We dragged ourselves out of bed quite early on the fourth day of our Spain trip. After a short walk to the Barceloneta Metro stop, and a quick zoom across town to the main train station, we seated ourselves in a very clean and comfortable car on Spain’s well-known AVE (bird) train, ready to see what there was to see of Spain’s countryside as we “flew” excitedly across the country on our 5-hour ride to Seville. We would be arriving during the second half of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, probably the most popular week of the entire year to visit Seville, and for good reason.
Spain’s countryside from Barcelona to Seville varies a lot, from wide valleys with regularly passing villages, with their romantic bell towers jutting out from the rooftops in the distance, to rugged, mountainous terrain.
There were even some moments where we could still spot the Mediterranean here and there through the hillsides as we glided along.
Yes, there are also plains. No, it did not rain.
It was the fastest that Katie and I had ever moved across land, besides taking off from an airport runway. Happily, there was a monochrome screen in the cabin of the car that told us the speed of the train in real time, which we anxiously checked every couple of minutes. Our top speed ended up coming in at 299 kilometers per hour, or 185 miles per hour!
As we drew closer to Seville, the orchards of orange trees began to surround us, which was a very pleasant site. However, as our train pulled into the city limits, the view changed drastically. Outer Seville was extremely lack-luster, with old (not the charming kind of old), plain apartments and other buildings. Not the first impression we were looking for after hearing the rumors of Seville’s beauty, but upon reflection, it actually seems the most attractive parts of big cities don’t always center on their transportation services.
Having arrived at about 2:00 in the afternoon, we ate a quick bite in the station, grabbed our suitcases, and headed outside.
With our hotel being about a mile away from Seville’s train station and “Old Town”, we planned to spend the majority of the rest of our day just exploring old Seville and getting our bearings, toting our bags along the way, and not hitting our hotel until evening.
As we drew closer to the Old Town, we saw a small crowd starting to gather on a street corner. It didn’t take long before we spotted tall, white cones moving slowly through the crowd. Our excitement grew exponentially; as sweet luck would have it, we were serendipitously crossing paths with a brotherhood procession, probably the most famous and world-renowned of all Seville Holy Week traditions, and the number one event that Katie and I were hoping to witness first-hand on our visit to the city.
Holy Week processions are essentially marches that are performed by the brotherhoods of the churches throughout Seville. Brotherhood members gather at their home church, and walk through town all the way to Seville’s cathedral. The brotherhood members all wear medieval-looking, monk-like outfits, the colors of which identify the member as belonging to a particular brotherhood. Almost all of the members in the march also wear tall, cone shaped hats from which fabric hangs down, covering the wearers face, head, and neck, except for two holes for the eyes. To an American, seeing the outfit would undoubtedly (and unfortunately) be a bit shocking as one would naturally recall the traditional dress of the Klu Klux Klan, but the purpose of the dress in this case is far from sinister.
The sheer amount of brotherhood members that participate in a march can be immense, and the procession itself moves at a pace that is gruelingly slow, and that halts often. This is mainly because of the enormous floats that must be carried on the shoulders of certain brotherhood members, out the door of their home church, all the way to Seville’s cathedral, all the way THROUGH the inside of cathedral, out the other side, and all the way back to the home church. It’s no wonder that some of these processions can take as long as 16 hours to complete!
Katie and I had read, incorrectly, that the majority, if not all, of these processions take place during the first weekend of Holy Week, and we were arriving on Holy Thursday, and so didn’t expect to see much. Happily, this did not turn out to be the case.
At first the floats were not even visible down the long street through which the procession was passing. The brotherhood members would walk slowly for a few minutes, and then stop suddenly when their leader rapped his staff fiercely against the cobblestones. They would then stand there for several minutes, before the staff struck the ground again, and the brotherhood members would raise their individual candles, or straighten the direction of the crosses over their shoulders, and begin to trudge forward.
Watching the procession was solemn and mystifying. One of the most intriguing characteristics was that the brotherhood participants were not only adults; in fact, there were many children, all the way down to the very very small (and adorable), who were also dressed in the traditional garb, and walking hand-in-hand with a grown up, and reaching into their tiny wicker baskets of candy to take out a treat and hand it to the children among the spectators that lined their route.
After watching for what seemed like twenty minutes, standing in the sun with our bags and suitcase, we could finally spot the first of the two floats coming in the distance. The float was quite large, made or ornately carved reddish wood, with lanterns on the front with candles alight inside. Preceding the float itself was a group of musicians, playing an ominous song on brass instruments, which certainly set the mood; the solemnity of Christ’s crucifixion.
At this moment, the reason for all of the starting and stopping became apparent; it is to give the float carriers, well hidden under the fabric panels hanging from each of the four sides of the float, a few minutes rest before continuing down their own personal Vía Dolorosa, shuffling with small back and forth steps as they go. At the end of their break, the procession leader raps the ground with his cane, and in one brisk movement, the float pops back up into the air, back on the shoulders of the carriers, and continues to make its way.
After the crucifixion float passed, we decided to continue on our path towards old Seville, into which we had not yet completely arrived. We didn’t know at this point that there are typically two floats per procession, the first depicting Christ’s crucifixion, which we had just seen, and the latter paying tribute to His mother, Mary. Fortunately, we would get a second, surprise chance.
We only had to walk about another block before we found ourselves winding through the charming, tight, cobblestone alley ways of Old Seville, our suitcase clattering away as we went. Apart from the clattering, it was actually very quiet, and we enjoyed guessing whether to take a left or right turn as we made our way. After Barcelona, the use of white paint on building exteriors with marigold as an accent color on the window trim was something we had already come to expect, and Seville was no different, which we were pleased to find.
The quiet alleyways soon became wider, more bustling, and more beautiful. We came across quaint restaurants with outdoor seating, and lots of tiny hole-in-the-wall stores selling clothes and jewelry. Happily, the souvenir-type shops in old Seville are very understated, which goes a long way toward keeping this part of town authentic-feeling.
The “X” on the map that we were aiming for as we walked was the Real Alcázar palace in the center of Old Seville, which sits adjacent to Seville’s cathedral, through which, again, all Holy Week processions pass in their long route.
The walls of Real Alcázar are just as you would imagine a medieval castle’s walls to look like: tall, stone, and with arrow-head style ramparts, a characteristic that stands out from other castles that have the plain, square-shaped ramparts.
As we walked along the imposing exterior walls of Alcázar, we heard a magnificent clanging of bells, clearly coming from the cathedral that had not yet come into view, and we could see spectators gathering at the opening of the path we were walking along, gazing in the direction of the clamor. When we came out of the alleyway, we looked to our right and saw the spectacular bell tower of Seville cathedral. In contrast to other bell towers, where the bells are hidden or hardly visible from the outside, the bells of Seville cathedral hang in archways along the outside of the tower, and quickly spun around full circle in a wild display that kept our eyes locked for several minutes.
The bell tower itself and the rest of the cathedral were of course architecturally unique, and Katie and I were particularly taken by the large rear window that looked like it was surrounded by rays of sun, as well as the spiraling tower nearby, not to mention the other arabesque, mudéjarqualities here and there (specifically, the bell tower), which, along with Real Alcázar, are a living reminder of the Moorish conquerors that once controlled this region of southern Spain.
Katie and I continued toward the Guadalquivir River, planning to head south to our hotel after reaching it, and there was plenty of lovely scenery on the way.
It might have been because of Holy Week, but Katie and I wholeheartedly agreed that the Spaniards of Seville all generally look like they were factory made from a fashion magazine. All of the men were wearing suits, had handsome haircuts, and were in great shape. The women had no problem matching them either. Even the little boys and girls were dressed in their finest clothes and shoes, with crisp combed hair, clean faces, and knee-high socks. I had chosen to wear jeans and a Vans US Open of Surfing T-shirt on this day, and felt extremely out of place, haha. Katie was much smarter… she wore a nice black dress and fit right in.
There were also many horse drawn carriages hauling people about in Old Seville, cutting through the crowds of people as they went, and while we were certain that it was mainly the tourist population that enjoyed their services, I would be lying if I said their presence didn’t add to the intrinsic charm of the town, if even just a little.
Wandering away from the center of Old Seville, we reached soon reached our next destination: La Plaza de España.
La Plaza de España is on the edge of lush María Luisa park, and is a very grand area with lovely towers and balconies cordoning its semicircular courtyard, a “river” with row boats that you can rent, and two rainbow shaped bridges going over this same river, and connecting the large, inner courtyard with its large fountain to the outer walkway. Tile is a large decorative element here, and with horse drawn carriages making their loop through the inner square, the scene feels quite fun and relaxing.
Next, Katie and I continued through the park until we came out next to the Guadalquivir River, with the Triana neighborhood of Seville on the other side.
We turned south and walked along the river a long ways before coming back out to the rode and making the long trek toward our hotel. We spotted some more orange trees along the river bank, along with a cool circular tower, and to be honest, that was about the only attractive things we saw along the river; it was pretty unimpressive in terms of scenery. What was impressive, however, was Katie’s iron will in hauling the suitcase along the half-mile, riverside stretch to give me a break, haha. Just look at her focus!
However, once we were back on the main road, and as we walked through the neighborhood south of Old Seville, we were really taken with the enormity and design of some of the grand mansions that lined the rode.
We were less taken with the grimy-looking soccer stadium that was a couple of blocks from our hotel, that we expected to be a more exciting sight along the way, but turned out to be kind of sad, as the structure almost looked like it had been abandoned long ago.
Our second day began with an examination of the front side of Seville cathedral, where we discovered how the chaos of all of the processions are controlled at their climax.
There were barriers from which royal-looking red fabric hung, clearly marking the path through which the processions would pass in their approach to the cathedrals front door, and sectioning off the areas where, later in the evening, the large stacks of wooden chairs would be unfolded and lined up for those patrons who had apparently paid the price to have a front row seat to the parade.
At seeing the chairs folded in their large stacks, Katie and I were disappointingly convinced that the processions for the week had ended, and that the opportunity to see one actually terminate at the cathedral itself had passed.
To cope with our sadness, we grabbed a quick, delicious lunch of nachos at one of the small restaurants nearby. We sat huddled together at an open window and people watched as we ate.
And then we saw the churro bites being sold at the store next door… and just couldn’t help ourselves!
When we’d finished feeding our faces and people watching, we went the rest of the way around the cathedral, and marveled more closely at the fine detail of the bell tower, before coming out on the side of the cathedral that is the complete opposite of the “front entrance”. Curiously the square immediately outside this door to the cathedral was sectioned off with metal barriers, and there was still a lot of seating set up, which we thought was curious since our walk passed the front of the cathedral indicated that the “show” was over.
We left that area to go do some shopping and exploring, as well as make a few happy purchases from some cheery shop owners.
After a few hours of enjoying our slow stroll through the warm ambiance, Katie and I decided to head back to the cathedral area to snag some dinner, and ended up going to the same tiny walk-in restaurant to grab some pizza.
As we finished our quick meal, we heard brass instruments resounding and noticed that just down street, another procession was arriving! They hadn’t finished after all!!!
We hurried over and got as close as we could to on the cathedral steps to the scene. The seating section kept us at a distance, but this mattered very little once the first float, the crucifixion float, came by. We stood and watched its slow crawl until it passed, and since we had missed the Mary float during the first procession we saw the day before, we stuck around until that Mary float came by, which was just as magnificent.
We thought we’d been extremely lucky to have caught another procession, but we had no idea what was in store once we headed to the other side of the cathedral again, the side opposite the front, where the other seating had been set up, where we discovered that this was where the floats made their grand appearance from the inside of the cathedral after passing through.
Here too the band played as each large float made its way out the enormous “back door” as people cheered. Katie and I had to crouch down and peek through the metal fencing to get a look, but it the entire event was spellbindingly phenomenal.
Although we wanted to stick around to watch these spectacles all night, it was time to indulge in the cultural experience for which Seville is perhaps best known: flamenco dancing.
Having been born in Seville, it’s not hard to find a place to see flamenco. As you make your way around the Old Town, you come across little entryways in alley walls that offer flamenco shows at different prices and at varying times throughout the evening. There’s even a flamenco museum where you can learn about the history of the dance, and see a demonstration.
While all of these options struck us as appealing and reasonably priced, we heard of a place in Seville, a bar, where real sevillanos go to enjoy flamenco, which to us, at least in this case, was more intriguing than seeing a show designed specifically for tourists. The price of admission? Just buy a drink, and your good to stay as long as you want.
The name of this hidden gem was La Carbonería, and finding it was no simple task. Earlier in the day, we had wandered slowly down another quiet, inconspicuous alleyway until arriving at what looked like a small, one-car garage in the side of a residential-like building, with a steel roll-up gate with no window, and no way to see in, aside which was inscribed La Carbonería.
With the door closed the first time we passed by, we kept ourselves busy by exploring for a few more hours before returning later that evening, a whole hour and a half before flamenco was due to start, to find that the garage door had been raised, behind which was a passage of sorts, that led to a small courtyard. Across the courtyard was an open door into a large, long room, with several small tables and benches lined up in three long rows. There was also an elevated seating area that ran the same way along the length of the space. The floor on both levels was concrete, and the space itself was very rugged and cantina-like.
Katie and I were one of only three couples who were there, and quickly claimed two front-row seats to the “musician area”, which we identified by the black, wooden platform in the middle of the floor next to the cash only tapas bar, where we knew the dancing would take place.
At the opposite end of the room from the tapas bar was the… bar-bar, where they had a sweet sangria deal: nine or ten euros for a large pitcher and two glasses. All we needed for our evening.
There was only one musician there at the time, and we watched him warm up on both a sitar and guitar. As the bar slowly began to fill to capacity, he spent probably a good 30 minutes playing solo, changing back and forth between these instruments, playing one song on one, then another song on the other, from floor to chair, barefoot, in jeans, strumming and switching cords wildly, and skillfully, with no sound equipment at all in the large space.
All of this was before the rest of his friends showed up, who would be joining him for the full flamenco performance we, and all of the other patrons (amongst whom there were many tourists like us, unfortunately), had come to see that night. While this first musician played by himself, and despite Katie and I were sitting right in front of him, we could barely hear him because of the bustle of the other spectators, chatting and ordering their drinks.
This created quite a bit of irritation for our table mates, a spunky elderly Spanish lady from the Canary Islands who had used, shall we say, a more-than-liberal amount of makeup to prepare for her outing that evening, and her far more reserved British husband. She informed us that the musician was her flamenco guitar teacher, and the she just loved the flamenco guitar. She had a home here in Seville. She took no shame in repeatedly and viciously shushing the other bar patrons as her young instructor strummed away, many times shouting at them to “please be quiet!” so that we could hear the musician, to which he shyly, and perhaps embarrassingly assured her that “it was ok”, and to not worry about the lack of attention he was receiving from the crowd. She was nonetheless unappeased.
Then the other five to six musicians and singers arrived, and by that time there was nowhere left to sit in the whole place except the humble wall benches in the forward corner of the bar where they all took their perches. Rather than the “traditional”, ornate clothing that one would expect, these gentlemen were dress-casual; button up shirts tucked into jeans or other pants of casual material, with a couple wearing sports jackets. No women. No furly long dress that you would typically expect.
One of them stood to hush the bar, and announced that they are happy to perform, but they do not use sound equipment, and so everyone must be quiet during their performances. Lastly, no photographs, and no video. Then the show began.
The group of men sat, and one of them, a different musician from “the opener”, strummed the guitar with great agility to set the tone, while the others clapped along. This, to Katie and I, was one of the coolest parts about flamenco music: the rhythmic clapping among several of the members, during which their individual rhythms alternate between synchronization and individual flavoring. CHAcka-CHAcka-CHAcka-CHAcka-CHAcka, they went along as the guitarist strummed.
There were two members of the group who sang, and sang they did. Flamenco singing is, to use the corniest of words, passionate, yes, as so many know it to be, but it is also very mournful, and to hear it in such close proximity is actually pretty moving, as the lyrics of the songs are very blended together in long, wildly ascending and descending, tragic notes, that essentially sound like the wail of a man who’s lost the love of his life. And in this non-frills arena, everyone listened intently.
One couple that Katie and I took notice of was an older Spanish couple who sat in the raised seating area, and who looked down from behind the musicians as they performed. The both sat with soft smiles on their faces watching the performance. The woman was dressed all in black, with a black head piece and a rear-hanging black lace veil; traditional dress for many sevillana women during Holy Week, and a sight that added all the more cultural presence to the moments we were witnessing; plain, but impactful.
“But what about the dancing?”, Katie and I started to wonder. Up until this time, we had heard quite a few songs, but the black five-foot by five-foot platform on the floor in front of us had remained untouched since the performers began, and there was still no sign of the stereotypical woman in the furly dress!
Suddenly, one of the clappers jumped up, and extended his lanky arms and legs in a pose of confidence, and proudly stomped his way onto the platform. The onlookers applauded him onto the stage, where, instead of using castanets, he snapped his fingers, and peered out at the crowd with a dashing, raised eyebrow, as he continued to stomp, prance, spin, and scrape his feet, until he delivered the final stomp of the song, and again brought the room to applause.
And so it went, until about 11:00pm, when we decided it was time for us to head out into the cool, quiet streets, and head back to the hotel.
The Seville night, however, had not finished with us. As we walked, we passed by the same side of the cathedral near the bell tower through which the processions had been exiting earlier that day, and believe it or not, there was STILL a procession coming from inside the cathedral! This time, we noticed them lighting the candles of the float just after exiting the cathedral, and then as the music began to play, they hoisted the ginormous float into the air, and as the crowd inside and outside the barriers looked on, everyone clapped away at the spectacle.
We decided to stop and enjoy one more time, for a good long time, before finally tearing ourselves away, to return to the hotel, and get some rest.
On our third day in Seville we decided to tour the interiors of Real Alcázarpalace before catching our afternoon flight to Madrid, where we would have an overnight layover, and then scoot on to Munich, Germany for the second leg of our trip Spain-Germany trip.
On our way to Real Alcázar, we strolled through La Plaza de España for on last viewing, and were elated to come across a flamenco demonstration, this time with all female dancers and those furly dresses we had been expecting at La Carbonería the night before.
A short while later we were standing at the entry of Real Alcázar. This palace is one of Seville’s main attractions, and although Katie and I knew very little about its history before visiting (and granted, still know very little about its history), we were amazed by not only the larger, more easily identifiable features of its architecture (principally the quintessential arabesque or mudéjar archways) , but also the extremely fine details in the patterns and geometric shapes the are incorporated into the walls and ceilings.
The architecture of the palace is only one great facet however, paralleled only by the lovely and extensive gardens that boarder the rear side of the palace itself.
After that amazing visit, we headed back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, called a taxi, and whizzed off to the airport via the southern outskirts of Seville that, coincidentally were just as just as unattractive as the other outskirts we saw coming into Seville earlier that week. Fondly remembering our experience in Old Seville, we looked forward to when we would be touching down in Germany the next day, just after what would end up being an all-night, sleepless stay in the Madrid airport, lying on the floor/metal bench for hours before being greeted by a fantastic sunrise.
Photo Credit: Katie Miller (with a few obvious exceptions, by Jeff Miller)