Sunday, April 08, 2007

Andalucía I: Holy Week in Seville

I’m a convert. Not back to Catholicism—though spending a week immersed, as Andrew says, in “Big-C” Catholicism would definitely be the way to bring this about. No; I’m a convert to Andalucía. I feel like I’m betraying lovely, splendid Barcelona by saying it, but southern Spain is amazing. The kind of place that ignites love instantly. The kind of place that’s easy on all the senses, that fits the fairytale image of Spain. Life in Barcelona is good. Life in Andalucía would be, it seems, very, very good.

We flew to Seville on Monday. One of the first things that stands out in Seville is the air—it smells of jasmine and orange flowers, everywhere. For Andrew, this trip was a kind of homecoming—he lived there for six months in college, and has only visited once since then. He loved Seville so much when he studied there that he very nearly didn’t come back. Perhaps I would have met him anyway, traveling on my own one day to Seville, striking up a conversation over a plate of albondigas in a sunny plaza. Quien sabe, as the Spanish say—who knows. In any case, he did come back, and we arrived together to find it sunny but cold. We checked into our hotel in the neighborhood of Triana—a “real” hotel this time, a big chain, with desk-attendants on duty all night, climate control, an array of amenities in the bathroom, and—speaking of bathrooms—an immense, lovely shower. A far cry from our own apartment and the sundry B&B’s we’re used to, which don’t even offer a bar of soap.

It’s Holy Week—Semana Santa—which was our purpose for coming to Seville at this particular time. Unlike most of our trips, which we plan on a whim, we’d booked our flight and hotel for this trip many months ago. The city fills up for Semana Santa; we were lucky, even back in December, to get the bookings we did.

After a delicious lunch in Triana (a platter of mixed fried fish, a plate of albondigas), we headed into the center and saw our first paso—a religious float carried in a long, ritualistic procession. A paso in Seville begins with a formally dressed marching band playing funeral songs. The band is followed by hundreds—perhaps close to a thousand—nazarenos, who are men, women, and children carrying tall candles and wearing robes and high, cone-shaped hoods, many of them barefoot. The hoods cover the entire face, leaving only eye-holes—they look like the Ku Klux Klan. At night, when the candles are lit and the processions stretch for miles and the crowd is silent, with only the somber drumbeats of the band, the effect is as creepy as it is devout.

There are two pasos in each procession: one of Christ in a scene from the Passion; and one of the Virgin in mourning, with pearly tears on her cheeks. Each enormous paso weighs a ton or more and is covered with life-size statues, mounds of flowers, and candles. The Virgin always wears a golden crown and an elaborate robe. Each of these is preceded by a band, and each is carried by a group of men called costaleros, whose grunts of exertion can be heard each time they lift the paso. They must walk for miles—from their home church, to the Cathedral (where their pasos are blessed), and back to their church.

These pasos do not move swiftly. They are very much stop-and-start, with long pauses each time a paso needs to be maneuvered around a corner or through the doors of a church. It is a painstaking, lengthy process. Yet the crowds are rapt—and there are crowds. The streets around each paso become a sea of people, at all hours of the night; Andrew and I found ourselves locked in a mass of people at midnight, one, one-thirty. And since this is Seville, it is a family affair. Parents, grandparents, children, babies—entire family units turn out together for the processions, all of them dressed up. In Seville, which is all treacherous cobblestones, women are almost uniformly in high heels. And the enormous crowds get almost silent when a paso goes by—quiet enough so that a singer standing on a balcony on a main street can be heard singing a saeta. Even groups of teenagers pause from their smoking and drinking to bless themselves when a paso inches forward.

Pictures can’t do Seville’s Holy Week justice, nor can these short videos (which I uploaded to YouTube)—but they can give a glimpse:

These processions are as much a part of Easter for children in Seville as Easter baskets are in the U.S. We saw kids raptly watching the processions, holding out their hands for candy, pieces of which the nazarenos drew from deep within their robes. At night, children rushed up to nazarenos during a procession’s frequent pauses, hoping they’d tilt their dripping candles and add drops of wax to quickly-growing wax balls. The children would hold out the balls and turn them, trying to catch the wax drops evenly on all sides. I don’t know what happens to these wax balls after Semana Santa—but some were impressive even by Monday night, as large as baseballs. And being part of the festivities is something respected—something to be strived for. Andrew said that when he studied in Seville, his host family’s two young children would “play” Semana Santa, rigging a paso-type structure from cardboard and tubing, pretending to lift and carry it on their shoulders.

The streets became more and more dotted with wax drippings as the days passed—white, red, black.

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