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.