Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Seville, Spain: The Festivities of Semana Santa

Inside the basílica de la Macarena

Basílica de la Macarena
 Photo: Juan Carlos Guijarro Moreno

I studied Comparative Religion when I went to university, earning a degree that never once got me a job but which instilled within me a lifelong fascination with ritual and lived religious expression. When I travel I pay special attention to the way religion works its way into the daily life of the people of different cultures, yet I’ve only once travelled to a city with the primary intention of witnessing its signature ceremony. The city was Seville in the south of Spain, and the ceremony was Semana Santa, Catholicism’s Holy Week.


Arriving Early

OK, my travels to Seville, locally called Sevilla, to check out Semana Santa might not have been quite as premeditated as I make it sound. I arrived in Spain knowing that I eventually wanted to make my way down through Spain to Seville but it wasn’t because I was that much interested in witnessing Holy Week. I sort-of-knew Semana Santa was a big deal in Seville but my primary reason for wanting to head down to the south of Spain was the fact a friend of mine had spent quite a bit of time in Seville and I wanted to check out the city that had so captured her heart.

A little research revealed Seville had the most famous and impressive Holy Week in Spain. It was late March and I was already in Spain so I figured I might as well explore Seville during the city’s time in the spotlight and I began to search for accommodations.

If I had thought ahead I would have realized hostel prices would skyrocket over the course of a week-long festival drawing in visitors and pilgrims from every corner of the world, but impulsive as I am I found out too late that I couldn’t actually afford to visit Seville during Holy Week. At least, I couldn’t visit for the full week. I could, however, afford to visit for the week leading up to Semana Santa. I figured catching the first day of the festival was better than not seeing any of it, so I booked a room and took the next bus leaving.


A Small City Wakes Up

Seville is a comfortably-sized city though barely a metropolis, providing a home for about 700,000 people during most of the year. The city center itself is old as you can imagine. Looking at aerial maps you can see the town’s old limits clearly. Inside the ancient city limits the streets are winding, confusing, and cramped, while outside the city opens up into a modern grid that better accommodates auto traffic.

When I call Seville’s streets “winding, confusing and cramped” I’m being kind. Seville’s old town was laid down seemingly without rhyme or reason, which makes getting lost a daily occurrence. The difficulty in navigating Seville’s streets is compounded by the fact the city enforces a strict ordinance allowing buildings to only be painted one of three colors. Yellow for the sun, white for the sand of the bullfighting arena, and red for the blood the Matador spills… either the bulls’ or his own.

The three-color-painting-scheme of Seville’s streets says a lot about the city’s character. Quiet, sleepy, decidedly (and at times stubbornly) old-fashioned.

Of course, old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing, especially for a traveller looking to soak into a new perspective on life, and there are many worse ways to spend an afternoon than finding yourself completely lost in Seville’s streets, avenues fragrant with the scent of orange blossom, given off by the old city’s ever-present citrus trees.

The city was designed for a small population of people looking for a slower and quieter way of a life, a point thrown into clarity as Seville was rapidly filled with tourists, travellers, and pilgrims over the week I was there, the week leading up to Semana Santa, the Holy Week celebration. That celebration sees this sleepy city of 700,000 residents accommodate millions more of the curious and the devout alike aiming to share in the drama.


Jesus on the Dashboard (and the Window Sill, and on Gelato Menu…)

Not that you could ever visit Seville and remain ignorant to the important place Catholicism continues to play in the city, even during the off-season. You don’t need to wade through endless crowds of elderly Spanish women as wide as they are tall, dressed head-to-toe in black, muttering a countless litany of prayers to get an idea that Seville’s old-fashioned ways translate to religion’s continued importance to the local people.

Catholic iconography is everywhere in Seville, littering the city’s avenues in the same casual manner we fill our streets with advertisements elsewhere in Europe and the States. You can’t wander Seville for long without running into a large church or a small shrine to the Virgin built into the wall of a family’s residence.

I mentioned the ever-present nature of Seville’s Catholicism to a friend of mine who grew up in the city and she offered a pointed correction. My friend explained how religion isn’t really that important to Seville’s younger population, not these days, not anymore, and certainly not compared to how important it was to past generations.

I see where she was coming from, even if I’m proposing a slightly more nuanced argument than what she picked up on. Maybe the young people in Seville don’t go to church every week or every day the way their parents and grandparents did, but you can’t walk through the city for more than a minute without absorbing the iconography of faith. Catholicism provides a corner of the city’s cultural backdrop as deeply as paella, as bullfighting, as flamenco, all of which exist within a sensual culture attached to a religion whose oft-cited moralism complicates in Seville’s daily expression, where the girls go to church on the holiest day of the year wearing dresses pressed tighter and cut shorter than anything American women wear on their way to the club.


Body and Soul, Semana Santa

The complicated physical nature of Seville’s Catholic culture makes itself known in the Cathedral of Saint Mary, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, the largest Gothic cathedral ever built and the third largest church in the world. Seville’s streets may seem randomly set but really all the city’s roads lead to the Cathedral, which plays the focal point where all of Holy Week’s processions wind up. The Cathedral is towering, immense, massive, imposing, intimidating, impressive, and, above all, awe-inspiring in its bulk, even for an atheist like myself.

The same can be said for the processions, during which you plug into a swelling crowd lining the streets as order after order of anonymously hooded worshiper walks through the nighttime streets carrying heavy crosses and five foot candles they use to pour wax onto souvenir balls offered out by local children. The processions are marked by enormous platforms gracefully heaved through the city, from church to church, on the backs and heads of men who train all year and sync their movements to blaring brass bands whose looping melodies never feel repetitive.

If you make it to Seville during Semana Santa, I recommend working your way to the edge of the streets at two in the morning, right beside the stout and stubborn old Spanish women, so you can reach out and touch the platforms as they pass by. In that moment you may start to understand the complicated yet undeniable way an old-fashioned town like Seville still offers an emotional expression to religion.