Flamenco fever

La Feria de Abril is a week-long, flouncey-costumed orgy of hard drinking and even harder dancing, says Alex Leith
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The Independent Travel

There is something about Seville - with its winding, jasmine-scented Moorish streets, its ubiquitous orange trees, its alfresco bars and its uncomplicated and friendly people - which encourages the visitor to immediately unwind and let out the unfettered and eccentric side of their character.

There is something about Seville - with its winding, jasmine-scented Moorish streets, its ubiquitous orange trees, its alfresco bars and its uncomplicated and friendly people - which encourages the visitor to immediately unwind and let out the unfettered and eccentric side of their character.

The city is the undisputed capital of the south of Spain, and its strong culture has influenced the stereotypical image of the whole of the country. It's the home of gazpacho and sangria, flamenco and flounced dresses, castanets and matadors, a city where the sun shines all year round. Hemingway hated the place.

The best season to visit is the spring, when the trees which line the city's streets are in blossom and the searing heat of the summer hasn't yet ground the inhabitants to a lazy halt. And the best week to visit is the week of La Feria de Abril (the April Fair, from 12 to 19 April this year).

The April Fair is a seven-day party of dancing, hand-clapping, drinking, eating and showing off for Sevillanos of all ages and classes; an annual expression of high spirits, and testament to the local citizens' incredible stamina.

Started in 1847 as a fair for the sale of livestock, the Feria soon turned into a festival to celebrate the end of winter, and an antidote to the religious fervour of Madonnas-in-the-street Holy Week, which it closely follows. Since 1973, it has been held on wasteland reclaimed from the Rio Guadalquivir, the river which lends the city its fertility. Each year this land is converted into a temporary town composed of over 1,000 stripy marquees, known as casetas, built along a mile-long, 600-yard-wide grid-pattern of streets, all named after local bullfighters.

The festival starts at midnight on a Monday. A dignitary presses a switch, the streets are illuminated with over a million lights and Chinese lanterns, hundreds of flamenco groups start their music and everybody gets stuck in to the food and booze. Most casetas are owned by local families: having one is a social marker, and getting into one is impossible without an invitation. Invitations, for a foreign visitor, are extremely hard to come by.

This doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the party. It spills out into the street, and there are a number of casetas open to the public, either run by the council, or by one of the many socialist or anarchist groups in the city. The casetas serve pescaito (fried fish) and other tapas, beer and glasses of the popular golden-coloured local wines - either dry fino sherry or the slightly lighter manzanilla. Many mix this with lemonade, a wise move: nobody goes to bed till five or six in the morning.

The locals dance as much as they drink. The "Sevillana" seems to be a skill innate to the Andaluz: couples twirl around one another, never touching, always flirting. It's a bizarre and extravagant mating ritual, without the mating. If you're a guiri (foreigner), you'll inevitably try it, even if you're not dressed for the occasion - or in possession of the requisite skills.

By six in the morning, most people have gone to bed and the streets are hosed down in preparation for the next day, though there are still plenty walking around with no home to go to. The fairground, adjacent to the city of tents and known as Calle del Infierno (Hell Street), is open all hours. If you're still up this is a good time to go there, though a bad time to go on one of the rides. A bag of churros (heavily sugared strips of doughnut) helps the blood-sugar levels.

The Sevillanos start arriving back from 11am; some on horseback or in ornate horse-drawn carriages. There are several hundred such vehicles, which slowly do a tour of the streets, occasionally dropping their passengers off at a friend's caseta for a glass of sherry. Despite the previous night's excesses, they are all immaculately dressed. Many of the men wear broad-brimmed Cordobes hats, short leather jackets, and chaps. The women are back in their flamenca dresses, or in a more refined, feminine version of the vaquero (cowboy) gear. Even the more casual Feria-goers will be dressed with flamboyant élan. At around two, everyone retires to their home caseta, and the serious drinking and dancing begins again, until six the next morning.

It is unlikely that a foreign visitor will be able to last the pace until the following Sunday night, when an impressive firework display on the banks of the river signals the end of the Feria. But there is plenty more to do in Seville. For those that way inclined, the best bullfighters in the country perform daily in the Maestranza bullring all through Feria week.

Wandering around the city centre, dropping into bars, a tapa here, a glass of sherry there, is a wonderful experience, too. And the vast cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world (inside which, one French observer enviously observed, you could fit the whole of Notre Dame) is unmissable. The building is dominated by the Moorish Giralda Tower, and from the top you can see the whole city, with its various barrios: to the north the smart shopping district of Centro and the seedy but intriguing La Macarena, to the east the touristy old Jewish quarter of Santa Cruz, to the south the Alcazar Gardens, and to the west, over the river, the old gypsy quarter of La Triana. Surveying them all from the Giralda is a fine way to finish off a trip to Seville. If you still have the energy to climb up, that is.

Ryanair (tel: 0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies daily from London Stansted to Seville. Accommodation is hard to find during La Feria. Book in advance at the tourist office reservation centre (tel: 00 34 952 129 310, www.seneca.es); minimum stay in this period is three to four days. A list of all the city's hotels and hostels can be found at the tourist office website ( www.andalucia.org)

More European street festivals

The Tamborrada, San Sebastian Spain, 20 to 21 January

This beautiful seaside city in the Basque country explodes into life on midnight of 20 January, and the party goes on for 24 hours. Locals dress as Napoleonic troops or chefs, and march through the streets bashing drums. Legend has it a Napoleonic invasion force was scared off by the local chefs hitting their pots and pans, thinking that the noise was a barrage of artillery fire.

Venice Carnival, Italy, 28 January to 8 February

While we're tossing pancakes around, much of the rest of Europe is indulging in a massive fancy-dress party, and the best of the lot is in Venice. The city's streets and bridges fill with revellers dressed in elegant cloaks, masks and three-cornered hats. There's a surprise around every corner: a jazz band here, a firework display there, or the chance to join an impromptu conga over the Rialto bridge.

Queen's Day, Amsterdam, Holland, 30 April

The Dutch celebrate their Queen Mother's birthday in style. Amsterdam is invaded by over a million revellers enjoying this 24-hour street party. The streets are packed with beer-drinkers, and the canals are filled with private boats, each with its own sound system. The city also turns into a massive flea-market as anyone is allowed to set up a tax-free stall.

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