As incense and candles burn, trumpets blare and drums beat, penitents covered in colorful tunics and conical hoods march slowly through the night toward the cathedral. Life-size statues of Jesus and Mary are carried by porters hidden beneath floats, making the several-ton structures appear to hover through the air.
The ritual plays out every year during Holy Week, or Semana Santa, part of an Easter tradition celebrated throughout Spain. In the southern region of Andalusia, cities spend all year planning for the spectacle. Seville, the regional capital, hosts some of the biggest processions, dating back to medieval times and organized by brotherhoods, or cofradias, each sporting their own colors.
For tourists here to see the Easter spectacle, Seville offers plenty of other things to do as well with its soaring cathedral, Real Alcazar (fortress), bullfighting ring, flamenco clubs, tapas bars and art galleries. Seville is also a convenient base for exploring Andalusia, making it easy to hop from city to city while seeing some of the best parades set against some of its most beautiful historic places. Cordoba, with its tangled warren of narrow streets and rich Catholic, Islamic and Jewish history, is only about 45 minutes away. Within a two-to-three hour trip are Cadiz, one of Europe's oldest cities; Granada, home of the breathtaking Alhambra fortress; and Malaga, where the Semana Santa floats are bigger and are accompanied by more exuberant music and applause. Each city could merit an overnight stay.
Andalusia is flooded with tourists during Holy Week, so hotels can be expensive and must be booked in advance of Easter (April 24 this year). If you can't make it for Semana Santa, don't worry, festivals take place here year-round. If you don't visit around Easter, the images carried in the processions, called pasos, can be viewed in their home churches.
The Semana Santa tradition
Each wooden or plaster paso is a distinct depiction of the Passion or a grieving Mary, and some are centuries-old artistic masterpieces. They are tended to by the cofradias, many of which formed back in the 1500s and 1600s. Some of the pasos from back then are still carried today.
Female spectators dress in mourning, wearing black dresses with a lace scarf, or mantilla, held by a comb made of shell. Some lay Catholic associations started allowing women to march in recent years, but legend has it that women have always secretly donned the face-covering habits with pointed hoods and marched as penitents, or Nazarenos (the outfit was appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan). This year, the archbishop of Seville decreed that women must be allowed to participate, including carrying the massive floats.
Only God is supposed to know the identity of a Nazareno. A jarring sight is to watch the hooded penitents scurrying around town, rushing to their parishes before the marches begin.
Nowadays, many parents enlist their children in the brotherhoods at a very young age because it takes years to move up the ranks and earn a prestigious spot in a procession, such as the coveted position of carrying a great cross at the head. Most processions are at night, and the Nazarenos carry long candles to light the way from their parish church to the cathedral and back again, an arduous journey that can take more than 12 hours. Some walk barefoot or even with shackles. In some of the biggest processions, a group of Roman soldiers follows.
The Nazarenos are followed by altar boys, some carrying incense. Then comes the main attraction, the pasos, decorated with flowers and candles. They are carried by costaleros, named for the sack-cloth they wear. Anywhere from two dozen to several dozen costaleros will carry the paso, and will set it down and raise it back up again periodically (their toil can draw applause from appreciative crowds). The costaleros, who can be seen reaching for water during breaks, are guided by an overseer, or capataz, who calls out commands or uses a hammer to signal directions.
The biggest brotherhoods parade up to three pasos. While some processions are eerily silent, others are followed by a brass band that plays mournful music on trumpets, drums and cymbals. Sometimes singers along the parade route will offer a saeta, a religious form of improvised singing that sounds similar to flamenco and is often sung from balconies. The procession peaks when it finally reaches the cathedral.
Processions in Andalusia begin on Palm Sunday and reach their pinnacle after midnight on Good Friday, a time known as La Madrugada. Ask at a tourist office for timetables, names of the must-see processions and where to view them. Bring a map and allow plenty of time, as navigating a maze of blocked streets can be difficult. Expect the unexpected, such as tourist sites closing early or processions being canceled by rain.
Kids can collect a souvenir prized by local children: a ball of wax formed by asking the Nazarenos for drips from their candles, which can be of various colors.
During Lent, the Spanish eat plenty of vegetables and fish. One Easter pastry is torrijas, sweet fried bread soaked in wine.
Here are some details on visiting Seville, Cordoba and Granada:
Seville, a two-and-a-half hour high-speed rail trip or short flight from Madrid, is the dynamic hub of Andalusia, known as Al-Andalus during the nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule over various parts of the region. The medieval port city's most prominent relic of the Muslim era is the towering La Giralda, which began as a minaret and later became the bell tower of Seville's Santa Maria Cathedral, one of the world's biggest churches. The sprawling cathedral was a symbol of the port city's great wealth and houses the marble tomb of Christopher Columbus (the Dominican Republic also claims to have his remains).
On Easter Sunday, a parade of more than a dozen cardinals and bishops attends Mass. The area around the cathedral is a hive of activity during Seville's Semana Santa, when more than 50 brotherhoods swing into action. Here the pasos are draped to cover the costaleros beneath.
After midnight on Good Friday, the first procession is said to be the oldest: El Silencio, which marches in silence. Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of the Great Power) follows, parading its prized image of Jesus carrying the cross. Next is La Macarena, with its popular image of the grieving Mary. The last of six processions is Los Gitanos (The Gypsies), which arrives at about dawn.
Seville dedicates a weeklong fair after Semana Santa — this year it's May 3-8 — to flamenco dress and dancing, bullfighting, eating and drinking sherry, or Jerez (the part of Andalusia it comes from).
Begun as a cattle fair, it transforms the fairgrounds into a tent city, with parades of horses and carriages, guitar players and aristocrats in traditional dress. This is when the bullfighting season peaks at the city's historic Real Maestranza arena.
Its ancient center might seem quaint and charming now, but a thousand years ago, Cordoba was considered a megacity and an intellectual hub as the Umayyad caliphate's capital. The city's multi-faith past can be seen at the Mezquita-Catedral.
Originally the site of a Roman temple and then a church, it was transformed into one of the world's biggest mosques, with its endless red and white arches. After the Catholic reconquista, a cathedral was built in the center and it remains strictly Catholic today. Not far away is the white-walled Jewish Quarter, where one of the world's largest Jewish communities once lived and where the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was born.
Semana Santa is more somber here. A boisterous time to visit is during the Cordoba Guitar Festival, when world-class guitarists play and courses on flamenco guitar, dance and song are given (July 5-16 this year).
About three hours east of Seville by train, less by car, Granada is home to one of Spain's most visited tourist sites, the masterpiece of Islamic architecture known as Alhambra, a Middle Ages palace with richly carved reliefs and mosaics that reveals itself through its strategically-placed archways. Tickets are limited and can be booked in advance. Avoid crowds by visiting early or late in the day. The Generalife gardens are alone worth the price of admission, offering stunning views of the palace and the city below.
The Alhambra, set on a steep hill, is home to a cathedral and makes for a magnificent setting for Semana Santa processions that wind their way uphill.
In June, Granada hosts a big Corpus Christi fiesta, which merges with its weeklong annual feria (Corpus Christi is June 23 this year). The Granada International Music and Dance Festival brings top musicians to venues like the Alhambra and Generalife (June 24-July 12 this year, when beloved Granada poet Federico Garcia Lorca will be celebrated).
For a more low-key approach to Semana Santa, Madrid hosts some parades, and more elaborate processions can be seen in nearby cities like Toledo and Segovia, just 30 minutes away by high-speed train; Cuenca, an hour away, and Valencia, 90 minutes away. Semana Santa is also a venerated tradition across the north in places like Zaragoza in Aragon and Zamora, Valladolid, Leon and Salamanca in Castilla-Leon.