ON SEVILLE'S WAY OF THE CROSS

Easter in Seville is pure theatre as the streets become the stage for a dramatic re-enactment of the Passion. Townspeople throng the streets day and night to watch and take part in eerie rituals little changed since medieval times

AT DAWN, mist snakes up from the River Guadalquivir through the narrow cobbled streets and into the plaza and the smell of sewers mingles with the smell of coffee, sweat, black tobacco and orange blossom. Even at this hour the crowd is here, the debris - paper cups, cans, cigarette butts - attesting to the all-night vigil. Ties are askew now, the ultra smart suit jackets are pulled tight against the chill morning air. Bright red lips have faded and eyes are baggy. Families sit close, in wicker chairs, talking, smoking.

As the sky lightens the cowled people, this time swathed in purple velvet, enter the square. Incense billows damp and sweet from swinging silver censers while in the mist-disorientated distance the throb of the approaching drums is more felt than heard. As the crowd begins to thicken, the hubbub and hushing of voices crescendos, and everyone finds new energy pressing into position under a bruised sky. The music, reedy sharp, funereal, mesmeric, grows loud as a band of shining trombones, horns and oboes enters, slow marching. Then suddenly - silence. Jesus arrives, bowed deep, dragging the heavy ebony-black cross, on a towering float of gold covered with blood-red flowers manouevred on invisible shoulders.

As the float sinks to a stop, a woman with big gold earings and black Moorish ringlets clutches the air from a wrought iron balcony and begins to keen, a haunting ancient song of anguish for the tragedy of the Son of God. The crowd holds its breath. Old women kneel, genuflect, tears in their eyes. The singer flagellates the silence with her powerful pain until her body crumples like a rag doll against the balcony rail. A portly man follows, wrenching his lament from the depths of his heart, reaching out pudgy entreating hands to the Jesus.

Then just as suddenly it's over, the bandsmen in mirror glazed sunglasses pick up the refrain, the brotherhood lift their candles and crosses, women dab their eyes, men hastily light cigarettes, the applause resounds and everyone talks at once as the float rises and, rhythmically swaying to the heart beat drums, moves off. The donut makers prepare for the deluge, strong coffee and pick-me-up brandies are poured. The night of waiting is over, Jesus is moving toward Calgary.

Easter in Seville is unashamed theatre. From Palm Sunday to Easter Day, the Semana Santa Sevillanos take to the streets to retell the story of Jesus's path to the cross. It is a tale they've told in this way - with pasos (floats) of bejewelled virgins and lacerated Christs carried on the shoulders of barefoot penitents and streams of hooded, cross bearing, chain carrying confradias or brotherhoods - for centuries.

To 20th century eyes, much of the initial eeriness of these processions comes from the fact that the all-enveloping, pointed head costumes of the confradias - the medieval brotherhoods associated with each church parish - look uncomfortably like those of the American Ku Klux Klan. This is, in fact, not misplaced unease: the churchmen who developed this secretive uniform during the Inquistition had similar reasons to the Klan for not wanting to be recognized, as they seized their own neighbours to be taken off and tried as heretics.

Now their velvet and satin robes of purple, scarlet, green, royal blue, chocolate, black and white, emblazoned with parish crests and hung with silver chains and votive symbols lend the city an other-worldly atmosphere and hide only that young girls are now allowed to take their place among the marchers.

All who take the hood are called nazarenos or penitents, even the small children who take part, and by tradition they must not tell the reason for their penitence. The oldest of the 54 brotherhoods and one of the most serious belongs to the Capilla de San Antonio Abad. Founded in 1340 the penitents of this confradia dress in black and accompany a float depicting Jesus at the moment when God reveals his destiny on the cross. Gliding in the half dark of candlelight on Good Friday morning this float, and the silent figures carrying black crosses and clanking chains, fill the streets with forboding.

But not everything is so solemn: the confradias are responsible for more than 100 lavishly ornate floats, many of which originate from 16th and 17th centuries. Every possible emotive interpretation of the Passion is there, complete with cherubic angels, anguished disciples, saintly mothers, cruel soldiers and everywhere the thorn-crowned and bleeding Jesus. The floats, which weigh several tonnes, are carried on the shoulders of up to 50 costaleros who toughen up for the weight by carrying mock floats piled high with bricks. Hidden under the floats' wooden skirts and with heads swathed like galley slaves and bare feet they trudge their burden through the narrow winding streets with sometimes only centimetres to spare, and entertain the crowds by co-ordinating their lifts and strides to make the floats "dance".

And for every float there is at least one magnificant "Mary", riding on platforms of silver and gold, under swaying crystal-threaded canopies, draped in velvet capes studded with gems and gold embroidery, surrounded by candelabra of gold and silver, ranks of creamy votive candles and masses of white lilies, and evoking almost more love and adoration from the crowd than her son. The most beloved is the Virgin de la Esperanza Macarena, the virgin of hope, the patroness of bullfighters, and therefore of Seville itself. When she passes the crowd scream "Guapa, Guapa", "The Beauty, the Beauty" and crush forward to fleetingly touch her float. This is the lady who with her diamond tears and gem-encrusted crown and costume is reputed to possess a collection of jewels second only to that owned by the Queen of England.

Throughout the week the atmosphere builds. Daily four or five processions begin from their home parish in the late afternoon and march on into the night. There is music everywhere, from the band's sharp saetas - the flamenco- based hymns of the Passion - to the guitars of the gypsies celebrating in the park. In shop windows miniature Jesuses are crucified among the light fittings, on cakes and between underclothes while sugar penitents line patisserie shelves. Locals and tourists gather to talk and wait and watch procession after procession, fill the bars and restaurants and turn days into nights and nights into days.

But on Maundy Thursday the festivities seem to move up a gear, swinging wildly from solemnity and tears to revelry, sociability and laughter. Pontius Pilate washes his hands, Jesus is speared by Roman soldiers as he falls at the foot of the cross. Families and friends arrive from out of town, children dressed in their best persuade the hooded people to drip candle wax into giant "lucky" balls in their hands, and the women of Seville step out statuesque in black dresses and black lace mantillas. Carrying heavy crosses and pearl rosaries, they sail like magnificent tall ships on the arms of their slick-haired, perfectly shaved Armani- suited men into the squares where everyone meets to laugh and talk, drink Fino (dry sherry) and beer and eat garlic-laced olives and sweet stringy calamares and salty cheese in the spring sun. And even as they do, the cowled ones march silently on.

As the tiredness of the crowd grows, so too does the tension and anticipation, first of the disaster of the crucifixion and then of the release of the resurrection. By Good Friday the sadness on the procession route is palpable, weighty, the ever present music is a slow heart beat, and the crucification of Christ is relived.

At this stage of the week watching the processions becomes something of an obsession regardless of your religious affiliation. Just when you feel you've had enough and are heading back to the hotel for a sleep, the dirge, the wailing trumpets pull you to yet another plaza, yet another revelation of emotion. Jesus hangs on the cross, is dropped over Mary's lap, sits at the right hand of God. You know it's going to be alright in the end, you don't want to see any more, yet can't miss anything. All Holy Saturday, groups of people, their fine clothes showing the ravages of the vigil and the partying, wander in thrall to the bands, the tears of the Marys, the bloodied Christs, the all pervading incense. Until midnight. Then all the floats return to their halls - except one.

At 4am on Easter Sunday, the bands strike up triumphally and the costaleros raise the last float. Surrounded by confradias in luminescent white, the risen Jesus, beatific in the lamplight, moves through streets that are now strangely quiet, followed by a golden Mary and massed bands. Regardless of what your religious beliefs may be, the cloud over Seville has lifted. Joy is in the air and, as an appropriately brilliant dawn arrives, so too do the crowds, surrounding the procession like a jubilant wave as it enters the huge western door of the famous Gothic Cathedral. Blessed by the Archbishop of Seville, the line of worshippers moves out from the east, into a new day. .GETTING THERE: Air fares drop dramatically immediately after Holy Week itself, making Seville an ideal destination for a spring break. A direct scheduled flight with Iberia (0171 830 0011) costs pounds 234 return from 9 April. Other airlines fly via Madrid and Malaga; a return flight with British Airways (0345 222111) costs pounds 380 from 9 April.

STAYING THERE: Packages from independent operators such as Magic of Spain (0181 748 4999) can be excellent value. Between 9 April and 23 May, two nights in a double room at a three-star hotel in Seville costs pounds 289 per person (including return flight out of Heathrow). Hertz Rentacar (0345 55888) will provide you with a week's four-door family car rental from about pounds 161.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Spanish Tourist Office can be contacted by post at 57-58 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD, or telephone 0171 499 0901.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin