A city hopelessly devoted to job of 'holding up God'

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The Independent Online

Nothing prepares you for the magnificence of Seville's Holy Week celebrations, which reached their climax before dawn yesterday with hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts jamming the streets.

Nothing prepares you for the magnificence of Seville's Holy Week celebrations, which reached their climax before dawn yesterday with hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts jamming the streets.

The passion with which Sevillans follow vast floats bearing life-sized figures of the Virgin Mary or Christ is difficult for outsiders to understand. Sceptics see the week-long celebrations as an outmoded ritual sustained by fanatics, a perception strengthened by ranks of hooded penitents parading with pointed hats and huge candles tilted from the hip.

Even those who love Semana Santa (Holy Week) admit that tradition bears so heavily upon Seville that change or progress seems impossible, something the organisers of the EU summit to be held here in June might bear in mind.

Each church carries an image through the streets to the cathedral and back, a process that lasts hours, with up to 10 processions criss-crossing the city at once. The finest figures date from the 17th century, carved and draped by master artists and embroiderers of Spain's golden age.

On a chilly Maundy Thursday, the city filled with men in dark suits and women wearing "rigorous mourning" – an arresting black ensemble of velvet frock, lace gloves, mantilla fastened with a diamond clasp and strappy patent shoes more suited to a tango bar than Seville's cobbled lanes.

Maria Luisa and her boyfriend Francisco, in full regalia, sipped beer and munched fried shrimp at one of the bars along the procession routes. Francisco, a lawyer, was on Wednesday a costalero – one of the invisible heroes crouched beneath the heavy paso (float) to bear it through the streets.

He bends to show me the swollen red sore across his neck. "It's another world under there. You are aware only of the ground, the feet in front and the drum's beat. I feel as though I'm holding up God. I put my heart into what I'm doing."

The most adored Virgins – the Macarena and the Trianera, laden with jewels, flowers and gilded vestments – made their long journeys through Thursday night and well into yesterday. Costaleros, guided by the foreman or capataz, create the dramatic effect of making the pasos dance: when drums roll and trumpets wail, the costaleros shuffle the paso from side to side, and the Virgin shimmies voluptuously down the street.

Imagine this against the moonlit sky with the thick scent of orange blossom, or crossing a bridge as dawn breaks over the river Guadalquivir, or negotiating a narrow alley while onlookers crane from balconies, hold their breath, cross themselves – then head for bars for hot chocolate and sticks of batter.

For Marcelo de la Fuente, a young photographer, the intensity is ultimately stifling: "Seville is so self-absorbed that all this is a block on any change or innovation. It's frustrating, suffocating. Mind you, I wouldn't live anywhere else."

If Spain wants progress in the EU, it had better arrange it before this summit, because Europe's leaders risk being seduced and immobilised by Seville, which basks like a salamander in its own glory.

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