COS­TUME DRAMA

Seville is all swag­ger and style, sul­try air and sloe-eyed senori­tas, dis­cov­ers Murray Wal­dren

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

SEVIL­LANOS know their city is the most beau­ti­ful in the world. They’ll tell you this as soon as look at you, and as long as you agree, you’ll get on fa­mously. Which is very easy to do be­cause it’s very easy to be se­duced by Seville’s charms.

The Moor­ish poet-king al-Mu­tamid, grand­son of the founder of this cap­i­tal of An­dalu­sia in Spain’s deep south, was prob­a­bly the first to write love let­ters to his home city but he was def­i­nitely not the last: in the 1000 years since, a glut of po­ets and artists has flour­ished in this he­do­nis­tic oa­sis that strad­dles the Rio Guadalquivir, the work­ing river that links the in­land city to the At­lantic. Ve­lazquez had a stu­dio there, Cer­vantes started Don Quixote while in the com­mu­nity prison for money prob­lems, Bizet set Car­men in a Seville to­bacco fac­tory.

The city’s very name has op­er­atic over­tones and lo­cals linger on it with a lover’s rev­er­ence: Se-vee-ya. It’s a sen­su­ous drawl that re­flects the lifestyle be­cause Seville is Spain straight from cen­tral cast­ing, or at least cen­tral Seville is, a stageset an­cient city of swag­ger and style, of sul­try air and sloe-eyed senori­tas, of streets planted with orange trees and cit­rusper­fumed plazas, of white-washed al­leys, cob­ble­stoned lanes and bougainvil­lead­raped pa­tios. Who can re­sist its heady cin­e­matic al­lure? Not me, hope­lessly smit­ten from first glimpse.

Hap­pily, the at­trac­tions are more than skin-deep. Seville has al­ways been po­lit­i­cally feisty and it wears the scars of a melt­ing-pot his­tory as badges of hon­our while prop­erly pur­su­ing progress. It is a city of so­phis­ti­cated con­trasts, which is how it can meld an Ara­bic her­itage with me­dieval Catholi­cism and cy­bered moder­nity, and a left­ist gov­ern­ment with prac­tis­ing the es­sen­tial prin­ci­ples of Span­ish­ness: never lunch be­fore 2pm, dine be­fore 10pm or go to bed be­fore 2am.

In this hub of 700,000 peo­ple, chic rules at ev­ery so­cial level and the paseo — the evening com­mu­nal stroll cum pa­rade — is prac­tised with due dili­gence, strut­ting en­thu­si­asm and am­ple at­ti­tude.

Af­ter which it is time to tapear, where you slip from bar to clus­tered bar, sip­ping small drinks and mak­ing small talk over small snacks of things hugely de­li­cious. (Think: foie-gras mousse with grape­fruit sauce, or aubergine lay­ered with salmon, cod and lan­gous­tine or acorn-fed ham or wind-dried tuna.) Each bar is at­mo­spheric in its own way, from the time-worn wood and ami­able cyn­i­cism of La Rin­c­on­cillo, in busi­ness at the same site since 1670, and com­mu­nity holes-in-the-wall sta­lac­tited with hang­ing leg hams, to tourist-friendly sit-down sites of plas­tic gleam and high­gloss menus.

We are for­tu­nate to find an at­mo­spheric B & B in El Bar­rio de Santa Cruz, once a thriv­ing Jewish quar­ter, then the site of ter­ri­ble slaugh­ter, now an area pre­served with care­ful guardian­ship. On any stroll there you can lose your­self amid its nar­row lanes that of­fer scenic re­wards at ev­ery turn of tucked-away squares, of white­washed houses with Ara­bic tiles, invit­ing pa­tios, wrought-iron grill­work and bal­conies with gera­ni­ums and jas­mine, of court­yards with foun­tains and groves re­plete with the city’s fa­mous orange trees.

Few things in life are more re­ward­ing than to sit in one of the old quar­ter’s bars or cafes and over a cool ale or a cof­fee watch Sevil­lean life pass by.

But Seville is not all cob­ble­stoned theme park. It is an am­bi­tious and evolv­ing city and while the civic PR will try to spin it oth­er­wise, it has an an­ar­chic edge fre­quently amus­ing to the vis­i­tor.

As a lo­cal au­thor ex­plains over a cold cerveza (that’s beer, and a good drop too), the civil ser­vice is not a mer­i­toc­racy, so who you know is crit­i­cal to ca­reer ad­vance­ment. If you have the right con­tact, you have a wedge; the more wedges, the more lever­age you can ex­ert.

This means that not ev­ery de­part­ment op­er­ates at op­ti­mum ef­fi­ciency . . . in fact hardly any do, say the cit­i­zens with what­can-you-do shrugs. That makes it a mi­nor mir­a­cle that the place brushes up as well as it does. And also ex­plains the odd mu­nic­i­pal silli­ness, such as de­cid­ing that all four roads around the cen­tral square near the city’s largest de­part­ment store should be dug up just ahead of a big fes­ti­val.

It’s prob­a­bly as well that Sevil­lanos pride them­selves on their laid-back na­ture. That trait is re­flected in the way that tourists are catered for but not pan­dered to. Yet the city also rev­els in its rep­u­ta­tion as Spain’s par­tyville; dis­con­cert­ingly, per­haps, it is sec­ond (af­ter New­cas­tle-on-Tyne: don’t ask) as the pre­ferred des­ti­na­tion for English hen par­ties. If that doesn’t at­tract you, don’t let it dis­suade you. Any time is a good time to visit, but one of the best times is when Seville puts on its own party clothes. And that’s spring, when it hosts two fes­ti­vals, the con­trast­ing na­ture of which ex­em­pli­fies per­fectly the com­plex tem­per­a­ment of the peo­ple.

Last year, Spain, once the most Catholic of coun­tries, stopped re­li­gious teach­ing in schools and ac­cord­ing to some sta­tis­tics, to­day fewer than 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion pro­fesses to be a prac­tis­ing Catholic. That makes only more poignant the icons and mem­o­ra­bilia on pro­fuse pub­lic dis­play in the city, and adds even greater theatre to Se­m­ana Santa, or Holy Week, which next year runs from March 14.

This com­mem­o­ra­tion dates back to the 1500s when the Catholic Church in­sti­gated the spec­ta­cle as a way of re­mind­ing peo­ple of the events lead­ing up to Christ’s death. Given the solem­nity of the oc­ca­sion, this nor­mally frol­ic­some so­ci­ety dresses it­self in piety, long robes and pointy hoods as seem­ingly mil­lions of true be­liev­ers swarm the streets in mov­ing dis­plays of faith. Each day, mas­sive re­li­gious stat­ues, dressed in fine robes and semi-pre­cious stones and borne by the mus­cles of the de­vout, are pa­raded across the city. Drums beat mes­mer­i­cally, fla­menco sae­tas pierce the air. Some pro­ces­sions can take up to eight hours, given the num­ber of floats, the press of the crowd and pe­ri­odic pauses for de­vo­tions.

Af­ter this spir­i­tual fer­vour comes pas­sion of more earthly mien. The city al­lows a cou­ple of weeks to pass from the end of Holy Week, then breaks out into a don’tmiss wild party of dress­ing up and danc­ing, of tra­di­tional cos­tumes and horses and car­riage rides: the Fe­ria de Abril, from April 8 to 13 next year.

A gi­ant fun fair and a vast en­camp­ment of case­tas (mar­quees) is set up just south of the river. All night, all week, al­most all the city flocks across Seville’s many bridges to this al­lur­ing dis­play of bravura he­do­nism, which runs daily from 2pm un­til 7 next morn­ing. Women, whether nine months old or 99, flaunt their finest, usu­ally polka­dot­ted, fla­menco dresses while men walk the walk in high trousers, short jack­ets and Zorro hats.

By day, it’s all horses, car­riages and parad­ing as dash­ing eques­tri­ans show off their skills and women be­witch­ingly flick skirts and stamp feet in the­atri­cal fla­men­cos; by night, the streets are closed and ev­ery­one gets down to se­ri­ous par­ty­ing and strolling streets made mag­i­cal by strands of fairy lights.

It’s a scene of some be­witch­ment as fla­menco bands com­pete from caseta to caseta and sherry runs like rivers. Each mar­quee has its own kitchen, chef, band, dance floor and dis­tinc­tive am­bi­ence. Tourists are wel­come to ob­serve and en­joy, but the whole she­bang is es­sen­tially a lo­cal af­fair. Some writ­ers have sug­gested it is a bit like watch­ing 2000 glam­orous cock­tail par­ties through a plate-glass win­dow, but to me it’s more like min­gling on stage with a gala cast at the finale of a cos­tume drama mu­si­cal, with­out any em­bar­rass­ing bits de­manded of you.

The dance-dine-and-drink fest is re­plete with sta­tus-mark­ers and sig­nif­i­cances out­siders can only guess at. It costs a fair sum just to hire the space to erect the mar­quees and the jostling for suit­able po­si­tion among the 1200 or so tents is fierce. Some tents are in­di­vid­u­ally owned, oth­ers are a com­mu­nal af­fair funded by a neigh­bour­hood of fam­i­lies, a trade union or a busi­ness. Host­ing the se­lect is very im­por­tant, and it is a mark of hon­our to be in­vited in from the pass­ing prom­e­naders.

Women buy the most in­tri­cately crafted fla­menco cre­ations, and a dif­fer­ent one for each day’s at­ten­dance. Which is why fla­menco de­sign­ers flock into Seville with com­pet­ing pa­rades from Fe­bru­ary each year. Af­ter the dress de­ci­sion comes the next big event: the ar­rival on site. Some make a grand en­trance via horse-drawn car­riages, oth­ers on pranc­ing steeds be­hind ca­balleros clad in tight trousers, se­ri­ous boots, or­nate boleros and rak­ish hats, some on foot, oth­ers af­ter straphang­ing in crowded buses.

The Fe­ria be­gan as a cat­tle fair in the 1846 and evolved from there. Within Spain, Seville is known as ‘‘ Bull City’’, in large part be­cause An­dalu­sia de­ter­minedly re­sists 21st-cen­tury sen­si­bil­i­ties over bull fight­ing. The prov­ince was un­moved by Barcelona’s re­cent de­ci­sion to ban the ac­tiv­ity and main­tains more than 150 bull rings. Th­ese days, Fe­ria de Abril sig­nals the start of the sea­sonal fight fest with the na­tion’s best toreros de­scend­ing on Seville for the most im­por­tant se­ries of the year. The toreros all stay in the same ho­tel, out­side which hordes of fans and groupies crowd with Beat­lesque fer­vour to catch a glimpse of their he­roes.

The lo­cal bull ring — the 18th-cen­tury Real Maes­tranza de Ca­bal­le­ria of Seville — is at­trac­tive ar­chi­tec­turally but, afi­ciona­dos tell me, is far from com­fort­able to at­tend. Its steep con­crete steps are small and un­com­fort­able to sit on, even on hired cush­ions, and its 14,000 ca­pac­ity crowds are claus­tro­pho­bi­cally packed in with what looks to an un­e­d­u­cated eye as drunken dis­re­gard. But there’s no deny­ing the colour and move­ment with the noise of the crowd and the mu­sic of the bands, the ven­dors sell­ing snacks and sherry.

Ernest Hem­ing­way, of course, loved this ma­cho drama. I don’t, but like me you don’t have to go there to ap­pre­ci­ate the heart of Spain. You just have to sub­merge your­self in Se-vee-ya.

Check­list

Sin­ga­pore Air­lines and con­nect­ing Span­ish car­ri­ers such as Spanair fly to Seville from Syd­ney via Sin­ga­pore and Barcelona. More: www.sin­ga­pore­air.com.

www.spain.info

Pic­tures: Murray Wal­dren. Poster: Cor­bis

Let’s dance: Ev­ery April Seville breaks out into a wild party of dress­ing up and danc­ing with tra­di­tional cos­tumes and car­riage rides

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