The route of the virgin

As the paso starts to emerge from the church – one of the most intricate manoeuvres, given that they are often little narrower than the entrance arch itself – a hush falls over the crowd. Anticipation sizzles through the people like electricity; this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, and it brings a strong sense of community and ownership.

It’s their church, their procession and their paso; many have already been standing here for several hours. This is San Bernardo, a historic, working-class barrio outside the centre of Seville; the houses are a mix of modern and old. There are (virtually) no tourists to see this final part of the penitencia - the cross (at the head of the procession) and Jesus paso left some time ago, and some of the 2,300 nazarenos - hooded members of the brotherhood – who walk in front of this paso can just be glimpsed through the crowds.

Once the Virgin has come out of the church, a huge collective sigh of relief is breathed – she is safely among us – and there’s a round of applause. The costaleros , who are bearing a weight of several hundred kilos, have performed a tricky, delicate movement thanks to the painstakingly careful directions (“left a bit, right a bit, steady”) of their capataz.

Now people on rooftops above the Virgin’s route are throwing flower petals over her, under an ashen sky which threatens more rain. On Miercoles Santo, four days into Semana Santa, this is one of the first pasos to be completing its estacion de penitencia to the cathedral. Most of the others have been cancelled due to rain, or fear of it.

As she turns her first corner, she is silhouetted against a yellow and white building – the Fabrica de Artilleria (Artillery Factory), long since abandoned, a reminder of this barrio’s industrial past – and I finally get to see her face in profile. This is the Virgen del Refugio.

The petals collect on the floor, and the parallel with a wedding and confetti is striking. The procession moves along at its stately pace, accompanied by the band, which ceases to play before changes of direction (turning the corner into a street), and when saetas (passionate, visceral songs addressed to the Virgin) are sung by people from balconies overlooking the street. It’s hard to catch all the words, but pena (pain) and madre (mother) are enough to convey the mood of anguish.

Having now made her way along three streets, pausing frequently to be serenaded, the Virgin reaches the San Bernardo bridge. We’re out of the narrow calles of the barrio, enclosed by buildings on either side, and into a wider road where people are packed in.

The firemen (I couldn’t see any women) of the local fire station have come out on the roof to see the procession – they’ve got a good view.

On the bridge, I finally get a close-up view of the Virgin, surrounded by her white flowers and candles. They sky is still overcast, and the light is flat and dull, even with a vast expanse of sky overhead, now that we’ve emerged from the enclosed barrio. You can just about make out her lace scarf, velvet cloak, gold crown, supplicating hands – and tear-streaked face.

The nazarenos are walking in front of her, holding their candles, and other men wearing ecclesiastical outfits swing their incense holders, releasing the aromatic powder which hovers in the air.

By now, it’s time for me to head home. She will carry on to the cathedral, and then return to her church in the madrugada (small hours). But I’m tired – a few hours following a paso is enough excitement; how people much older than me stick it out for almost 12 hours (the time taken for the procession to complete its estacion de penitencia), I don’t know. Passion, faith and Andalucian toughness.

As for me, I’ve got children to bathe and feed. And I’m hoping to see more in the mountain village where we’re going tomorrow. Tune in again soon.

Oh brother!

This year’s Semana Santa here in Seville has, sadly, been almost as much of a washout as last year’s so far. Only a tiny proportion of the processions – consisting of nazarenos (hooded and robed members of local hermandades, brotherhoods), two pasos (floats bearing statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and various supporting characters, carried by men called costaleros), and a brass band – have been able to make their round trips to the cathedral, called the estacion de penitencia. Yesterday, no pasos at all went out.

It’s hard to overstate what a huge disappointment this is for everyone: for the participants, who have spent the whole year preparing for their moment; for the locals, who adore their local Virgin and for whom Semana Santa is more than spiritual – it’s elemental, and unmissable; and for the tourists, who have come from all over Spain and abroad to experience this extraordinary week in Seville.

People waiting couldn't understand why the processions had been cancelled. The decision was fully justified a few hours later, when a torrential downpour cleared the streets. (I was long gone by then, hence no photos of empty seats or brollies!)

Interestingly, for those who are interested in these things (which presumably you are, since you’re reading this), the nazarenos of the Vera-Cruz cofradia, in Barrio Santa Cruz, went out without their pasos.

A man sings a saeta to the Virgen de los Dolores, part of the Santa Cruz hermandad's procession, on a previous Semana Santa. This is one of the many pasos which stayed at home yesterday due to the inclement weather. Controversially, her penitentes (the hoodies) went out without her.

In a few cases, only the hermandades’ nazarenos (the ones in the pointy hoods, or capirotes) went out to risk the rain, leaving behind their pasos.

I don’t blame them – they were determined not to miss the opportunity to make this significant journey, the highlight of the year for many. So rather than risking their pasos getting drenched, they went out on their own. Predictably, it provoked some serious disapproval from the more conservative elements, who huffed that the estacion should be carried out with all elements present – in other words, the statues.

A penitente of Las Estudiantes and his children, who carry baskets of sweets to give to the crowds, make their way to the Fabrica de Tabacos, of Carmen fame, now part of Seville University.

One of those which chose not to make its (very short) journey to the cathedral yesterday – thereby avoiding a torrential downpour – was Los Estudiantes. Based at the Capilla de la Universidad, the red chapel next to the old tobacco factory of Carmen fame, this hermandad met in the university building, the chapel itself being their final destination after visiting the cathedral.

Watching the dark hooded figures, some barefoot, make their way around the outside of this beautiful, honey-coloured stone building, was a photographic dream. While the professionals had to find the unusual angle for their newspapers, I snapped away happily,  loving the contrast between the dark, shiny fabric of their tunics, and the pale, rough texture of the walls.

This hermandad is one of those who wear belts made of esparto with leather straps, a kind of grass which grows locally (there’s a town near where I live called Espartinas).

When the groups of penitentes arrived at the entrance to the chapel where they were meeting, many took off their hoods, to get some air. It was pleasing to see how many of them were women.

Lots of children arrived hoping to take part in this procession, dressed like little choirboys and girls in dark robes, embroidered white tunics, and little purple velvet capes with the hermandad‘s insignia, and outfit called the moneguilla.

This rhyme, which my daughter came home from nursery singing this week, says plenty about a) dental considerations and diet for Spanish children (chuches are considered acceptible, and many kids eat them on a daily basis), and b) their manners. But it is quite sweet, I suppose.

“Nazareno, da me un caramelo
Que si no me lo das
Me voy a enfadar!”

Nazareno, give me a sweet
If you don’t give me one
I’ll get angry!

One of these little children was brought along by his father, who is well-known locally: Seville’s mayor, Juan Ignacio Zoido.

Then I walked around the end of the building, past the Alfonso XIII hotel, to get to the other side, where the announcement was due to be made as to whether the procession would take place. The band members were negative, and another official from the hermandad had told me either they go out, or they don’t – they won’t retreat or take refuge from the rain in other churches, as many pasos were forced to do on Sunday.

Crowds waiting for the procession - though not a bad spot, with the lovely building, and the orange trees in flower, their scented blossom scattered on the ground.

Everyone was wearing earphones to listen to their radios, as Canal Sur and other local stations had the most up-to-date news on what was happening, including live announcements from the top bods of the hermandades, called hermano mayor (elder brother – I even heard an hermana mayor (elder sister). Times they are a’changing.

In the end, the pasos made the 100-metre mini-procession from the cathedral back to their chapel. Better than nothing, but a far cry from what everyone had hoped for. I missed it, as I’d already been waiting around for quite a while.

If you’re going to venture out today – and the forecast is the best it’s been this week – then it might be worth checking out a couple of apps: iSemana Santa Giralda TV, from the Seville TV station, and the Canal Sur Radio one, called iLlamador.

Both have day-by-day listings of hermandades with plenty of detail, such as the names of the statues, how many nazarenos, and how long it takes for the whole procession to go past. Then you have timelined itineraries – where they’ll be at what time; routes marked out on maps, again with time points; live maps, showing where processions are at this moment; and live commentary and updates (Canal Sur) or twitter feed (Giralda TV – it also has live TV streaming, but this is not reliable on my iPhone). Giralda TV also has an excellent glossary in English.

So here’s hoping that this afternoon the sun shines on Seville – if I was a penitente, I wouldn’t much fancy walking barefoot on cobbles damp from yesterday’s rain showers all afternoon.

29M in Sevilla

Today there was a general strike here in Spain, called by the two main trade unions, the CCOO and CGT, to protest against the new PP government’s labour reforms.

I wanted to go on the march here in Seville, which was leaving from various points in the centre and converging on Parque Maria Luisa, but my son was sick so he stayed home from school (they had a minimal staff working).

However I did manage to slip away for a few hours in the afternoon (thanks, suegra) to see the last part of the day’s events. I didn’t take my camera, to be more discreet, as some people can be self-conscious when they see a lens. The iPhone did the job fine.

As usual, the press quoted widely varying estimates of turnout in Seville, ranging from 10,000 (according to the police) to 100,000 (say the unions). In terms of participation, the national average was 77%, with administration 57% and construction and industry 97%. For full details from the two main unions, see here.

When I arrived (by metro, uncrowded) lots of people were walking up Calle San Fernando from the park, so I thought I’d missed the whole thing. They were still carrying their flags, and I could see more in the distance, so I walked against the flow of people towards the Prado.

There were still many sitting and standing around in Plaza San Juan de Austria (next to the Jardines de Murillo), with plenty of wacky backy smells in the air. As usual, there were all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly, with plenty of beards and bikes…

and some great slogans…

"No to reforms, yes to the (right) way (of doing things)," or something like that.

and some great slogans on bikes.

"So many people without homes, so many homes without people."

All colours of flags, too – as well as the red of the trade unions, the Republican and the Andalucian. The man’s tabard says “Quieren acabar con todo”, a snappier version of the strike’s slogan – “Quieren acabar con los derechos sociales y laborales” – “They want to destroy our social and labour rights”.

I could hear some noise coming from the Prado, a park with iron railings around it, so I went to investigate. Speakers on a platform covered with trade union flags were blaring out music, and a huge bar had been set up, serving drinks and paella to protestors.

The atmosphere was very cordial – friends chatting in groups, a few discussions with raised voices, but mostly in excitement rather than anger. (I know not to worry about people shouting at each other in Spain any more – it doesn’t mean they’re about to hit each other, it just means they’re having animated discussion.)

Then a heavy rock band started up, singing about the pigs (police, not jamon), death and destruction. They told the audience this was the first time they’d played to so many people, and it was pretty obvious why. They were shit.

This friendly atmosphere – there was a children’s playground right next to the bar, and flag-waving mixed happily with swings and slides – was a welcome contrast to what my husband had told me when I was heading to the metro station to come into town. Someone had thrown a stone through the window of a restaurant in the city centre, narrowly missing him and others.

The man had then run off towards Avenida de la Constitution, hotly pursued by a group including said husband. This was where the marchers were, so the vandal ran straight into the hands of the police, who were present in numbers to keep watch over the protestors. He was one of the five arrested in Seville today.

It remains to be seen whether President Rajoy will change his plans – his austerity budget, with 30-40bn euros of cuts, will be announced tomorrow – because of today’s marches attended by nearly a million people in 111 towns all over Spain. Half a million people were said to have packed into Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

What did seem clear from what I saw and heard, is that for most people the strike wasn’t a one-off. It was just the beginning of popular protest against widely unpopular reforms.

How I know it’s spring

So spring started at 6.14am last Tuesday.

Here’s how I know my favourite season of the year here in Seville has arrived.

It’s all about smells, sounds and colour.

Flowers: sweet-scented blossom everywhere – azahar, the orange blossom with pretty white flowers (above and below). When I take the kids to school, we walk along a row of orange trees, treading on a soft carpet of tiny white petals – it’s a scent experience unlike any other, and will last for the next few precious weeks.

Also almond, cherry and plum blossom, fluffy white and candy-pink, and others, are out in full force.

The carpet of yellow flowers in the olivar (olive grove) next to our house is a joy.

The sounds of spring, for me, are animals: frogs croaking to each other in our swimming pool, in (at the risk of coming over all Paul McCartney) a chorus… frogs singing in pool – you’ll need to turn the volume up to get the full effect.

…and mournful Semana Santa music, blaring from cars and in shops, and being played by brass bands in processions.

Later, this switches to the more upbeat Sevillanas, in time for Feria.

This is the best time of year to visit gardens, go to the sierra for some jamon and hiking or take the kids to the beach for a warm day out without having to slap suncream on them every five minutes. It’s also time to get out the barbeque.

And time to bathe in the glow of warm temperatures, before the heat comes.

7 Super Shots

Fellow Sevillana blogger Sunshine and Siestas was kind enough to tag me for Seven Super Shots, as organised by hostelbookers, a while ago. As I’ve had no internet connection for nearly a week, with an unreliable dongle, blogging has become an unnecessary luxury, second to paid work. How I’ve missed it!

Not to mention the challenge of choosing seven photos from nine years of digital shots (eight and a half of those here in Spain) and 33 of analogue. Many photos from my previous life, in London, where I used to take several foreign holidays a year (those cushy globetrotting days are gone now), as well as photo shoots abroad for the magazine I edited, are stored in my parents’ house, so I only have access to photographic records of less than half my travels.

Added, to which, the hard copy photos which I do have here in Spain are not fantastically well organised – there are some albums, lots of envelopes, quite a few loose prints, so I’ve been unearthing boxes and sorting through them…

In short, some of these are photos of prints, as digital cameras weren’t yet around for most of my trips. Let’s just say some of them are more about subject matter than quality.

Apologies and excuses out of the way, here goes:

A shot that makes me think – Potosi, Bolivia

When I was travelling in South America with a group which included Travelwithamate’s Debz Preston, we went down Cerro Rico copper mine in Potosi. Some people opted out of the tour, and while I am claustrophic, I decided to go anyway, partly out of masochism (“I will make myself suffer in order to conquer my fear” etc), and partly out of curiosity – we had heard conditions hadn’t changed much since the Spanish first built the mine to extract silver in the 16th century. We set off suited and booted, with headlamps and helmets, chewing coca leaves for stamina and energy, carrying our water bottles.

Inside, it was extremely hot and dusty, full of asbestos and arsenic, and the conditions were primitive – those Chileans work in luxury by comparison. We’d been asked to take soft drinks for the miners, and it was obvious why. They crouched in tiny caverns, with their explosives, cheeks bulging, half naked because of the heat. Potosi is full of widows – life expectancy for these men is 45 years. It was one of the most terrifying and memorable experiences of my life, but not one I would ever want to repeat. (And no, it didn’t conquer my fear.)

A shot that makes me smile – Laguna Cuicocha, Ecuador

I lived in Ecuador for a year, working in Quito, where met a group of Ecuadorian girls who adopted me and took me along on their weekends away, delighting in showing me their country with its beautiful Andean scenery – this is Cuicocha Lake, next to Cotacachi Volcano. We went horse-riding from haciendas, hiked in the bosque nublado (cloud forests), and danced in salsa clubs. These ecuadorianas were kindness itself, putting up with my lack of Spanish with constant good humour and rescuing me from sticky situations.

A shot that makes me dream – Dubrovnik, Croatia

This is the view from the balcony of the last hotel where we stayed on our island-hopping honeymoon in Croatia. It was just outside the old walled city of Dubrovnik. This view, with the flowers and their resident hummingbird, who used to come and visit us while we had our breakfast, reminds me of carefree times – one of our last pre-pregnancy, child-free holidays

A shot that tells a story – Thar Desert, India

This was my first proper travelling experience, by which I mean outside Europe. I spent six months in India, first of all teaching and then backpacking around the north. This shot is of camel trekking near Jaisalmer in the north-western region of Rajasthan. The guides used to joke they would sell me and my friend to the rebels across the border in Pakistan for two camels each. I was a naïve 18-year-old, and India opened my eyes to the world, toughened me up, turned me into a vegetarian, and gave me a taste for travelling.

A shot that makes my mouth water – Casa Flores Watson, Spain

I love vegetables, I love fish, and I’m not massively keen on cooking, especially in the heat of summer – so barbeques are a winner in my book, as you can have a bit of everything. The fresh fish you can get here in southern Spain includes delicious, dirt-cheap sardines and mackerel (right of photo), and more expensive dorada (gilt-head bream) and prawns, and of course fabulous vegetables. We barbeque about three times a week in summer, in the cool of the evening. (Well, my husband does, while I sit and drink my tinto con blanca.)

A shot that takes my breath away – up a mountain in darkest Peru

Walking the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu, this was one of our camps. We were up in the mountains, it was cold, and we had to walk through a bog to get to the loo. But when you wake up to a scene like this outside your tent, you forget about all that.

A shot that makes me proud – Galapagos Islands

In the Galapagos you’re constantly surrounded by wildlife, and if you can’t get a half-decent shot, you should just go home. In my case, I managed to *whisper* forget my camera (blame an all-nighter) and had to buy a disposable. But hey – at least I got the essential blue-footed booby shot.

My nominated Seven Super Shots-ers are:

Bibsey Mama


Julie Dawn Fox