The rites of spring in Andalucia

The towns of Andalucia are ready to burst with festive colour, says Cathy Packe

The little town of Ayamonte is typical of many in southern Spain. Slightly shabby, it has a main square which is pleasant enough, punctuated by palm trees and adorned with attractive tiles. A couple of blocks away, a ferry still chugs to and fro across the Guadiana river, Spain's south-western border, to the Portuguese frontier town of Vila Real, even though a modern highway has linked the two countries for a couple of decades. The pace of life is slow, and there is plenty of time to sit in a café near the harbour and watch the world go by. But, as I discovered by chance on Easter Sunday two years ago, sometimes even the quietest places can burst into life.

On that sunny Sunday morning, Ayamonte was so crowded that I had to abandon my car on a distant street and walk the last mile into town. The square in front of the harbour was packed with people, all dressed in their finery: old men, proudly buttoned into formal suits; their wives and daughters in the tweeds that are so popular with Spanish women at this time of year; teenage boys looking awkward in black trousers and white shirts; and little girls in fancy party dresses, old-fashioned but oddly appropriate for the occasion.

The event that had brought seemingly the entire population out on to the streets was the Easter parade, a slow, cumbersome procession that is repeated in various forms all over Andalucia. As I arrived, a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, sitting on a throne, was moving, almost imperceptibly, through the town so that everyone could see her. She was propelled by a dozen or so of the local men, hidden underneath the platform that supported the statue. Its considerable weight dictated a painfully slow pace, with frequent breaks to rest aching shoulders. No sooner had Mary disappeared around a corner than another float lumbered into view, carrying a statue of Christ.

Once both had passed, the crowd began to follow the procession up the hill as far as the doors of the church that dominates the town; and we all held our breath as each float in turn was edged, inch by inch, through a doorway that was surely too small to allow them through.

This was the final parade in a series that takes place in Ayamonte,starting on Palm Sunday (which this year is tomorrow). Solemn processions take place every day of Semana Santa – Holy Week. Smaller villages will restrict themselves to a procession on Good Friday and Easter Sunday; in Seville, where the most elaborate celebrations take place, parades start simultaneously in different parishes, converging by different routes on the city's vast cathedral. Those in the know get a booklet from the tourist office which details the routes and timings of all the parades. They then aim to watch from a pavement as near as possible to a starting point. This is easy enough to do, even without a map: just follow the crowds as they head away from the cathedral.

But even in the most impressive processions fate can intervene. One year I waited near the church of San Luis for the parade to start. The crowd was cheerful, large enough but not overwhelming, and a number of people were listening to radios to hear the progress of the approaching spectacle. Suddenly there was a gasp, and a stunned silence. Rain had halted the proceedings – although, luckily, it was only a temporary delay. Before too long, hooded figures wearing flowing robes and carrying crosses were walking through the narrow streets, the floats following behind.

Holy Week seems to put the people of Seville into festive mood, and their next celebration, the Feria (Fair), follows shortly afterwards, in April. The austere, almost menacing Easter costumes are replaced by traditional flamenco attire which is worn by almost everyone. Women of all ages squeeze themselves into full-length, figure-hugging dresses adorned with ruffles and flounces; the men wear the tight trousers, short fitted jackets and wide-brimmed hats of the horseman.

The Feria started life as a cattle-market; now it is an opportunity for meeting friends and parading in fine clothes, on foot, on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage. Makeshift pavilions and tents are erected on a fairground south of the river, and the days and nights are spent eating tapas, drinking sherry and dancing to the sounds of flamenco music.

Not to be outdone by a more showy neighbour, other Andalucian cities also have colourful celebrations during the spring. Like the Seville April Fair, the Horse Fair in Jerez is an opportunity for locals to show off their costumes, listen to music and party with their friends, but here the main purpose of the occasion is the horses. There are colourful parades, dressage shows, endurance trials and all manner of other equestrian events. It all takes place on a fairground north of the town – but don't be surprised to see the occasional thoroughbred horse, adorned with garlands and bells, canter down the Calle Larga, Jerez's main street, and wait patiently in the sunshine while his rider stops for a restorative glass of sherry.

The pace of many of the Andalucian festivals can be frenetic, so it is a relief to find that life is gentler in Córdoba. Founded by the Romans, and later capital of Moorish Spain, its ancient centre is built around courtyards and patios, some shared among several families, others the focal point of a single home. During the first two weeks of May, many of these outdoor spaces, partially hidden in a profusion of flowers and scents, are opened to visitors as neighbours compete against each other in the annual Patio Competition to see whose courtyard is the finest.

This is a real local event – a bit like a miniature of version of the UK's Best-Kept Village competitions – but visitors are welcome to inspect the flowers, too. Pop into the tourist office and pick up the specially prepared map which marks the most impressive patios, or wander through the streets beside the Alcazar to find some of the most colourful.

Part of the charm of Andalucian festivals is that they are, at the same time, immensely impressive spectacles and an integral part of everyday life. One day I was attempting to drive along a quiet country road through a small village not far from the coast. I turned a corner to find myself face-to-face with a police cordon, and a row of cheery-looking members of the Guardia Civil who refused to let me go any further.

The road was lined with other drivers who, unconcerned by the delay, had decided to park up and watch. We all waited, and to my surprise a long line of horse-drawn caravans, all colourfully decorated, trotted past. Once they were out of the way, everyone got back into their cars and drove off.

It turned out that the caravans belonged to one of the many groups taking part in that year's pilgrimage to El Rocio. The village of El Rocio could perhaps be best described as the European equivalent of the Wild West. It is built entirely on sand, which makes it easier to ride a horse through it than to drive a car. Located on the edge of the Coto de Doñana Park, most of the village consists of one-storey buildings, many of which house the headquarters of the religious associations that play a prominent role in the pilgrimage. It is dominated by a large white church in which resides the Virgen del Rocio, Our Lady of the Dew, the focus of the most important pilgrimage in Andalucia.

In the days leading up to Pentecost, hundreds of thousands of people from villages all over the region make their way towards the village, on horseback, on foot, in carts and carriages, breaking the journey each night and passing the hours of darkness singing and dancing. Finally, during the Saturday before Pentecost, everyone reaches El Rocio. The weekend is spent in a blur of parties and religious masses, until on the Monday morning the celebration reaches its climax when the statue of the Virgin is removed from the church and paraded through the streets.

Gradually, the celebrations come to an end, the crowds disappear into the countryside and the village of El Rocio returns to the lazy inactivity that represents normality. But in Andalucia in spring you can be sure that in some other village, there will be another celebration waiting to begin.

Traveller's Guide:

The Holy Week celebrations in Andalucia begin tomorrow and continue until Sunday 23 March. Details of the parades in Seville are available from the Tourist Office at 21 Avenida de la Constitucion (00 34 954 221 404; www.turismo.sevilla.org). The Feria takes place from 8-13 April, although there will be festivities in the city during the preceding weekend.

Jerez Horse Fair takes place at the Gonzalez Hontoria Park on Avenida Alcalde Alvaro Domecq from 27 April to 4 May. Details of the events are available from the Jerez Tourist Office on Alameda Cristina (00 34 956 32 47 47; www.turismo jerez.com).

The Córdoba Patios festival ( www.turismo decordoba.org) begins on 7 May and continues until 18 May.

The main celebrations in El Rocio will take place on the weekend of 10-11 May, but there will be celebrations during the preceding week in various parts of Andalucia as the processions of pilgrims prepare to depart.

What's new in Andalucia?

Málaga is already Britain's most popular airport for flights abroad, and it will be more accessible still from 1 April when Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) begins operating flights three times a week from Liverpool. And a new high-speed rail link will link the capital to this elegant seaside city in two and a half hours; the previous journey time was five hours. Quick connections (under two hours) are also available to Seville.

In recent years Málaga has managed to shed its image as a place to fly in and out of as fast as possible, thanks in large measure to an energetic local mayor who is keen to promote the city's heritage. An enterprising Frenchman, Florent Collobert, has opened a Moroccan-style riad, El Riad Andaluz, acknowledging Malaga's Moorish history and possibly starting a trend towards atmospheric, rather than high-rise, accommodation in the city. This traditional, eight-roomed guesthouse is in the heart of the old city at Calle Hinestro 24 (00 34 952 21 36 40; www.elriadandaluz. com). Double rooms are available from €72 (£55), singles from €59 (£45), including breakfast.

In Estepona, the popular resort some 140km down the coast, the Kempinski Hotel Bahía Estepona, just outside the town at Carretera Cadiz Km 159 (00 34 952 80 95 00; www.kempinski-spain.com) has recently reopened following a complete refurbishment. All the rooms have been given a contemporary feel, flat-screen TVs and high-speed internet access. For added star quality, the suites have all been fitted with telescopes. Doubles start at €225 (£172) per night.

On Andalucia's south coast, Cadiz is beginning to prepare itself to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Spanish constitution, which was signed in the city in 1812, and already a number of new hotels are opening, both in the city and in the surrounding area. One of the most stylish will be the five-star Casa Palacio in the Calle Veedor, an impressive 18th-century building which is being transformed into a luxury hotel, with 16 rooms, a small spa and a Japanese restaurant, and is scheduled to open later this year.

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