Seville remains as bright as an orange
Even in the winter months, this southern Spanish city has colour to offer
As autumn leads into winter, unlike across so much of Europe, colour doesn’t fade from the scene in Andalucia. Seville remains especially vibrant, the brightest of southern Spanish cities. The sky is more intensely blue than in summer. The city’s famed tiles continue to brighten many a corner. Flamboyant flamenco dancers still strut their stuff. And the gaudily decorated, almost carnivalesque church bell-towers all around definitely put the camp into campanile, continuing to proclaim their extravagant, centuries-old jollity over the city’s rooftops, despite these harsh economic times.
Oranges ripen across Seville as winter arrives; by January, they’re exploding onto the pavements. My travelling companion last winter pictured the city’s hospitals groaning under the strain of treating local grandmothers assaulted by these irresponsible orange thugs.
At the heart of historic Seville, the atypical big central shopping square, Plaza de la Encarnacion, stands out more showily than before. In 2011, a German-designed outsized wavy waffle of a contemporary structure, the Metropol Parasol, went up over it. Below hides an archaeological display, and on the ground floor, a covered market, while from the walkway on high, you get breathtaking views across the city.
The expansive old centre of Seville radiates out from Plaza de la Encarnacion. Heading south towards the major sights, enjoy zigzagging through varied squares, offering tapas stops aplenty. Plaza El Salvador, presided over by a pink Baroque church, provides the most glamorous setting, but we were tempted by an Art Nouveau-style eatery on Plaza Alfalfa. Having ordered, we were bewitched by the arrival of two caricaturally vulgar, rich old ladies who looked like they’d stepped out of a grotesque Goya painting.
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Seville’s medieval cathedral and castle a short way south hardly downplay their extravagance. At their feet, the tourist taxi drivers conduct horses and yellow-wheeled carriages, their steeds sometimes slipping alarmingly across the cobbled surfaces. The vast, complex cathedral is described as Europe’s largest. Built over the massive Almohad dynasty’s Moorish mosque, it stamped the triumph of the Catholic Castillian kings on this prized corner of Andalucia, conquered surprisingly early, by King Fernando III in 1248 – he was later made a saint, San Fernando, for his bloody troubles. Along with Dark Ages Seville’s brilliant thinker, Isidore, declared a Doctor of the Church, Fernando’s considered one of Catholic Spain’s major heroes.
The tower shooting up beside the cathedral is a vertiginous Moorish vestige. The mighty La Giralda, at it’s known, has ramps inside which you can climb, not quite in the same manner as the Muslim muezzin may have done in the pre-Christian centuries, going up on a mule to make their call to prayer! The views from amidst the bells are awe-inspiring.
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Inside the cathedral, an artistic extravaganza awaits, with huge, glistening altarpieces, head-spinning decorated ceilings and weepy paintings galore, including masterpieces by Murillo and Zurbaran, two of Spain’s greatest artists associated with Seville – as to Velasquez, he was even born in town. There’s also the tomb of Christobel Colon, as the Spanish know Christopher Columbus, floating above visitors’ heads. Columbus came from Genoa, but the Spanish claim him as their own.
The Alcazar, or castle, draws vast crowds... and today’s Spanish royals, who reside here when in town. Although Moorish in name and looks, the palace was given a makeover for Catholic Spanish monarch Pedro I the Cruel in the mid-14th century. After a fascinating tour, we were enchanted by the exotic gardens. We took tea there, joined by colourful peacocks.
A third major building in this quarter holds the Archives of the Indies, earnestly recalling the fact that Seville held the monopoly, through 16th and 17th centuries, for incoming trade from Spain’s staggeringly lucrative New World conquests. Two further iconic Seville buildings stand a bit west. The Torre del Oro, a Moorish tower once covered in golden tiles, was built to guard Seville’s route to the Atlantic, the Guadalquivir River. As to the bullring, the ‘cathedral of bullfighting’, it’s disconcertingly attractive, offering up museum and mementoes outside the season. Carmen broods, in statue form, outside this place, where composer Bizet had her life brought to its tragic end.
For calm reflection, delightful public gardens lie just south of the Alcazar. The Parque Maria Luisa is named after a Bourbon duchess who donated the grounds to the city in the 19th century. These became the stage for the not entirely successful 1929 Exhibition of the Americas. However, some of the fancy buildings specially constructed for the event still stand and now contain quite interesting specialist museums, on ancient Seville, military Seville and Andalucian traditions.
Back with central Plaza de la Encarnacion, head north and you enter the shabbily trendy Macarena quarter. Eye-catching churches such as San Marcos and San Luis stand out like gloriously haughty flamenco girls. The area has bars aplenty, including ones displaying rainbow flags, this having become something of a gay quarter. Things look amusingly macho on the Renaissance promenade, Alameda de Hercules; the legendary hunk, claimed as the mythological founder of Seville, poses high on one Roman column, with Julius Caesar on another – the Roman megalomaniac is said to have had the ancient city transformed.
The Alameda de Hercules’s regular flea markets appeal to collectors of bric-a-brac.
For those of you collecting churches and convents, you’re spoilt for choice here, as across historic Seville. No self-respecting Spanish old lady would miss the neo-Baroque extravaganza of the church of La Macarena itself, protecting the most revered Virgin in town. In the adjoining museum, gawp at her outrageously ornate costumes, brought out for the great Easter parades.
For wonderfully understated Seville, east of Plaza de la Encarnacion stands the Santa Cruz area, the former Jewish quarter, a maze of winding streets, charming little squares and secretive mansions. The Jews were viciously removed in the 15th century. Wealthy Catholic families took up residence, like the Enriquez de Ribera. Their home, the magnificent, many-patioed Casa de Pilatos, counts among the finest treasure troves in Seville, mixing Moorish and Christian styles, displaying a wide variety of art. For a treat of an introduction to flamenco, book at the traditional Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus nearby, where young performers and guitarists put on a mesmerizing one-hour show without too many tourist frills.
In contrast to secretive Santa Cruz, the shopping quarter west of Plaza de la Encarnacion buzzes with people, notably on Calle Serpies. But around here too you can find churches to step into for some tranquillity – at least, as much as extravagant Spanish Baroque allows. For a splendid artistic haven, enter the Museo de Bellas Artes, in a transformed monastery. Here, you get an in-depth picture of the great age of Seville art. The big religious canvases in the substantial chapel include several Murillos that will convert any doubters as to the brilliance of this sentimental artist’s skill.
The Guadalquivir curves around the side of historic centre. Through autumn and winter, the riverbanks may not be as appealing as in warmer weather, but cross the Guadalquivir for further attractions: the scruffily trendy Triana, a quarter of tiles and nightclubs; the Isla Magica fairground; or the Expo ’92 park, which has been spruced up lately after falling into neglect.
Last winter, I also visited La Cartuja, a mongrel of a monastery turned tile factory turned contemporary arts centre. Christopher Columbus was originally buried here, hence his statue. Napoleonic troops trashed the place. Then an Englishman, Charles Pickman, had his tile kilns built in the centre of the complex, their tall brick chimneys still rising high above the other buildings. As ever, the contemporary art is a mixed bag, but patches of gloriously coloured tiling add that special, bright Sevillian twist to yet another corner of this uplifting historic city.
For tourist information, see www.turismosevilla.org. EasyJet flies direct from Gatwick, Ryanair from Stansted.
Luxury central hotels include the Hotel Alfonso XIII, by the castle, or stunning Palacio de Villapenas, in Santa Cruz. Hotel Itaca, where we stayed, is tucked away beside Plaza de la Encarnacion; it’s a good, reasonably-priced 3-star set around a neat patio, with many smart, spacious contemporary rooms. Similar, but with more individuality and a tapas restaurant, try El Rey Moro, also in Santa Cruz. Good two-stars include Amadeus and Adriano Sevilla.
Tempting tapas bars are easy to find. We thought Taberna Coloniales on enchanting Plaza Cristo de Burgos a particular delight, despite the queues.