Seville is all swagger and style, sultry air and sloe-eyed senoritas, discovers Murray Waldren
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.
Singapore Airlines and connecting Spanish carriers such as Spanair fly to Seville from Sydney via Singapore and Barcelona. More: www.singaporeair.com.
Let’s dance: Every April Seville breaks out into a wild party of dressing up and dancing with traditional costumes and carriage rides