By Clarissa Sebag Montefiore
By Clarissa Sebag Montefiore
Avoid summer, which can be unbearably hot, and visit in spring or autumn. Easter sees two large festivals attract tourists and pilgrims: Semana Santa de Sevilla (Holy Week) and Feria de Abril (April Fair), both featuring crowded processions, traditional dress, and scenes from the Passion. Make sure to book accommodation ahead – it gets busy.
Start any visit with a walk around the vast Catedral de Sevilla (Av. de la Constitución), one of the city’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cathedral was founded in 1403 on the site of the Almohad Mosque following the Reconquista, as a sign of Christian brawn, wealth, and power. Take note of the thousand figures depicting the life of Jesus rendered in gold leaf on the altar and the tomb of Christopher Columbus that lies within the church. The Giralda described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of Almohad architecture”, is the only part of the 12th century mosque that remains. For a panoramic view of Seville, climb the ramps of the minaret that were originally designed for Moorish guards to ascend on horseback.
Afterwards walk over to the nearby Royal Alcázar of Seville (Patio de Banderas). The Moors constructed a palace on this site in the 10th century before, once again, it was taken over by Christian rulers. The palace’s upper levels are still used by the royal family as their Seville residence. Leave time to stroll in the elaborate gardens, where shade offers respite from the burning sun.
Another green space worth visiting is the Parque de María Luisa (Av. de María Luisa), a charming park donated to the city in 1893, which straddles the Guadalquivir River. Originally the park formed the gardens of the Palace San Telmo, today it remains a sanctuary of pretty flowers, quaint ponds, and tinkling fountains, perfect for a leisurely walk.
Anyone with an interest in bullfighting must visit Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (Paseo de Cristóbal Colón), Spain’s oldest bullring which dates back to 1758. If witnessing the blood and gore of an actual bullfight (still held seasonally and a popular sport) seems too much, then make do with visiting the elegant ring itself and the adjacent museum.
For a gentler but no less dramatic taste of Spanish culture, book an evening show at the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Calle de Manuel Rojas Marcos), set up by the dancer Cristina Hoyos in a beautiful eighteenth century palace. Tickets includes an hour-long dance performance, held in a charming courtyard, access to the small but informative museum (that introduces flamenco with photographs, video, and costumes), and a free tour of the old town.
Of particular interest in the Museo’s tour is the explanation of significant sights in Santa Cruz, Seville’s old Jewish quarter, a warren of medieval streets now stuffed with bodegas. The area was home to a bloody massacre that killed thousands of people; by 1492 Spain’s large Jewish population had either been forcibly converted or expelled. For more information on the Spanish Jews visit the small but touching Centro de Interpretación Judería de Sevilla (Calle Ximenez de Enciso). They also offer a more detailed tour of former Jewish sites.
To peep through the looking glass into the past, pop into the luxurious and scandalously little visited Palace of Lebrija (Calle Cuna), an aristocratic residence dating back to the 16th century. Styled by its owner, the wealthy Condesa de Lebrija in the 19th century, the palace is stuffed with antiquities and pieces of art that she collected over the years. Not only did the Countess import (and re-piece together) priceless Roman mosaics showing the escapades of the Gods, but she also had an extensive collection of old books numbering into the thousands, paintings by Van Dyck, and ancient Greco-Roman busts. While the downstairs – replete with a gracious patio in the Mudejar style – is open for wandering at leisure, upstairs can only be visited on a guided tour. There, you can see how the Countess once lived, from her dining room, with the table already set, to her private chapel.
Seville, however, is not only about history. The city also possesses one of the largest wooden structures in the world, the modern, brash, and bold Metropol Parasol (Pl. de la Encarnación), designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer-Hermann, which opened in 2011. The Parasol is a giant umbrella-like structure that mushrooms into La Encarnación square in the old town. Go in the daytime to visit local food markets underneath the structure or at sunset for a view over the city that is hard to beat.
The Spanish eat late. Avoid touristic restaurants that offer cheap set courses and serve dinner early (a sign that locals don’t eat there) and head instead to the legions of tapas bars, which only get busy after 9.30 at night. Most are traditional and will serve up a combination of cheap local wine with plates of succulent Jamón ibérico, fried croquettes, white gazpacho (a chilled soup made from pureed almonds, garlic and bread), and specialities such as solomillo al whiskey, or thin slabs of pork marinated in whiskey. For the daring, caracoles, snails served in a spicy broth, is another local delicacy.
Head to Bodega Belmonte (Mateos Gagos.24), just up from the Cathedral square, for a traditional experience. The outside street seating is perfect for people-watching on a balmy night; but more atmospheric still is the wooden bar inside, where smart waiters doll out wine and you can fully appreciate the rows of bull heads that are mounted on the walls. Alternatively, eat in Spain’s oldest restaurant, El Rinconcillo (Calle Gerona), which dates as far back as 1670, before the creation of tapas. La Cantina (Mercado Calle Feria), set in a local food market in a non-touristic part of the old town, offers a hearty breakfast or lunch. It specialises in seafood and bills are added up on the bar’s white tiled walls.
For a more modern take on tapas, go to Bar Alfalfa (cnr Calles Alfalfa & Candilejo), a tiny restaurant crammed with young, funky types. Not only does the Alfalfa have a great wine list (most priced at around the €3 mark) but with an Italian owner and Spanish staff it takes a more innovative twist on tapas, serving the traditional alongside new inventions, all affordably priced and wonderfully tasty. Make sure to check out the specials board (which changes daily) and don’t leave without trying the addictive salmorejo bruschetta — bread lathered with layers of juicy ibérico ham and thick tomato puree.
Seville is a city made for walking. And tired legs need rests. Nowhere is better to go than the Aire de Sevilla (c/.Aire), baths modelled on the Arabic tradition and located down a tiny side-street. Packages start from €28 Euro for access to the baths only with prices rising for a full treatment, including a massage, indulgent “wine bath”, and access to the private rooftop Jacuzzi. The latter has full views over Seville’s rooftops that stretch to the Cathedral – especially impressive lit up at night. Best of all, though, is the hammam (steam room), soothing underground salt bath, and series of hot and cold plunge pools decked out with lanterns and hushed (sometimes live) music. Set in a restored 16th century mansion once owned by a rich “Indiano” (or man who made his fortune in the Indies) Aire de Sevilla is erected on the foundations of Roman first century AD ruins – the vaults are still visible.
Once you have explored the city to your heart’s content, Seville makes a great hub from which to see the rest of Andalusia. Trains leave daily to Granada, home to the famous Alhambra (Calle Real de la Alhambra). But, with a journey of more than three hours each way, it is best to spend a few days there. An easier day trip is to nearby Córdoba – just an hour’s train ride away.
The journey is worth it alone to see the opulent Mezquita (Calle del Cardenal Herrero) or Great Mosque of Córdoba, which dominates the old town. Erected in the eighth century it was built over the sight of a Visigoths church. Following the Reconquista, when Córdoba fell to the Christians in 1236, it was consecrated as a Catholic place of worship and remains active today. Although a dramatic 16th century Renaissance nave was added, the grand prayer hall retains its Moorish white and red double arched columns. The sight is breathtaking in its sheer scale and beauty.
For a smaller, but no less moving, religious site, visit the 14th century Córdoba Synagogue (Calle de los Judíos), the only surviving medieval synagogue in Andalucía and just one of three left in Spain. Make sure to note the Hebrew inscriptions that are still etched onto the wall. To get a full scope of the once thriving Jewish community in Córdoba pop into the Casa des Sefarad (Calle Judíos) opposite, a museum and memorial to the Jews located in a Sephardic house from the same era. While few artefacts have survived it makes for sobering viewing. Nearby is the Museo Taurino de Córdoba (Plaza de Maimónides), which unabashedly celebrates the art of the bullfight and champions both the local Córdoban craftsmanship and city’s string of famous toreros.
If after all this, you crave a taste of the Spanish ocean for a change, take the train south from Seville for an hour and a half to the ancient port city of Cádiz, first founded by the Pheonicians in circa 1100BC. Now overrun by tourists – both domestic – looking for some sun, salt, and sand, and foreign – many of whom have disembarked off cruise ships in the port, it is nonetheless worth walking around its tumble-down, largely working class, old town. For some sightseeing, pop into the impressive yellow-domed Catedral de Cádiz (Plaza de la Catedral) and the Teatro Romano (Campo del Sur), an old Roman theatre. Afterwards head to the beaches that sit below Cádiz’s salt-caked sea walls for a cleansing swim before getting on the train back to Seville.