The passion of Seville, published in Money Market

Published in Money Market

Tens of thousands of people line the streets. Many hundreds of people are dressed in long robes, or are carrying massive crosses or figures of saints. The Semana Santa (Holy Week) has come to symbolise the city of Seville just as the Mardi Gras represents Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the bull run symbolises Pamplona or the Grand Prix sums up Monaco.

Of course it is a highly charged event, rich with historic meaning and giving the people of this ancient city an outlet for their religious and spiritual feelings. It also shows how passionate the city is, not only about its customs and traditions, but about all aspects of life.

The list of famous Seville residents includes Don Juan, the infamous seducer of dozens of women. It also includes the real life Carmen, model for the opera about a woman who seduces men and then casts them aside. One of Seville's rulers, the Castilian King Pedro I, became so obsessed with a woman called Dona Maria de la Cerda that he killed her husband and pursued her so relentlessly that she threw boiling oil over her face to put him off. A convent dedicated to her memory was founded.

The city has been cherished and adored by its residents for so many centuries that it has become ingrained in their psyche: Seville's heraldic coat of arms has the motto 'you've never abandoned me' on it and to this day it inspires tremendous loyalty and affection.

Visitors pick up on this and remark that there is a very special atmosphere to the city, quite different to the metropolises of Madrid and Barcelona, more personal, more steeped in its own particular flavour. It is the birthplace of flamenco, the most important home of Spanish bullfighting and the site of what Seville claims to be the largest gothic cathedral in the world, the Santa Maria de la Sede. "When it is finished, those who see it will take us for madmen," said one of the priests responsible for the work, which began in 1401 and ended in 1507.

All these activities and traditions demand passion and commitment. Men don't get into a ring with a raging bull and try to kill it, in an elaborately choreographed ritual, in front of thousands of cheering people, unless they can put aside their natural human inhibitions and sense of self-preservation. Nor do women dress up in a riotous, bright red costume, complete with frills and bows, and dance provocatively in front of men, clicking a pair of castanets, unless they can cope with the emotional questions this brings along.

The people of Seville don't sit around wondering whether killing bulls for entertainment is ethical or humane, or whether flamenco is a ritualised sexual tease, they just get on with it and celebrate the wonders of gender difference, letting men be men and women be women and finding their own ways to get on with one another.

The ways they find to get along are attractive to any visitor. They meet in the early or mid-evening in Barrio Santa Cruz, a district of narrow shady lanes, ancient Moorish architecture, scattered with flower-bedecked courtyards and host to several of the city's major landmarks - the cathedral, the Alcazar palace and the Archivo de Indias, a museum dedicated to the history of the discovery of America.

(Although Christopher Columbus was originally from Genoa, in modern-day Italy, was funded by the Portuguese and died in the Spanish city of Valladolid, his remains were shipped around various countries, including Cuba, before eventually pitching up in Seville in 1899, according to historians. His only real experience of the city was a couple of years - from 1485 to 1487 - when he tried to get the king and queen to sponsor a trip to the Americas, which they refused.)

After a couple of glasses of sherry and some tapas - perhaps some huevas (fish eggs with mayonnaise), pinchos morunos (spicy meat) or caracoles (snails in sauce), people move on to the centre of town, where many bars sit next to parks and squares, so people get a drink and then sit outside enjoying each other's company. The Maria Luisa Park is a big draw, especially in summer, with impromptu parties breaking out all over the place, music being played and a vibrant, late night atmosphere.

For something a little more formal and upmarket, the bars along the river close to the Expo 92 buildings (which triggered a major redevelopment programme in Seville) are worth a visit. This is where the more fashion-conscious locals hang out. For the serious late night clubber, the streets of Marques de Paradas, Julio Cesar and Adriano are just the ticket.

An earlier Expo took place in 1929, bringing a good deal of new building and development to Seville, just as headline events such as the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 brought a flush of reconstruction to that city. Going back further into history, Seville's real power lay in its position on the river Guadalquiver, from where ships could sail down to Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic coast. This gave the city a crucial role in the development of trade between Spain and the Americas, a trade which grew to epic proportions in the 17th century, funding a period of incredible riches and artistic splendour. This was the time of painters such as Velasquez, Murillo and Valdes Leal, all of them born in Seville and attaining international fame. As in Valencia, the river was once diverted around the city, but was later re-routed through the centre.

Settlements had been noted on the site for many centuries before then, however. Originally known as Hispalis, the Romans conquered the town in the third century BC, making it the centre of the Western Mediterranean part of their empire for several centuries. The emperor Hadrian is thought to have been born here. The Moorish occupation of Spain and Portugal, from 711 to 1248, left a wealth of ornate and beautiful architecture and changed its name from Hispalis to Isbilya. The Arabic dynasties also used the city as a regional capital, gaining domination over what are now large parts of Spain.

A terrible earthquake in 1356 destroyed many fine buildings, but the unquenchable spirit of the city soon emerged, with at least four major churches springing up in its wake. Getting Seville back from the Moors also spurred a growth in its size, as many immigrants, among them a large Jewish contingent, came to the city.

Soon afterwards the massive cathedral was begun and Seville's reputation as a centre of Christian tradition and ritual took shape. To this day, a series of curious traditional events crop up throughout the year. On Shrovetide, Corpus Christi and the day of the Immaculate Conception, a group of boy dancers called the Seises perform a piece in front of the Holy Sacrament of the main chapel in the cathedral; in December each year students dress up in medieval robes and perform traditional songs; on 5 January, a procession of the three Magi goes through the town, with the kings sitting in horse-drawn carriages, giving presents and sweets to children; in April there is the Feria de Abril where thousands of women put on their flamenco dresses, lamps are lit all over the city and a sherry party goes on all night, every night for a week. In July there is the feast of Santa Ana, with street parties and games; every two years in early autumn there is a Flamenco festival (it was last held in 2004, so the next one will be 2006) and a horse fair called SICAB is held every year in November, celebrating pure Spanish breeds.

And that's without mentioning the Semana Santa week of thronging processions and dressing up, where 52 'brotherhoods', known as cofradia, each organise a procession: first come the Nazarenos in long gowns with hoods, then the Penitents each carrying a cross on their shoulders, then come the Costaleros carrying a figure of a saint, weighing up to 100 kg.

Just a little way out of Seville, the Roman ruins at Italica are stunning, wilderness can be found in Montellano, Moron and Algamitas (which has the highest mountain in the region), or in the comarca de la Sierra Norte, which attracts walkers, climbers and pot-holers. Europe's biggest colony of white swans is to be found in la Puebla del Rio, while the crested coot, the marbled teal, the sqacco heron, the purple gallinule, the white-headed duck and an assortment of storks, egrets and flamingos can be spotted by anyone with the energy to look for them.

So, as the tourism brochures put it, there's pretty much something for everyone in Seville. But the point is that the people of Seville themselves are not doing all these crazy festivals and traditions for the sake of visitors. They're passionate and devoted to doing them, for their own sake and for the sake of the city they love.