As Karin and I crossed the Guadalquivir, our locum guide and host for several hours pointed down river and intoned – “The Gateway to America.” Indeed, all of Columbus’s voyages launched from this storied corner of Spain’s Andalusia. The riches from exploration, its own natural bounty, and the cultural admixture of peoples have resulted in a city of immense interest.
Riding on a bus in Seville, we had struck up a conversation with a man in a royal blue suit – Carlos, a tall, gregarious 50ish man with a balding buzz cut above a big face with big smiling features and a belly that had seen too many beers. An accomplished classical musician, he was on his way to a repeat piano gig at the elegant and historic Hotel Colon (of course, named after Columbus). He invited us to stop into the hotel for a drink with him before our visit to Old Town. We agreed. But on arrival he found that because one of the world’s greatest bullfighters would have a splashy departure from the hotel to the Corrida (bull ring), that Carlos’s performance was cancelled, as the hotel arranged at the last minute to offer flamenco music. When booking our trip, we didn’t know of Feria, a one-week celebration of community and Seville’s history with livestock markets and flamenco that began in 1846. But when Carlos then invited us to join him in going to the fair, we jumped on it.
Feria takes place one week in April each year on 25 urban blocks that lie mostly barren except for preparation and celebration of Feria. Imagine the value of the property designated for this one event. The fairgrounds are imposing. 1,200 adjoined casetas (literally – little rooms or stands) comprise the temporary buildings, owned by companies, families, and associations. The standard is maybe 10×60 feet, but important ones are several times larger. The fronts are open to the walkways and streets, and each has a gaily painted pediment. All 1,200 contain a rudimentary kitchen, bar, and toilet and are filled with tables and chairs for eating and drinking, except maybe some space given to live performance and guests’ dancing. There is also a carnival for action rides and gaming. Each year a unique gateway to Feria is constructed, only for the week of festivities. The hardy partying goes on until 3 a.m. or so.
Needless to say, thousands of people flock to Feria every day and night to join in the reverie. But what makes it distinctive? There are several things you will never see as much of. Scores, no, hundreds of beautiful black lacquer horse-drawn carriages of various designs ply the streets, carrying revelers. Several times as many horses as carriages will be seen – sleek, chestnut Arabians and sturdy, dappled white Camargues, all decorated, most with manes and tails plaited in knots – each carriage being drawn by matched teams of two to five horses. Plus, a large number of steeds are ridden independently. Many riders wear Andalusian caballero costumes – fitted, fully-buttoned bolero jackets without collar or lapels; riding breeches; and round, flat-brimmed, flat-top hats.
A vast number of females aged 2 to 92 are stunningly bedecked in a wild array of gypsy flamenco dresses, often doing impromptu foot-stomping turns with graceful hands reaching to the sky as they feel the music coming from the many casetas. Less thematically, and more surprisingly is when slews of teenage boys arrive in the early evening, attired in tight-fitting dark suits, solid white or light blue shirts, ties, and tightly-coiffed, brilliantined hair. What planet do they come from? They look like they’re going to a 1950s social or appearing on American Bandstand! In any case, a fun time is had by all.
Unexpectedly, Carlos took us to a caseta of which he is a member. He generously arranged and paid for a scrumptious repast of traditional fare – prized iberico ham (cured like prosciutto, but from special acorn-fed pigs), calamari (as fried seafood is de rigueur for Feria), and a breaded rollatini of meat and cheese. It was washed down with a pitcher of rebujito, a refreshing drink of sherry mixed with lime or lemonade. Thanks, Carlos, for sponsoring and sharing with us this unplanned pleasure.
We also returned for closing night, when the crush of the crowd extended beyond the fairgrounds to both sides of the river. A glorious blast of fireworks at midnight marked the end of this year’s festivities. Disassembly of the grounds would begin in the morning.
In our many travels, we’ve been fortunate to happen upon special events in numerous places – for instance both Kulturnacht and Oktoberfest in Stuttgart in one 24 hour visit. Feria was a similarly wonderful experience for us, especially because of being escorted by a friendly and knowledgeable local. It is recommended to all who can make it to Seville in this special week of April. Otherwise, this city rich in history is always a great place to visit, with the long, elliptical palatial Plaza de España; by some measures, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world; the gold and silver towers; an old town; and much more.