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Holy Week in Andalucia

Clifford Mould followed the pilgrimage trail, in off-the-beaten-track Carmona

 One minute the little bar was packed, the air thick with smoke, drinkers clutching either beers or draft fino sherry poured carelessly from chilled, label-less bottles serving as carafes. In a high corner the television showed an uninterrupted diet of processions in Seville, the crowds looked impossible. Suddenly there was a hoarse cry at the door, the Andalucian accent is a bit like Estuary English, no consonants, all glottal stops. Glasses were banged down on the tables, half eaten tapas abandoned. We followed the locals down an alley which joined a narrow street  that led down to the main square. Just as we arrived, breathless, the first penitents, called Nazarenes, appeared wearing their long pointed hats and carrying ominous black candles. The wailing of an anarchic sounding bugle band and the thud of drums announced the impending arrival of the float bearing the figure of the Christus. We were in the ancient town of Carmona, and it was the evening of Good Friday.

Carmona is located about 30Km to the North East of Seville, further along the main road out the airport in the direction of Cordoba. There has been a settlement there since prehistoric times. Extensive Roman ruins remain, notably the ancient gate to the walled part of the city, and the Roman cemetery on the outskirts of the modern town. We arrived on Holy Thursday, and were surprised to find that the crowds that came to watch that night's procession were sufficient to provide an atmosphere of expectancy and festival, but not so large to be uncomfortable. Each night of Semana Santa or holy week sees a different hermandad, brotherhood, carrying its floats through the winding streets of the old town. The brotherhoods have lodges where they meet and train for their ordeal of penance, and where the precious and historic floats are lovingly cherished in their temple. Before the day of their procession the Paso, or float, is carried into the brotherhood's church along with their regalia and vestments. At the appointed hour on the appointed day, the whole procession sets off from the home church, usually at a time between 7pm and 8pm, often not returning to the hermandad house until the early hours (madrugada). 

Each hermandad normally has two floats, the Paso de Cristo has an image depicting Christ at one of the key moments of His passion. Mostly these dwell on the most painful aspects, so we see graphic tableaux of the crowning with thorns, the scourging, falling under the cross, the crucifixion itself, and finally the descent from the cross. This float concentrates the emotions of agony in a truly baroque manner. Traditionally it is lit more sparingly by elaborate branching candelabra, as opposed to the second float, or Paso de Palio of the Blessed Virgin with its banked up mass of upwards of fifty great candles.

The floats of the Virgin look very much alike to the casual tourist, but the subtleties of filigree work, the flowers, and the details of her long train are fiercely argued over by the aficionados of the different brotherhoods. Her expressions vary from tender love to almost palpable agony, often with tear drops that appear to be streaming down her face.  It sounds almost tacky, but somehow the whole atmosphere of occasion and tradition seem able to carry it off.

We are accustomed to floats in England and America that are assembled on large trucks, and are as ephemeral as the day of the local carnival itself. The Andalucian floats date back to the sixteenth century and are as solid as a ten ton truck. The word float should be taken literally. As we watched the Nazarenes processing down the street, our first glimpse of Christ at the scourging post was as the float precariously negotiated a right angled bend into the narrow alley where we stood. As it emerged, wobbling a little, but safe, a ripple of polite applause could be heard. Then the whole thing swayed in time with the music, looking like a boat floating on a gentle swell. There are no cart wheels, no gun carriages, no lorries, but some 24 tough young men hidden underneath, bearing this great weight on their necks. These are the costaleros, and this is their great annual penance. 

The costaleros wear a protective cloth wrapped around the back of their necks, just like the London coalmongers who dropped their sackfuls down the hole in the pavement outside our house when I was a boy. The costaleros are packed in four across and six deep. Sometimes under the skirt of the float you catch a glimpse of six pairs of sneakers moving in step and looking like a giant centipede. The temperature inside gets unbearable, and every so often the Capataz brandishes a sort of door knocker, and the float stops and is lowered to the ground. Along come the substitutes, and swift changes are made to the team. After a couple of minutes, the Capataz knocks again and the float flies up into the the air with a flourish and lands back on the men's shoulders with a crash that makes the statues and the candles wobble precariously. There's a man walking behind with a ladder and a taper to repair damages and relight extinguished candles.

We were struck by the variation in shape and size of the Nazarenes. Although they are virtually hidden from view by their surreal pointed hoods and vestments, there seemed to be quite young children and grownups both short fat and a few tall thin ones. Only those of exactly the right height and fitness could qualify as costaleros, so the odd shaped have to make do with a pointy hat. Their enveloping outfits are thought to derive from plague costumes, when processions of penitents, enactments of the passion, or even the dance of death celebrated deliverance and the need to ward off further attacks. 

Some brotherhoods engage the services of wonderfully out of tune marching bands, whose raucous dirges send shivers down your spine. But the most solemn brotherhoods process in silence, their Nazarenes barefoot, with perhaps three wind players playing a brief lament every few minutes. But when you hear the bulla (crowd) hissing for silence it is because a lone flamenco singer is about to begin a Saeta. This eerie song is a haunting mixture of styles. Flamenco and Moorish strains were fairly obvious, but with the elastic timelessness of plainchant melded with ululating cadenzas of spontaneous almost baroque sounding ornamentation.

On Good Friday, Carmona has three processions beginning at different times, and criss-crossing the streets virtually all night. I spent the afternoon siesta trying to work out where to have the first drink of the evening, where to see the first procession, where to stop for a few tapas, then out to the next procession and so on as the night wore on. We caught the last one just before midnight, in the square outside our friend's hotel.

Staying in Carmona

You really want to be in the old walled part of the city, especially during Holy Week. It really isn't a tourist destination, which is a good thing, but this means that there isn't a great choice of hotels, particularly in the cheaper end of the market. Leave your car at the hotel, the streets are very narrow and you can walk everywhere which is the best way to explore.

Parador "Alcazar del Rey Don Pedro" 4* Tel: 95 414 1010

The best place to stay is undoubtedly the Parador, converted imaginatively from an old castle with commanding views over the flattish but fertile plain below. The bar is one of Carmona's most stylish watering places, and the restaurant is said to be good, if rather pricey. Room rate including breakfast: 122 Euros.

Hotel "Alcazar de la Reina" Plaza de Lasso 2, 41410 Carmona Tel: 95 419 6200

We stayed in this rather dull conversion of another old palace. But our room was comfortable, the bathroom facilities moderately luxurious and the breakfast substantial, as well it might be for 144.00 Euros a night for the room and breakfast for two. The price for a single night's stay costs even more. The reception staff were most helpful, both in making our reservation and when we arrived. There's rather a nice courtyard leading off the dining room which has an attractive swimming pool. It wasn't quite warm enough in late March to venture in, but in summer this would be a most agreeable place to spend the siesta time.

Hotel Casa de Carmona, 1 Plaza de Lasso, Tel 95 414 3300

Our friends stayed at this hotel, another conversion from an old Alcazar, but done with real style and taste. There's a battered  air of shabby aristocratic comfort about the public rooms. One expects to see aged spaniels flopping about, and staff looking like extras from the film The Remains of the Day. Instead they are smart and helpful and there's an honesty bar which we abused, but only gently. The restaurant is expensive but is well recommended. Our friends said that the room rate was also pricey, but worth it; they winced at divulging the price. It was bad timing on my part to have asked them on the day they had been wheel clamped in Cordoba for parking in a normally legitimate spot, but where later on a procession was to pass.

Dining out in Carmona

Don't. On the whole you're far better off doing the tapas bars. There's a Tapas Route Map obtainable from the tourist office in the Alcazar gate, Puerta de Sevilla Their website is quite informative: 
The most exciting tapas bar is El Mingalario by the Town Hall, at peak times it's so popular you have elbow your way in.  

We tried one of the tourist office's recommended restaurants, the San Fernando, 3 Sacramento Street, and we four had the degustation menu. It was OK, but the sauces were bland, the fish not terribly fresh, and the presentations amateurish. The clientele, other than us of course, looked like a convention of undertakers. I've since heard that the Molinaro de la Romera is better. It's located on the walls leading up to the Parador and it certainly looked as though it catered for a livelier bunch. To be fair to Carmona, there are several other restaurants that we didn't try, and we would have explored some in the new town outside the gates, where no tourists penetrate. But we were staying for only a short while before making tracks for El Rosio, the extraordinary horse and pilgrimage town in the marshes of the Guadalquivir where the streets are broad and entirely of sand. The best meals we had on the whole trip were taken in roadside Ventas, but watch out for the ubiquitous chocos, which is all too often a very rubbery kind of cuttlefish.

Clifford Mould April 2002

Best Guides: Rough Guide to Andalucia, and for atmosphere, Nicholas Luard's book on the region.

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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