Seville is a beautiful city, full of orange trees, colourful buildings, romantic horse-drawn carriages and delicious tapas. It is another southern Spanish town with a turbulent history, having been fought over and ruled by various different groups over the years and the influence of the Romans, the Moors, the Christians and others can be seen in its wonderful mix of architecture.
We arrived in Seville mid-afternoon and headed out to get acquainted with the city. There were even more orange trees here than in Valencia, but once again they are not the sweet, eating kind of orange but a tough, bitter fruit that no-one here uses. The trees apparently stay green all year though, providing important shade beneath, and in the spring the blossom gives off a heavenly scent (neroli).
Plaza de España
Our first stop was the spectacular Plaza de España in the south of the city. This huge crescent shaped public square was built for the 1929 Spanish-American Exposition. At either end of the building are two towers that are major landmarks of the city, visible from all around. In the centre is a fountain and a semi-circular lake where you can hire rowing boats. The four bridges across it are said to represent Spain’s four ancient kingdoms – Aragon, Castille, Leon and Navarre – and are the reason some people call it the “Venice of Seville”.
Around the base of the building facing the Plaza are little alcoves with benches decorated in colourful painted ceramic tiles. There are 48 in total, one for each of Spain’s provinces, and each one has the name of the province, a map and a typical or historical scene from that area. They were beautiful and all so different and yet they created a harmonious border around the edge. Any Star Wars fans may even have recognised the Plaza de España: George Lucas used it as the setting for the Theed Palace on Planet Naboo in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
All around the square were gleaming horse-drawn coaches with black and yellow wheels, taking tourists on trips through the nearby park (Maria Louisa Park) and past many of Seville’s historic attractions. “Can we go on one?” pleaded the girls. The route and the fare were both set, so there was no haggling and everyone was getting the same experience. The horses and coaches looked in very good condition and the service was obviously highly regulated with each coach displaying a registration plate. “Pleeeaaase,” they implored. “Okay,” we agreed and their faces lit up. “Really?” they squealed and jumped up and down in unison. The next hour was very pleasantly spent sitting back and enjoying the ride and the views. It really is a wonderful way to travel! Our horse was called Linda, and she did a great job, especially when she had to negotiate roundabouts, cars and scooters on some of the busier sections of the route. It was a gentle and relaxed introduction to the city and its many sites and I would recommend it to anyone as a way to start to your explorations of this lovely city.
In fact, one of the charming things about walking around the old town of Seville is that it feels like you have gone back in time, as you hear the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones and see the carriages parked up everywhere.
Flamenco is a form of dance that originated in Andalusia, although no-one seems clear exactly where and many cities here claim to have been the place where it was born. It has apparently seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, and many places have sprung up where you can see a show whilst enjoying a drink or tapas with shows starting at 7:30pm or 9:30pm. This seemed like a good option for us, but at between €20 and €60 a head it was going to be an expensive experience. The only other option was to see it performed late at night in one of the city’s bars, but this didn’t seem a very family friendly option either and since arriving in Seville we had been debating what to do.
Then, as we came out of the underground metro station, we spotted some flamenco street entertainers just setting up and so we sat down in the sunshine to watch. The music and singing was haunting and the dancing full of drama and feeling. We sat, transfixed, for half an hour or so watching the two dancers perform different routines as a bigger and bigger crowd drew around them. It was great, and totally satisfied our desire to see some flamenco whilst we were in town.
Our next stop was a visit to Seville’s enormous Gothic Cathedral, which is the largest cathedral in the world by volume. It is built on the site of the former Islamic mosque that was here until the city was conquered by the Christians in 1248. Apparently when the church authorities decided to knock the mosque down and build a church years later, they said something along the lines of ‘Let’s build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that future generations will think we were mad!’
Figures about its size vary, but the official leaflet given to us when we bought our tickets claims that it is 126m long, 83m wide and 37m high at its highest point, with a total surface area 23,500 square metres. The cathedral also proudly displays its (undated) certificate from the Guinness Book of Records, signed by Norris McWhirter and Donald McFarlan, stating that it is the ‘Cathedral with the largest area’.
It is undoubtedly an enormous building and we were struck by the dizzying height of the nave and the countless chapels down each side, but as we started to listen to the audio guide and looked at the map, it was all a bit overwhelming. To scholars of art and religion, it would be a fascinating place, but for us there was just too much information, with over 40 different areas and chapels explained in minute detail. We needed to be able to reduce it down and pick out the main highlights, but without listening to the whole thing how were we to do this? Fortunately, a few minutes into our visit we realised there was a children’s version of the audio guide available and we went back and exchanged ours for this. The children’s guide was much shorter and punchier, covering half the number of sites of the adult version. And having listened to all of it, for us, the main points of interest were:
Tomb of Christopher Columbus
Controversy has long surrounded the contents of this elaborate tomb, held high up in the air by four courtiers representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. Columbus died in 1506 in relative poverty in Valladolid in northern Spain. He had fallen out with the Spanish monarchs and apparently expressed a wish to not be buried on Spanish soil. Despite this, he was initially buried at the Carthusian monastery in Seville but then in 1536 his remains, along with those of his son, Diego, were moved to Santo Domingo cathedral in the Dominican Republic at the request of Diego’s widow. The Dominican Republic is part of the island of Hispaniola (along with Haiti) in the Caribbean and was the first place that Columbus landed in 1492 on his first voyage across the Atlantic.
His remains stayed here until 1795 when Spain gave Santo Domingo to France, and, not wanting the famous explorer’s bones to fall into the hands of the French, they were moved to Havana in Cuba. They were finally brought back to Seville in 1898 when the Spanish were thrown out of Cuba. That all seems fairly straightforward, but the controversy came in 1877 when workmen in Santo Domingo cathedral found a lead box containing bones labelled “Illustrious and enlightened male Don Christobel Colon” and they claimed that in actual fact they had Columbus’s bones. Or maybe they were the bones of his son. No-one was quite sure.
The controversy was resolved in 2006 when scientists DNA-tested the bones in Seville and confirmed that they really are the bones of Christopher Columbus. But this isn’t the end of the story because authorities in Santo Domingo won’t let the bones they hold be tested, so no-one knows for sure whether some of their bones could belong to Columbus too. It seems that he had wanderlust even in death and, as one observer pointed out, in a way he got his wish not to rest on Spanish soil since his tomb is raised up off the ground!
What is Columbus’s connection with Seville, you may ask? Well, one of his voyages sailed from the port of Sanlúcar, just down the Guadalquivir River from Seville, which at the time was navigable. And of course it was Columbus’s voyages that made Seville one of the wealthiest cities in the world at the time. From 1503, the Spanish monarchs gave it sole control over trade with the American colonies and with the wealth this brought, vast Renaissance and Baroque buildings were built in the city, including the cathedral. Columbus met with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella here in Seville and at the Alcazar palace (see below) you can still visit the room in which he is said to have signed his trade agreement with them. One final interesting fact that I learned from reading about Columbus: I had always assumed him to be Spanish, but in fact he was Italian, being born in Genoa in 1451.
The main chapel in the centre of the cathedral contains the biggest and richest altarpiece in the Christian world. It is huge. And highly ornate. And very gold. It contains 45 carved scenes from the life of Christ as well as Santa Maria de la Sede, the cathedral’s patron saint. It really is something to behold.
The Giralda is one of the few parts of the original Aljama mosque that have survived, along with the Courtyard of the Oranges (see below). The part below the bells is the original Moorish minaret, built in 1195, whilst the top sections and the bells were added later by the Christians. One of its unique features is that you get to the top via a series of 35 ramps and 17 steps. It was apparently built this way so that the guards could ride up there on horseback. You get fabulous views from the top.
Courtyard of the Oranges
Once again, this lovely courtyard survives from the original mosque that stood here, and you can still see the Moorish horseshoe shaped entrance on its northern side. The courtyard has 66 orange trees and a central fountain and apparently it smells absolutely beautiful in the spring when the orange trees are in blossom.
Seville Cathedral website: www.catedraldesevilla.es
This interesting structure in the Plaza de la Encarnación in the centre of Seville has been dubbed “the mushrooms” by locals. From a distance it looks like a giant, undulating waffle.
It is one of the city’s newer attractions, having opened in 2011, and it contains a restaurant, a few shops and a viewing area at the top, accessed by an elevated walkway. It is said to be the world’s largest wooden construction and it is made from a very strong material called Kerto, which is a micro-laminate made from thin slivers of raw Finnish pine, coated with a waterproof, breathable and flexible polyurethane. This means that close up it doesn’t look much like wood, which is a shame, and it is already looking old and quite dirty. It was designed by a German architect, Jurgen Mayer H, who won a competition to come up with a use for the site, with the aim of regenerating a rather grotty area of the city. I’m not sure it has been entirely successful: the area underneath was dirty with lots of litter and generally felt quite shabby compared to other parts of Seville.
Underneath the structure is an area where you can view the Roman ruins that were found when they were excavating to build an underground car park here. Entry costs €3 and includes a free drink, which we enjoyed sitting admiring the view from the café on the structure itself. The entrance is underground and a lift takes you up to the top where you can stroll out onto the walkway and access the viewing area.
Metropol Parasol website: http://setasdesevilla.com/
The Alcazar is one of Seville’s most popular tourist attractions and with good reason. Its history stretches back over a thousand years and the building that stands today has many layers that reflect the different powers that have inhabited it. For me, the most beautiful part was the Palace of King Pedro I, which is a fantastic example of Mujédar architecture. Mujédar is the name that was given to individual Moors or Muslims who stayed in Andalusia after the Christians had reconquered this area but who were not converted to Christianity, and the architecture is a fusion of Muslim and Christian techniques and styles. Pedro was a Christian king who had his palace designed in a Moorish style in the 1360s. Other parts of the palace are older, Moorish (11th – 12th century), Gothic (13th century) or more recent Renaissance additions (15th – 16th centuries).
The Alcazar is still used as a royal palace today: the upstairs rooms in the Palace of King Pedro I are used by the Spanish monarchs whenever they are in town. You can visit these rooms (called the Cuarto Real Alto) but you have to know about them as the Alcazar does very little to promote their existence. There is reference on the website to ‘Ticket for the Fourth Royal visit’ but no explanation as to what this is, and there was no mention of it when we bought our entry tickets. To visit the Cuarto Real Alto you need to first enter the Alcazar palace complex and then find the separate entry point for the upper rooms (I still don’t know where this is as we were too late to be able to do it). You then pay your extra €4.50 and are taken on an escorted visit (20 people at a time) through this section of the palace. You are not allowed to take photographs, which is why it is hard to find any pictures online of what this part of the palace looks like. The tours start running at 10am and finish at 1:30pm. If, like us, you discover this too late to take a visit, the guard on the exit gate will stamp your ticket to allow you to return the next day to see it. Unfortunately for us, the next day we were heading for Córdoba, so that is something we will have to see next time.
The Alcazar also has extensive and interesting gardens and in order to do justice to the whole site, you need to allow a whole afternoon or morning here.
I enjoyed our visit to the Alcazar, but I found it exasperating. It is a labyrinthine place and so isn’t easy to navigate around, but this wasn’t helped by the complete lack of useful signage around the site. There are maps at various points, but no ‘you are here’ detailed on them so that you can work out where you are. We inevitably made comparisons with the Alhambra in Granada since much of the architecture is very similar. If you had to pick one to visit whilst you were in southern Spain, for me it would be the Alhambra, which has the edge because of its flowing water, fountains and many ponds and also because less of it seems to have been altered over the years. If you’re interested in my post about the Alhambra, you can read it here.
It is worth noting that the website states that the maximum capacity of the Alcazar is 750 people and once that capacity is reached, no more people will be admitted. At the time of year we were visiting (February) we did not need to book, but at busier times you would have to book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Alcazar Palace website: www.alcazarsevilla.org
If you would like to take a 360 degree tour of parts of the Alcazar, you can do so on the official website: www.alcazarsevilla.org/visita-virtual/
All in all, we loved our visit to Seville. My overriding memory is of a colourful, relaxed city with plenty of interesting history, beautiful sights and great tapas bars and restaurants. The horse drawn carriages everywhere give the old town a wonderful atmosphere and elsewhere the roads are wide and open, with plenty of cycle paths. To get around there is an easy to use metro system and plenty of buses. There are also trams that pass through the city centre on a 1.4km stretch of track that passes right by the side of the cathedral.
Finally, you may remember that earlier I mentioned all the lovely orange trees around the city. Nobody picks them as they are not eating oranges (and it seems no-one here likes to make marmalade) and we wondered what happened to them when they were ripe. Well, now we know: as we were walking around trying to find the entrance to the Alcazar, we came across some gardeners removing all the fruit from a row of trees. They had long sticks with hooks on the end and, rather like harvesting olives, they were simply shaking the trees violently until all the fruit fell off. The ground beneath was covered with oranges, which they were then collecting up and taking away. What a huge job that must be to do the same all across the city!