The Low Down on Semana Santa in Sevilla
Celebrating Semana Santa in Sevilla was an 8-year goal of mine that finally, FINALLY came to fruition this past April. It is no secret that I absolutely love Spain and I always make a point to go during a festival because in my personal opinion, Spain does festivals like know one else does festivals.
So what is Semana Santa?
If you are like, wait Jen, back it up a bit, what is this festival in April that you speak of…let me explain. Semana Santa has been celebrated throughout Spain since the 14th century and Sevilla is known for having the grandest of festivities. Basically, each year on the week leading up to Easter aka Holy Week, brotherhoods from the 100 plus churches in Sevilla walk in processions throughout the city. These brotherhoods carry floats with lifelike depictions of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. There are over 60 brotherhoods in Sevilla that parade their floats from their church to the cathedral and back from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. While there are slightly different elements in each procession, they all tend to have a similar format. The processions lead off with the cruz de guia or a large cross held by a brother of the brotherhood and he is followed by the robed men, women, and children (nazarenos) walking in penance. Then a paso (float) typically of Christ is paraded down, followed by more nazarenos and a brass band. The procession ends with a paso of the Virgin Mary, but that whole culmination thing might take a while because some of the brotherhoods have around 2000 members.
Hermandades: religious brotherhoods
Nazarenos: men, women, and children that walk in the processions and don the capirotes. They carry cirios (long candles) and walk barefoot in penance.
Pasos: floats of lifelike wooden sculptures that often feature Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary
Capirotes: tall, pointed hoods with eye-holes that are worn by the nazarenos
La Madruga: the most significant late night/early morning of the week (Thursday night/Friday morning) where processions run all night and throughout the following afternoon. Two of the most popular processions are La Macarena which is 13 hours long and El Silencio, which is the procession by the first recorded brotherhood. My personal fav this night was El Gran Poder. Because, you guessed it…maybe? It was super grand.
Costaleros: those that carry the pasos along the processions, in other words, super strong peeps
Saeta: a traditional religious song sung by a performer from a balcony in the presence of the Virgin Mary paso during a procession. *also a highlight of the processions…make it your mission to hear it at least once!
Ok people, you need to book accommodations early! This is not a drill…like a minimum of 2 months in advance. I even knew about this need to book ahead and looked about a month out, and there were still slim pickings and ridiculous prices. Like hostel rooms that are normally 20 euros a night were now 80-100 euros a night and there were two spots left. Supply and demand, ya know? Also, you need to book early because you absolutely MUST stay at La Banda Rooftop Hostel if you are a solo traveler coming for Semana Santa. Here’s why:
1) It won Hostelworld’s “2017 Hoscar Awards” for being the #1 hostel in Spain and the #6 small hostel in the whole world. Wowza.
2) They have tempurpedic mattress. Really helps with that daytime siesta-ing. Enough said.
The La Banda rooftop, which is a sight to behold in itself, overlooks the cathedral. And, guess what happens at the cathedral? That is where every single procession over the course of the week is required to stop at before they return to their churches. So proximity to the cathedral + rooftop views = success in avoiding crowds. Did you know there are websites where you can pay an exorbitant amount of money to buy a “spot” at a rooftop overlooking the cathedral? Well, at La Banda you get that for free because there are a solid amount of processions that go by the street that the hostel overlooks, Calle Dos de Mayo. In fact, one of the churches is even at the end of the street so it is a guarantee that processions will go by.
4) The community of people at La Banda was fantastic. At any hostel, it will of course be hit or miss whether you connect with the other travelers, but the one thing that is a constant, is how welcoming the staff is at La Banda. The hostel is owned by two guys from England who really understood what hostel life should be like prior to opening their own. They really put everything they had into this place as evidenced from the fact that each individual piece of furniture was hand-picked or created especially with La Banda in mind. And unfortunately I didn’t get to witness the music culture La Banda has on the rooftop every night because of the festival, but if you are a musician yourself or share a love of music, this really is their emphasis and you will feel right at home. Also, the place is meticulously clean. I have a small phobia of public restrooms, but not at La Banda, because someone is cleaning constantly.
5) Full disclosure…yes, I worked with the hostel…but, I did my research prior and reached out to them, not the other way around, because of the stellar reviews. And with the location where it is, I and every other hostel go-er was beyond spoiled with the location.
I have this really weird obsession with the hummus and corn nuts at Mercadona which is a supermarket in Spain. So, I could not wait to get there and go straight to the store. Well, I was in for a very rude awakening. Spaniards take their holy week festivals and their vacaciones very seriously…which I knew already but either was in denial/didn’t realize the full extent of this. Spain never ceases to surprise me. Supermarkets are closed from Thursday to Easter Sunday as are many tapas bars. So, I would recommend either stocking up Wednesday at the supermarket if you have a kitchen (La Banda does) or adding in some extra dough to that food budget of yours ahead of time because you will need out for most meals. And, while tapas and drinks in Spain are super cheap, they somehow add up (ahem…3 vinos later) to what you would spend for an entree anywhere else in the world.
Also, people seem to make a big deal about the traditional dessert eaten during Semana Santa called torrijas, bread that is fried and soaked in honey, eggs, and white wine, a Spanish take on french toast. Well, I was on the lookout for these torrijas, but to be honest, I only saw one shop selling them the whole time I was there. Maybe I was distracted by everything else going on, but I guess the moral of the story here is if you see a bar/restaurant selling torrijas, get it while you can!
Check out my own last supper on the Saturday night before Easter. I was heading to the airport early the next morning and wanted an awesome tapas final hurrah meal. And this is what it looked like! The ONLY place open at 9:30 PM on the Saturday night before easter…pizza and diet coke. Insert cry emoji here.
How to Experience the Processions!
So there are a decent amount of blog posts and articles on Semana Santa, especially in Sevilla which of course I thoroughly read beforehand. But what I really feel is sorely missing from most is a guide on how best to watch the processions. Upon arrival, make sure to get a print out of the processional schedule from the reception at your accommodation or off the internet. This schedule will coordinate the street names and times for each procession on each day, so you will have a good idea if there is a processional nearby and at what time.
Ok, now first off, how NOT to watch. Do NOT go to the starting point or ending point for a popular procession. You will either sit there waiting for two hours to see nothing or you will show up just in time and see nothing. A lose-lose situation although I personally would prefer the latter. The whole skill to watching the processionals is going at an off-time to a “not quite so popular” street. La Macarena procession goes on for 13 hours!! There is definitely an opportunity to see it with a front row view if you just wait for a more opportune time.
The main night of processions is La Madruga in which the processions start late Thursday night and go all the way until mid-day Friday. So I say be smart about this. There are going to be two groups of people…those that stay up all night and then head back in around 5:30/6AM to get some sleep and those (probably families) that head out around 8:00 AM to watch for the rest of the day. So I suggest going to watch the processions during that lull. Sunrise and processionals? Now that is a win-win. I would still plan on joining in the festivities and being out in the streets until 12:00AM ish, then sleeping until about 5:45 AM and siesta-ing during the day.
If you want a list of the processional highlights, this post has great info on that. My personal tip is to watch processions at either the Triana bridge or the San Telmo bridge…something about the combination of the water and the candles and sunset, I get the chills just writing about it.
Sightseeing during Semana Santa:
Umm, good luck. No, I kid. It was actually easier to see some of the key sights in Sevilla than I expected. Just make sure to make a reservation for the Alcazar in advance; no guarantees, but people were able to make the reservation a day in advance while I was there. Just know it will be more crowded than usual. Same with Plaza de España and Parque Maria Luisa. These are free attractions anyway, so it is a good idea to head to these two attractions during the day with a bottle of vino after your siesta. The cathedral is a bit more difficult to get to as the outlook from the top is closed for most of the week, but I highly recommend going inside the cathedral to watch the processions. For an alternative overlook of the city, check out the mushroom (proper name is Metropol Parasol), a relatively interesting piece of architecture. I would recommend walking along the river and be sure to get your tapas on in Barrio Santa Cruz. You can also take day trips to Cordoba to see the Mezquitza or Ronda to see the cliffside, although I do recommend an overnight stay in Ronda.
Other Tidbits of Information:
1) Pickpocketing: I had read to be more careful during Semana Santa because…crowds. So I would say, yes, be vigilant as always in Spain, only bring with you what you need, but it didn’t seem to be a major problem when I was there. Regardless, all my pickpocketing avoidance tips here: 10 Helpful Ways to Avoid Getting Pickpocketed
2) If it rains, there won’t be processions and this can be determined pretty last minute so just keep that in the back of your mind.
3) I also read ahead of time to dress nicely. Here are my thoughts on that: Is it respectful? Yes. And will the Spaniards dress nice? Oh yea, they aways do. Especially on Thursday when the women don the mantilla and funeral attire prior to the Last Supper and Jesus’s death. So if you know a procession is close by, sure, put on something dapper and go watch. But, if it is La Madruga on Thursday night and you are planning on being out all for long hours at all hours of the night, then I say relish those running shoes. I don’t need anyone stepping on my feet or the inevitable pain that comes with walking with flat soles on cobblestones. And be respectful in other ways! Specifically not talking during El Silencio or any of the other silent processions!
4) Make sure to watch the children during the processions! It took me a minute, but during the processions they pass the time by creating a ball of wax and receiving cards depicting different biblical figures. It’s super fun to see the excitement on their faces.
Have you been to Semana Santa before? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Heading elsewhere in Spain? Be sure to check out my 10-day itinerary in Barcelona and Madrid!