Arrival in Seville during Semana Santa
Part of: Southern Spain and Morocco
They played a movie in English with Spanish subtitles and handed out headphones just like on a plane, but unfortunately it was one we had already seen and didn't like the first time around, My Super Ex-Girlfriend. No matter, we were just grateful to be sitting.
And it was a good thing we had that rest, since reaching our hotel in Seville turned out to be no easy task! As I mentioned when we booked our trip, I had timed our visit in Seville to coincide with Semana Santa (more info on what this is all about in the next post) and was thrilled. Seville is considered the place to be for this festival, so I was relieved to be able to find a decent hotel room available less than a month in advance. Even better, our hotel was just down the road from the cathedral!
But there were two significant downsides to this. First, hotels in Seville triple their prices during Semana Santa - ouch. Second, all Semana Santa parades pass through the cathedral and take place at night. Our hotel was by the cathedral and we arrived at night, so... our route was completely blocked off by crowds and parades.
Arriving at the Seville train station, we grabbed a taxi and asked for our hotel by name. This was met by a barrage of loud and fast Spanish, furrowed brows, and shaking of the head. The only phrase I caught was Semana Santa, but we got the picture. We managed to communicate to him to get us as close as possible, and off we went.
Given his reaction we figured we'd be lucky to be dropped off at the edge of the old town, but our driver did amazingly well. He drove straight into the crowds and down narrow old streets, his horn and hand gestures clearing the way, until he just couldn't go any farther. He gave us directions in Spanish from there, which seemed to be: to go straight to a plaza, make a left, go around a corner... it was unclear and we soon forgot most of it.
So armed only with my semi-adequate Rough Guide map of the city, my little compass and David's good sense of direction, we set off in what seemed to be the direction of the cathedral. It's never that fun to be lost in a new city burdened with luggage, but it immediately became clear why everyone loves to be in Seville for Semana Santa - what an atmosphere! It seemed as if the entire city was out on the streets (and it probably was), laughing, drinking and having a great time. I have never seen a city so alive at night - although in fairness I haven't been to New York.
Making our way through the crowds, we made fairly decent progress, helped by occasional verifications from bystanders of the direction of the cathedral and eventually identifying a plaza that was actually listed on my map. Soon, however, just as we feared, we hit a roadblock:
A procession of black-robed penitents blocking our path (you can see the silver staffs they're carrying), along with a crowd gathered to watch them. I consulted a schedule of the processions I had printed back at home, and it showed the last one finishing at 3 AM. We began to seriously wonder if we would be sitting in a bar or a plaza until that time. Worse things could happen in life, but we were so tired.
From the spot in the photo above, David called our hotel to ask for advice. The receptionist was very kind and thankfully spoke good English, but basically just verified that it would be quite difficult to reach the hotel and he wished us luck! Oy vey.
In the end, we made our way to the front of the little crowd watching the procession in our alley, and noticed that some people were managing to walk alongside it. So we took a left and headed against the flow of the black-robed group, who had already been to the cathedral and were making their way back to their parish church.
Various groups within each procession carry different things, and the ones we walked next to were carrying large wooden crosses on their shoulders. Since we were only inches from the participants, we really had to concentrate in order to avoid being knocked in the head! But this was actually one of the coolest experiences of the trip - being so close to the action with the rhythmic drums pounding in our ears and meeting the eyes of the penitents (many of whom were barefoot) through the eye-holes of their cone-shaped hoods.
And somehow, we eventually found our street, and then our hotel. It was nearly 11 PM by then, and the wheels of David's suitcase were coated in candle wax from the streets and no longer rolling. We received a warm welcome from the man David had spoken to on the phone, and in less than a minute we had our key. Our room was great, decorated in a nice modern style and relatively large for its location in the old town.
And we were glad we did. We got our first glimpse of the magnificent "Giralda" (left), the cathedral's belltower, and we joined the crowds to watch another procession emerge from the cathedral and head down a side street.
This time we got to see one of the floats - or pasos - that bear a centuries-old image of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by huge candles and sheltered by a silver canopy. There are no tractors under these floats - they are carried on the shoulders of up to 40 men.
These parades are all so long, and often stop for extended periods due to traffic jams, that a great deal of anticipation builds up before the appearance of the floats (which are always near the end). Just when you think it may never get close enough to see, the drums start up again, the float is hoisted up in one smooth motion and begins to teeter slowly in your direction. Whether you're religious or not, it's remarkably exciting!
The parade was still far from over, but we made our way back in the direction of our hotel to see about something to eat (dinner had thus far been Pringles on the train). It was around midnight or so, but the streets were filled with people and activity and it felt like the night was just getting started.
We found a walk-up window that seemed to be popular with the locals for snacks, and ordered a hamburguesa for David and something called tortilla de patatas for me. Both of us ordered on the name alone and didn't really know what we were getting.
As for my choice, it had nothing to do with tortillas in the Mexican sense - it turns out the word has a completely different meaning in Spain. It was cubed potatoes held together with egg and put inside a dry baguette to make a sandwich. It was all right, but like the kebab wagons that show up in Oxford on Friday and Saturday nights, I think it's the sort of food best enjoyed when drunk.
Better prospects were found at a nicer little restaurant just up the street, which had a deli, a little pizzeria with some tables, and a counter near the door selling grilled sandwiches. David ordered a grilled pork sandwich and it was really tasty.
Then finally, we hobbled back to the hotel to collapse. What a long but good day that was!