What do Hercules and Caesar have in common?
It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but both Caeser and Hercules are considered the founders of Sevilla. Hercules is the mythological founder, and Julius Caesar the one who begin settlement there. It is another Moorish city, conquered by the catholic monarchs in the 13th century, so many layers of history.
I arrived in the heat of the day and so the best thing seemed to be shower and grab a glass of Tinto de Varano (what Jess tells me is the cool drink for young people) and enjoy the hostel terrace. I met Jackie, a friendly Canadian, and Sal, a London lad for a relaxed first evening. The idea to watch a Flamenco show quickly became a reality and we emerged into the city to visit the Museo de Flamenco for an 8.45pm performance.
The three components of Flamenco include a guitarist, singer and dancer. We had one guitarist, a male and female singer, and three dancers, one female and two male. Flamenco is supposed to be improvised, and our show was an hour with components of different styles, some rehearsed and some improvised. The dance embodies passion, the fast clicking of fingers and feet, the violent throwing of ruffled dresses, the exaggerated emotions of the performer evident from their every cell. Sometimes one dancer would perform alone, until the sweat flicked off them with their fast movement, sometimes two or even three interacted showing passion, envy and fury in each elegant movement. The interaction between the guitarist, singers and dancers was incredible. The dancer picked up on the music and began to interpret it in their own way. The singer would collect the beat from the dancers feet and imitate it with clapping, adding the song around it, sometimes calling praise, encouragement or direction to the dancer, a very responsive and mesmerising performance.
With a short 48 hours to tackle this city, I started early for the Plaza de Espanã. I took Sevilles’ only tram line, (a mere seven stops in total) to the leafy green part of the city where huge parks were filled with statues. The Plaza De Espanã is a huge semi circle building surrounded by a moat, an exhibition to the New world of all things Spanish (Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.). Each Spanish town has a memorial plaque about its traditions and beauty, technology and industry. Each surface is intricately mosaicked in a grand display of wealth. Four bridges represent the four ancient kingdoms and the symmetry of the towers is perfected in the water below.
Around every corner is another fantastic building which demands attention, if it stood alone in a or city it could be the main attraction, but here it is just one of many. The town hall is adorned in figurines of significant people, prominently picturing Hercules and Caesar. The main square fights for space amongst impressive buildings. The Real Alcazar or Royal Palace spreads itself through the city centre, nestled alongside the huge gothic cathedral, the third biggest in the world. In between, a merchant trade hall, now nothing more than a huge record room which would take 100 lifetimes to read the trade dealings since 17th century, but built once originally to expel trading from the inside of the cathedral.
Off all the things I learnt, most amusing was that not only are Seville oranges deemed bitterly inedible and shipped directly to England for Marmalade, the oranges from the ancient orange trees in the courtyard of the cathedral are reserved exclusively for the Queen of England.
Below Sevilles’ newest (and reputedly ugliest) building, the oldest discovered Roman remains lay perfectly highlighting the layers of this incredible city. The yellow mushroom structure is alien to this old city, but straddles a square in which, like many others, people spill on to the street enjoying coffee and socialising.
Here I bumped into Krystle, a lovely Canadian I had met in Granada. Together we joined a walking tour to head north in the city through a maze of churches. The evolving style, often blending together as the churches demanded repairs or spanned the changing of fashions, told its own story about what was going on in the city. Whilst the Lutheran movement struck much of Europe, a critique on wealth in churches and a call for simple displays of religion, Spain remained loyal to the Vatican and responded with even more intricate ornaments of worship. The churches often looked tacky in their grandeur, glinting under the lights. In 1521, much of the city was starving, nearby to these rich institutions, and many churches were subject to raids, people stealing to live. As a result many of the churches simplified the outside as a means of protection. The result of the raids did not end so well for the people who were harshly punished and their beheaded heads displayed as a warning.
We walked as far as the outskirts of the old Muslim city, an extension of the Roman city walls, but now far exceeded by the modern city. As such only small sections of the wall remain, a kilometre section and city gate at Macarena, and small other sections around the city.
In the heat of the day, Siestas were becoming necessary practice. The heat seemed by build through the day and by 2.30 was oppressive, not subsiding until 5pm. Luckily my hostel was nearby and I ducked in for a sleep and shower before sightseeing called again. I made my way to the Reales Alcazares to queue in line for the ornate palace. The queue was in the sun and the post siesta coffee I had opted for was not helping the trickles of sweat now running down my back. Still, once inside, the network of rooms and shady gardens made a blissful retreat from the city.
It is the oldest palace still in use in Europe, built originally by the Arab Muslim kings. The upper floor is still the royal residence, and much of the architecture has been christianised and redesigned, a mix of Mudejar and modern. Most recently, large parts of Seville including the Royal palace gardens have been used in Game of Thrones, the royals keeping it real! As I walked around, craning my neck up, my fascination mostly centred around the doorways, ornate and intricate down to the very last swirl. The gardens were extensive, each one with a different personality, and in the middle a lookout walkway building for parading away from the hot sun.
At 9pm the squares of the city were filled with people and light. The locals made the most of the cooler evenings and I joined a tour to explore the Santa Cruz district of the town. Nestled alongside the walls of the palace gardens, this place was the Jewish quarter showing their importance to trade and the royals. The small winding streets emerging to beautiful squares was more of the Seville I was expecting. It’s many stories needed a guide to be brought to life. The Jews became more and more the victims of rumour and jealous attacks, leading eventual to being forced to wear identifying arm bands, segregation and eventually expulsion from the city in 1492 after the Alhambra Decree. A street, once named ‘Death,’ now named Susona, is home to a tragic tale of a young girl, Susona who was a Jewish girl with a boyfriend in the Christian army. During the troubles she heard her father and his friends planning to fight back and ran to warn her boyfriend in the hope they could run away together. He went to pack his things, but instead notified the army and by morning, Susona’s father and friends were dead. She was exiled from the community and lost her boyfriend too. She eventually converted to Christianity and lived out her life. Her will asked for her head to be cut off and displayed outside her front door in a barred window with the caption, don’t lose your head for love. Her head, eventually skull, was on display here until the 18th century, now just marked with a tile, the tale continued by word of mouth.
The streets have many more tales to be told, little open courtyards that peel away from the small streets and balconies that almost meet in the narrow streets, known as the kissing balconies. The street named ‘Cruxes’ had many crosses emblazoned in the walls as a post Jewish attempt to dispel the prostitution, drugs and debauchery that moved into this area, away. A Lothario character from the 18th century inspired Tirso de Molina to write the famous story of Don Juan, the legendary womaniser.
As we parted ways, the night still felt young with crowds around enjoying the warm evening, so I made for a Flamenco bar to meet Jackie. Despite the same three elements of guitarist, singer and dancer, the show had a completely different feel. In a bar filled with long tables and benches, the improvised show didn’t feel nearly as polished, but just as passionate.
On my final morning in Seville I made for the river to visit the Plaza de Toros- Bull ring. Still in use, this Saturday morning they were preparing for a performance. I had now seen so many angles of this tradition I felt fascinated by the sport, if not in support of it. From the protests in the streets of Madrid, to the modern adaptations as an attempt to preserve a part of the culture, I found it intriguing to understand more about this fiery and controversial tradition which clearly was alive for many people. Set up partly as a museum, bull fighting was celebrated as an art form, a brave act. Seville is home to the Royal school of bullfighting and several Matadors were celebrated for their style or bravery. Walking the perimeter of the building several gates opened on to the main ring. There was also a hospital and a chapel where the matador would say his prayers and take a drink from the jug of bravery before entering the ring.
Across the river colourful townhouses and leafy streets displayed a totally different pace of city life. The suburb of Triana started on the banks of the river and being Saturday morning, markets were in full force. In the Castello de San George markets were in full swing, whilst in another part of the building ruins acknowledged that this building was once a seat of the court of the Spanish Inquisition. Now a small museum, small plaques described the horror that started under the reign of the catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. With such a diverse religious history in Al-Andalus, this tragic period brought an atmosphere of suspicion as people were investigated to ensure they were practicing Catholicism. Once accused their was hearings, punishments and torture and it was extremely unlikely to be found innocent. Yet another chapter of Sevilles’ history. A dark page for a beautiful city.
Fully history geeked out but regretting not having longer, I began the long journey north to Madrid for some more rural adventures.
Where I stayed: The Nomad hostel, amazing rooftop and outdoor terrace
Signature Seville: Flamenco and narrow streets
Discover by: taking one of many tip based walking tours with Heart of Sevilla
I can’t stop: photographing the beautiful doors!