Faith afloat: A paso featuring a figure of Jesus Christ and Roman centurions glides through the Calle Resolana in Seville, Spain, during the Semana Santa (Holy Week). The city is a hive of festivities and a repository of historical relics. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW
Faith afloat: A paso featuring a figure of Jesus Christ and Roman centurions glides through the Calle Resolana in Seville, Spain, during the Semana Santa (Holy Week). The city is a hive of festivities and a repository of historical relics. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW

Eating mushroom cake while hundreds of men in black robes and conical hats lined up outside the restaurant might be the most bizarre experience I had in Seville.

Or perhaps it was the legion of Roman centurions marching in formation in the middle of the night, their white plumes waving in the breeze.

During Semana Santa, the Easter Holy Week, ritual and devotion reach unsurpassed levels when parish churches hold processions, displaying religious statues on floats called pasos. Concealed behind a curtain that surrounds its wooden base, 40 men have the honour of carrying each 2,000kg paso, giving the appearance that the statue is floating.

Among a range of painted wooden statues, often centuries old, the weeping Virgin is particularly venerated and is surrounded by huge floral bouquets and giant candles. Petals rain down on her from balconies.

Each procession includes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of penitents who don robes and pointed hoods that cover their faces, providing anonymity. Often walking barefoot, they carry life-sized crosses or large candles. While it might appear as if the Ku Klux Klan has taken over the city, these outfits are centuries old.

About a million people visit Seville during Semana Santa and at times it feels as though everyone is on the street at once. Yet despite the crowds, it makes compelling viewing even for nonbelievers. While celebrations take place across the Catholic world, it is particularly spectacular in Andalucía, Spain’s southern province.

The highlight of the week, La Madruga (early morning), is held on Thursday. From midnight onwards, parishes, each with distinctive statues, parade throughout the night. Bridges are illuminated with candles while pasos pass over en route to the Cathedral to be blessed.

Some churches are such a distance from the cathedral it takes 12 hours to complete the round trip. Restaurants and bars are packed in anticipation of a night when few people sleep.

We booked a table at Eslava, one of Seville’s top restaurants, alongside the Gran Poder church, overlooking a square where the penitents in black robes and hoods congregated before filing inside. My children, raised on Harry Potter, likened it to a wizard convention.

Garden grandeur: The Alcazar, which is used by the royal family, is an architectural dream of courtyards and pools. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW
Garden grandeur: The Alcazar, which is used by the royal family, is an architectural dream of courtyards and pools. Picture: MADELEINE MORROW

The highlight of an enormous dinner was a phallic-like cigar that cued sniggers from the teenagers and unadulterated moans of pleasure from the adults. A paper-thin, brik pastry encased an exquisite cuttlefish and algae mousse. While a few metres away men gathered to repent for their sins, we gave thanks for the chef’s talents.

Fortified for the night ahead, we strolled through oddly deserted streets, wondering where everyone was. Turning the corner onto a wide avenue we met hundreds of thousands of people lining Calle Resolana, every balcony decorated and bursting with expectant groups lucky to have an aerial view.

At the stroke of midnight the massive doors of Basilica de La Macarena swung open and some 3,000 penitents began to pour down the avenue. They walked in pairs with blazing tapers leaning in to form an endless tunnel of candlelight.

Eventually, the first paso emerged with a tableau of Christ surrounded by Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate. Behind, the white plumes of centurions were just visible above the cheering crowd, bobbing in time to the drumbeat of a marching band, a haunting trumpet melody soaring above.

We encountered a more sombre atmosphere back at the Gran Poder church, where a large crowd waited in silence. As the paso emerged at 1am the only sound was a haunting saeta, the traditional mournful song performed as the procession begins. It was spine-chilling.

The following day, somewhat bleary-eyed, we turned our attention to the many attractions that make Seville so popular.

An exciting architectural addition to the city is known officially as the Mirador Parasol, but is nicknamed Las Setas (the mushrooms). This accurately describes how its columns mushroom up from below street level into a honeycomb structure that undulates across the plaza.

A Willy Wonka-type lift whizzes visitors up to an aerial walkway that meanders through the rooftop, affording 360-degree views of the city with its bristling plethora of church spires.

Architecture from a bygone age is in plentiful supply in Seville but nowhere more magnificent than the Alcazar, alongside the city cathedral. Built as a royal palace, and still in use by the Spanish royal family, this site of a 10th-century fort has been redeveloped over the centuries and encompasses superb Almohad design as well as Gothic and Renaissance extensions.

It contains jaw-dropping collections of tapestries, zellige tiling, ceramics, internal pools and courtyards, room after magnificent room with views over the extensive gardens.

In spring the trees were festooned with blossoms, jasmine perfumed the air and fountains literally tinkled (the garden contains one of the world’s three hydro-generated fountains that plays music on the hour).

Lemon and orange groves were surrounded by palm trees so tall we had to crane backwards to see their tops, while peacocks bobbed their heads around our table at an outdoor café terrace. After five hours at the Alcazar we were ready to drop, but Seville was not done with us yet. We refuelled at Bar El Comercio, a churreria renowned not only for its longevity but for the quality of the churros. We fell in alongside Sevillanos dipping fresh churros into cups of the thickest, richest hot chocolate.

The resulting sugar rush propelled us onto the next sensory experience that had our heads spinning. For an authentic flamenco concert away from the touristy dinner-and-dance outfits, we visited the tiny Casa del Memoria where a small, bare stage accommodated a guitarist, singer and a dancer or two.

An hour whizzed by in a passionate, athletic, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, olé-inducing frenzy. We emerged ecstatic, the infectious energy of the performers having given us a hunger for life — and dinner.

Ovejas Negras, a small tapas restaurant in the heart of the tourist area, was a cut above the rest. Simple square wooden tables and a long bar were packed with diners enjoying modern renditions of tapas classics such as patatas bravas (cubed potatoes in a sauce) and fried calamari. The mushroom truffle risotto was outstandingly rich, the truffle aroma wafting from adjacent tables; Iberican lamb competed for tenderness with pork medallions and beef fillet. The bill was accompanied by test tubes of sherry.

For dessert we visited Bolas, a brilliant gelateria where cream-cheese ice cream with figs and Pedro Ximénez sherry was gelato heaven.

Meandering home through the cobbled streets of the old town, we encountered a procession making its way to its church, having received a blessing in the cathedral. The paso displayed a grieving Virgin in a flowing robe embroidered with gold thread, her candles and candelabras ablaze in the night sky. She swayed gently as the paso rounded a tight corner at the end of the narrow street. Then she was gone, leaving only the scent of incense.

Greet Seville with enthusiasm and you will be richly rewarded. From food to festivals, pageantry and palaces, it knows how to party. Sensory overload is the order of the day — and lasts long into the night.

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