It’s that time of year. Carnival, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and all that. Here in Spain, a lot of the same lenten traditions apply as in much of the Christian world, but in a much more serious manner which dates back hundreds of years.
You may have seen images like the above in the past. Men and women in pointed hoods, walking the streets with crosses or candles, and wondered, What the heck is going on? Well, it’s Semana Santa here in Seville and in many Latin American and Southern European areas. Semana Santa actually means Holy Week, so you can stop wondering about that right now.
I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, but I’ll run it down as best I can. During Semana Santa, many independent hermandades (brotherhoods) have processions around the city. They walk in penance and are therefore known as penitentes. They’re otherwise called nazarenos.
Some carry crosses, others candles, and there are always huge float-like objects weighing up to two tons, which show images of the Virgin Mary and different scenes from the time leading up to Jesus’ death.
These are not driven by vehicles, but are actually carried by 40-50 men, known as costaleros. Check the feet.
These guys are easily identified by the towels they wear on their heads to brace the sculptures and floats they carry. These guys are currently on break (more on that later).
In addition, a paso (procession) from a specific hermandad is often accompanied by a band of some sort.
Many hermandades are known for specific traits, or shows, or quirks that are admired throughout their processions. Some are super-skilled at swaying the float to music. Others, such as the famous Silencio, is known for being absolutely quiet for the entire procession.
These hermandades were founded during medieval times, many of which were originally support groups for different trades or ethnicities. For example, Las Cigarreras were a brotherhood of workers from the tobacco factory here. Los Negritos were originally a brotherhood that supported freed slaves. And on and on, as there are many here in Seville alone.
Oh, you wanted to know about the pointy hoods? Most Americans are immediately alarmed at such things, but that has absolutely nothing to do with this. The pointed hoods are to hide the faces of the men (and women) as part of their penance.
They are not to show their faces when they are giving penance during Holy Week, as doing so would simply be a sign of vanity that they are showing who they are and what they’re doing. Some penitentes put their hoods down – instead of standing up pointed – as a sign of penance beyond that.
Now that we’ve got that over with, let’s get to our own experience! Most of our friends here – along with thousands of other locals – get the heck out of town this week.
Semana Santa has probably the largest influx of tourists during all the year in Seville – I’m told up to 2.3 million people can hit the town running. That’s quite a boost from a normal population of 700,000 in the city proper.
It gets really chaotic here, and an outflow of a lot of the local citizenry is totally understood. We’d never experienced Semana Santa before, and figured we had to see it at least one time. So, we stuck around for la locura (the madness).
Semana Santa starts on Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), when all of Seville comes out in its best garb to celebrate this holy occasion and the beginning of the dozens of pasos that will take place over the course of the week.
Starting on this day, about a half-dozen processions will pass through various parts of the city, filled with members of the different brotherhoods, doing what they’ve practiced all year for.
And those millions of tourists and locals alike will crowd the streets in great abundance, to the chagrin of many who are just trying to go somewhere, but to the joy of many more who are anticipating all that glory.
We were invited out with our friend, Ana, and a couple of her friends, to see a few processions on Palm Sunday. Of course, we had to stop at a couple bars on the way.
The crowds were beastly, and we barely got to see anything at all during the first two we visited. That didn’t seem to bother most people, though!
At dusk, we headed into the direct center of the city to take on even more people. This time, we got lucky as we ran into a procession going straight down Calle Sierpes.
We didn’t get the best pictures due to low light, but we did get to see our first up-close-and-personal procession of the week.
It’s just completely astounding how much effort and work it takes the penitentes and the costaleros to walk for anywhere from six to twenty hours (!!!). It is good to know, at least, that the costaleros switch out from underneath the behemoths of floats in order to take breaks while other members tag in to carry for the next round.
Sore on our feet and looking for a beer, we headed across Calle Sierpes during a break in the procession and made our way to Plaza del Salvador to wait for another procession that was preparing to depart from its church.
This one was very late, so we ended up hot on our feet and sipping cold beer until these guys were ready.
Over 1200 strong, it seemed like the stream of them exiting the church was never going to end.
The crowds being overkill on Palm Sunday, and already being sore and tired from all the crowd-dodging and tippy-toe standing we did during the afternoon, we headed home late and vowed not to put ourselves in a work-hard-but-see-nothing situation again.
We thought we might be done, save for a possible visit to the Silencio or one of the other processions during the Madrugá – the overnight processions that take place between Maunday Thursday and Good Friday – but we were in for a surprise treat on Wednesday.
As we’re wont to do, we linked up with our landlord/friend, Pepe, and headed out for a beer on Wednesday afternoon.
Standing in the craft beer shop on Calle Jesús del Gran Poder, we were struck by a gathering crowd and a procession that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
This up-close-and-personal experience is what we really wanted, and boy, we sure got it.
As you can see, I really like to capture the eyes of the penitentes. It’s interesting to me to think about how they feel and what’s on their mind as they go through this voluntary burden.
This particular one happened to have girls in it as well, which was once a no-no but now seems to be much more commonplace. Kids get involved too, some even if their parents aren’t part of the action.
Kids also like to collect wax from all the melting candles in order to make huge balls out of them. Caught this kid with a pretty good-size one, waiting for more wax to add on.
After watching the magnificence for a while and downing our beers, we dodged through the paso while it was stopped and made our way up to Calle Feria and the Alameda neighborhoods. We stopped for some drinks and chats, not expecting to see anything more for the day.
Our pal Marcos showed up, and we all decided we should head to another bar to grab a bite to eat.
Low and behold, whaddya know: Another procession. This one hadn’t started yet, and we hadn’t planned on watching it. We ducked into La Estreza and grabbed some beers, ordered some food, all that good stuff.
The crowd thickened out of nowhere, and a procession started to arrive at its church, Iglesia de Omnium Sanctorum, one of the oldest in the city.
While it was dark and hard to see, much less get good shots, it was the first time we saw a procession return to its church.
There was much music to be had, which was a pleasant surprise that greatly lightened the mood of the occasion.
In addition, it appeared that the costaleros actually had to get on their knees – all while carrying one to two tons on their backs – just to get their float through the entrance of the church. Wow.
Once the craziness died down a bit, we headed back to the Alameda to regroup.
If I’m not mistaken, it was already after one in the morning, and we thought it’d be a good idea to head home. Little did we know – of course – that yet another procession would be blocking our path, this one over at Plaza de San Lorenzo.
Not in the mood for late-night processions, we skedaddled around the procession for several blocks and finally made our way home, very tired and very weary.
We’d definitely had enough for one week, but every day was full of another experience with another procession. It was also very interesting to watch some of the penitentes make their way around the city, as they do not ever remove their hoods in public.
Life must go on, and I find it very intriguing, the mix of old tradition and new technology that’s bound to rear its head over the course of a week.
Nothing at all against this sort of thing. I truly find it interesting that such an age-old tradition has made its way into the 21st century.
On Saturday, we headed out to a café for a drink and a sit, our own daily – sometimes twice daily – ritual. And what do you know? Yessir/yes ma’am…another procession.
Enough is enough for two people, no doubt. We headed north, away from the crowds, and found quieter places to take our solace. Yet again, on our way home that eve, we were diverted by another procession.
Alas, we made it back to the home base, tired again from a bit of extra hustle and plenty of extra tradition.
While it is extremely exhausting, this is one of those things I feel can be a once in a lifetime experience. We’re so very thrilled that we stuck around and were able to see the faith and penance on display throughout the city.
While we’re not practicing individuals, we do have a great appreciation for, not only what these people do and how faithful they are, but for all the people who come here to see it. It’s quite an experience that is not to be missed.
Nonetheless, we think we’ll head off for a vacation next time Semana Santa comes around.
But, thanks to all of our friends and our hosts for showing us such a deep tradition here in Spain, and to everyone in the city who make it happen every year. We greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here.