Seville: I Can Go for That (NO8DO)

There are two Spains; the Spain you find if you go there, recognisably European and not wildly different from France or Italy, and the overheated, exotic Spain of vintage tourist posters that has existed in the British imagination since the days of the revenge tragedy. Andalucia has a fairly strong and separate identity, as so many of Spain’s composite regions do, but it fills in for the rest of Spain, which we tend to think of as all flamenco, bullfights and tapas. Historically, this presumably comes from our connections to the area via the rock of Gibraltar and the sherry trade. Built on a Moorish template, with its whitewashed buildings, its orange trees and the ghosts of its former selves (Roman, Islamic and Jewish), Seville fits the mythical Spain like a glove. There seems to be a perfume in the air, and an intoxicating one. It is perhaps telling that the two most iconic Sevillanos, Carmen and Don Juan, are fictional characters. Seville’s historic parts are well preserved and the city fitted the image I always had of the Naples of the Grand Tour, before it became a concrete developers’ free-for-all. The simple fact that every square and boulevard is lined with orange trees seems to stand for the city as a sort of pleasuredome.

The visitor is free to wander in this stunning stage set from tapas bar to tapas bar with dreams of cigar girls, matadors, and haughty aristocratic playboys, and everything is set up for them to have the time of their life, but this is by no means a Venice where mass tourism has killed the city for its residents. It’s also a bustling regional capital where the best part of a million people live and work.

Seville’s core fits into a bend in the Guadalquivir river; the centre had been ringed by Moorish-era walls, until the traffic became unmanagable and these were replaced by boulevards. Our host told us that flats within the boulevards are much more desirable, to the point that prices can almost double within 100m. Seville got big under the Moors, when the river changed course and they prefered it to Italica, the third-largest city of the Roman Empire that was built as a retirement home for the armies of Scipio Africanus. In its golden age Seville was the primary beneficiary of the gold and the goods flowing in from the Americas, and the mix of influences from all these different cultures, as well as the persistently sunny weather, makes it seem as zesty and refreshing as an Ottolenghi recipe.

The sights of Seville are very heavily concentrated around the southern half, where the Cathedral and Alcazar sit close to the perimeter, and we found ourselves barely visiting the northern half at all, where the only superstar sight is the Macarena Basilica. The oldest and most picturesque part of Seville, Barrio Santa Cruz, is now of course the most tourist-saturated; this is north-east of the cathedral. There is a thriving centre, with pedestrianised shopping alley Calle Sierpes acting as its spine or corso; north-west of the cathedral is Arenal, the riverside area that was long associated with lowlifes and the insalubrious, but in recent decades has become rather hip and home to many of flashiest restuarants; here you find Spain’s most iconic bullfighting stadium. Seville’s Trastevere is the Triana district, clinging to the other side of the river. It was traditionally home to the gypsies, and produced the best boxers and flamenco artists, but is becoming increasingly gentrified.

As far as literary Seville goes, my ignorance betrays me; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza never make it here, as far as I can remember, but it certainly gets a few mentions. I was quite excited to find a plaque denoting the location of a scene from Cervantes, until I realised there are loads of these all over Andalucia and the connection is usually somewhat tenuous. Seville’s monument to Cervantes is, unusually, an outsized bust instead of a statue, discreetly tucked under some palms on a city centre street corner (note that he has been given back the left arm he lost at Lepanto).

One of the old hospital buildings, according to legend, was home to the person Don Juan was based on; at the end of one night’s dissolute carousing he peered into a coffin being carried through the streets and saw his own body, at which point he changed his ways and became a monk. There are painted tiles to mark the birthplace of Luis Cernuda, the poet who took the unusual step of coming out as gay and, unlike Lorca, was saved by being able to escape Spain, living in exile the rest of his life. The amiable sculpture of a girl reading about Clara Campoamor refers to a suffragette and women’s rights activist of the Republic who also had to live and die in exile.

We had booked to stay in Triana, but what with being mucked about by various hosts we found a few days before our departure that we would instead be in Santa Cruz. The area is still referred to as the ‘Juderia’, many centuries after the expulsion of the Jews, and a reminder of when Christians, Jews and Moslems would coexist in these cities. Santa Cruz has a Moroccan feel with its whitewashed houses and its maze of narrow alleys that periodically give way to pretty, manicured squares. The classic look of a Sevillian house is white paint, with ochre trim that some say represents the golden sand of the bullfighting arena, and iron bars across the windows, painted black.

The window bars are a Muslim bequest, from the days when they marked a clear division between the domestic interior (the woman’s world) and the streets outside (the man’s world). There are many stories of the windows as a meeting place for the sexes, and Seville boys waiting around hoping to see their loved one at the window were said to be “eating iron”.

The narrow alleys dividing these whitewashed houses are all about creating cool shade in a city that frequently tops 40C during the summer. Similarly, in lieu of gardens these houses focus inwards on a central, shaded patio, often with a fountain, cool tiling and an abudnace of potted plants. These often open on to the street and as you pass by, it is not uncommon to catch a glimpse of the domestic interior.

I hadn’t been to Spain for almost a decade, and then only to Bilbao and Barcelona, so I’ve never properly done tapas and staying in the capital city of tapas was quite an eye-opener. Spain might not have won my heart to the extent that Italy has, but for the budget traveller this is one arena where it wins hands-down. In Italy, go for dinner and you are committing to spending big; with the pane & coperto charge and the mineral water, you are €5 down before you have ordered a starter. In Seville, simply find a spot at the bar in any bar or restaurant and pick two or three tapas dishes to go with your sherry or beer. Drink and eat, go on to another place, and repeat. Because you’re having a variety of foods -salty, juicy, olives, cuts of cured ham, oily potatoes with flecks of meat or fish- you feel sated after eating fairly lightly, and by the time you’ve stopped you will probably have spent around €12 per person. The informal nature is summed up by the practice of using a wipe-clean white marker to write your bar tab on your spot at the bar.

The most famous institution is the C17th El Rinconcillo, which was so much fun we went twice. The walls around the bar are lined with white shelves that are faintly Macintosh in design, and behind these are tiled walls and people eating off huge barrels. It has by no means been abandoned to the tourists, most of the clientele looking like regulars, but the fiendishly hard-working staff giving all a good reception (and using a piece of chalk to write your tab on the bar). One of the barmen was horrified to see us use the little tapas fork to eat a plate of whitebait, and taught us to pick them up by the tail.

Another venerable oldie of the city centre, Taberna Coloniales, was similarly bustling and served us unexpected treats like miniature eggs on bite-sized fragments of toast. There is a high concentration of bars on Calle Mateos Gago, leading away from the cathedral, one of which is housed in an old Moorish bathhouse. These tend to give you slightly less  for slightly more money, but late at night the atmosphere is very festive, and what a backdrop you’re getting.

The bars in the touristy Santa Cruz are perhaps not the best in the city, but there were a couple I very much liked; Las Teresas, a long counter bar with plenty of stools, hams hanging overhead and a display of vintage knives, and Casa Roman, next-door neighbour to Hostaria del Laurel that stars in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Some of the unexpected aspects of Andalucian cuisine; the snails, signature dish at Los Caracoles, are done in a curry sauce and your tapa contains a hell of a lot more than the French starter done in garlic butter. Rabo de Toro, or oxtail stew, is a favourite traditionally served after bullfights and is presumably slow-cooked to attain that wonderful melt-in-the-mouth quality.

The Santa Cruz alley of Mármoles looks down onto the Roman street level, and three vast marble pillars. Two more from this set have been moved to the long Piazza Navona-shaped square in the north of the city, La Alameda de Hercules, a place of market stalls that turns into a nightlife centre in the late hours, and as this is where most locals socialise we ventured up here one night. Interesting to note that although barrels of sherry are at hand in the touristy areas, apart from the odd old man Sevillanos seem to drink nothing but beer (order a ‘cerveza’, and the beer of the day will invariably be Cruzcampo) and requesting sherry in any of these bars tended to result in confused barmen having to rummage around cupboards before producing a dusty bottle.

All this and you get hot chocolate plus fried-to-order doughnuts as the classic breakfast. I should add that most of my delight probably came from being in a city where people have less money and my meagre salary went much further. Our host told us that people in Seville talk of being a “thousander”; if your monthly pay comes to €1000 (pre-Brexit, about £750), you are thought to have enough for all the necessities that support a comfortable life. On the other hand, he also said that most one-bedroom flats would rent for €400 a month or less… Before I leave the subject of places to eat and drink, I must pay tribute to the unflinching patience of loyalty of Seville’s dogs, who must put up with their owners forever nipping into these places for a quick one.

Foremost amongst the sights: Seville Cathedral is a crouching giant of a super-structure that squats on the city as if it were some monstrously huge, hard-backed insect with flying buttresses for legs. Climb up to any point with a panoramic view, and it dominates the skyline to the extent that Belfast City Hall would appear a nonentity in comparison.

Even if you are unable to visit the inside, you can feast on a Gothic sculpture gallery by free by merely touring the exterior.

City life focuses around it, or at least the tourist-centred aspects of city life, and there is as much nonsense going on around its perimter as there must have been in the days when all the treasures of the Indies passed through Seville. If you want to check out the opening times, ticket prices, queueing situation etc, it is impossible to do so without women trying to thrust sprigs of rosemary into your hand. There is a perpertual taxi rank of horse-drawn carriages, as well as things that are sillier still.

The line that all the guides quote is said to come from the authorities that signed it off: “We want to build a cathedral so big that future generations will say we were mad.” People used to consider it the world’s third biggest church, after St Peter’s and St Paul’s, and a few years ago someone tried to calculate this and worked out that Seville was the world’s biggest “by volume”, although a friend reckons that it has been ousted by some new-build cathedral somewhere around the Philippines. Seville currently hedge their bets by calling it “the world’s biggest Gothic church”. In the complex walls, an Islamic Puerta del Perdon leads to the equally Moorish Patio de los Naranjos, and the great mosque at Cordoba is the key to understanding Seville Cathedral. The mosque stood here, and when they opted to demolish it they decided their cathedral would occupy the same floorplan; this is why the interior is so dizzyingly large, and why the nave, like the egregious church built inside Cordoba mosque, merely takes up two or three squares on a cosmic chequerboard instead of being flanked by a pair of obsequious aisles.

The only real survivors from the mosque are the Puerta, the Patio and the famous Giralda, the square minaret that was converted into a belltower and remains a prominent pride and joy of the city. This was built by the Almohads, a Berber dynasty who were much less tolerant than preceding caliphs, and based on another minaret in Marrakech. I may be projecting but there does seem something forbidding about its uncurving shape and spartan brick, with some appealing lattice pattern slapped on.

In the heart of what is now this most Catholic of cities, it is startling to look at the tower and think about its provenance; autres temps, autres moeurs. Perhaps Sevillians see it as emblematic because of the fusion it represents; the Moorish building blocks were, after the Reconquista, topped with a dashing Renaissance belfry and a statue who turns to and fro, hence Giralda, with the changing wind- an odd emblem to represent the constancy of their faith.

The Giralda can be seen from the Alcazar gardens, it pops up as you pass street markets or watch the view from Triana. It perhaps looks best at night; while you quaff your sherry on the pavement at Calle Mateos Gago because the bars were too crowded, were you standing in front of the Colosseum or the Chrysler building you couldn’t wish for a finer backdrop.

The Patio has similar hybrid vigour; there is a view of the Giralda, a fountain, and myriad rows of the signature orange trees. The trees stand in front of a Gothic cathedral in dark stone that looks utterly French, and the juxtaposition is quite a jolt. One thinks of the English people who have travelled Sicily and Puglia and been astonished to see Norman cathedrals just like those across England.

Inside, you could almost get lost and it is difficult to know where to start, and yet for all its extraordinary spaciousness the church doesn’t feel empty, or too big; there is a real feel of solidity and of each portion being spatially enclosed by the pillars, screens and organs. It is Gothic at its absolute finest, and it is puzzling that they could get so right in Seville what they got so wrong in Cordoba.

A main landmark at the start of the suggested itinerary is the unusual tomb of Columbus, where a stretcher is carried by four larger-than-life polychromatic statues kitted out in so much heraldry that they could pass for Game of Thrones extras. It is unknown whether it is really the bones of Columbus that rest here, or those of his son (the Genovese might be somewhere in the Caribbean). A few years ago Seville realised that advances in DNA would allow them to know for sure, but they were concerned that they might not get the result they wanted.

The centre of the church is, I suppose, the nave, altar and choir, although it is bewildering how these, enormous as each is, take up such a small piece of the floorplan. The astonishing altarpiece, all gilding and carvings that illustrate the Christ story, is the work of a Flemish artist; Pierre Dancart; if you’ve never heard of him, it’s probably because the creation of this altarpiece occupied his entire life.

This is proper storytelling for the illiterate, and is as much as a Florentine fresco cycle the box set of its time, but the accumulation is such that it is difficult to focus on individual panels (and would be impossible without a camera zoom, as the altar is closed off behind a grill screen).

Elsewhere in this gargantuan complex are a some eighty chapels, as well as a number of chapterhouses and anterooms that give one the feeling of being lost in the Vatican.

There are too many chapels and artefacts to mention, but things that jumped out at me included the Capilla Real, topped by an equestrian king who appears to be glaring down upon you if you stand at the right angle, and a characteristically dark-eyed Goya painting of the two martyred twin saints of Seville, who always appear with the Giralda between them.

Apart from the architecture, some Moorish remnants include the Moorish keys to the city gates that were handed over when it fell to the Spanish, and a hanging model of a crocodile that was put there after the body of the original crocodile, a gift from the Emir of Egypt who wished to marry a Spanish princess, began to disintegrate.

An Almohad counterpart to the Giralda is the Torre del Oro that stands sentinel over the river. No-one is sure whether the name is because it used to be clad with gold, because it was usually filled with gold in the days of the conquistadores, or because the yellow tiles have a golden tint under the Spanish sun.

It gives good views of the cathedral, the bullfight stadium, the colourful facades of Triana’s Calle Betis, and the island of La Cartuja; first a monastery where Columbus and Magellan planned their voyages, then a huge ceramics factory set up by an Englishman, finally the site for the 1992 Expo commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery. Standing between the battlements of the tower and looking onto the quiet river, you feel plugged into Seville’s history and there is a touch of melancholy similiar to what you feel when you look at the traffic-free Thames and think of how many livelihoods it used to support.

Thwarted in our attempts to stay in Triana, we spent one sunny afternoon over there checking out the Santa Ana parish church and bar-hopping. A persistent urban myth appears to attribute the impressive iron bridge into Triana to Gustave Eiffel.

The church is still a focal point for the community, rather than a dusty museum or monument, functioning in the way you seldom see in Northern Europe.

The tapas bars were somewhat hit and miss but we loved the tiled cellar Bodega Siglo XVI, where we had beers and doorstop-thick frittatas.

The places on Calle Betis mostly had the no-go warning alarm of waiters trying to offer a table to passers-by, but it is a pleasant spot to sit down and drink in the view of the river and the city behind it. I got the impression that, as is so often the case in Seville, Triana is a district which only comes fully alive at nights.

At the side of the Cathedral is Seville’s second-most-famous attraction, the Alcazar palace (and the only place with queues as hideous as those at the Cathedral). This was home to Moorish rulers, and the site kept on by Christian kings. The upper floors are still used by the Spanish monarchy, and General Franco would stay here when he was in town. If you are unable to get to Granada and see the incredible Alhambra complex stand against the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, which we weren’t, the Alcazar is thought to have a similar flavour.

In much the same way that we’re told it was hard to tell Romans from Goths at the chaotic end of the Western Empire, when emperors would wear trousers and moustaches, the distinction between Spanish Christians and Moors was not as clear cut as we imagine. Many of the prominent Christians, like El Cid, spoke Arabic and dressed in the Arabic style, and for much of the Moorish period the two sides enjoyed cordial relations, enough that what is thought by some to be the Holy Grail resides today at Valencia, a gift from the Islamic world. The Alcazar that we see today looks entirely Moorish, yet it was built for a Christian King, Pedro the Cruel. This is Muslim craftsmen employed by Christian kings, in the same vein as the Saracens who made those wonderful mosaics for the Norman buildings in Sicily.

Behind the external walls is the ticket office, and none of this gives a hint of the exotic contents within; the first courtyard leads to the palace facade and entrance, where the Moorish decor is a surprise, as are the liberal dashes of Arabic text.

Before entering the palace, one can check out a few small gardens, and the halls where Isabella commissioned the sailors and would-be explorers who would hang around looking for patronage. This is not in the Islamic style but has an impressive patterned ceiling and a painting where the Virgin protects the navigators under her robes, much like the paintings we saw in Tuscany last year.

As Seville’s homes are still built around a central patio, like the Roman atrium, the palace focuses on a small central garden with arcades and ante-rooms around it. The building is so good with such astonishing craftsmanship, that you scarcely notice how small this is for a royal dwelling. The scale feels entirely private and domestic, more like the home of a Renaissance merchant than the ruler of an empire. It compares rather well to the ridiculously oversized halls of, say, the Bourbons at Capodimonte, and makes you think that these people carried themselves with an admirable self-assurance.

The patterns are quite mesmerising; the alienness and sheer old age of Cordoba is replaced with something more urbane, and technically adept. There are of course no faces looking out at you as there are in an Italian fresco cycle, but this workmanship makes its own utterly confident assertion about the world. It is a terrible shame that petro-dollars have led to this serene strain of Islam taking a back seat to ISIS.

The patio is surrounded by interlocking rooms that face towards it, everything connected.

The largest of the rooms looking on to the garden is the Hall of the Ambassadors, separated from the halls on either side by triple horseshoe arches and patterned blind arcades (one can see the influence on Pisan Romanesque) with a quite celestial golden dome.

Others have just as much intricacy but are more intimate in scale, such as the Patio of the Dolls (named after the small faces underneath the arches). The higher levels of the palace have obviously been tampered with and deviate from the Moorish look.

There are other, later parts of the complex entirely built in the European style, which seem awfully staid by comparison. Through the garden one can enter the baths beneath the palace, which look more like water storage tanks. I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story but they say that Pedro the Cruel’s magnetic mistress took her baths down here, and the smitten courtiers would drink the bathwater after she was done.

The extensive gardens behind the palace are a continuation of the Alcazar’s mongrel nature. Moorish features like fish ponds have been given something of an Italian mannerist makeover that make the gardens oddly reminiscent of Portmeirion, with playful features like a rusticated grotto walkway being built into a Moorish wall.

There is something dreamlike and fantastical about this place, and it seems quite natural to catch a glimpse of a peacock strutting down one of the lanes; it soon finds itself mobbed by paparazzi.

Between the Cathedral and Alcazar is the classical, marble-clad building that now houses Spain’s Archive of the Indies. This was built as a sort of Royal Exchange for the traders whose ships from the colonies would come in at Seville; they had been doing their deals on the steps or in the patio of the Cathedral, which would lead to a stampede of haggling businessmen into the Cathedral when it started raining. This impressively lavish building was built for them at the behest of the fed-up clergymen, but the moment it was finished was the moment the river became no longer navigable for ships and the business moved to Cadiz.

The archives now have vast quantities of paperwork (early maps, diaries of Columbus, begging letters from Cervantes) and rotating displays for the public. When we visit, pride of place is given to a series of what appear to be illustrative gazettes telling the story of the conquistadores in the Americas, their interactions with and eventual conversion and subjugation of the native peoples.

The easiest way to get into the Cathedral is to buy a combination ticket at the nearby Salvador church, allowing you to skip the monstrous queues. Salvador is something of a behemoth itself, although the dazzling, maximalist Baroque within screams ‘counter-reformation’ and is more recognisably Spanish than the cathedral’s Gothic.

Each of the myriad altarpieces is a with-bells-on cast of thousands that rises from ceiling to floor, is drowning in gilding and makes the churches of Lecce seem Presbyterian. Muscular angels hold incense swingers, Virgins wear exploding starburst crowns, and bearded old men are held aloft by cherub heads. There’s something kitsch about the staging of the figures that makes me think of big-budget West End musicals, if not Vegas.

Even the chapels which don’t have architecturally stupefying construction all contain those waxy statues familiar from Baroque.

The chapels and altars aside, highlights are a spaceship-sized gravy float (again, OTT to the point of obscenity) that has myriad tableaux of action figures and is presumably used to carry icons during Semana Santa, and an energetic, muscular sculpture of St Christopher carrying the Christ child by Montanes. The English call Grinling Gibbons the ‘Michelangelo of wood’ but Montanes might deserve the title better.

Another notable church, crammed into a small space on a built-up street in Santa Cruz, is Santa Maria La Blanca, also Baroque but more intimate and flightier, albeit with the obligatory heavily gilded altar. The focused-in shoebox shape and the contrast of the interior with a sober, discreet facade makes it oddly like a London city church that has had some fun with the dressing-up box. Red marble pillars support the Romanesque arches that mark off its tiny nave.

This place used to have a good range of paintings, all stolen by Napoleon’s men save for a Murillo Last Supper.  The relatively scant natural light is offset by the huge amount of patterns and curlicues being rendered in bright white plaster, look at the ceiling and you have the impression of being swept up in a giant’s lace handkerchief.

No doubt there are many more excellent churches that we weren’t organised enough to visit (as in Naples, there are just so many that you tend to give up) but we certainly enjoyed their festive garb whenever we passed a little church on our wanderings through town.

In terms of painting the main gallery is the Museo de Bellas Artes, which occupies a former monastery; you move from section to section by passing through cloistered gardens. It’s inexpensive and has an impressive breadth, moving from the medieval to the C20th.

We begin with medieval carvings and little golden altar paintings, as well as typical painted Renaissance sculptures of slightly wild holy men contemplating their faith.

The pace picks up in what was probably the monks’ church or refectory, where a large hall is given over to a substantial collection of huge canvases by local hero Murillo. This is where I don’t get on with Spain quite as well as Italy; their golden age was not the Renaissance, but the Counter Reformation era, and as good as the best painting is it seems to lack the quizzical urbanity of the Florentine. Murillo’s figures are very likeable but it all seems like soft-focus bonny babies to me.

Moving on there is some ropey stuff, although a Mannerist imagining of the fall of Troy is a neat take on those Renaissance ideal cityscapes. And there is more puglistic Montanes, a contemplative saint looking as if he is readying himself for twelve rounds with Klitschko.

This intense Montanes sits well next to Zurbaran’s take on a medieval trope, a clutch of severe looking monks protected underneath the skirts of the Virgin. Some of his work is so stark and monochromatic that it could pass for something from the 1930s.

The C18th collection is frankly terrible, but that’s (usually) C18th painting for you. I did like one painting of resurrected children. Quality control gets much better again in the C19th, albeit with lots the usual gratuitous and prurient female nudity, whether Biblical or studies of women ‘bathing’. An impressionist take on Susanna and the Elders made for quite a bold clashing of form and content.

By the C20th Andalucia has worked out what it wants to tell the world about itself and it is all sultry senoritas and patios. One piece showing the death of a famous matador consciously echoes all those old paintings of the death of the Virgin; in the modern age, Christianity has been supplanted by nationalism.

Speaking of senoritas, Seville’s great cigar factory (workplace of the fictional Carmen) has a prominent role in the city’s history. Built to make the most of another New World import, the excellent C18th building is linked by a corridor of courtyards and has the feel of a great Ducal palace. However prosaic the rolling of cigarettes might in reality have been, the building feels like a place where affairs of state would be acted out, and after the Escorial was Spain’s second largest building. The manufacture, like so many other things, has been moved away by globalisation but the building has happily found a new lease of vitality as the campus for Seville’s university.

This and the poshest hotel in Seville are round the corner from another of its great backdrops, the bombastic Plaza Espana. In the years following a disastrous war with America that saw Spain lose the last of its Caribbean territories, Spain tried to shore up its confidence by holding a World’s Fair in Seville for which this huge open space and piece of architectural fantasia was built; it was too large for my humble camera to fit it into one shot.

The wide pavilion is edged by a symmetrical, semi-circular colonaded building with a central palazzo and a lavish tower at either extreme; it is all glazed tiles, reddish stone, archways and turrets. It dates to the 1920s but doffs its cap to the preceding centuries, resembling a monarchial palace with elements of both cod-Moorish and art deco. The sheer scale of it brings to mind the thumping huge buildings of neo-classical Victoriana.

The outdoor space (within a park, and including a central fountain, a circling canal crossed by bridges, and palm trees) is still heavily used by sun-seekers, I’m not sure what actually goes on in the buildings but I think it may be government offices. Its bricks are inlaid throughout with blue-and-white glazework.

Around the rear edge of the plaza, beneath the shaded walkway, are a series of decorative tiles showcasing each region of Spain; floral/vegetative patterns and little cupolas enclose a heraldic images of kings and courtiers from centuries past as well as a small map of the region.

As you walk away towards the park, whose lush greenery conceals a few neo-Moorish buildings on a smaller scale, you find a cute, if sentimental, note in the statue of Plaza Espana’s architect, holding his hat as if in awe.

If in the 1920s, Seville was focused on conjuring up past glories, its more recent buildings show a city emerging from the long slumber of Franco (even if another Expo in 1992 was staged to mark 500 years of Columbus reaching America). To go with the 1992 celebrations Seville acquired a new-build, modern train station, Santa Justa, a vast 12-platform edifice that can hold its own against any of the great C19th hangar stations. When Spain acquired the ability to lay down high-speed train lines, the left-wing government in power at the time decided the first route to be built should be Seville-Madrid, as Barcelona-Madrid would inevitably be built anyway but a line for the south might not. My favourite thing about Sta Justa, however, was the text on the wall of the ubiquitous sweet shop, which made a tenuous link between sweets and early civilisation (“since the dawn of time, mankind has found sustenance in honey and berries…”)

More eccentric is the construction in Plaza de la Encarnacion, 2011’s Metropol Parasol, the world’s largest wooden structure. Sevillanos know it as Las Setas, or the mushrooms. The giant umbrella-shaped lattice roof has the look of a Gaudi building that uses the natural world as its blueprint, and probably contains a nod to the Gothic valuting of the cathedral.

A note on two of the quintissentially Andalucian pasttimes: our visit preceded the start of the bullfighting, sparing me the ethical dilemma of whether to attend a show. I understand the arguments against living things being killed for sport, but wonder if taking the position would make me a hypocrite (my meat-eating is not essential to my survival) and I feel uneasy about outsiders coming to a place and telling the natives that the traditions they have followed for centuries are all wrong. On the other hand, Jacques Brel puts the whole thing to the sword in his song ‘Les Toros’, which describes the gloomy tedium experienced by the bulls, so that greengrocers and English tourists can enjoy pretending to be Nero or Wellington. The final line compares it to the blood shed from the Punic Wars to WWI, suggesting that adversarial sports have a use in allowing men to burn off their innate violence without continual warfare.

Flamenco we saw a fair bit of, and it was not what I expected in that the people of Seville appear to genuinely like it. When I visit pubs in Belfast and a few men climb onstage with fiddles, drums and tin whistles, my companions and I will generally groan and look for another pub. There are performing groups on Plaza Espana, who are for sure busking for the tourists. But sit in a quiet bar far from the tourist heartlands, and the chances are that one from the group of twentysomething locals will whip out a flamenco guitar and start strumming, the others joining in by clapping. What I imagined would be a sort of Spanish Morris dance appears to be something they like, and do for their own amusement. Our host gave us tickets to the Friday night concert at one of the flamenco museums; as expected the crowd is chiefly German pensioners drinking sangria, but the performance (a male dancer, a female dancer, a guitarist and a signer) is polished, accomplished, but much more on the spit-and-sawdust side than any Disney saccharine flamenco. The point of flamenco, it is said, is to invoke the emotion of ‘duende’, which seems to be something like Portuguese saudade, and when the dancers get into their full-on stamping the effect is quite hypnotic. The dancers are the stars but for us, the singer stole the show. He looked like a minor character from Seinfeld, but when he opened his mouth the noise was startling, and although we didn’t understand a word he managed to communicate the essence of the songs very clearly.

On our way back to the flat at the end of the last night, there was some bonus flamenco as we stopped for a nightcap in a place called La Carboneria, and found it packed to the rafters with people enjoying an impromptu performance. We got ourselves a couple of ‘Benjamins’, which turn out to be 25cl bottles of cava, and found a spot to enjoy the less polished, more abadoned dancing. When the dancer finished around midnight, the guitarist carried on plucking melancholy airs in the hour or two before closing time.

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2 thoughts on “Seville: I Can Go for That (NO8DO)

  1. Possibly the longest, most informative blog I’ve read about Sevilla, ever. Top notch. I’ve lived in Seville for 12 years, but still learnt a few things. How long did it take you to compile so much?

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