Europe 54 – The best of the rest

The best of the rest (14)

Semana Santa

Where? Seville, Spain

When? March or April

How long? 2 days

Every year a million or more Spanish and foreign tourists flock to Seville to witness the spectacular processions of Holy Week (Semana Santa), one of Europe’s most affecting and unforgettable events, and worth experiencing whether you’re a Christian or not. Sweeping up the population in the story of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the processions have centuries of history in much of Spain, and indeed other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, but are most extravagantly staged in Seville.

The first of the processions begin on Palm Sunday, as the city springs out of its winter torpor, and each day different brotherhoods parade through the streets, building to the highlight of the week, the Madruga, from midnight on Holy Thursday until well into Good Friday. As many as sixty thousand brothers from 57 cofradias or hermandades (religious brotherhoods attached to a particular parish church) participate in the processions, and they can take hours to complete. In most cases each cofradfa parades two elaborate floats, the first bearing a sculpted image of Christ depicting a scene increase their penance. The sombre drum and brass notes of a marching band set the pace, as the enormous floats emerge, borne by a team of thirty or so men, hidden from view. They move rhythmically, making the float sway gently from side to side as it advances, under the orders of a “foreman”, who marches ahead and tells them when to rest and when to start moving again. Each procession takes a different route but all aim for the Cathedral, converging on the final stretch, from Plaza del Duque de la Victoria, along Calle de Sierpes, Plaza de San Francisco and Avenida de la Constitucion – known as the Carrera Oficial (Official Route). After reaching the Cathedral, each procession then heads off, generally by a different route, back to their church for the formal entrada (entrance, or return).

The first procession on Thursday is the black-clothed parade of El Silencio. As their name suggests, they march without noise, unaccompanied by a band and imposing their eerie silence on bystanders. They are followed by the Cofradia del Senor del Gran Poder, also dressed in black, and later, one of the most spectacular processions, La Macarena, which reaches the Cathedral at about 4.30am. More than three thousand Nazarenos and Penitentes march in La Maracana, and you can be waiting well over an hour before sighting the Virgen de la Macarena, the most beloved °f the floats. At midnight, is the climatic Madruga, when the most important of the city’s brotherhoods parade to the Cathedral and back all night – the last don’t return to their starting points until 2pm the following day.

Spoleto Festival

Where? Spoleto, Italy

When? July

How long? 2 weeks

Spoleto is a deliberately broad-based event, with theatre, cinema and visual arts events, although the focus is very much on music and dance (© Even if you’re not attracted to anything special, the inaugural and closing concerts, held al fresco on the main town square, are a wonderful spectacle.

Up-Helly Aa

Where? Lerwick, Scotland

When? January

How long? 1 day

Around a thousand people, many of them costumed Vikings, complete with winged helmets, axes and shields and flaming torches, take to the streets of Lewick in the Shetlands on the last Tuesday of January to drag a Viking galley through the town. It’s set up on the seafront, and then everyone hurls their torches on board and it’s razed to the ground, at which  point everyone disappears off to the pub or to one of many invitation  only events around town – there’s definitely no chance of gate-crashing these, as it’s very much a local celebration.

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