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.

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