Annually, the city of Sevilla in the Andalusia region of Spain celebrates a springtime festival, two weeks after Semana Santa (Holy Week). Feria de Abril is a cultural event that attracts over two million people to Sevilla, a city regarded as the heart and soul of flamenco culture and music. This long-established fair transforms Sevilla into a huge celebration of history featuring bullfights, traditional costumes, music and dance.
In 1847, Queen Isabel II of Spain was looking for a way to encourage the city of Sevilla to grow and prosper. Two councilors, Narciso Bonaciata and Jose Maria Ybarra requested permission from the Sevilla council to organize a livestock fair. In April of that year, farmers traveled from all over Spain to buy and sell their farm animals on the outskirts of the city. Villagers used this opportunity to discuss their farming techniques and socialize.
By the following year, farmers and their families would wait out the afternoon heat, singing and dancing under the shade of orange trees to pass the time. It was not long before the livestock festival slowly transformed, and the first casetas, meaning small tent pavilions, emerged. Then, amusement park rides began to appear. The livestock fair began to acquire more of a mix of family festivity and cultural traditions, and soon became the anticipated April social event.
The narrow cobbled streets of Sevilla are more crowded than they were in past celebrations. Every year, the Feria de Abril attracts an increasing number of visitors, national and international. Sevillanos set the week aside for the festivities. Businesses shut down, schools close, and when the festival is not in full swing, the city sleeps.
Located near the Rio Guadalquivir, every aspect of the fair is steeped in history and tradition. The area used for the fair, Real de la Feria covers almost a one-mile radius. The thoroughfare includes differently sized casetas that are assembled on 12 streets and an amusement park known as Calle de Infierno, or Hell Street.
Visitors walk through magnificent towering archways, called the portada, designed to resemble the University of Sevilla entrance, originally a tobacco factory. Vibrantly painted in bright colors, the portada is topped with small, multicolored cloth flags.
Lights frame the portada, and feria officially begins at midnight with the official lighting of the lanterns. Twenty-two thousand tiny white lights shine like twinkling stars in the night sky. After that, remaining loyal to tradition, the fairground lights are lit, one sector at a time.
Casetas were first erected in 1893, and initially there were only nineteen. Today, there are over one thousand casetas. The walls and roofs are composed of colorfully striped canvas fabric, decorated with small, white lights, brightly hued paper lanterns called farolillos, and little flags. Ornamental elements such as the farolillos, first appeared in 1877.
A different group hosts each caseta, whether it is a family, organization or political party. Most are private, but there are casetas open to the public; one for each of the city’s districts.
Each caseta has its own traditions and ambiance much like a party. Inside, men strum their Spanish guitars. Women and men sing traditional flamenco ballads while others, wearing cheerfully patterned Sevillian dresses, twirl and stomp on the wooden floors of the caseta. There is always a small bar where manzanilla (dry sherry) or fino (dry, pale sherry) is served.
The spirit of Sevilla is kept alive with the fair humming with happenings from noon until night. Beginning at midday, a parade of riders and carriage take to the streets of Real. The paseo de caballos, meaning ride of the horses, is a long-seated tradition of the community and the privileged. Bright flowers adorn black lacquered carriages that are pulled by majestic horses outfitted with sleigh bells on their bridles. Carriages range from 19th century milords to light carriages called charretes. The parade winds its way to the afternoon bullfight.
Late afternoons are spent at la corrida (bullfight) that attracts prominent matadors and breeders to its historic Plaza de Toros de Maestranza. Owned by the Royal Cavalry of Sevilla, it is one of the “main temples in the history of bullfighting.”
Feria visitors, local or not, dress in traditional attire to join in the spirit of the celebration. In the beginnings of Feria, women that attended the fair were predominantly gypsies accompanying their husbands who had business there. Their dresses were “simple country clothes” with two or three tiers. The dress style became more fashionable over time to keep in step with the nobility that attended.
Styles continue to change annually, making it obvious who is dressed in the latest dress, and who is wearing something from previous years. Women wear the traditional farales, flouncy flamenco dresses with bright colors and matching accessories that include bold, costume jewelry, hair combs, carnation in the hair, and an embroidered shawl with long, silky fringe.
Men’s costumes date back to when they worked in the countryside. Their ensemble called, traje de corto, is comprised of boots, figure-cutting trousers, wide brim hat and a short bolero jacket, especially if they are driving the carriage or on horseback.
Springtime in Sevilla retains an extraordinary feel. With the sweet scent of orange blossoms in the air, the city anticipates Feria de Abril. Although, this tradition evolves a little each year, its people, costumes and Sevilliana dancing confirms, that at its heart, Feria de Abril will always be about the spirit of socializing and community in Sevilla.
By: Dawn Levesque