Here in Sevilla, Spain, we’ve timed our visit to coincide with the Feria de Abril, the famous annual spring festival of horses and bulls. (Tom provides detailed bullfighting notes and photos here.) We thought it would also involve costumes (correct) and processions (not exactly), and that we’d be swept up in the fun of it all (yes, but not easily).
Tom found our hotel without problem, although it’s a busy week and prices are higher than normal. Hotel San Gil is located in the Macarena neighborhood on the western edge of the historic city center, about a 20-minute walk to the cathedral if you don’t make any wrong turns.
The first thing we learned about the Feria is that it doesn’t happen all over town, as we’d expected – and unlike the Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, which begin at every church and converge on the central cathedral. The Feria de Abril is held on its own fair grounds, which are another 25-minute walk beyond the Cathedral and across the Guadalquivir River. You can grab a bus, but we found walking is easier and faster than finding the Feria bus stops.
The second thing we learned, once we made our way to the Feria grounds, is that it is made up of hundreds of ‘casetas,’ tent structures similar to stands at our state fair, but set up as private dining areas for families, businesses, associations, and fellowships. We don’t belong to any of those groups, and the seating is reserved for those who do. So we wandered the streets, peering into the personalized dining rooms, the shaded tables and chairs, and the great smelling kitchens in back.
The Feria city covers some 70 acres divided into 25 blocks. The streets are named for famous bullfighters and paved with fine yellow sand like a bullring. Originally, the Feria’s purpose was dealing livestock. But as things tend to go in Andalucía, the partying and posturing took over. The casetas are a way of keeping party people out of the way. We arrived early afternoon on a cool day while the grounds were still being watered down, and supplies of olive oil, food and drinks loaded in. Walking the streets and smelling the cooking can make a visitor mighty thirsty, especially when denied access to the endless casetas.
We thought we might be missing something, so we returned to the information booth to see if we could grab a place at one of these restaurants. Another tourist was in the same boat. Using her best Spanish, she asked, “Que pasa aqui?” “What’s going on here? Is it just eating and drinking?”
“And dancing,” the volunteer answered.
[Note to Sevilla’s tourism office: it would be a good idea to hide the self-important gentlemen standing around in the information booth watching three women do all the work, while visitors are lining up at the booth’s four windows.]
We learned that our type (non-members of any club that would have us), are relegated to one of seven municipal tents. There, the food is nothing to complain about, but it’s typical fried fare or sandwiches, and doesn’t smell nearly as good as the stuff coming out of the private kitchens. Water, soda pop, beer, wine and sherry are readily available, but a plastic chair to sit on is not, much less space at a plastic table. We shoved some used cups and plates aside and found a spot to sit, finally.
On the other hand, the Feria offers the best sort of people watching imaginable. Handsome men on horseback, beautiful women in carriages, fine horses and adorable children, amazing flamenco dresses on every shape and age of woman. The dresses range from stunning – when on a beautiful woman – to ridiculous. All are completely over the top, as if polka dots and ruffles need more lace and fringe, and a gorgeous face needs flowers and earrings and elaborate combs and necklaces, on top of hair and make-up. Mothers and daughters often wear matching dresses, and young boys on horseback do their best to look confident in their suits. The most stylish attire, and never overdone, is the sleek flat-brimmed sombrero worn by both men and women.
Inside the municipal tents, women and girls take over the dance floor. The music is loud and punctuated by castanets and stomping heels. Outside, horses and carriages are paraded along the streets in an informal procession that has no beginning or end. This is the parade worth seeing, and it is fairly constant.
Approaching the grounds is a little less dignified. The Caballeros and Amazonas (horseback riders), along with horse-drawn carriages, have to compete with taxis, buses and cars. As we walked back to the center city, we came upon an unhappy accident in the middle of a bridge. A young woman sat curbside, dazed amongst her ruffles, beside a carriage drawn by two horses, one of which had become tangled in its carriage yoke. Broken auto glass was swept across the pavement. A concerned traffic cop and bystanders helped the carriage driver get his horse freed and back on its feet. It looked like everyone was fine, though traumatized. But the resulting traffic jam probably lasted for hours.
We’ll venture out to the Feria again. Maybe we’ll finagle an invitation, or pay to become family. Otherwise, entrance is free, and we’ll know better what to expect: watching other people eating and drinking … and dancing.