Virgen de los Reyes by the cathedral. Access was by ticket only and, as we were to discover, strictly enforced.
After navigating our way around plazas and down narrow one-way streets, we arrived at the entrance to our apartment, situated only a few minutes' walk from the cathedral, and our home for the next 10 days.
Unfortunately, the sky was overcast, spitting rain and the temperature was chilly, something we weren't expecting at this time of year. Our host, Sylvia, said spring was very late arriving and it had rained every day for past three weeks, but the forecast was for the showers to clear before Sunday. The Santa Semana is cancelled if it rains - or even threatens to rain - as many of the floats date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, are highly ornate, painted in gold or silver, and feature elaborately carved wooden figures, some of which are of great antiquity and are considered artistic masterpieces.
The next morning we decided to get a sense of Seville's old city and followed a walk suggested by Lonely Planet around the perimeter of El Centro.
On the way, we passed the entrance to the Moorish Royal Alcazar, Spain's largest and oldest palace-fortress, but seeing the long queues we put it off for another day. We did our best to follow the route but the maze of alleys, a lack of street signs and the questionable accuracy of our tourist map made it difficult. In the end, we opted to follow the spirit of the walk and wander down narrow, cobbled streets that looked interesting.
The next day was Palm Sunday, the Semana Santa was due to start in the afternoon and it was still raining. We spent the morning visiting two grand 15th-century houses - the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija in Calle Cuna and the Palace of the Adelantados Mayores of Andalusia (better known as the Casa de Pilatos).
By lunchtime, blue sky had started to appear between the clouds. We found an outdoor tapas restaurant in the Plaza Pescaderda and as we ate we noticed the plaza was rapidly filling up with families all wearing their Sunday best. We discovered later that it is a tradition during Holy week for Sevillians to dress elegantly and to wear a new piece of clothing for the first time on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday as a symbol of mourning. On Holy Thursday and Good Friday the women dress in black with a black lace shawl or mantilla.
Then we heard it, a deep thudding of drums and the mournful wailing of trumpets coming closer. It was a sound we were to hear repeatedly over the next seven days and nights as two or three marching bands or small orchestras accompanied each procession, the notable exception being the El Silencio brotherhood.
The first thing we saw was a float carrying a life-size Jesus swaying from side to side. The crowds quickly parted to make way for a penitent carrying the Cruz de Guda (guiding cross). He was followed by the first of the nazarenos - men, women and even children walking in pairs and all wearing a hood, tunic and belt in the colours of the La Paz brotherhood as well as a tall, pointed hood with eye-holes known as capirotes, which allow the faithful to repent in anonymity.
Many of the nazarenos gave out sweets or cards to children in the crowd. At dusk and during night processions, candle bearers give out wax, which is kept and put away at the end of the week and added to every year.
As the float made its way towards us, the crowd fell silent. The only noise was the shuffling of feet belonging to the team of costaleros (literally ''sack men'', for their distinctive and functional headdress) hunched in rows underneath the float, bearing the paso on their necks and shoulders. Teams of 30-40 costaleros carry the religious floats for hours on end, at times, on their knees. It is a titanic effort, as not only do some of the floats weigh up to a tonne but they have to enter or exit the narrow doorways of the churches and navigate narrow alleyways with tight corners. Their efforts were always warmly applauded by the crowd.
The accompanying band suddenly struck up its melancholy tune. More nazarenos followed, this time wearing the same habit, but no hoods and carrying a black cross, some carrying two, and some walking barefoot.
It took an hour for the long snaking line of 1700 participants to go past before the arrival of the float carrying the Virgin Mary. As the hauntingly sad face of the Virgin wearing her gold-embroidered gown went past, some in the crowd shouted ''Guapa!'' (Beautiful!)
We were to experience many more dramatic and emotionally-charged moments during the next seven days and nights. It is physically impossible to watch every procession, as six or seven set off every day at different times from different churches around the city, but there are plenty of free programmes and websites to help you decide which ones to watch and the best places to see them.
A cautionary note: Semana Santa Sevilla is not a festival for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia or has a fear of crowds, as you are literally jammed shoulder to shoulder in a tightly-compressed mass, often shuffling along, and having to squeeze through the narrowest of gaps to make your way through. Up to a million people are estimated to line the streets during the Semana Santa Sevilla, but at no time did we ever feel frightened or in danger.
Semana Santa was an extraordinary week full of pageantry, music, art, culture, tradition, theatre and raw emotion that we will never forget, but in saying that, Sevilla has so much history, culture and other sights to see that the city ought to be on everyone's bucket list anyway.
-Kerrie Waterworth is a Wanaka-based freelance writer and journalist.
- Easter is springtime in southern Spain, so light clothes are recommended for the day, but take something to throw on during the night when the temperature drops.
- Visit the churches in the morning when they open their doors to the public to see the floats close up.
- Arrive at your chosen viewing spot early, and be aware that many streets are narrow and become so packed you can barely move. Also remember that although you’ll be standing for long periods, a rest stop with reviving tapas is never far away — Seville has around 3000 bars.
- The streets included in the procession are cut off due to the installation of chairs and box seats. However, there are walkways to cross these streets — Sierpes, Plaza de San Francisco, Avenida de la Constitution and Garcda de Vinuesa.
- For guaranteed views, another option is to rent a balcony overlooking the route — mybalcony (mybalcony.com) offers balconies to rent for up to 12 people. Some include food and drink. Get a printed programme (weekly versions from hotels, shops and tourist information offices; more in-depth ones come with daily newspapers) showing facts, routes and timings, including colours of each procession’s robes and details about its history; websites such as sevillasemanasanta.com feature images of churches and statues, as well as procession schedules. Most are free but some newsstands may charge you. Use an app for real-time updates of where each procession is: iLlamador (semanasantaentumovil.com) is good.
- Watch processions pass through their own district (San Bernardo, Macarena, Triana); you’ll feel the intense affection. Confetti and flower petals are thrown, and during some processions, a haunting lament to the Holy Mother is sung from a balcony.
- Accommodation gets booked up very early for Semana Santa. If you are booking late, you may get lucky using a hotel or apartment search engine such as booking.com or homeaway.com. The areas of Santa Cruz, the Arenal, Alfalfa or Alameda are all close to the cathedral; Nervion is further away, but you are more likely to find a room.