Seville Snapshots: Costaleros Practicing for Holy Week

The capataz knocks once. As if mechanically, the 40-off men beneath the wooden structure heave together, resting on their heels, hands gripping the wooden beams above their heads.

A second knock, and they launch into the air together.

On the third, the simulation float has rested on their shoulders, and they begin a coordinated dance down the street, walking in sync as they practice for their glorious penitence – Holy Week.

You all know that I paso de pasos (and the crowds, and the brass bands and even the torrijas), but the grueling pilgrimage from one’s church to the Cathedral and back fascinates me. No one bears the brunt more than the costaleros, who must pay for this prestigious position within their brotherhoods and seek penitence through their labor, carrying over 100 pounds for an average of eight hours.

In the weeks leading up to Viernes de Dolores, no less than 60 brotherhoods will crisscross the city to practice, placing cinderblocks on top of the metal float to simulate the large statue, each depicting the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life or of the weeping Virgin Mary. For ten days, Seville is full of religious fervor as the ornate pasos descend on the city center.

For an official route plan with approximate times, check here. You can use this to either catch the processions, or totally avoid them!

What are your Holy Week plans? Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Seville?

I Bought a Flamenco Dress, Now What?!: a Guide to Buying Complementos

My phone buzzes just as I’m hopping on my bike, telling me I’ve got a photo in my whatsapp. M has sent me a photo of two different earrings, set side-by-side with a series of questions marks. 

I know where she’s coming from. 

Buying a flamenco dress every two years and figuring out how to deck it out has become my adult version of dress-up (who needs Halloween when you can wear ruffles? And big flowers on your head! And side-eye anyone wearing an outdated dress design!). I’m probably just as excited to shop for complements than I am for the actual flamenco dress.

I confess that my first Feria was rife with mistakes: I wore jeans and a ratty tee to the alumbrado, bought baby-sized accessories and – gasp! – wore my mantoncillo around my hips because I didn’t know you had to buy a brooch for it. Hey, no one helped me, and the lady in the Don Regalón probably laughed when I chose demure earrings that only an infant should have been wearing.

Shame is having a six-month-old show you up on Calle La Bombita while she’s napping in her stroller, trust me.

Oh, and did I mention I also wore a purse and a WINDRBREAKER?! Guiri, no.

I sent M the cardinal rule of flamenco accessories – BE BOLD. When else can you wear ridiculously oversized jewelry? When else is risk-taking so handsomely rewarded? Her dress is black, so the obvious, traditional choice is red. When I suggested gold, fuschia or even neons, I think I confused her even more. Having options makes sticking to a color palate really, really tough.

Let it be known that I am quitting my job for the next month to become a flamenco accessory consultant. 

First, you have to know the basics. Two months before the Greatest Week Ever begins, flamenco dress and accessories stores begin to pop up in the center of town, and you’ll hear the word traje spoken with a word density that makes your head spin (that, and azahar, playa, pasos and vacaciones, four sacred words in the sevillano lexicon when spring arrives).

Look for the stores near Calle Francos, Calle Cuna and Calle Asunción for both dresses and accessories. Your shoes can be bought on Calle Córdoba or any Pasarela store around town. If you’re looking for a deal on a dress, trajes are sold at warehouse prices in the towns outside of Seville, as well as older models at El Jueves flea market. A dizzying variety of complementos can be found at El Corte Inglés, Don Regalón and a number of specialty shops. Chinos also sell bargain items in plastic and sometimes beads.

Rule of thumb when it comes to your accessories: the bigger, the better. I mean it. No color, shape or size is off-limits. My new traje de gitana (you only get a preview below, sorry!) is a greenish turquoise color with cream-colored lunares, complimented by cream-colored encaje under the bust, where the sleeves open at the elbow, and at the ruffles. Since I didn’t pay for the dress, I was willing to splurge on complementos this year.

My advice is to browse before you buy. Because there are endless combinations of colors and styles, it’s easy to lose your head. When you have a dress made for you, ask for a swatch of fabric to take to the accessories stores for matching colors. I beelined straight for Isabel Mediavilla, a local designer who is friendly and helpful when it comes to suggesting possibilities. When she and I had come up with a color palate – dusty purple and gold – it was time to get to work.

Here’s your basic kit:

El Mantoncillo: The Shawl

I always buy the shawl as soon as I’ve got the dress nailed down. These shawls can cost up to 100€ or even more, given that some are hand-painted, hand-embroidered, a mix of patterns and textures. Buying the shawl will help you have an idea of what accessories will pair best. 

Some women choose a gargantilla (a choker with flecos, or the fringe that hangs down) or simple flecos that are sewn to the neckline of the traje de gitana.

Mine: Bought from Raquel Terán (Calle Francos, 4), 75€

La Flor: The Flower

The flower is a gitana’s hallmark, meant to look like a rose or carnation and worn either on top of the head or tucked behind the ear. The flowers are made of cloth and have a flexible “stem” with which to secure it to your head with bobby pins. Flowers can be big or small, but you should probably just go ahead and get a big one if you’ve got “la altura” according to the snotty lady at the Corte Inglés.

I went back to Isabel Mediavilla, as she has literally a wall full of flowers of every imaginable color and style. I’m going big this year – BIG.

Mine: Bought from Isabel Mediavilla (Calle Francos, 34), 20€

Los Pendientes: The Earrings

In one of my less memorable Feria moments, I let a cheap pair of earrings I’d bought at Don Regalón get the better of me – I pouted when one slipped out of my ears while dancing (hey, the 13€ they cost meant an entire hour’s private lesson!). I love the bold, intricate earrings that women wear during the fair and am constantly looking for ones that aren’t too heavy. 

I bought these ceramic beauties, but they’re a bit heavy, and my earlobes may not be able to handle them!

Mine: Bought from El Corte Inglés (Nervión), 23€

El Broche: The Brooch 

Many times, you’ll find brooches that match with your earrings, particularly at the Corte Inglés. A broche is mega important if you’re wearing a mantoncillo, as this will attach the  shawl to your dress and making dancing, eating and drinking hands-free.

Just, please, don’t tie the ends of the shawl together. Spend a few bucks on a brooch and you’ll not regret it!

Mine: Bought from El Corte Inglés, 9€

La Peineta: The Comb

Even in the age of bobby pins and hairspray, many women choose to add plastic or metal combs to their hair. They often don’t serve any sort of purpose, but many women wear them just behind the flower or to capture the whips of hair that aren’t shellacked to their skull.

When matching your combs, try and be consistent with your other accessories. If you’ve got plastic earrings, stick with a plastic peineta. Same goes for metal and for colors.

Mine: Bought two years in a chino, 12€

Los Tacones: The Shoes

Although I’d argue that shoes are the least of your aesthetic worries during the fair (hell, they’re covered by your ruffles!), it’s important that you wear something comfortable for all of those hours on your feet. Women opt for espadrille wedges or even cloth flamenco shoes that have a thick heel for support. Calle Córdoba, near Plaza del Salvador, is a narrow alleyway full of zapaterías, so make that your first stop.

Let me just say this – if you’re wearing stilettos, you’ll be doing very little dancing and probably a lot of pouting!

Mine: Bought from Pasarela two years ago, 15€

Lo demás: Everything else

You’ll also need to buy hairspray and bobby pins to secure the flower’s stem and the combs without a doubt. I’ve also got a donut for making a big, thick bun, as well as a fan because this year’s fair goes well into May.

Some women opt for necklaces, bangles, mantoncillo or no – what it all comes down to is feeling comfortable and wearing your accessories confidently. Remember that the flamenco dress itself is heavy and it can get hot under there! 

As for M? I sincrerely hope she went with hot pink. Lo dicho: go big or stay at home!

Want to read more on the Feria de Sevilla?

On my first time buying accessories successfully // The Dos and Don’ts of the Feria de Sevilla // The Music of the Feria de Sevilla

Photo Post of Carmona: The Perfect Little Day Trip from Seville

Nothing says long weekend like a roadtrip, a quick stop in a village and the mass migration of people during the sacred puente. Not wanting to go too far, I settled on taking a day trip to Carmona, one of the province highlights that is often shadowed by Seville (even though, in my opinion, the province doesn’t offer too much by way of historical sites). 

Rain was on the forecast, but it didn’t matter – Phyllis and I grabbed Pequeño Monty and took the A-4 all the way into town. My first trip to Carmona was five years ago on a similar, drizzly morning – I’ve been aching to return since (particularly because that was one of my poorest points of expat life – we didn’t pay to see anything and split two plates of food between five of us).

Most visitors to the city arrive to the Plaza del Estatuto, known to locals as the Plaza de Abajo. The oblong plaza is lined with old man bars. I swooned immediately.

This small city, perched on a hill above acres of wheat and olives, has seen traces of Bronze Age settlers, Roman emperors, Visigoth Kings and the Moors before its conquest in the 13th Century. In pounding the pavement, I felt like we were on the tails of history.

The old center winds up from the Puerta de Sevilla and its imposing city walls and onto Plaza San Fernando towards Calle Prim, called the Plaza de Abajo by locals. Hidden within the gradually steep walls that stretch to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Puerte de Córdoba are tucked-away plazas, convents, grandiose cathedrals and stately palaces. Many alleyways are so slim, you can touch both sides of the walls.

There was little car traffic (it seemed the whole town was either sleeping off the Carnival celebrations or at a wedding at the Priory of Santa María), and we practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Ending the day at the Necrópolis de Carmona (which is free, so you have no excuse to not go), we had gone from lavish renaissance palaces to the ruins of an ancient burial ground by just driving to the other part of town. Laying along the Via Augusta, Carmona has been attracting tourists for millennia.  We were just two unassuming guiris still amazed that such old stuff exists.

Have you been to Carmona? What are you favorite villages in the Sevilla province? I’d recommend the following:

Estepa, Ciudad del Mantecado

Itálica and its Roman Ruins

San Nicolás del Puerto

Guiri, Whoa: Buying a Flamenco Dress in Seville

Anda ya! 

Jose Manuel drops his hands in desperation as I paw a gorgeous, pale pink flamenco dress with a cascade of ruffles. No hay quien pueda with this guiri.

Nearly two hours into a search for the perfect flamenco dress, I was more undecided than ever. I got the last one in 2011 and knew immediately it was the right one for me, but this year has my head spinning. Jose Manuel dutifully pulls one dress after another, then hangs them up once I’ve ruled them out.

This flamenco dress business is a big deal.

When the Novio’s mother announced she’d be floating the bill for my traje de gitana this year, I jumped at the opportunity to design my own. I sketched out what I wanted – a one-color, sleeveless dress with three volantes and encaje around the bust and waist to make my boobs smaller and accentuate my small cintura.

I called Taller Los Príncipes to ask about pricing, trying to find something for less than 300€ so that the Novio, his mother and I would all pay 100€ each. The woman started asking me a flurry of questions. How tall was I in centimeters (….uhh…..)? What kind of ruffles did I want? Would I bring my own fabric? 

I politely said I’d call back. But I was way in over my head and with not a single seasoned guiri around to help me. In the past, I’d always bought my dresses off the rack and had them taken in (or out) as needed.

A bit of vocabulary so that you understand how confused I was.

A flamenco dress is known around these parts as the traje de gitana, or simply a traje. They’re worn during local festivals like the ferias and romerias such as El Rocío and can cost anywhere from 100€ to 500€, or ever more, especially those that are tailormade.

The dress is composed of a body, sleeves and a train of volantes, or ruffles. Made of tela, you can get high-quality fabric or normal and the detailing is called encaje. Lace is especially popular this year. The seamstress, called a modista, assists you in designing your dress and then sews it for you. The most traditional sort of fabric has lunares, or polka dots, but they can also me liso (one color) or with pattterns.

Next to the academy where I work, there’s a flamenco dress shop that’s only open from January until June. The first day I heard the heavy reja go up, it was a sign. I peered in the windows, lights off, when I opened the school and saw the exact dresses I wanted – lisos, con volantes graduados, encaje por un tubo. One color, big ruffles, details in all the right places. Either a deep magenta, turquoise or a pale green.

Later that week, I eat a light breakfast and showed up at Marqués Diseño de Trajes Flamencas. Jose Manuel is on the phone but immediately introduces himself as he hangs up (on his mother, oops!).

I fumbled for the words to tell him what I wanted. Tú no eres de aquí, verdad?

Stupid accent always giving me away as a foreigner.

He ushers me over to the racks of dresses, each slightly different from the next. Grabbing my arm, he shows me the sale dresses, available for just 175€ – una ganga, if you ask me. They are bold – bright reds and blues – but I shy away from wearing something so loud. Jose Manuel assures me that a pale, blue-eyed person would need something crazy to call the attention away from the Andalusian beauties.

So, verde agua is out. 

I show him my sketch and tell him I am dead-set on a single color, to which he scoffs. “Those are dresses for women who have nothing better to do during the fair but sit pretty in a horse carriage and look bored in their casetas.” I laugh, and admit that I am far more likely to drop greasy fried fish on my dress than abstain from eating and drinking so as not to get dirty.

Jose Manuel hands me traje after traje, zips me up, and leads me to a full-length mirror with each one, quick to judge the styles that make me look anything but fabulous. Easy-to-move-in cañastera ruffles are ruled out, as is the encaje that call too much attention to my chest and belly. I soon accumulate a pile of half a dozen dresses to discard (as well as my original design).

As it turns out, Jose Manuel da en el clavo: I am extremely traditional when it comes to flamenco dresses. I need color, lunares, volantes, a classy dose of cleavage and tight in all the right places. After narrowing the field down to two thanks to the miracle of whatsapp groups and my American friends, trying them on with a shawl and pulling my hair back to get the full effect, I make a decision before even asking the price.

It’s the tronillo design (pictured on the left and only 220€!) and in a size smaller than I usually get, and we set to the task of selecting the colors. What sets many dresses apart, even with a similar design, is the color chosen and the small details in the encaje. I already have a celestial blue dress with cream and coral accents, so I wanted to go bold.

Choosing the color palate for the dress takes nearly as long as trying them on. I hold up square samples of color, searching for the right combination, peruse back through the racks for inspiration. The smaller lunares, called lentejuelas, are better for big busts because they draw less attention to that area, so I stick with the pattern combination of the original dress I tried on and decide on turqoise. I momentarily consider a paisely, but Jose Manuel’s side eye when I mention it sets me back in place.

A week later, Jose Manuel raps on the window of the academy and asks if I could step out to OK the color patterns and pay a deposit on the dress. The original color I had in mind was not available, so he chose a shade darker, a bit more towards a green hue. I sign the receipt, paid 40€ and quickly scamper over to the academy (those ruffles start at the knee and make it hard to move swiftly) to have María José give me the thumbs up.

Jose Manuel hands me my receipt and says, “un mes largo” for the dress to be ready for its first fitting. Starting three months ahead of time means I’ve got a buffer for those extra weeks in a long month, but true to form, it is five weeks to the day. Nervously, I pulled the fabric over my hips and zipped it into place. It needs to be taken in a bit in the stomach and hips (success!), but it’s perfect.

Chicas, have you ever bought a flamenco dress in Spain? Need help with your complementos? Click here for a guide to buying accessories! 

 

Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Andalucía

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I often get asked what my favorite part of Spain is, and it’s really a loaded question. I’ve drunk wine in La Rioja, hiked through Asturias, considered a move to Madrid. A piece of me can be found in each part of Spain, to be honest, and there are very few places that I’m truly iffy about (I’m looking at you, Barcelona and Santander). 

Spain’s long history means it’s a country waiting to be discovered, and I’m going the break it all down for you in my new feature, Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions.

And how fitting is it to start with the one I call my hogar dulce hogar, Andalucía? And on the day that commemorates its independence (thank you, Journalism School 101, for reminding me that dates and anniversaries are great story ideas)?

Name: Andalucía, named for the Moorish Al-Andalus

Population: 8.4 million

Provinces: Eight; Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Maálaga, Sevilla.

When: 6th of 17 regions, July 2005

About Andalucía: This southernmost region (also home to the largest population) is the Spain you imagine: bullfights, tapas, sun, flamenco. I could write a love song to how much I adore this part of Spain, despite the mañana, mañana attitude, the heat and the immense size that has made it difficult for me to see everything there is to see here (though maybe that’s a good thing).

Must-sees: As this is a region I know well, heaps of places come to mind. In fact, this blog is loaded with six years of bus, train and car trips around Andalucía. From ferias to festivals to road trips to romerías, Andalucía is also known as the sailing point for the discovery of the New World, the epicenter of tapas culture and the birthplace of flamenco. A trip to Spain must include Madrid and Barcelona, but no picture of Iberia is complete without Andalusia on the list (and other areas, don’t attack me quite yet!).

For ideas, check out my Tourism category.

If you’re into the historical aspects of Andalucía, you can’t miss the Alhambra of Granada, wandering the streets of Santa Cruz and Córdoba and being witness to the Moorish influence during their seven century reign, and the Roman city of Itálica. Also of note are the small churches, other Roman relics and ruins.

For eats, you’re in luck – thanks to its varied geography, you can get everything from fresh fish to fresh game meat, olive oil to fish oil, wine to sherry. Andalusia has been known as a  traditionally rural area, and strawberries are grown in Huelva and Almería is known as Europe’s greenhouse. Fried fish and cured Iberian ham is practically a religion in my neck of the woods, and winter fruits like oranges populate the street’s of Andalucía’s great cities. 

Other great cultural sites include flamenco, the city ferias, bullfighting, Holy week, ceramics, fine arts, El Rocío…the list goes on and on (and, again, I’m biased). What seems to define Andalucía is its boisterous love for the folkloric and the traditional. 

My take: As the flamenco group Amigos de Gines sing, Andalucía es mi tierra, yo soy del sur, my personality is clearly best matched to an Andalusian. As one of the largest comunidades in Spain by land area, the region has far more to offer than I could ever write about on SandS. The regional pride and deep cultural patronomy, along with its gasronomic scene and spectacular architecture have me constantly excited to explore.

Each month for the next 16, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

What do you love (or not) about Andalucía?

The five best Spanish foods I never knew existed

I’m pleased to give some space to my friend and fellow Midwesterner, Katie Stearns. Our first meeting was serendipitous and mostly based around a shared interest: food. When not working in marketing, Katie is often found in the kitchen or eating out in Seville, and she’s written a post about five of her favorite Spanish food discoveries:

When I think back to my first year in Spain, and even my second, part of me cringes when I think about the things I thought I knew about the country. And when I say country, I really mean the country’s gastronomy scene – a topic that I’m passionate about no matter which part of the world I’m in.

I thought Spanish food was simple. I had this notion that Spanish food was kind of bland. And for some reason or other, I wasn’t convinced that it was anything special. If you’re only going to visit Spain for a short period of time, don’t waste any time in  making this exact mistake, and make sure you leave it to the professionals to help you discover these amazing flavors.

Thankfully, after two more years of living in Spain and thanks to my Spanish boyfriend and his family of amazing cooks, I get it. Spanish food is special. It’s steeped in both flavor and tradition. It’s made with spices and ingredients that have been around for ages and that have continuously produced spectacular food. It’s comforting and flavorful, and because food here is often cooked slowly, the flavors are inexplicably complex.

Here are five Spanish foods I wish I had known existed long before I ever did.

Espinacas con garbanzos is a dish of comfort and flavor. Although I eat spinach in salads, I never knew people really cooked the stuff until I got here, and I have to say cooked spinach is better than raw spinach on all counts. Espinacas con garbanzos starts with frying garlic and day-old bread, which becomes the base of the dish. Then, the spinach is added and cooked down with spices like cumin and a touch of pimentón until, finally, you add the fresh chickpeas. I could eat this dish anytime, anywhere, but it’s really best on a chilly day and served with a piece of crusty baguette to sop up the leftover cumin-laced sauce.

Morcilla. Okay, so I did know what it was, but I had no idea how good it was. Just do yourself a favor, and don’t think about what it’s made of and enjoy the rich and robust flavor of this incredible cured meat. It’s also a perfect touch in classic stews made in Spain with lentils or garbanzo beans.

Caracoles are another food I’d heard of, but again one of those things I chose to politely ignore. When my Spanish coworkers told me the translation of caracoles in English (snails), I felt squeamish. I think now is a good moment to note that I have always been an unbiased and adventurous eater, but after one slimy-snail-related situation at my house almost 15 years ago, I told myself I’d never go back. But I did go back, only about six months ago, and now I keep going back for more and more. Snails here in Spain are anything but slimy. The best snails I’ve ever eaten were in Córdoba, and they were bathed in a yellow cumin-spiced broth. After getting all of the snails out of the little cup, my boyfriend and his parents and I all stood over the little dish  and took turns dipping our spoons in just for that delicious liquid. And in Sevilla, it’s typical to order cabrillas, which are a bit bigger than the normal snails, and drenched in spicy tomato broth. The only regret I have about snails is that I waited so long to try them.

Huevos fritos seem simple enough. They may seem so simple, in fact, that you steer clear from ordering them at a bar or restaurant, just like I did. But to understand why that is a huge no-no while visiting Spain, you must understand that a fried egg here is nothing like a fried egg back home. Actually, when I make fried eggs at home, my boyfriend scoffs at me, and tells me it’s offensive to grill an egg in a spot of oil and still call it frying. He thinks this, of course, because a fried egg in Spain is just that. An egg gets broken into almost a full inch of hot olive oil, and instead of flipping it half-way during the cooking process, the cook simply takes a spatula to splash the hot olive oil on top of the egg. This process leaves the egg cooked to perfection and tasting nothing like the fried eggs I grew up with.

Coquinas are tiny little clams that are collected on the coast of Andalucía. I suppose this is a good moment to mention I was born and raised Midwestern. I ate meat of all kinds, while fish and seafood were rarely served at my house. When I moved to Spain, I started learning Spanish words for fish while simultaneously learning them in English, but I rarely ordered fish at restaurants and, in general, had no idea how many delicious things I was missing out on. When I first started dating my boyfriend, we’d go out to dinner together and he’d always gravitate toward the fish on a menu. And as first dates and shyness go, I could never say no. And thus began my love affair with fish and seafood in Spain, and coquinas are number one on my list. The little clams are cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley until they open right up. They are sweet and soft, and the perfect meal after a day spent at the beach. Like many Spanish dishes, the leftover sauce from the cooking process is the perfect place to dip your bread, soaking up every last drop.

Katie Stearns lives, eats and breathes life in the South of Spain, where she’s going on her fourth year of life abroad. What started out as a nine-month stint teaching English as a foreign language has spun into a career of writing and marketing for Andalucía Inside, a luxury tour guide company located in Seville. All photos are her own.

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