Colleen McGuinness is a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is an ISA Featured Blogger and studied abroad with ISA in Sevilla, Spain.
Have you ever wanted to be a princess for a day? What about a Spanish princess? If you’ve never considered it, it’s time to start. Unbeknownst to me when choosing my study abroad location, I would be in the center of the largest Spanish celebration of culture in springtime: The Feria de Abril (The Fair of April). Sevilla is the birthplace of flamenco dancing and one of the best places in Spain for bullfighting, so it has a unique and lively culture year-round. However, there are 7 days and 7 nights where all of this Sevillano color, music and dance is condensed and intensified… welcome to Feria!
The fair began in 1847 as a presentation for livestock, and at that time the casetas (tents) that were built to line the streets had a sole purpose of keeping the businessmen protected from the radiating Andalusian sun. Now the casetas have evolved into private family bars, restaurants, and dance floors. This small agricultural fair has transformed into a celebration of Sevillano culture with more than 1,000 casetas pressed side by side lining both sides of the streets in a radius spanning more than 5 blocks. These casetas are nothing like the white pop-up canopies that Americans use tailgating in the parking lots of sport games, but rather a small cabin with wood floors and a roof. No caseta is the same, as they are decorated by the families who rent them for the week, with flowers, colorful drapery, and fancy tables and chairs. Some of the larger casetas have a stage with a live band, and I even saw one with a musician!
Feria begins on a Saturday night with “la noche del pescaíto” where the locals dress up in formal apparel similar to what is expected of a wedding guest. They attend a fish dinner in the private caseta of their friends or family at around 9:30 pm, and once they finish they head to the Portada, the large arch that marks the entrance of the festival. At the stroke of midnight, the Portada illuminates the streets with millions of tiny lights embedded in its massive structure and the onlooking crowds cheer and continue to drink and dance the night, or rather morning, away. The Feria ends with a bang, literally, on the following Saturday night with fireworks.
Sevillanas are the iconic song and dance combo of the fair, where partners stomp and spin and swirl the frill of their colorful traje de flamenco (flamenco dress). Each Sevillana has a specific dance, and all of the locals know the steps or have a friend who can guide them. These will be playing in every caseta at some point in the day or night.
The traje de flamenco is a necessity for a woman attending the event. In the first couple days, every women no matter their age or size will rock their polka dots. Truth be told, not all dresses are polka dots; they come in many colors and designs, but the majority I saw were from the pastel rainbow or a vibrant red. Ranging anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, the dresses are a work of art themselves. The Feria outfit is more than just a dress; large earrings, a manton de mancio (shawl with fringes), red lips, and flowers are also crucial accessories.
Throughout the day, one can witness the Paseos de Caballos in any part of town. Translated as “the passes of the horses”, these special carriages driven by well dressed men and horses laden with jingle bells. The carriages bring Feria guests in their attire to the Sevillan monuments for photos, or the bullring for a midday “fight.” They eventually make their way to the streets of Los Remedios for the festival, and you can expect to be dodging horses and large carriage wheels as you pass from caseta to caseta.
This festival is much more difficult to partake in as an out-of-towner. Without a private caseta to attend, or an expensive flamenco dress to flaunt, it is easy to feel like you stick out like a sore thumb. The first couple days of the Festival, Monday through Wednesday, are considered the “real” celebration by many locals because the tourists have yet to swarm. Feria is still really a celebration of Sevillano culture by Sevillanos, so despite its grandeur I don’t think it should be considered a worldwide attraction.
However, I am an out-of-towner who happened to invade their week long fiesta and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity. There is a purity to this party. Although there is drinking day and night, no one exceeds their limits. And although there are police officers walking around, there is no need for intense security; despite the massive size of the event, guests can come and go as they please.
So if you are in Spain in April and want to visit THE best party I’ve ever attended, I have a couple of tips. If you manage to find a cheap flamenco dress from a second hand store (quick plug for the store I volunteered at, Piel de Mariposa, they have good quality used ones for under $50) make sure it is long-sleeved. Even though the temperature can get into the eighties in the Spring, the long sleeves are the norm for women and they give you an excuse to wave a pretty fan in front of your face. Most women match their dress with “zapatos espartos” (a type of shoe), but if you don’t have them, then just wear something comfortable because you should expect to walk at least ten miles. If you don’t have a traje de flamenco, no worries! As the week comes to an end, or during most nights, there will be less people in dresses and more people just dressed up. Even my host mom hasn’t worn a flamenco dress in many years, so not having a million dollar dress isn’t the end of the world.
There are 16 public casetas which were honestly more fun than the private casetas that I was invited inside. It can be hard to push to the bar to order food or find a seat at a table, but the dancing never disappoints. If it is a public caseta, it will be a lot bigger, and it will say “caseta publica” above the entrance, so keep an eye out. If you want to see the celebration in its truest form, make sure to visit in the first half of the week. There are almost no tourists, and 99.9% of attendees will be in the appropriate apparel. This means that the streets have more wiggle room, and the colors are más fuerte (stronger). And finally you should stop by the carnival on Calle Infierno. They have roller coasters, ferris wheels, and water rides! It was pretty funny to watch people get strapped into their seats while wearing a poofy dress and heels.
See you there!
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I visited Sevilla and loved it. Now I must go at Feria time! Next year? I wrote a blog essay about being a princess too. http://fakeflamenco.com