Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía. The city of sunshine, flamenco, and orange trees. The very name conjures images of sultry evenings spent picking at tapas and drinking vino tinto elbow-to-elbow in a packed bar down a winding side-street. The city of Carmen and Don Juan, of Sultans and Kings. Merely mentioning it evokes a sense of spirit, passion, and conflict. A city with a complex and contested history; it displays the influences of Christianity and The Moors respectively, sometimes juxtaposed together, still jostling for superiority. A city with a rich cultural legacy crammed into a compact Centro Historico, a mixture of medieval cathedrals, Mudejar palaces, and grand mansions from the 12th century Almohad dynasty through to its 17th century heyday at the height of the Spanish empire.
Possibly the most Spanish of Spanish cities and the most exotic of European cities; the bullfighter is still adored and the multicoloured streets lend an air of colonial Cartagena. It has successfully managed to refrain from the homogenisation that has blighted most European cities. They have McDonalds here, and Starbucks too, but it feels much more traditional than Madrid or Barcelona does.
While walking the streets of Seville its story starts to unfold itself as you make your way from the Royal palace to the Cathedral and up La Giralda. Certain cities have an immediate impact; Paris is intentionally laid out for you to say “wow, this is beautiful” but Seville’s charm reveals itself more slowly. To get a feel for the city you need to get lost in its 800-year old history.
We found ourselves in Seville celebrating a birthday. My girlfriend had turned 30 the day before and this trip was my gift to her. I originally wanted to take her to Vienna for the weekend but that was out of the question; she said she wanted to go somewhere warm. Seville had recently been voted the best city to visit in 2018 by Lonely Planet, so armed with this information and with little other option for warmth in Europe at the beginning of March, I booked the tickets and patiently waited to spring the surprise.
Throughout February I was constantly checking the weather, it was always hovering around the 18 degree mark and I was hopeful that the weather would pick up to around the early 20’s once we’d arrived. As these things go, the weekend we were due to fly Europe was in the clutches of the “Beast from the East” storm. It was touch and go whether we’d actually make it out of the country. Whilst London was struggling from lows of -7 and snow, the forecast in Seville had changed to around 13 degrees and raining.
When we arrived the difference in temperature was stark. It was cool, not freezing. You could tell rain was in the air but we were more than happy after escaping a week of the sub-zero temperatures that had gripped London. On the way to our apartment a rainstorm of the kind which is rarely experienced at home saturated the city. We were both soaked by the time we left the cab and reached the front door some 8ft away. By the time we settled into the apartment the rain had thankfully stopped so we set out to discover the best that Seville had to offer.
It seems like a long segue into my guide about Seville and I promise that despite being English, this has nothing to do with our obsession with talking about the weather, it’s actually pertinent to my story. To enjoy Seville to the fullest, to see the city at its best you need to visit when it’s warm and the sun is shining.
Stepping out of the apartment we found Seville to be very subdued for a city of almost 700,000. It is the 4th largest city in Spain but you wouldn’t have thought so when walking the streets. On our first day we made our way through the old Jewish district of Santa Cruz, a warren of white alleyways that houses the blockbuster sights in Seville; the Cathedral and the Alcazar can be found here. We went through the Plaza d’Espana and the Parque Maria Luisa, along the Guadalquivir River and back through the El Arenal district. We wanted to get a feel of the city and explore some of its famous districts but it felt flat and was at odds to everything I’ve ever heard about or imagined Seville to be.
The next morning we made our way down a cold and blustery Calle Sierpes, the main shopping street in the Santa Catalina district into the Plaza Del Salvador. It contains the splendid Iglesia del Salvador, a raspberry-hued baroque church. From there we made the short walk to the Cathedral of Seville along the Av. de la Constitución, a long, elegant, tree-lined boulevard and the city seemed completely devoid of life. There were people about but there was none of the famous passion and excitement I was hoping for.
It’s true that all cities come alive in the sunshine, London for example has every small patch of green space covered and every bar in the City and the West End overspill when the sun comes out but coming from London, where we get our fair share of rain but everything carries on pretty much as normal, it was odd to be here and feel as if the bad weather had completely extracted all the life out of the city.
The cathedral was of course spectacular, being the 4th largest church in Christendom. Built in the gothic style but still displaying traces of its roots as a mosque, most notably in La Giralda, the bell-tower that was formerly a minaret of the mosque on this site. We spent some time exploring the Cathedral and La Giralda and the immediate vicinity; this is where the main sights of Seville are clustered. The Archivo de Indias, a 16th century former merchants exchange and the Plaza del Triunfo, a monument to the city’s victory over the earthquake of 1755, were both in the immediate vicinity. The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall), La Plaza Nueva, a large tourist choked square and the monument to the writer Miguel de Cervantes can also be found nearby.
We’d seen a fair portion of the city so far. We’d walked through several districts and 3 of the main neighbourhoods in Seville covering about 10 miles. Santa Cruz, where we’d spent the majority of our time, El Arenal, completely dominated by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla bullring, San Bernado, where the university and Plaza d’Espana are located and The Santa Catalina & Macarena districts and we’d seen nothing to suggest that this city was anything more than the sum of its sights. As spectacular as they are there is only so much time you can spend in the Cathedral or the Alcazar.
On our final day here we visited the Metropol Parasol, a modern icon of Seville, and the Real Alcazar, the spectacular 14th century palace. The Mudejar patios, carved wooden ceilings, palm trees and arched doorways are more Moroccan Riad than European palace. The most enjoyable thing of all, however, was our final day in Seville is when we finally felt that we had arrived; the sun was out and so were the Sevillanos. The city had bloomed from uninspiring and subdued into a riot of whitewashed alleyways with citrus coloured landmarks scattered throughout. The tapas bars and cafes were full of locals chattering to each other in rapid-fire Spanish. The city felt alive. It was incredibly exciting to feel that this was the real Seville, the Seville of legend and my imagination. It was also a little bittersweet because this was our final full day and it was the only time we’d felt like we had seen the city at its best. The sky was blue and there was an energy to the city that just wasn’t there before.
I am slightly bitter about my time in Seville. It’s a beautiful historic city with incredible churches and exotic palaces. It’s a slice of North Africa and South America in Southern Spain but I’d left feeling as if I’d only seen a glimpse of what the city can offer. The cathedral and the views from La Giralda were wonderful, the Real Alcazar transported you to another time and place and one of my very favourite things about Spain, a country that I’ve visited many times, is their willingness to engage with you in Spanish. Generally speaking I’ve found that they’re usually happy to patiently listen to, and help you when you’re hobbling through their language. It’s very different from the French approach of “everyone must speak French” as they hit you with gale-force strength Gallic. It’s these interactions that instantly make a trip more rewarding. I enjoyed several such exchanges with the Sevillanos, from the white jacketed waiters in Confiteria La Compana to our Airbnb host, who sat with us for 45 minutes and explained some sights, tips and restaurant recommendations. It has left a positive impression of their warmth and hospitality.
However, the weather is intrinsically linked to the spirit of Seville, more so than any other city I’ve been too. We had only one day where our expectations of lazy lunches in sun drenched plazas and the abundant passion of the Sevillanos came to fruition. Perhaps I expected too much and regrettably, we weren’t able to make it over the Guadalquivir to the Triana district, apparently the quintessential Seville experience, but I didn’t experience the city of Carmen and Don Juan. I experienced a city that, without the sun, didn’t have as much going for it as I’d hoped. Without the sun, there was no spirit or passion. Without the sun, it was a little dull. I still cling to the romantic notion of sultry evenings spent in a flamenco show in the old gypsy quarter of Triana. It wasn’t the city I found but maybe next time it’s the city I will discover.
Thanks for reading.
The Cathedral & La Giralda:
The Cathedral of Seville is a gothic extravaganza. The cavernous space has a multitude of alcoves to explore, stained-glass windows and the tomb of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the new world. La Giralda is scalable and it’s a fairly relaxed climb as the floor was made into a flat, winding ramp to allow the medieval bell-ringer to ride up on horseback but beware, it’s very tight and can be a little claustrophobic. The views were wonderful though and certainly worth the climb.
Entry: €9 with entry to the Iglesia de Salvador included.
A spectacular Mudejar palace, showing the historical and architectural evolution of the city over the last 800 years within its walls, with dozens of tiled and mosaiced rooms to get lost in. Remember to look up, some of the ceilings have intricate carvings. The gardens are beautiful too.
Entry: €9.50 and you can purchase in advance on the website: http://www.alcazarsevilla.org/english-version
Plaza del Triunfo:
Large, open square built to celebrate the survival of an 18th century earthquake.There is a large Baroque column next to the Archivo de Indias. There are horse-drawn carriages available for hire here.
Archivo de Indias:
This archive of documents from the discovery of South America was a little underwhelming. Housed in a former merchant’s exchange, I was hoping for old maps on parchment paper and letters from Columbus detailing his discoveries. I found an exhibition on the Guadalquivir River and a short, subtitled video explaining the purpose of the building. Apparently the documents and the displays change regularly and the building itself, if you’re interested in architecture, is well worth a visit.
The town hall of Seville, it is located between the Plazas Nueva and de San Francisco. It is a large, impressive 19th century neo-classical building that functions as the administrative hub of the city.
Iglesia del Salvador:
The Iglesia Del Salavador is a Baroque church converted from a mosque. Parts of the old mosque can still be seen in the patio. It dominates the Plaza del Salvador, an ornate square with bars and restaurants between its mixture of orange, yellow and white facades.
Entry: €9 but with entry to the cathedral of Seville included. Buy the tickets here as there are virtually no queues.
Plaza de Espana:
A beautifully ornate, crescent shaped square. First built in 1929 for Ibero-American exposition, it is probably the most photogenic part of the city. There are several tiled bridges over a small body of water that leads to the heart of the square and the central fountain. There are also tiled alcoves around the square representing all the different provinces of Spain.
Parque de Maria Luisa:
The park was shut due to the weather but a walk alongside the railings made me wish we could have visited. The landscaped park looks beautiful. It houses several fountains and the museum of archaeology and the museum of Andalusian folk art, the Museo de Artes y costumbres Populares.
Torre Del Oro:
A small, 13th century watchtower. It now houses a small maritime museum.
Known colloquially as Las Setas (the mushrooms), this structure consisting of 6 parasols opened in 2011 and is a completely modern addition to Seville’s skyline. You can take a lift to the top for views of the city but this was closed when we went on a Sunday morning.
Pan Y Piu:
Delicious sweet and savoury bakery with a large selection of baked goods. The coffee here was also excellent.
Pastry and a cafe con leche: €3.50
Confitería La Campana:
This place screams “institution”. The most famous cake shop in Seville first opened in 1885 and the interior doesn’t appear to have changed much since. There are glass display cases presenting all the sweet (and some savoury) options and dark wood panels envelope the staff. We took a couple of cafe con leches and custard filled, cornetto-shaped pastries at the bar.
Pastry and a cafe con leche: €4
Spanish and Caribbean restaurant with a large menu and plenty of vegetarian options. A rarity in ham-heavy Spain. My girlfriend had the Habanita Aubergine (with Courgettes & Minced Meat) and I had the Garam Masala shredded chicken and Rice. We both enjoyed the food and the portions were large.
Meal for two with water: €30
Bar Donaire Azabache:
Spanish tapas place with a modern twist. All the tapas classics were available, jamon Iberico, manchego cheese and gazpacho all feature here and were good.
A selection of 6 tapas and water: €40
A Lebanese restaurant a short walk from the Bullring. A selection of hot and cold mezes and a multitude of chicken and lamb dishes made this restaurant a good choice. The food was excellent and the portions were huge.
Meal for two inc. 3 meze starters: €50
I’ve saved the best for last. This wasn’t only the best meal I had in Seville it may well be the best food I’ve ever eaten. I had the tortellini pasta filled with homemade sausage in cream with nutmeg and a fried wedge of parmesan cheese. It was incredibly good. The tiramisu was good too.
Meal for two with 1 dessert: €50
This could have featured in the “Eat” list as they serve tapas but it was always packed so we weren’t able to eat there. If we couldn’t eat there though then we would certainly have a drink there. I ordered a small beer and a glass of the house red wine and was absolutely floored when I was presented with a bill for €2.70. I was astonished. It was everything you’d want or expect a typical Spanish bar to be. Guitar music played in the background and there was barely room to move as the locals sat around the re-purposed wine barrels. I don’t generally advocate returning to the same places when on holiday but it was so cheap in there and such an authentic experience that we went several times.
Glass of house wine: €1.50.