Seville is the capital and the largest city of Spain’s autonomous region of Andalusia, a southern province blessed with an ancient and rich culture, amazing history, and a strong sense of identity. So much so that many things associated with Spain are actually Andalusian in their origin: flamenco, bullfights, horses, Moorish architecture -the list goes on.
Reasons to go:
- Great food & wines
- Laid-back lifestyle, fun-loving people
- Low prices
- Arab legacy
- Corridas de toro (bullfights)
Andalusia has both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, and its proximity to the northern coast of Africa has been an important factor in its history. It was from North Africa, in the 8th century, that Arab Moors invaded and occupied the region, and for many centuries what they called ‘Al-Andalus‘ (hence Andalusia), was a powerful Muslim empire in Europe. That occupation ended in 1492, when the army of Fernando and Isabel – called the Catholic monarchs – finally expelled them, an important page of Spanish history called the Reconquista (Reconquest).
Everything in Seville goes back a long time. Founded some astonishing 3000 years ago, it has been inhabited over the centuries by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and Spanish Christians, among others, all of whom have left their marks. It’s a city of layers; it has a strong personality and flamboyant appearance, and is simultaneously charismatic, charming and mysterious. The richest city in the world in the 16th century – when the wealth brought to Spain from its colonies in America and Asia put it in the center of power in Europe – the city has adapted beautifully to modern times, without losing its personality. This vibrant and energetic place needs to be seen, for many reasons:
Sevillanos know how to live
Although Seville is not small – almost two million people call it home – it’s a place that seems to be unaffected by the stressful ways of modern cities. As in the rest of Spain, life here has a charming, easy-going way about it, and everything seems to happen at a slow pace. Stores are typically open from 9:30am to 1 or 2, when locals go home for lunch and for the famous siesta, a Spanish tradition. They reopen at 5 and stay open until 9 or 10. This break seems to be vital for Sevillanos, as the natives are called, more so than making the extra money that staying open would bring. They don’t seem to ever be in a hurry, either, and take time to finish a conversation, even if not at all important, before they pay attention to the next person in line. Looking desperate won’t help (I tried); they won’t even look at you until it’s your turn.
And they love to go out at night! Meal times are later in Spain than anywhere else – lunch starts at 2 or 2:30 and dinner is never served before 9 – although in areas with many tourists some restaurants open a bit earlier. At night, the streets are full of people, and it’s hard not to notice how good-looking Sevillanos are: they have chiseled features and flashing dark eyes, and exude the cool sophistication of people in more cosmopolitan cities, like Barcelona and Madrid. Most of them have dark hair and tanned skin, something that can be traced to centuries of Moorish occupation. On Mateos Gago Street (Calle Mateos Gago), the center of the activity, all tapas bars are full with young and old alike – Seville, by the way, is known for the best tapas in Andalusia.
I was there in February, a supposedly cold month in Seville. It rained a bit, but temperatures were mild and the city was already full of tourists. Lots of Chinese – it was their New Year – all moving in large groups following a guide. I stayed in Santa Cruz, the medieval Jewish quarter also known as Juderia, Seville’s most picturesque area. It’s a charming tangle of narrow alleyways and patios, of winding streets ending in small plazas, and of whitewashed, plant-decked old houses. The Juderia is also walking distance from Seville’s colossal cathedral and the Alcazar – two of the city’s main attractions – and near most good hotels and restaurants.
The magnificent Seville Cathedral
It’s a Catholic church, obviously, and those not religiously inclined may feel tempted to bypass it all together. Don’t! Seville’s Cathedral is so grandiose, so superlative, so rich in architecture styles and history that it feels like a high-end art gallery covering many centuries. The largest Gothic cathedral in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, legend tells that when plans for its construction were drawn up, church elders stated, “Let us build a church so beautiful and magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad.”
But as magnificent as it is, the cathedral didn’t start its life as a Catholic church. It was erected right on the site of the great Aljama Mosque, built in the late 12th century by the ruling Moorish dynasty of the time – the Almohads – who in turn had built their mosque over Roman ruins! One of the few remaining parts of the mosque is the Courtyard of Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos), once used by the Muslim pilgrims as a place for ablutions, before entering the mosque. There are still many orange trees full of fruits in the Patio, the same original fountains and a Moorish arch in the back.
Inside the cathedral, its monumental scale and grandeur are stunning. The central nave rises 42 meters, and there are no less than 80 side chapels on both sides! In the main nave, the rhythmic balance between its many parts – allied to an overall simplicity and restraint in decoration – is remarkable. The two rows of side chapels are more ornate; it’s where successive ages left monuments to their wealth and style.
In one of the chapels, a sign marks the place where, on September 8, 1522, the 18 men returning home on the ship Victoria, the only one that returned from the first voyage of global circumnavigation, came to give thanks to St. Maria de la Antigua for having survived the ordeal. Originally an expedition of five ships and 234 men – organized and led by Hernando de Magellan – they had sailed from Seville in 1519, and in three years crossed the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Magellan himself died during the voyage, but his was the the first trip ever to circumnavigate the world, and one of the the most important achievements of the Age of Discoveries, initiated by Spain and Portugal. Those daring first sea adventurers would guarantee the two countries unimaginable wealth and power for centuries.
Columbus’ resting place
Not far from where Magellan’s men gave their thanks lies the mausoleum with the remains of another great navigator: Christopher Columbus, the Genovese sailor who, in 1492, was the first European to set foot in what we now call America. Traveling with the Spanish flag, and financed by the monarchs Fernando and Isabel (legend tells it that she sold her jewels to pay for his ships Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina), Columbus is perhaps the one navigator responsible for the prominence Spain reached in the world, right after his discoveries. His remarkable achievement also gave Seville its biggest break: in 1503 the city was awarded an official monopoly on Spanish trade with the new-found continent, and it quickly became the richest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Columbus’ coffin is carried by bearers representing the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre.
My plan was to visit the Cathedral and the Royal Alcazar on the same day, but the amazing wealth of art in the church made me change my mind. It’s not only the paintings, sculptures and tombs – which could be expected of a cathedral at the heart of the political and economic power for centuries – but details that take time to admire. Most of the great wealth that flowed into the city when Spain was a world power was spent in architecture and art, and part of it can be seen in the church: paintings by local Baroque artist Bartolome Murillo (The Guardian Angel, The Vision of St. Anthony), Francisco Zurbaran (Sta. Teresa de Jesus) and Francisco de Goya (Santa Justa and Santa Justina) – just to name three of the most important Spanish masters ever – are scattered over many chapels, vestries and the treasure. Zurbaran’s famous Saint Teresa de Jesus needs a few minutes to be taken in, such is the raw emotion he managed to convey in the painting.
But the high points of the Cathedral are the choir and high altar. Churches in Spain often enclose the centre of the church with a choir (coro) for a more intimate area for services. The daily 10:00 am mass is still held here in the Capilla Mayor – a good time to hear the organ play, but no sightseeing or photos. The High Altar (Altar Mayor) is not only the largest but probably also the most impressive work of art in the Cathedral. The wood-carved altarpiece measures 20 m high and 23 m wide — the largest Gothic altar in the world. This size required the sculptures higher up to be larger, to preserve perspective when viewed from below. The basic design was made by the Flemish artist Pieter Dancart in 1482, but the actual carving of the 45 panels took nearly 80 years to complete. Three tons of gold were used in the decoration of the altar!
The other structure from the original mosque that survived the Reconquista is the Giralda Tower, built as the mosque’s minaret in 1198 and extended by Christians in the 16th century to include a belfry. An imposing structure of 76 meters, La Giralda is crowned by the weather vane called Giraldillo, the symbol of Seville. I climbed to the top for the stunning city views people talk about (proven to be true), and was relieved that it was accessible by ‘only’ 35 ramps, not steps. It was built that way so that the muezzin in charge of calling the Muslims for prayer could ride up on his horse .
La Giralda was built by a Moorish architect who also built twin minarets in North Africa, in the Maghreb region of Marrakesh. Called ‘the other three Giraldas’, it is said that those on the other side of the Mediterranean could be seen from Seville on clear days (highly unlikely). The Giralda of Seville was crowned with four large gold balls that were visible from 40 km away; they were so admired that when the Muslims surrendered the city to the Christians, in 1248, they asked permission to destroy the tower. The reply they got has become famous in history: “If only one brick were removed from the tower you will all be stabbed to death.”
The Royal Alcazar
Getting tickets for the Royal Alcazar wasn’t easy; they were sold out, and Seville’s tourist office wasn’t much help, either. It’s best to buy tickets online in advance, and not to expect – like I did – that with February being the ‘low season,’ tickets would be easy to get. But I didn’t give up, and I’m glad I didn’t: the Royal Alcazar of Seville is one of history’s high points, a definite must see.
Like most historic buildings in Seville, the Alcazar was built on the site of a Muslim residential fortress of the 8th century, which was destroyed after the Reconquista. The buildings we see now started to be erected in the 1300s as the palace of king Pedro I of Castille, and during the 500 years of its construction, styles succeeded one another. Overall, the Alcazar is a fine example of Mudejar architecture, a fusion of Catholic (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance) and Islamic art created in the 12th to 16th centuries by Muslims who remained in Andalusia. Today, the Alcazar’s upper levels are still used by the Spanish royal family as their official residence in Seville. It has also been used as a set of movies – Lawrence of Arabia was shot there, as well as part of the fifth season of Game of Thrones.
Entering this fortress-palace is like traveling in time; it’s a fascinating sequence of tiled patios, ornate rooms and tranquil gardens, and the beauty and detailed craftsmanship in each room is something we don’t see anymore. Its highest point, the Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens), is surrounded by perfect Moorish arches and the finest plaster and tile work. The sunken garden at the center was uncovered by archeologists in 2004, and it’s hard to imagine a more harmonious ensemble. At the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls), the heart of the palace’s private quarters, I stopped to admire the plasterwork that was brought from the Alhambra of Granada when the mezzanine and top gallery were added for Queen Isabel II.
Alcazar in Spanish means a palace or fortress of Moorish origin, and many cities in Andalusia have their own. The one in Seville is special because of its massive size, richness of details and for the abundance of water in many pools, fountains and gardens – in a city famous for the driest and hottest summers in Europe. The lush, formal gardens are so peaceful and tranquil, despite being in the center of town, that all I could hear was the gentle breeze on tree leaves and the clicking cameras of tourists. To be sure, there are even more tourists in the Summer, a good reason – other than Seville’s famous heat – to avoid those months when visiting it.
So much history , palaces, churches and monuments, may give the impression that Seville lives in the past. Not at all! This is a fun city full of energetic, young people, renowned schools (University of Seville is one of the top-ranked in the country) and a vibrant economic and artistic life. Seville lives today.
Food, flamenco and bullfights
One cannot leave Seville without mentioning the rich cuisine of Andalusia – the juiciest olives, pure oil, fresh seafood, meat and game – as it all tastes better there. The region’s famous ham – Jamon Iberico Bellota – is one of the finest (and most expensive) delicacies in the world. Made with free-range black-footed pigs fed on a diet of acorns, the ‘jamon’ is a staple of Seville dishes, and something to taste at least once in a lifetime.
The tapas – small morsels of different dishes that are becoming popular around the world – are a regional tradition in Andalusia, and tapas bars are an intrinsic part of life. They are often accompanied by a glass of Sherry, a word that comes from Jerez, where most Sherry is produced. Equally delicious is the gazpacho, the famous chilled soup made with plump tomatoes, garlic and peppers. Seafood is fresh in Andalusia – being near the Mediterranean and the Atlantic helps – as are fruits and vegetables. Eating is a communal experience there (and in the rest of Spain), and the city has more bars and restaurants per capita than most larger international centers.
Flamenco is a dance, sure, but it’s also raw energy in motion and an artistic expression of the joys and sorrows of life. It can be seen all over Spain, but its origins are in Andalusia, where it was traditionally performed by gypsies. In fact, flamenco is considered the soul of Andalusia.
There are many styles of flamenco, depending on which part of Andalusia it comes from. There’s no strict choreography to it – dancers improvise from basic movements, following the rhythm of the guitar and their feelings. Neglected in recent decades, it has presently seen a revival, and in Seville there are many tablaos (flamenco venues). In the Triana neighborhood, once the city’s gypsy quarter, there is even a church – Iglesia de Santa Ana – where there’s a baptism font – the Pila de los Gitanos – believed to pass on the gift of flamenco to the child baptized there.
I went to a flamenco tablao in the Arenal area. The singer and the dancers were good, but it was perhaps a bit too crowded and touristy (most tablaos now are) for me. To find an authentic flamenco tablao demands some inquiring around, as the good shows are usually a best-kept secret of locals. But If you’re lucky to find true flamenco, be prepared for a most exciting and passionate experience.
Bullfighting (corridas) is one of Spain’s greatest passions, and Seville is one of the cradles of bullfighting. The city has one of the oldest, most beautiful and most important bullrings in the country – the ‘Real Maestranza de Caballería’ de Seville’ – and fans of the corridas should add one to their stay in Seville. High season is during La Feria de Abril (Seville April Fair), when the best matadores (bullfighters) come to town and the atmosphere in the arena and on the streets becomes intoxicating. Although opinions now diverge on this controversial tradition, bullfighting is one of the mainstays of Seville’s culture. The season starts on Easter Sunday and lasts until October. Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles were aficionados, and came to town often for the corridas. Hemingway’s books Death in the Afternoon and The Sun also Rises were novels about the ceremony and traditions of bullfighting.