SEVILLE IN LIGHTS
Hollywood is a fan of this postcard city
Seville is sexy and vibrant, hot and alluring. A city steeped in blood and gold, with a past both glorious and ghostly. For centuries, Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until the Moors were driven out by Spanish kings, their palaces and mosques appropriated or destroyed.
Bloodshed recurred in cycles. The Inquisition brought death by fire to countless Jews and heretics. War was waged with Portuguese, French under Napoleon and most horribly, themselves, when Spaniard fought Spaniard in the civil war of the 1930s – overseas arms were bought with historic gold reserves. Franco’s army won a decisive early victory in Seville, a death warrant for thousands of republican sympathisers.
And the blood of bulls and sometimes toreadors is still spilt at the huge 18th century bullring.
After Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, Seville became the hub of voyages of trade and exploitation. Although 80km from the sea, it is on Spain’s main river, the Guadalquivir, now spanned by elegant bridges. The river’s 12-sided Tower of Gold once anchored a chain to the opposite bank to control the passage of ships bearing Inca and Aztec gold.
Just in from the river is the Plaza de Espana, as splendid as when built for the 1929 World Exposition, with grand pavilions, lakes and fountains. Featured in Lawrence of Arabia and
Star Wars, it has dozens of alcoves tiled to represent the country’s regions – popular photo backdrops for international and local tourists.
Horse-drawn, yellow-wheeled carriages clatter on cobblestones by the adjacent Maria Luisa Park’s sumptuous gardens – their bored drivers exchanging winks when not checking mobile phones.
Seville’s stunning cathedral covers more than a hectare. It claims on a technicality to be the largest cathedral in the world (the bigger St Peter’s in Rome is classified as a basilica). With gilt chapels and altars in all directions, statues and paintings (Goya, Murillo), secret nooks and upper galleries, the Gothic edifice’s pride is a majestic altarpiece depicting dozens of threedimensional bible scenes – it took Flemish craftsman Pierre Dancart 44 years to carve.
Tourists in Europe get used to the ornate tombs and sarcophagi of kings and bishops, but Columbus is in a league of his own – an airborne coffin, held aloft by statues of four crowned warrior kings.
Within a courtyard is an orchard – Seville oranges of course – that has produced juicy crops for centuries.
There was once a mosque here, earthquake-damaged and torn down in the 15th century. Fortunately its minaret was preserved – now a gigantic belltower, the Giralda can be climbed via a long, circling internal ramp to fabulous city views. It’s quite a trek – the muezzins, who ascended the 100m tower five times a day for the call to prayer, rode donkeys.
Nearby is the magnificent Real Alcazar or royal palace, which started as a Muslim fort more than 1000 years ago and underwent several centuries of renos. Its original sultan occupants were sent packing when Castilian king Fernando III conquered Seville in the 13th century.
Its combination of Moorish and Christian architecture has yielded a dazzling variety of structures, arches, decorations, paintings, fountains and gardens. Arabic verses of scripture and prayers remain entwined into the ornate calligraphy covering walls and ceilings. The Alcazar’s gardens and buildings have also been popular TV and movie backdrops – most recently in Game of Thrones.
Variety is central to Seville’s appeal, with grand and beautifully designed open spaces adjoining cramped medieval quarters. But just within many homes, visible behind wrought iron gates, are beautiful tiled porches displaying cool-inducing pot plants. Bougainvillea and seasonal flowers are trained up outside walls.
A wander unfurls wonders at every turn. A garden mall, the Alameda, displays pillars from an ancient Roman temple topped by statues of Julius Caesar and Hercules – the legendary founder of Seville. The Alameda is a thriving night scene.
Not far away is a gigantic white bulbous structure, the Metropol Parasol – a sunshade erected somewhat controversially a few years ago over an old market square and said to be the biggest wooden building in the world. Its popular name is Las Setas – mushrooms.
Roaming the barrio you’ll see signs to Pontius Pilate’s House – rather astonishing, as Jerusalem is 4000km away – but it turns out to be a small palace from the 1500s designed by a travelling marquis who sought to recreate aspects of the Holy Land. Movies filmed here include 1492 and
Knight and Day. The lustiest woman of opera, Carmen, danced the flamenco to enchant her lovers in Seville, home too of serial seducer Don Giovanni and Rossini’s scheming Barber. Then getting into my head that I couldn’t leave town without a haircut from a barber of Seville, I phone-navigated a twisty walk in grottier and less touristy lanes of the barrio. I finally found a Seville barber, a friendly fellow called Luis quietly amused by my quest. Freshly shorn, I sought my hotel through another labyrinth of narrow streets, becoming hopelessly lost as darkness fell and my phone went flat. It became seriously spooky as all but the odd shady character vanished from the streets while I retraced my steps in narrowing lanes until miraculously stumbling across my hotel. There are better ways to spend Seville nights.
It’s a foodie’s paradise, with hundreds of tapas restaurants and bars in squares and little lanes. Even little paellas can be included in the delectable offerings, together with Iberian ham, grilled baby squid and potato and spinach dishes, washed down with sangria or cerveza.
Lovers of flamenco (and who isn’t?) can enjoy the spectacle of gorgeously attired dancers at tablaos large and small, hammering the floorboards to energetic guitar-driven music and soul-stirring song that makes Seville very hard to leave.
Splendid Plaza de Espana was built for the 1929 World Exposition; locals dubbed shade structure Metropol Parasol ‘mushrooms’. PLAZA DE ESPANA