WITH their pointy hats and bed-sheet capes, processing through the streets by torchlight, they look like members of the Ku Klux Klan. But this is southern Europe not the southern USA, and the hooded figures are not redneck racists but members of Seville's 57 brotherhoods of the church (confradias) marching in the early hours of Good Friday, bringing to a climax a week of spectacular celebration. Southern Catholics know how to celebrate Holy Week with style, and nowhere more so than Seville, where the Semana Santa festivities date back to the14th century. Throughout this week, members of the brotherhoods (all of which have names like "the Confraternity of the Kiss of Judas") will be a daily sight on the city's streets, accompanied by masked penitents and gilded wooden floats (passos) carried shoulder-high by 20 to 30 men. On these sit effigies of Christ or the Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers and gold and silver candelabra. For anyone brought up amid the low-key devotions of Protestantism, Seville's Semana Santa is an awe-inspiring, even unsettling, affair. But solemnity is tempered by a party atmosphere. The bars open late into the night; thousands throng the streets for the parades. It is difficult to think of a better European city to visit for Easter.


Closer to Morocco than Barcelona, Seville is the unofficial capital of southern Spain. The Moorish occupation from 712-1252, has left the city an exotic charm - a bit like Palermo, though without the dirt or the mafiosi. It was, until the river silted up in the 1680s, Spain's most important trading port. When Columbus returned in triumph from the New World in 1493, it was into Seville that he sailed, bringing home a collection of native Americans and species new to Europe. Don Juan hailed from here, as did Carmen, the cigarette worker heroine of Bizet's opera: two characters who, between them, tell you much about this heady and romantic city.

what to do

Seeing and being seen is the order of the day for Sevillanos - which for a short-stay visitor means watching the city's population preen and primp itself. Seville's nightlife revolves not around discos but bars, like the famous sawdust-strewn Bodega de Juan Garcia Aviles on Calle Mateus, a drinking hole of Tardis-like dimensions where drinking anything but manzanilla (a sherry-like aperitif) is frowned upon and where - less appealing - the only toilet is for the hombres. The warren of streets around the cathedral in the barrio Santa Cruz teems with such establishments. A good rule of thumb is: if it has no name, it's more likely to be the genuine article. Seville invented tapas, and snacking on caracoles (snails), cola de toro (bull's tail) and puntillitas fritas (fried baby squid) remains the best way to eat.

a bit of rough

Should Seville's elegance and opulence become too much, repair for an afternoon to Triana, the city's "ugly sister". Think of Carmen once again: this rundown working-class suburb is the spiritual home of bull-fighters, flamenco dancers and gypsies, a darkly atmospheric place of tarnished monuments to matadors and single-room restaurants (freiduras) that serve treacly red La Mancha wine and tangy seafood. Calle Betis, the only street in this barrio with any claims to poshness, offers the city's finest view, across the River Guadalquivir to Seville's most famous landmarks, the Moorish Giralda bell tower, the imposing cathedral and the Maestranza bull ring. Also on the Triana side of the river is the Expo '92 exhibition ground. This vast trade and cultural fair (which Sevillanos still go on about in hushed tones, as though they'd hosted the Olympics) finally put Seville on the international map. All that remains now, however, are the pavilions, eery monuments to a city over-reaching itself. That said, the site retains a certain atmosphere and white-elephantine charm.

can't go next weekend?

Never mind. Seville's great secular festival, the Feria de Abril (23- 28 April), follows hard upon the heels of its religious counterpart. A tented village on the Triana side of the river is given over to drinking, dancing and eating churros, the fluffy hot doughnuts that help revellers keep their energy levels high throughout the night. At midnight, a flood of Sevillanos dressed to kill washes across the bridge to the fairground; at dawn, they trickle back, often befuddled, usually bedraggled but invariably content. For four hours in the afternoon, Andalucia's high society - never afraid to risk appearing vain - parades around the fairground on horseback or in carriages, dressed to the nines (in the fashion of the 19th century) and sipping sherry, before watching the year's most important bullfights.

how to get there

You can fly to Seville direct on Iberia (0171-830 0011), but the grandest way to arrive is to fly to Madrid (British Airways offer a fare for pounds 104, including taxes), and then take the AVE, a high-speed rail link which elegantly refutes any outmoded ideas of Spanish inefficiency. Many operators offer packages to Seville, such as Time Off (0171-235 8070). For information contact the Spanish National Tourist Office, 57 St James's St, London SW1A 1LD ( 0171-499 0901).


Next week in the Sunday Review: On Seville's Way Of The Cross