By Jim Ferri
Seville is a city known for seduction. It is, after all, the city of Don Juan and opera’s Carmen, the latter torn between her army officer and, most befittedly in Seville, her bullfighter.
Today it seduces us with the beauty of its architecture, much of it a marriage of Moorish and Christian, and its wonderful climate and laid-back lifestyle.
I first sensed how laid-back this city is while chatting with my taxi driver on my way from the airport. Later on I continued to see it all about me, in the cafés, on the streets, even in my hotel.
It’s part of the DNA of Sevillanos, just as is their resistance to change their traditional ways. Despite the change past decades have brought to other areas of Europe, in Seville time stands still. From the pageantry and spectacles of its Holy Week celebrations, to its fervor for bullfighting, Seville remains firmly entrenched in the traditional way of life of past centuries.
In many ways, it’s what makes the city so damn charming.
Seville Cathedral and La Giralda
The heart of the old city, Barrio de Santa Cruz, contains many, but not all, of the points of interest in the city. Primary among them is Seville Cathedral, built on the site of a huge mosque. It’s the city’s centerpiece and the third largest cathedral in Christendom, a marriage of Christian and Moorish elements that is awe-inspiring.
It’s said that its designers wanted to build a cathedral so large that future generations would think they were crazy. What they attained was the largest cathedral in the world, not by square footage, but by its volume. It is lofty and immense, so much in fact that in my awe when wandering about I forgot to look for the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
As for the Moorish elements, Its huge adjacent bell tower is actually the minaret from the old mosque, with a Renaissance cap placed atop it.
Across the Plaza de Triunfo in front of the cathedral, where pigeons and parrots flutter above the palm trees and there are more horse-drawn carriages than you ever imagined existed, is the Real Alcázar (Royal Palace). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the oldest Royal Palace still in use of Europe.
It’s one of the most incredible palaces you’ll see anywhere, a beautiful and sumptuous complex of stonework and colorful Mudejar tiles begun in the 10th century and added on to by subsequent caliphs and Spanish kings. There’s a lot to see in the extraordinary complex ranging from small rooms to grand halls with tapestry-covered walls, as well as the palace’s beautiful formal gardens, much of it laid out in Renaissance style.
If you’re visiting Seville put it at the top of your list of “must-sees” but be sure to visit during non-peak times, preferably in the morning before it gets warm. Entrance to the complex is controlled and during peak times there are long waiting lines.
Avenida de la Constitución
Avenida de la Constitución, the main pedestrian-only artery in the heart of the city, connects Seville’s upscale shopping area with Calle San Fernando that passes between the Alcazar gardens and the luxury Alphonso XIII hotel before continuing on towards the university.
Midway, where it skirts the cathedral and Plaza de Triunfo, a phalanx of tables sweep out across the sidewalk. Both visitors and Sevillanos are drawn here by everything from breakfast, lunch and afternoon ice cream, to tapas and drinks well into the wee hours. It’s a beautiful pedestrian street punctuated by ornate lampposts and orange trees, and lined with outdoor cafes and little tapas bars.
Seville is famous for its orange trees and I was surprised to learn that despite their celebrity, their fruit is bitter and doesn’t make its way into the local cuisine, instead being sent to the UK to be made into marmalade.
A Wealth of History
You’ll find glimpses into the culture of Seville and Andalusia all over the city.
Visit the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), set in a restored convent and hosting the greatest collection of Spanish art outside of the Prado. Visit the extravagantly tiled Plaza de Espana, built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition
Walk south along the Guadalquivir River between the Punte de Isabel II and the Punte de S. Telmo bridges and you’ll find the famous Maestranza bullring, revered in this city where people have a passion for bullfighting like no other place in the world. You can take a tour through its small museum and see the small chapel where matadors pray before entering the ring.
Further along is the 12-sided Torre del Oro, named either for the tiles that once adorned it after being constructed by the Moors in 1220, or later for the wealth from the Americas that was off-loaded into it.
I crossed the Punte de S. Telmo one afternoon and wandered through Triana, a working class neighborhood on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, home to gypsies centuries ago. It was totally un-touristy and provided a real slice of life of the city, with its streets and little alleyways filled with people going about their daily life.
A Walk Through Two Fantastic Barrios
Seville is best seen on foot and you’ll get a good feel for the traditional city walking through the Macarena neighborhood after entering through the Macarena gate in the old city walls. The area lacks sidewalks in many places so it helps to keep your ears open for what’s coming up behind you.
La Macarena is most famous for the 17th-century statue of the Virgin of Hope of Macarena, the focal point of the famous Holy Week processions in Seville, the most fervent in all of Spain. The Barrio is is exceptionally photogenic and in the midday sun it is so brilliant, the colors of the buildings seem to explode all about you.
While you’re walking through La Macarena you may want to ask for directions to the Metropol Parasol, on the Plaza de la Encarnación, It’s about a 20-minute walk but could take you over two hours if you take many detours, as I did, to wander other little streets along the way.
The Parasol is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Since its unveiling a few years back it’s been controversial with locals who have called it everything from mushrooms and waffles to giant potato chips.
It was built to revitalize the plaza that for years had been used as a parking lot and to unite the more popular tourist spots in the city. A nearly 100-foot tall structure of wood and steel, it contains shops, a market, and a small venue for concerts and events. Underneath there are the remains of an old Roman neighborhood that you can also visit.
I liked the Parasol since it gave vitality to what would otherwise be a “lost” neighborhood. In addition, in both design and color it also contrasted with its surroundings greatly enhancing the elements of each.
“It’s fantastic,“ one merchant who I stopped to ask for directions told me. Once I reached it I found I couldn’t agree more.
If you go:
Plaza de San Francisco, 19.
Edif. Laredo. 41004
Tel: +34 955 471 232